Sci Fi TV is Stale and White

This is an opinion based article is written from the perspective of an American television consumer, and is in reference to broadcast media in the USA/North America.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll mention it again – Streaming has changed the way that the world watches television and usually for the better. I’m a HUGE proponent of streaming services – mostly because it inches us closer and closer to a la carte pay TV and also because it undermines and damages the massive, swollen TV giants (at least in the United States). It’s so important, that the aforementioned giants are trying their damnedest to get into the game.

Many broadcast and streaming entities are going gangbusters on their original content. This phenomena has given us some of the best episodic entertainment in years, maybe even decades, and the constantly lowering cost of streaming has made exceptionally high-quality entertainment available to those who may not be able to afford super expensive add-on cable services. We’re living in the goddamn future, folks and it’s pretty sweet.

We’re living in the goddamn future, folks and it’s pretty sweet.

Putting all that hopefulness aside, I do have one concern which is slowly morphing it’s way into fear… Is it just me, or is Sci-Fi television really stagnating? And is streaming the way to save it?

Post Next Generation

After the massive success of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) in the eighties and nineties, I completely understand that science fiction television settled, for a time, into the role of a niche genre with limited appeal; the television gods had to be fairly careful with how much money they dumped into it. That also meant, unfortunately, that many further attempts to make science-fiction programming have ended up trying to recapture the spark of TNG, with varied success. Original and interesting science fiction programming, on the other hand, is either absent, has lacked group appeal, or fizzled and failed to live up to the hype. Even successive Star Trek incarnations ended or failed and seemed to move farther and farther away from the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry’s culturally diverse universe; giving way to a more prototypical adventure format that was increasingly more white.

Even Joss Whedon’s ill-fated Firefly, a personal favorite of mine (and like, half the fucking internet), managed to have a core cast which was predominantly white, making the two non-white main characters feel almost token. It’s infuriating, that non-white characters are fighting tooth and nail, and slowly gaining ground in every other form of ensemble media, but can’t seem to catch a break on broadcast television and cable – where the idea of black media for blacks, and white media for everyone else is still profoundly pervasive.

While shows like Empire are finding more and more success as a cross-race platform, science fiction – a genre based around future studies, lags sorely behind. Behind that of even its closest relative in literature: Fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, fantasy television has its ills, especially in reference to women. There is much less of it out there; due to it being much more difficult to produce than your average science fiction piece, (considering the cost of location shooting, costuming, and visual effects), but the fact that HBO’s Game of Thrones has more people of color, albeit as supporting cast members, than most of the SyFy channel’s programming lineup has ever had is fairly telling.

Broadcast TV now: close, but not quite there…

While streaming is far and away the new delivery platform for episodic media,  it appears that there is less and less adherence to old tropes inside of broadcast media. We seem to be moving in a positive direction toward better programming in terms of racial inclusivity, gender inclusivity, LGBTQ issues, and trans advocacy. That said, science fiction still stumbles on a few issues.

The SyFy channel, which is ostensibly dedicated to broadcasting science fiction and science fiction-related programming, (which, apparently, includes professional wrestling), has a pretty bad track record with inclusivity. Indeed, a perfunctory glance at their programming lineup shows a vastly white field of actors. While it’s cool that Dark Matters has a black guy and two asians, (one of whom, I shit you not, is a martial arts master… in space), the show’s blatant sexism is a pretty big turn off; it’s neat that Killjoys is lead by a woman of color, but the show is still pretty schticky; and let’s not even talk about shows like The Almighty Johnson’s and Bitten.

Across the rest of science fiction TV there are some break-out hits – such as Heroes, or The Walking Dead; but the majority of it is still a pile of rehashed, mind-numbing tripe or over budget disappointments that we’ve been fed season after season for years (here’s looking at you Lost and Extant). This is due, in part, to the FCC’s stranglehold on broadcast television in the United States making sure that we are constantly watching watered down, “family friendly” dreck and the broadcast media’s sluggish response or inability to change it’s content in regards to gender issues, sexuality, and race.

Until the time in which the US can accept that we need to adjust what our definition of “decency” is, we’re probably going to have to put up with our main networks putting out material that’s relatively childish in terms of any real emotion or substance. As for diversity? I have no idea why we aren’t actively working on pushing back against whitewashed media, because some of these shows are almost painfully aryan.

Until the time in which the US can accept that we need to adjust what our definition of “decency”, we’re probably going to have to put up with our main networks putting out material that’s relatively childish in terms of any real emotion or substance.

Streaming: a good start, but needs new voices…

Streaming platforms have been making a very strong showing in terms of original programming. Netflix, the definite leader in this arena, have presented some extremely well written shows. In terms of diversity, it has been imperfect but definitely more aggressive about pursuing characters of color in their own series beyond the white status quo. While I’m failing to see any people of color as leading men or women, the diversity in the rank and file tells me that we have a solid foundation. Which, in turn, leads me to my first major criticism of Netflix. Netflix, and other streaming platforms’ original series need to be lead by people of color and the LGBTQ community… Not only that, they need to be written, produced, and directed by people of color and the LGBTQ community but marketed to a mass audience, particularly their science fiction programming. Why? Because they absolutely can.

I wrote recently about my love of the Watchowski’s show, Sense8 and it proves that entertainment produced and directed by someone or someone(s) inside of the LGBTQ community can create a piece of programming far larger in reach than their own community. On top of that, it’s science fiction – a typically beleaguered genre, desperately in need of a fresh face. The casting was definitely multicultural and worldwide in scope and in this, they definitely succeeded. Where they failed, on the other hand, is that same multiculturalism. Undeniably viewed through the lens of white American stereotyping: I’m pretty sure that most Indian groom’s dinners don’t break out into super high-quality, choreographed Bollywood song and dance; nor is the entirety of Nairobi a gangster-filled shit-show of violence and AIDS… But, slightly myopic or not, it’s a foundation.

It certainly told me that we need to let people flex their creative muscles in a way that is deeply personal; creators of color (men, women, queer, trans, nerds, and all stripes in between) need to be allowed to take center stage and breathe life into genres, like science fiction, that have been increasingly more regurgitated and stale. The key is creator driven stories; it’s not good enough to have the white majority write and tell a story about people of color; the people of color themselves need to be telling the stories. 

It’s not good enough to have the white majority write and tell a story about people of color; the people of color themselves need to be telling the stories

. That very act alone could bring an amazing array of fresh ideas and blood to my beloved genre. I imagine the works of Samuel R. Delany, Minister Faust, or Octavia Butler brought to life on the screen, envisioned by some young, talented creator of color and how those stories may change the scope of sci-fi programming across the board.

That’s the hope, anyway. But, I’m not one for rampant positivity, especially in regards to the episodic overlords of television… Let’s face it, they do seem to try so hard to fuck up everything they touch.

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