Two depressing facts became apparent the other day: 1) NASA is so desperate to get people excited about space travel, they were willing to consider collaborating on the horror mockumentary Apollo 18. 2) The fall 2011 season is the first time there's been no TV show, on any network, featuring people on spaceships, since probably the mid-1980s.
What's happened to us? We haven't just lost our space shuttle program, we've lost our zest for space adventure altogether, at least in TV and movies. How can we get our love for space opera back?
Top image: Alexander Preuss aka Vampeta, winner of the CG Society's Grand Space Opera challenge.
When we mentioned in our post about Syfy yesterday that Fall 2011 won't have any TV shows set on spaceships, for the first time in decades, people picked up on this observation, on Twitter and in the comments. When was the last time that no American TV network created a TV show set at least partially in space? Probably the mid-1980s. There was a year or two in between V: The Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, during which I can't think of a U.S.-made spaceship show that was on the air.
(Edited to add: Of course, there's still Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and maybe one or two other animated shows. Just nothing live-action.)
And meanwhile, as we've observed before, space opera is a vanishing breed in the movies as well - J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is the only real big-screen space adventure we can think of in recent years. (Avatar barely counts, because the spaceship delivers Jake Sully to Pandora and then is never seen again, and there are no space battles or set pieces which involve being in space. Likewise, the upcoming John Carter will use the mysterious interplanetary teleportation seen in the Edgar Rice Burroughs source material.) Image by Tamas Jarolics.
What we love about space opera
At this point, it's as good a time as any to list what we actually love about space opera. (For more on this, read the 10 rules for great space opera.)
1) We love the tribute to human ingenuity. The best space opera involves humans flying around in spaceships we made ourselves. Not so much with the alien spaceships we found somehow - we built this sucker ourselves, and our cleverness and gumption keeps her flying. Likewise, a great feature of the best space operas is people solving seemingly insoluble problems by thinking on their feet and generally being brave and clever.
2) We love space combat and strategy. Not just because we love seeing things blow up - although we do. But also because we love the kind of emphasis on tactics and nerve that space battle sequences give us. Say what you like about William Shatner, the man knew how to make sitting in a chair and trying to psych out an enemy on a viewscreen more exciting than a thousand car chases. Image via John Wu.
3) We love discovering strange new worlds - especially if we got there under our own power. People are now starting to speculate that intelligent life in our galaxy may be rarer than we'd hoped, but space opera keeps alive the dream that we'll meet other civilizations, because we are just too clever not to find a way to share our culture and our dreams with other types of life.
4) We love the human drama. Not necessarily the mopeyness or the navel-gazing, although some of that can be fine too. But the ethical dilemmas and emotional challenges that people face when they're far from home and coping with situations that no amount of education could prepare you for, that's something that great space opera does better than anything else.
5) We love the huge scale, including the fact that you can have megastructures like Dyson Spheres and ringworlds and obelisks in space, along with huge interstellar phenomena like nebulas and supermassive black holes.
Inadequate substitutes for space opera
We're as happy as anybody else to see alien invasions making a comeback - although we wish the aliens had a better reason for invading, in general. But alien invasions, in which the aliens come to us and we somehow manage to fight them with our pitiful inferior technology, are not a worthy substitute for space opera.
In an ideal world, we'd have both - there would be aliens coming here and kicking our asses, and there would be humans going into space and meeting aliens out there. But it seems like the entertainment industry, in its great wisdom, has decided that we're only going to get the first type of story. Why? Image via B. Börkur Eiríksson
Other things that are not substitutes for space opera:
1) Anything fantasy, including the huge wave of fairy tale movies and TV shows coming our way in the near future.
2) Anything post-apocalyptic, in which we don't make it into space, but instead wreck our planet and resort to cannibalism.
3) Anything in which we travel to alternate universes or other timelines, but don't actually make it into space.
4) Anything where we're kidnapped by aliens or mysteriously transported to another world, not by our own volition.
It's not just about optimism
Reading the above, you might get the impression that we're just crying out for candy-coated optimism about the future - which we'd certainly like to see more of, but good space opera is about more than just that. It's about how we can use our awesome powers for good and not evil, and the best way to interact with other cultures without being destructive asswipes, and the nature of symmetrical warfare (rather than asymmetrical warfare, which is what alien invasion stories usually depict.)
But at the same time, it wouldn't be a bad thing to be reminded that we humans are great at building things - and not just cool gadgets like a bathroom mirror that tells you about your pill bottle, either. We're good at building massive engines that take us out of our gravity well and carry us to other worlds.
And a little dose of the can-do spirit wouldn't come amiss right about now. I know it's hard to see a bright future just at the moment, but the wheel of history does keep turning - one of the clever things Star Trek did was to posit a dark post-apocalyptic near future, followed by a bright, spacefaring future a few centuries ahead. And nothing has changed since the 1960s, except that our post-industrial civilization has gotten a bit more post-industrial, and the Baby Boomers who propelled the Space Age are reaching retirement, and thus helping to propel the Debt Age.
The good news is, space opera is still huge in the book world, thanks to authors like Alastair Reynolds - as a panel at Worldcon testified a couple weeks ago. There's no shortage of great space opera tales being told today, and plenty of source material to mine if someone wanted to pitch a movie or TV show based on a book. Plus, there's still plenty of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein left untapped, and Morgan Freeman is still trying to get a Rendezvous With Rama film made.
Edited to add: Also, the popularity of Mass Effect and Halo in the video game world proves that people aren't tired of humans going out into space and kicking some ass. And we're still hoping we get a Mass Effect movie one of these years.
What comes first: an excitement about real-life space exploration, or a renewal of fictional space adventure? I often wonder about that. Could a new spate of TV shows about the wonders of space travel actually help to get people jazzed about sending people to Mars, or do we have to wait for NASA to launch a Mars mission before people will be interested again?
It's certainly true that pop culture reflects the era it's created in - but it's also true that pop culture can sometimes provide an escapist alternative. During bad economic times and periods of disaster and turmoil, people turn to movies and TV for fun, escapist adventures. So it's entirely possible that a new wave of television and movie space opera could rekindle people's imaginations, and that our ongoing econom-ick is the perfect time for it.
If nothing else, some new space opera on the big or small screen wouldn't need to cost much more than a story about aliens invading us, and might not be more of a gamble than hoping audiences will be interested in another third-generation copy of Twilight. It's definitely an untapped niche, and one which connects to some of our most basic desires as people - to get out of our world, to explore, to find something bigger than ourselves, and to be heroes on a much grander canvas. Why the hell not?