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SciFi 101: Science-Fiction: A Genre In Decline?

Is 'Caprica' a victim of this popularity loss, or is it a cause?

The cancellation of Caprica, though it came as no surprise given the poor ratings, has prompted a number of interesting columns, blogs and analyses that tried to make sense of the situation.

How could a show, boasting such a fine creative team, fail so badly? How could a show from the Battlestar Galactica universe crash and burn with less than a million viewers?

The problem, as I see it, is not that Caprica was cancelled, but that it simply is the most recent example of a science-fiction series failing to connect with viewers.

Capricas failure, sadly, is more illustrative of a trend in science-fiction — there simply isnt much of it right now that people are buying. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, to World of Warcraft, the first decade of the 21st century has seen a flood of fantasy books, games and movies.

Even notable science-fiction authors such as George R. R. Martin and Ursula K. Leguin have drifted more into fantasy, and who can blame them? It is wise for authors to follow the trends that will see their books get purchased.

Those not inclined to gravitate toward high fantasy might find themselves more attracted to the seemingly endless parade of vampire tales. While Twilight is obviously the most popular, in terms of both published fiction and film, the small screen has seen success with other adaptations, such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. The vampire craze has been going relatively strong for quite some time and shows no signs of easing up soon.

Is it fair then to conclude that people did not show up to watch Caprica because other genres simply are more popular right now? That explanation, of course, would ignore the fact that Caprica was a deeply flawed series from the start and just didnt prove to be terribly engaging. Caprica failed primarily because it wasnt good. It seemed to build off the worst elements of its predecessor.

As much as I liked Battlestar Galactica, some episodes, quite frankly, were boring. At times, the show got so bogged down in love triangles and complex, ambiguous religious themes that it sometimes forgot some of the people tuning in wanted to see a good old-fashioned space battle (if there is such a thing). Caprica committed the same mistake, but actually went a step further: it eliminated nearly all action and kept in all the boring parts.

Viewers never did see much of the Cylons. And when they did, it often just morphed back into the image of Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Torresani), a technique that was awkward from the start. If Caprica were the only series to forsake action, it could be written off as a simple error of judgment on the part of the writers.

But the 2008-09 Fox series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was guilty of exactly the same thing. It got so caught up in the human drama and some underlying philosophy about fate that it was trying to convey, that it seemingly forgot that the reason the franchise was so popular was because of the action the movies contained. An action franchise without the action is like getting an empty gift-wrapped box for Christmas.

It would be unfair to conclude that a couple failed television series could be the root cause of science-fictions current lack of popularity. To be honest, though, the answer to that question is quite easy. Science-fiction, especially on television, has failed because it has gotten to be too intellectual. It has become more about idea than it has about character. It has forsaken action in favor of cogitation.

Science has become secondary to complex, even incomprehensible, religious dogma.

If you dont believe me, simply scour message boards and blogs to glean the reaction many viewers had to the finales of Battlestar Galactica and Lost.

As a professional academic, I enjoy thoughtful discourse in many areas. I have always enjoyed science-fiction primarily because it tackled issues and ideas other genres were afraid to touch: time travel; cloning; the end of the word; space travel; technological dependence.

The science-fiction genre always has engaged in an intellectual pursuit. From Mary Shellys Frankenstein to the Matrix films, the science-fiction genre has succeeded, more often than not, to contain style as well as substance.

Which brings us back to Caprica. Undoubtedly, Caprica had the substance, but not style. The planet itself, which could have emerged as a character in the series -- much like Arrakis does in the Dune universe -- instead fell flat when presented simply as a clone of Earth. Even V World lacked any sense of identity. It was a moral cesspool, nothing more. Little was seen other than dark alleys and crowded rooms.

Caprica also managed to squander a ton of female talent, ripping the backbone from Amanda Graystone, giving the talented Paula Malcomson very little presence to work with. Clarice Willows character was also poorly drawn, but Polly Walker did the best with what she was given. And it wasnt just female characters that were squandered -- James Marsters, who has been excellent in everything he has appeared -- was not only under-utilized, but not very interesting when he was.

Thats not to say that Caprica didnt boast some positive elements. Eric Stoltz was terrific in his role as a tortured genius, and the Adama clan supplied their share of positive on-screen moments, with the exception of young William who, like the rest of the adolescents in the series, were simply dreadful.

The series was beginning to tackle the notion of life after death with the transporting of ones identity into a computer. The whole idea of man creating a virtual heaven and achieving life after death was a fascinating concept that bordered on blasphemy, and it could have riled up those of a religious persuasion.

But alas, nobody really cared.

Capricas failure is simply one setback, but if the science-fiction genre is going to enjoy a resurgence any time soon. Writers, producers and directors would be wise to remember that even thoughtful, intellectual science-fiction can still be action-packed and exciting.

About the Author

Dr. Dan Compora is an associate professor at the University of Toledo. He specializes in science-fiction and fantasy literature and folklore. He lives in Lambertville, Mich.
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