Can The CW save televised sci-fi?

Can The CW save televised sci-fi?

The “science” side of speculative fiction has been largely missing from American television for several years. Back in the 1990s, sci-fi TV shows were four or five deep, with multiple Star Treks, Babylon 5,and Farscape as longer-running success stories, shorter series like Earth 2 and Space: Above And Beyond, and science-fiction-adjacent shows like The X-Files and Sliders all running. Then the genre saw a decline in the 2000s that was masked by the cult love for Firefly combined with the long run of arguably the best of the lot, Battlestar Galactica. But by the time BSG ended, there was no institution to replace it—only the death cries of Caprica and the last Stargate series. 

Science fiction was summarily replaced as a focus for major television series with its cousins under the speculative-fiction umbrella, superheroes and vampires—following Hollywood success stories like Iron Man and Twilight. Then there was the fairy-tale boom that brought Grimm and Once Upon A Time, and straight-up fantasy found an unmitigated hit in Game Of Thrones. But science fiction? The major networks lost interest in developing new sci-fi after a few failed attempts; prestige cable has never shown any interest to begin with; and the network that was ostensibly focused on the genre changed its name to Syfy in a ridiculously obvious demonstration of niche abandonment. (Although to be fair to Syfy, it is currently airing the surprisingly interesting Defiance.)

On Wednesday October 9, however, The CW will premiere The Tomorrow People as the next show in a line of offerings that veer toward science fiction. True to the network’s form, it’s a genre drama about attractive young people in unrealistic, speculative-fiction environments, much like the network’s current mainstays The Vampire Diaries and Arrow as well as the soon-to-debut Reign and The Originals

Where The Tomorrow People differs from most shows—on The CW and elsewhere—is in its focus. It’s the story of a young man who discovers that he, and hundreds of other “tomorrow people,” have abilities like telekinesis and teleportation—a premise that closely mirrors superhero stories where people get new powers, learn to deal with them, and the government reacts. Yet the aim of this show isn’t for those powers to save the day, put its characters in costumes, or even to be public at all. Instead, The Tomorrow People is about transhumanism, the idea that humans in the future will—through some combination of evolution, technology, and determination—become entirely different from our current concept of humanity. While this is not necessarily opposed to traditional superhero storytelling (X-Men is most famous for it), it is different in its exploration, which leads it away from other speculative-fiction genres and hones in on science fiction. 

The Tomorrow People isn’t the only new CW show with strong sci-fi leanings, although that’s not readily apparent from the fall schedule. The network has sent two other pilots out for critics, both science fiction and both slated for mid-season: The 100 and Star-Crossed. That’s three out of five new shows for the network showcasing the genre. 

Of the three, it’s The 100 that makes it clear this is no programming coincidence. More than any network show of the past several years, The 100’s premise is straight sci-fi: Earth had a massive nuclear war, and the only known survivors were a community made up of the space stations in orbit. A few generations later, the systems of the satellite network are failing, so its leaders send 100 teenaged criminals to the surface to see if it’s livable. The pilot depicts tense adult political struggle in the sky and attractive teens in a coming-of-age drama on the ground, a potentially winning combination once several of the kinks from the pilot are worked out—particularly the lack of creativity in the teenaged culture (these kids were raised in a cramped, fascist environment, but behave just like traditional high-school stereotypes). 

What makes this interesting is that The CW was born from the ashes of UPN—a network famous for treating Star Trek poorly enough that it retreated to films (and for producing this)—and The WB, home of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Smallville; it managed to get in on the ground floor of both the vampire and the superhero crazes. The CW itself has aired the gothic Supernatural throughout most of its existence, while the biggest recent hit for the network has been The Vampire Diaries. Yet in spite of this history with other speculative-fiction genres, it had yet to air a science-fiction show of any kind.  

It’s a wonder that this didn’t happen sooner. There’s long been a connection between science fiction and adolescence—the latter being the market most heavily targeted by The CW. Alongside fantasy and superhero stories, science fiction in pop culture was most often associated with pulp fiction—cheap, supposedly low-quality, exciting novels and comics aimed at teens. When it came to movies, that affiliation only escalated; sci-fi was considered monster movies at drive-ins. From the 1960s on, the genre has gained credibility and variety, but some of that association remains. This is in part because speculative fiction, with its grand plots and themes, works well for adolescents. After all, the young-adult-fiction boom is also a speculative-fiction boom, with its biggest successes being built on foundations of fantasy, horror, and dystopian fiction.

Marketing analysis aside, bringing science fiction back onto television isn’t just good news for fans of the genre who miss it. At the most basic level, more variety in genres on TV can hardly be considered negative. And more specifically, science fiction can explore certain themes with a level of tension and creativity that other genres may find more difficult. Star Trek’s huge, diverse universe allowed it to examine modern Western society through metaphor. Babylon 5 used a galactic war of Order Vs. Chaos to examine the nature of heroism. Battlestar Galactica turned questions of political theory and the nature of faith into debates that could lead to the end of the entire human race. This genre offers entertainment as much as it does intelligence. Any sign that it might be on the upswing should be taken as a positive development. The CW seemed like an unlikely source of hope for science-fiction fans, but it’s nonetheless a welcome one.