I think that, in the wake of Fox’s decision to cancel Terra Nova, its once-promising but ultimately dull science fiction show about people fleeing a polluted planet to reset humanity’s past, James Poniewozik is right that the failure of the show will diminish the chances of networks taking a chance on purely sci-fi show in the future:
The networks do still occasionally do science fiction, of course; Fringe is still hanging on on Fox, for instance. But since Lost, and the many failures to re-create its success, they’ve tended to focus on small-scale, real-world shows with little sci-fi twists (Person of Interest, Alcatraz) or fantasy (Once Upon a Time, Grimm). The epic-scale, effects-intensive sci-fi show has always been a tough sell on the networks, and to its credit, Terra Nova was trying a brand of sci-fi we hadn’t seen a lot on TV. Now big sci-fi will be an even tougher sell.
This is unfortunate. But it raises what I think is an important question both for the networks and for those of us who would like to see a lot more quality science fiction shows on them: can we think more creatively about communicating that the stories we’re telling are set in the future without using a lot, or any, special effects?
Obviously, the answer ought to be yes. The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most chilling dystopias in literary memory, requires some mass-produced costumes, but most of the work of communicating that we’re in a very different place with very different values is done through language and the norms that govern the interactions between characters. Children of Men has some effects work of the shooting-things-and-blowing-things-up variety, but most of the way we understand that things are dreadful is, once again, done through costuming, through the news footage that we see aired on television broadcasts the characters watch, through their demeanor and what gets them excited.
In other words, doing world-building due diligence up front could eliminate costly effects work down the line. Language is definitely something that evolves, and evolves rapidly, and is a clear and entirely free way to signal that you’re in a different place. The substitution of “frack” for “fuck” in Battlestar Galactica may have seemed goofy at first, but the term has definitively entered the lexicon, geek and otherwise (I imagine it’s one of the reasons “fracking” for “hydraulic fracturing” sounds persuasively negative, as well as nice and crackly). Ditto for graphic design: the gorgeous orange and white butterfly flag iconography at the heart of Kings, the red logos and typography in Ralph Fiennes’ slightly futuristic adaptation of Coriolanus, or the cut-off corners on the paper in Battlestar were all cheap ways to visually cue that we’re not in the present, at least as we know it. And while etiquette and behavior may seem like dorky considerations, they’re also a terrific way of communicating where power lies, and how intense the division between classes and castes is. Writing a guide to character interaction, whether in terms of address, physical contact, or relative physical positioning might seem silly up front, but it could also create a coherent sense of being in a vastly different setting.
Cool toys and the reshaping of our environment are some of what will make our future look and feel very different. But many of the changes will be seated within ourselves, and our attitudes. We can make science fiction that’s somewhere in between Person of Interest and Terra Nova, and that’s more genuinely interested in exploring possible futures than either one of those shows.