Everybody talks about the fact that there's no more space opera on television, and only the occasional movie. What's easy to forget, though, is that just a decade ago we appeared to be on the verge of a brilliant new era of space adventure.
In the early 2000s, space opera was being reinvented. Gone were the shiny sets and pastel uniforms — and in their place came a new gritty realism, with handheld cameras and flawed characters. Space opera was coming of age at last. And then, it was gone. What happened?
With space opera all but vanished from the mass media these days, it's actually kind of weird to remember how much the subgenre appeared to be renewing itself in the early 2000s. (This year, the only space movies are Prometheus, Gravity, and maybe Lockout. And on television, there's bupkis, unless Syfy hurries up and gets Untitled Robert Hewitt Wolfe Project on the air this fall, hopefully with a catchier name.)
Space opera had two big renaissances: one in the late 1970s, after Star Wars, and one in the late 1980s, starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the 1990s, there were multiple Star Trek shows on the air, plus Space: Above and Beyond, Babylon 5, Earth: Final Conflict, and the Stargate shows. These shows made occasional attempts to introduce edgier topics and themes, especially Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine. Edited to add: And Farscape, which launched in 1999, also explored some dark themes as well. Apologies to everyone who felt sad that Farscape was left out.
But in the early 2000s, it really felt as though space operas were becoming more realistic, both in their look and in the topics they were able to explore. The big, brass-band-and-ribbons feeling of 1990s Star Trek was replaced by something a bit more muted.
At the movies, our new space hero was Richard B. Riddick. There was a wave of semi-realistic Martian adventure movies. (Emphasis on "semi".) Space Cowboys tried to give a somewhat realistic picture of space exploration. Stephen Soderbergh tried to revamp the less-action-oriented Solaris. (And, as LightningLouie points out in comments, the Star Wars prequels were becoming progressively grittier.)
Meanwhile, on television, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica completely changed how we saw space action. It's kind of amazing to remember it now, but when the BSG reboot first appeared, fans started accusing Ronald D. Moore of copying Joss Whedon. The handheld camerawork, the jerky zooms, the crumbling, falling-apart old spaceships, and the lack of sound in space... the feel of BSG seemed to owe a lot to Firefly.
Of course, the two shows couldn't be more different — one follows a band of outlaws, the other a military vessel with the last remains of a civilian government. They tackle very different themes, and Firefly is a lot more whimsical and self-mocking than BSG. But what they share is a rejection of the slickness and false jollity of a lot of the space adventures that had gone before. Both shows also include a healthy skepticism about social institutions, and a willingness to show the "bad guys" triumphing. The great accomplishment of Firefly and BSG's protagonists, at least week to week, is surviving.
And those, to a large extent, are the hallmarks of "gritty space opera." The flawed characters, the slightly nihilistic stories in which heroism is either downsized or questioned. There are still implacable villains, but you don't defeat them just by finding a handy exhaust port, or telling them to "Sleep." Moral issues are at least brought up, if not dwelt upon. People actually have sex. There's less of an emphasis on what people used to refer to as "happy, competent characters" who solve problems with technobabble.
Even Star Trek seemed to be trying to get in on the act, with the misjudged Enterprise. It was still very Trek-ish, but the uniforms were less bright, the ship was less clean, and the theme song was a Country ballad instead of a rousing orchestral score. Unfortunately, Enterprise made nods towards the style of gritty space opera, but failed to capture much of the substance. (The other long-running franchise, Stargate, also tried the same thing with Stargate Universe, with slightly better results.)
All of which raises the question: what is realism in space opera, anyway? In a lot of ways, space opera is similar to superhero narratives: too much realism, and the genre dies. For example, I'm not sure mass audiences would want to watch an ongoing space opera narrative without faster-than-light travel. (Or in the case of Firefly, a very heavily populated system with lots of planets.) Also, you don't want to worry too much about how these people have artificial gravity, or how they can all communicate. And so on. As with superheroes, you take a certain amount of stuff for granted, and then raise questions within that framework.
In any case, in 2003 or 2004, you might have been forgiven for thinking we were on the verge of bold new era in space opera, with more mold-breaking TV shows on the way. Obviously, Firefly had failed — but it was already a cult classic, with a movie spinoff in development. BSG was new and thrilling, in a way that few people had expected. Riddick was becoming an ongoing hero. Space opera was the hot new genre in books. And so on.
So what happened?
A couple of things come to mind:
1) 9/11 changed things. After 9/11, any narratives that questioned themes of heroism and explored flawed heroes, the way BSG did, were automatically subversive. Even though a lot of the space opera of the early 2000s was reacting to pop culture of the 1990s, to audiences it looked like a reaction to the Bush era in American politics. And obviously, BSG took that and ran with it, doing increasingly daring stories in which the "good guys" became suicide bombers and killed their own people. This probably gave more creative juice to shows like BSG, but also ensured that a narrative like that would never appear on a major network, or as a major big-budget movie. Gritty space opera became a form of protest, by default — which is both energizing and marginalizing.
2) You can only deconstruct your roots for so long
At least, that's what comics creators seemed to find. Right around the time that space opera was turning gritty, a lot of superhero creators were going the opposite way. Alan Moore may have done for superheroes what Joss Whedon and Ron Moore did for space heroes, with Watchmen and The Killing Joke — but by the early 2000s, he was doing America's Best Comics, including the bright, heroic Tom Strong. Kurt Busiek was making waves with colorful-but-introspective Astro City. You heard comics buffs saying the age of "deconstruction" had been replaced by "reconstruction." So at some point, gritty space opera was bound to stop being a challenge to the status quo, and just become... the status quo. What's sad is that we haven't seen a wave of "reconstruction" in mass media space opera, outside of J.J. Abrams' Trek and a few other things.
The original space opera was about meeting the transcendent and finding ourselves — think 2001: A Space Odyssey. The grittier space opera of the early 2000s was still about meeting ourselves, only we were shorter than we looked on television. It also added layers of space horror (and space madness) and drew on all of the intensity that creators like Ridley Scott and Douglas Trumbull had added to the genre over the years.
So it's a great disappointment that as soon as we got a spacefaring future that wasn't totally gleaming and antiseptic, it got taken away again. And we're still waiting to see what comes next.