The Great Sci-Fi TV Boom of 2018

Netflix/HBO/Amazon/Starz/CBS/Ringer illustration

Altered Carbon, the cyberpunk noir arriving on Netflix this Friday, is flawlessly timed. Adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from the 2002 Richard K. Morgan novel of the same name, the world of Altered Carbon is an assemblage of gently used parts. The core premise—that far-future humans have gained the ability to download their consciousness onto hard drive–like “stacks,” which can then be uploaded into interchangeable bodies called “sleeves”—is nearly identical to that of the seminal 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell. The production design, which mutates San Francisco into a holograph-and-skyscraper metropolis rechristened Bay City, directly recalls the original Blade Runner. And the plot, in which a warrior is frozen in time before being ejected into a future he doesn’t understand, evokes the groundbreaking animated series Samurai Jack.

Besides their overall stature in the canon of science fiction, these three influences share something in common: each was rebooted or extended in 2017. Altered Carbon may be a take on a specific work, but it’s also an attempt to take advantage of a far broader cultural groundswell. Once-marginal geek mainstays have become, under the careful stewardship of multimedia conglomerates, one of the 21st century’s inescapable trends. At the box office, the two biggest centers of gravity are comic book characters and Star Wars; on television, Game of Thrones has snowballed over seven bloody seasons into its own parallel phenomenon. In both formats, genre fiction’s rising tide has fast-tracked properties that would, and sometimes did, struggle to get made in less-friendly eras.

Altered Carbon itself has been 15 years in the making, since Kalogridis optioned the rights to the novel and struggled to persuade film studios to finance a sweeping, big-budget story that involved sex, violence, and, worst of all, jargon. In sticking to its guns, the end result of that prolonged adaptation process ultimately hews too closely to its forebears. A Blade Runner vision of urban squalor is overused at this point; of all the pages to borrow from the Ghost in the Shell playbook, the reimagining of the protagonist as a literal Asian person in a white person’s body is the least advisable and the most cringeworthy.

But though Altered Carbon may not be its finest example, the show joins a discernible wave of high-concept science-fiction shows that have returned or premiered in recent weeks. Many of them—like Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and the German co-production Dark—are also on Netflix, which has both the deep pockets to finance effects-heavy shows and the need to fill the gap left behind by the Wachowskis’ now-cancelled Sense8. But the sudden glut of expansive TV sci-fi extends elsewhere. Starz is building on the success of time-travel romance Outlander with Counterpart, the spy thriller–thought experiment centered on a dual performance by J.K. Simmons. Amazon built a Black Mirror competitor out of its formidable IP arsenal with Philip K. Dicks Electric Dreams. Last fall, CBS brought one of sci-fi’s biggest titles back home to the small screen: Star Trek: Discovery has since returned from its midseason hiatus with its most ambitious stretch of episodes yet. And though it spent 2017 in hibernation, HBO’s Westworld will soon resume its post as Thrones-in-waiting, swapping swords and sorcery for AI and escapism.

With the exception of Star Trek: Discovery, none of these series are spinoffs from the sprawling universes that loom over so much of media, but instead what has grown in their shadow. Television is now better equipped to cater to niche interests than ever before, incentivized by the possibility that those interests may not prove niche at all. The result is a bumper crop of science fiction dramas that may not be uniform in quality, but collectively seizes the opportunities afforded by technology, money, and willpower rushing into one of television’s core constituencies. At worst, the results are forgettable, uh, carbon copies of staples past like Altered Carbon; at best, these shows can be as curious and innovative as their subjects.

Joel Kinnaman in Netflix’s ‘Altered Carbon’

A pocket history of science fiction on television is a pocket history of television itself: two once-derided, now-resurgent cultural sectors that found, in each other, natural companions. Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone became one of the medium’s earliest enduring classics, with a format indicative of 1950s dramas—an episode-by-episode anthology, influenced as much by live theater as radio serials. And in its various incarnations over the decades, the interstellar idealism of Star Trek often represented the best of TV as populist entertainment, animated by a campy earnestness that channeled empathy and intelligence into mass diversion.

As television’s role in the culture began to shift at the turn of the century, so did TV science fiction. Though a procedural at heart, The X-Files—another now-resuscitated geek staple—spent much of its near-decade-long original run striking a balance between monsters du jour and season-long plots, anticipating a time when serialization would become the norm rather than the exception. On basic cable, Ronald D. Moore’s revival of Battlestar Galactica developed the same relationship to the space epic that The Sopranos did to gangster movies, or The Wire to the police drama. Without denigrating his inspiration, Moore imbued it with nuance, emotion, and a sense of its own stakes, asking questions about the nature of humanity and the balance between liberty and survival between missions of the week and broader world-building. And three years after X-Files’ original run ended, Lost would highlight how audience expectations for TV science fiction had shifted nearly as much as the subgenre itself. Cocreated by J.J. Abrams, who would go on to pilot both Star Wars and Star Trek into their most recent blockbuster eras, Lost was one of the last suspense-driven series with major twists improvised as it went—and one of the first to be pored over like it wasn’t, thanks to the rise of internet fandom and recap culture.

But the transition from television’s so-called Golden Age to Peak TV has traded in consensus for customization, making TV’s sci-fi sector more populous than ever even as traditional “hits” become increasingly difficult to achieve. There’s an entire channel dedicated to and named after the field, yet Syfy has never replaced Battlestar as its centrifugal force, despite enjoyable offerings like The Expanse or Channel Zero with dedicated but limited followings. (Ironically, the closest Syfy has come is The Magicians, the coming-of-age story that is, as the name suggests, a fantasy show.)

Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, and Anthony Hopkins in ‘Westworld’

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that Westworld became such a success in the fall of 2016, becoming HBO’s most-watched debut season in history despite rumors of a troubled production. Westworld deals with very different speculations than Lost—its monsters are flesh and blood, not made of smoke—but the root of its appeal is the same. Creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan often seemed to foster fan theories and close reading at the expense of the more intangible themes those plot points could potentially serve. Questions about whether characters were artificial or organic, programmed or autonomous eclipsed their eventual answers, leading to a mixed critical reception but an ecstatic popular one.

Westworld’s closest contemporaries also draw much of their appeal from nostalgia, albeit in different ways. The Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things cannily builds on fond memories of the King-Carpenter-Spielberg canon; in the process, the Duffers make those 1980s staples accessible to an audience too young to have experienced them directly. Grounded as it is in the world of feature films—the second season was billed as Stranger Things 2, like any true cinematic sequel—Stranger Things nonetheless represents a baton-passing of sorts from one medium to the next. Stranger Things’ critics often charge that there’s little depth to sink into beneath the show’s veneer of camaraderie and cutesiness. Its defenders would concede that those critics were right, or at least this one does. But Stranger Things is proof that science fiction, minutiae-dependent as it seemingly is, can survive without supporting detail on the strength of its characters and the chemistry between them.

Compared to Stranger Things’ retro charms, the British-American crossover hit Black Mirror appears to be the most rigorously modern of any science-fiction series currently airing. In contrast with the “soft,” near-fantastical sci-fi of a Stranger Things, where an official-looking government facility spawns evil with mythological names like “demogorgon,” Black Mirror’s dystopia is extrapolated from actual technologies, from virtual reality to cybernetic animals. Yet despite writer-creator Charlie Brooker’s concern with particularly recent anxieties—what if phones, but too much?Black Mirror’s format mirrors that of The Twilight Zone. Part of the series’ appeal is its ability to wipe the slate clean with each successive episode and build a new, nightmarish landscape every hour. It’s a template that essentially hasn’t been in favor since Serling’s opus left the air in 1964, and that Brooker single-handedly brought back into fashion; Amazon’s Electric Dreams and upcoming The Romanoffs both make use of it, with the former compounding the retro sci-fi feel the episodic anthology conjures up by drawing from the short stories of Philip K. Dick. Black Mirror may seem like the most forward-facing of TV’s current sci-fi offerings, and its ripped-from-the-headlines (or even ahead-of-the-headlines) ethos is surely a cornerstone of its zeitgeist-seizing acclaim. But in its way, Black Mirror is as much an attempt to draw on TV sci-fi’s history as its more superficially retro counterparts, conjuring up its pre-Peak ancestors as a way to re-create their resonance.

Ironically, for all its roots in the great-grandfather of the genre, Star Trek: Discovery feels like one of the least legacy-minded contributors to this current wave. Launched by Pushing Daisies and Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller and designed as the flagship of a still-fledgling streaming service, Discovery feels very much a product of this current moment. On the business side, companies like CBS will readily expend millions for a streaming contender, and Netflix competitor, of their own. Creatively, Discovery feels like a prestige-adjacent spin on the Star Trek blueprint without being cartoonishly gritty. The show is set in the midst of a Klingon-Federation war, and its protagonist is directly responsible for the thousands of deaths that resulted from a mutiny she instigated. Discovery has dabbled in one-off adventures, but ever since its midseason break, the show has gone fully serialized, with the crew of its namesake ship trapped in a mirror universe they’re attempting to break out of. No wonder that, anecdotally, I’ve found that die-hard Trekkies are disenchanted with the revival while relative novices, including myself, are intrigued.

In the months since its highly anticipated launch, Discovery has found both its voice and some worthy, equally compelling peers. Though 2018 is still in its early days, Starz’s Counterpart and Netflix’s Dark—the company’s first German-language original, in its continuing quest to shore up its global subscriber base—have become early contenders for its most pleasant TV surprise. I wrote about Counterpart last week, and everything I wrote about Simmons’s magnetic performance and the show’s counterintuitively seamless genre splicing remains true. On the enthusiastic recommendation of my colleagues, I only got to Dark more recently, intending to savor it as one of the few series I’m not obligated to binge on a deadline for review. My subconscious had other plans.

The basic building blocks of Dark bear a disorienting resemblance to those of Stranger Things: two television novices (in this case, the Swiss-German duo Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese) strike gold with a small-town story featuring missing children, a brusque policeman, a mysterious facility, and a connection to the 1980s. Quickly, however, Dark begins to read like an experiment in just how far two shows can diverge in execution and tone. Stranger Things is happily and unabashedly a children’s show, assuming the point of view of its tweenage protagonists. Dark is a twisted fairy tale, relayed through regret-wracked adults and taking place against the backdrop of an eerie forest that recalls Hansel and Gretel as much as It. The ’80s element isn’t stylistic, either; Dark eschews Ghostbusters references for the discomfiting sense that the town of Winden’s current misfortunes are inextricably linked to an unsolved case from more than 30 years prior. To paraphrase another show about a woodsy hamlet overtaken by an otherworldly menace, whatever it is, it’s happening again. With scattered references to Chernobyl and time travel, Dark has its share of high-concept horror, but the show gradually proves to be more of a science-fiction-inflected psychological thriller than a sci-fi story with overtones of terror. Watching those narrative priorities reveal themselves is just as key to Dark’s pleasures as solving its mysteries.

Over 10 episodes, Dark balances a staggeringly large cast comprised of three generations’ worth of four separate families, giving almost every character a full emotional arc borne out by the show’s supernatural cosmology. Dark’s exotic (to American ears) provenance and assured unfolding instantly rank it among the most exciting sci-fi series of the moment: the ones that push the designation outward in exciting and unexpected ways, whether in their origins or their execution. Dark seemingly came out of nowhere to win over audiences an ocean away from its home country; both Counterpart and Star Trek: Discovery made distinctly contemporary fusions out of their vintage influences, not content to simply leverage them for legibility. The aim of science fiction in the first place is to imagine possibilities beyond what humanity has already managed to achieve. It’s only fair to evaluate the TV that assumes the label accordingly.

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