SciFi Standard Bearers

SciFi Standard Bearers

Televised science fiction has been enjoying something of a resurgence these last few years, with some people wondering if we’re entering into a kind of ‘Golden Age’ of scifi.

Maybe!

People my age, who were born in the 1970s and 1980s, once thought that the latter half of the 1980s and the entirety of the 1990s was that Golden Age, because of the number of science fiction shows on free-to-air TV at the time.  Shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs, Quantum LeapThe X-Files, Space: Above and Beyond, Farscape, Babylon 5 and it’s spin-off Crusade, Stargate SG-1Earth: Final Conflict, SlidersSeaQuest DSV, and more.

Honestly, it was pretty amazing.  Even in Australia, where we still don’t get a lot of scifi content on free-to-air and have to wait for those shows to arrive on DVD (or at that time, video cassette), we could still catch two or three shows a week – The X-FilesFarscapeSeaQuest DSVBuffy the Vampire Slayer and Space: Above and Beyond.  All while waiting for the latest Star Trek or Babylon 5 episode to arrive on video.

With that amount of content, you’d expect some duds, but most of the science fiction and, what eventually came to be known as ‘genre shows’ (thanks to Buffy) were pretty good.

Then it all stopped.  We had the odd ‘sputter’ with the amazing Battlestar Galactica reboot, and we had CharmedAngelV, and the Stargate spin-offs for a while, but suddenly genre series seemed to all but disappear from our screens.  Until recently.

Now, over the last few years, all sorts of incredible, not easily definable television shows have captivated science fiction and fantasy fans, as well as mainstream audiences alike – The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Vikings, the revamped Doctor Who, Westworld, Ash vs The Evil Dead, Supergirl, Flash, Arrow, The Strain, Legion, Once Upon A Time, Grimm, Agents of SHIELD, The Exorcist, The Expanse, Dark Matter, Killjoys and soon, the brand new Star Trek: Discovery.

There are so many ‘genre’ shows airing right now that it’s actually difficult to keep track of them!  But, how many are traditional science fiction?  Scifi set in space, on a starship, zooming about all over the place?

Very few, actually.

I don’t think anyone really knows why.  At one point it might have been an issue of cost, because science fiction shows have never been cheap, but with Game of Thrones costing a whopping six million dollars per episode, that’s probably not a consideration any more.

It might be because, as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair from Babylon 5 would say, “Nothing is the same anymore.”  We’re not watching television in the same ways as we used to.  We’re streaming shows and we’re watching them on multiple platforms.  Also, we’re getting, on average, half as many episodes per season as we once used to.

People are time poor in the 21st Century, and on top of that the old studio system doesn’t hold as much sway as it once did.  Plus, many of us are paying for our content and because of that we’re expecting something special.  We want ‘event’ television, but event television that tells an intimate tale.

Science fiction is definitely event television, but it hasn’t always done the intimate bit very well.

Thankfully, that is changing and we’re starting to see more traditional scifi again.

Right now, there are three standard bearers for science fiction television.

The Expanse, Killjoys, and Dark Matter.

All three take place on a larger canvas, telling bigger stories, but focus episode to episode on the lives of a few characters, taking us deep into their worlds.

With The Expanse, we’re following a crew of four, learning about them and their relationships episode to episode.

With Killjoys, we’re following a crew of three people, unravelling the mystery of their lives.

With Dark Matter we’re following what was a crew of six (but that fluctuated in Season 2) as they try to remember who they are – and on discovering that, try to fight against who they were and become better people.

In just two seasons, for each of these shows, we have learned more about their main characters than we did most of the characters on any of the old Star Trek shows.

These new series are showing the way for modern science fiction, and it’s exciting.

I haven’t seen The Expanse yet, because it hasn’t aired on television or been made available to us on DVD or BluRay, for reasons that are just stupid, but I am a fan of the books and follow all of the news on the show and it looks amazing.

Killjoys and Dark Matter, however, I can comment on, and both are outstanding.

Killjoys took me four episodes to get into, but by episode five of Season One I was hooked and I’ve been in love with the show ever since.  What hooked me?  The characters.  Dutch, Johnny and D’avin.

Dark Matter grabbed me straight away and has kept me wanting more season to season.  What grabbed me?  In particular Two (Portia), Three (Marcus), Five (Emily), Six (Kal) and the Android.

All of the other stuff in both shows is just icing on the cake.

As well as the intimate story lines mentioned above, those shows have something else in common – they have strong female leads, they don’t shy away from issues of sexuality and gender, and they show us a multicultural future where light and dark dance around the edges of what are very ‘grey’ realities.  I love Star Trek‘s utopia like future, but I get that today’s audiences want some sort of discourse on just how screwed up we all are.  They want to it see it reflected and mirrored on television, and they want to see our heroes fighting, and at times submitting, to that.

Rather than break these shows down in any detail, I encourage you to watch them if you haven’t – and to continue to support them if you already enjoy them.

If you want to know more about these three excellent series, you can visit their official websites here: The Expanse, Killjoys, and Dark Matter.

As someone who hopes to see an old favourite, Space: 1999, rebooted, there are lessons that can be learned from these new shows about how to structure a series and most especially about what a modern audience wants.  Intimacy.  Inclusion.  An exploration of modern issues.

Space: 1999 was already doing some of that back in the 1970s, with a very multicultural crew on Moonbase Alpha, and any reboot of it would no doubt be able to tackle that and other things that are important to us now, and in very creative and intimate ways.  I can imagine a transgender crew member, and with a character like Maya an episode or two or five focused on inclusion and the occasional bigotry that can come with not understanding something or someone.

More and more, as I dissect both of these more traditional science fiction shows and compare them with other genre offerings, I see a place for Space: 1999 in modern television (obviously with a few changes), and get more and more excited about the possibility.

Moonbase Alpha was a microcosm of Earth, and it’s philosophical ‘bent’ was all about us (in the 1970s) asking “who am I?”  “Why am I here?”  Where am I going?”  Things many of these genre series are debating right now in their own unique and dramatic ways.

I hope that this renaissance of science fiction that we are enjoying right now continues for some time, and I hope that a new Space: 1999 becomes a part of that.

I first wanted the show to get a reboot in the 80s.  Then again in the early 2000s.  But now, looking at the world as it is, and looking at what genre television has become, I feel NOW is the time.  It would have been too soon a couple of decades ago.

As far as I know, ITV still own the rights to the television series.

Hopefully they realise the potential of Space: 1999, and give it the new life it deserves.

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It’s Time for a New Look at Space: 1999

we-need-space-1999-banner

It’s obvious I’m a fan of Space: 1999, so I’ll happily declare there is a bias present in this article.  To me, the show had a lot going for it – compelling characters, amazing sets, decent (for the time) special effects, and a tone of mystery and hope set against a subtle backdrop of disillusionment and mistrust (two feelings that permeated the 1970s, and coincidentally the twenty-teens).

The series was cancelled before its time despite its popularity, with the sad reality being it kind of killed itself with a lot of retooling between seasons that didn’t sit well with its fans.  Space: 1999 is probably the best example of how not to “fix” a television show if you want that show to survive.  Though season two gave us Maya and Tony, it took from us compelling storylines and a handful of fan favourite characters like Paul and Victor.

Space: 1999 wouldn’t work today as an exact and completely faithful reboot, because we’re 17 years past the titular date of 1999, and we also know more about our moon, our solar system and the near galaxy than we did then.  Not to mention the fact scientists are pretty certain that the moon being ripped from Earth orbit would destroy it and our own planet!  But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss this show and it’s underlying premise.  The characters, the (then) future forward but still focused in reality design aesthetic, the message of hope and exploration, and the crew of Alpha’s fight to survive against overwhelming odds (like we are today with climate change, global terrorism, changing political sensibilities, growing poverty, rising unemployment etc) are as relevant to today’s world as they were 40 plus years ago – and perhaps resonate with more potency now than they did back in the 70s.

With the renewed focus on exploring our solar system and the recent focus on space tourism, asteroid mining and setting up colonies on both the moon and Mars, Space: 1999 is more relevant today than it was in the 1970s when it was first released.

No other science fiction property can so eloquently show us the near future as authentically – if the series is retooled effectively and respectfully.

To clarify that point, shows like The Expanse and the new Star Trek: Discovery (due for release in May next year) do and will focus on the issues I mentioned above, but neither do (or will do) it from a timeframe close to right now.  Though Space: 1999 got a lot wrong (we don’t have a moonbase, we’re not dumping nuclear waste on the moon, and we haven’t received mysterious signals from nearby exoplanets), it did do its best to predict what the near future would look like 24 years into the future (and a lot of people still think the set design and ship designs stack up today, with the Eagle Transporter still spoken of as one of the most realistic space ships ever designed).

For a show like Space: 1999 that has maintained a strong and loyal fan base for 40 years, there are dangers in rebirthing or rebooting it.  There can also be benefits – a lot of them.  No one can forget the trepidation and then remarkable love many of us felt for the Battlestar Galactica reboot.  Ronald D. Moore kept the premise intact, giving more thought and background to the Cylons than the legendary Glen A. Larson had back in the late ’70s, and he kept many of the characters the same – controversially changing some (Starbuck becomes a woman, as does Boomer, and Athena is no longer Adama’s daughter, but a Cylon) and adding in new characters to flesh out that ‘world’.

Someone seeking to bring Space: 1999 back could go that route, but there are other approaches that would be equally as successful.

One alternate is the one I ascribe to here on this site, with the budding fan script I’ve been writing.

Space 2049‘s premise attempts to remain completely loyal to the original idea of Space: 1999, but instead of destructively blasting our moon out of Earth’s orbit, which, as mentioned above would be pretty apocalyptic for all of us down on the planet as well as the people on Alpha, it blasts a second moon – an asteroid that was captured by Earth’s gravity – out of Earth’s orbit and sends that second moon on a trip through our solar system toward an anomaly transmitting radio signals toward Earth from Jupiter orbit.

Most of the characters are the same, with one or two added in to reflect the role business will play in space colonisation, and with one or two secondary characters having their races and genders changed to better reflect a diverse settlement.  Overall the premise is identical and follows the thematic tone of the first season of Space: 1999.

As a devoted fan, that to me, makes sense.

While there is only the remotest of chances our homeworld will capture an asteroid and make it a second moon, it is entirely possible according to the research I’ve done.  It’s certainly more possible and less catastrophic than our moon getting ejected from orbit.

For the record, I looked at a space station being blasted out of orbit, but after two weeks of exhaustive research discovered there was NO WAY an artificial construct could survive that sort of catastrophe intact.

A few years back, Jace Hall of V (the reboot) fame attempted to bring Space: 1999 back as Space 2099, but that very quietly fell apart about two years ago.

From what I can find online, Space 2099 was going to honour the original in theme, but not necessarily in any other way.

I was a fan of this attempt at a reboot, but admit I would have been disappointed if too much had changed, and would have been really upset if Koenig, Russell and Maya hadn’t featured in it.

The pre-production efforts of the team behind Space 2099 didn’t reveal much to the wider public, though they did actively communicate with us all for a while at the forum on their website, but despite inviting the fans in we don’t know a lot about the show.  What we do know is that the reboot is no more.

Looking at the very few promo images that made it into the public domain, all I – all any of us – can do is guess.  My guess is we would have had a Moonbase Alpha, but there would have been no object blasted out of Earth’s orbit.  I believe they would have used Alpha as a jump point for a ship tasked with exploring beyond our solar system.

Regardless of what anyone might do with a reboot, it really is time for another look at Space: 1999.  Despite the rubbish monster of the week show it turned into in its second season, it was originally an intelligent, philosophical, meaningful show that would be successful right now in the current television landscape.

Even with a controversial new President due to take power in the United States in January, and a very unstable global community with issues like Brexit and ISIL featuring in world headlines on a daily basis, it seems clear that NASA and other interests will continue to push toward the moon and Mars.

As our climate continues to change, as our planet’s population continues to exceed our homeworlds’ ability to support humanity, and as our earthly resources continue to diminish, we’ll be forced more and more to focus on space as a solution to our growing global problems.

Has there ever been a better time for a show like Space: 1999 to shine?

A show that looks ahead a few years and poses realistic solutions to growing world problems could be really important, and that postulation could all still happen against an allegorical background of space adventure and fun.

Hopefully someone in TV production land is thinking the same thing.

It’s time for a new look at this old gem.

I wish I knew what derailed Jace’s vision, but more than that I hope someone sees value in a show of this kind and gives Space: 1999 a new life that the fans can love and a new TV audience can celebrate.

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Proxima B

Artists Visualisation of Proxima B in Orbit of Proxima Centauri

It’s been an exciting week for the scientific community.

On the 24th of August, scientists announced the discovery of our nearest exoplanet, Proxima B.  The planet was detected by observers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

What’s so special about a new exoplanet?  Well, there are a couple of exciting things about this one: Proxima B is only 4.2 light years away, AND, it’s in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri.

Habitable zone?

Also known as the Goldilocks zone, the habitable zone is that space between a planet and its star where the temperature is ‘just right’, so right that there is the very real possibility stable liquid water could have formed on the surface of that world.

While both Proxima B and our very own Earth are within the habitable zones of their respective stars (ours is Sol, and Proxima B’s is Proxima Centauri), the similarities seem to end there.

Proxima B is 1.3 times larger than our planet, which means it is most likely tidally locked (one side always faces the sun), and due to it’s size is probably a very rocky world.

Could it sustain life?  Or already be sustaining life?  Does it have water?

No one can answer those questions just yet, but something Space 2049 reported on a few months ago might be able to in the not too distant future.

Breakthrough Starshot

Breakthrough Initiatives, with their Breakthrough Starshot project, may send some of their solar sail powered nanocraft to the Proxima system when they launch the amazing devices on a voyage of discovery to the Alpha Centauri system in about a decade.

While the Breakthrough Initiatives team continues to explore the possibility of diverting some of their nanocraft to Proxima, numerous observatories around the world will continue to give the Proxima star system the focus it deserves as we seek to learn more about this new world.

Will humans be able to visit Proxima B any time soon?  Using current technology… no.  It would take about 70,000 years for a manned spacecraft or even a conventional unmanned probe to make that journey.

If Breakthrough Starshot is able to launch its fleet of nanocraft as anticipated, the journey could be made in decades, but putting humans on Proxima B anytime soon is slightly beyond our reach.  For now.

If you’d like to read more about this discovery, visit space.com here.

If you’d like to read more about the Breakthrough Starshot project, visit Breakthrough Initiatives here.

Even with nanocraft zooming off to visit Proxima B in a decade or less, it will be some time before we know anything much about that world beyond what we can observe here on Earth.  Despite that, this news is remarkable, and to have discovered a world like Proxima B so close to our own makes you wonder… just what else will science reveal to us about our closest neighbours in the coming years?

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The Quest for Artificial Gravity

Gravitational Waves - NASACaltechJPL

One of the holy grail’s for space travel is the creation of artificial gravity.

Why?  Because of the potential deleterious effects of space travel on the human body.

A great deal of energy has gone into researching the effects of micro-gravity on human beings, with a considerable amount of that research happening on the International Space Station in recent months.  That research is still ongoing, but what it’s shown us, to date, is that there are negative impacts on our musculature and possibly our internal organs.

Microgravity?  What’s microgravity?

Good question.  Gravity, as you hopefully know, is the force that governs motion throughout the universe, and it’s that ‘thing’ that holds us to the surface of our planet.  Gravity also keeps the moon in orbit around the Earth, and our beautiful planet in orbit around the sun.

There’s a popular perception that gravity doesn’t exist in space, however that’s not entirely true.  Gravity is still a force to be reckoned with once you pass through the Earth’s Thermosphere and Exosphere.  It’s the Earth’s gravity that holds the ISS, any space craft we launch to zoom around our planet, and our satellites in orbit (along with some help from the OMS – Orbital Manouvering System and RCS – Reaction Control System engines that help to correct for orbital instabilities).  To reach a point in space where the Earth’s gravitational affect is zero, you would have to travel quite a way… and then even further to be free of the sun’s gravitational field (3.7 BILLION kilometers).  Even then, you would not be free of gravity completely and would have to contend with the gravity field of the Milky Way galaxy.

So, because some degree of gravity is almost everywhere, the more correct term is microgravity, not zero-gravity.

Currently, we have no artificial gravity on any space craft or station, and the brave souls who go into space float around in microgravity.  We have the ability to create artificial gravity right now, it’s just prohibitively expensive.

Seriously?

Yup.

Sadly, not the sort of artificial gravity you see on Babylon 5Star TrekSpace: 1999 or most other scifi productions.

In most popular science fiction movies and TV shows, artificial gravity is shown as a given and is this sort of pseudo magical thing that has no clear basis in science – and this is mostly to save on special effects and time, because filming actors in simulated microgravity would be prohibitively expensive.

To the credit of Space: 1999Star Trek and Babylon 5 and some other television series’, the creative staff do make an attempt to explain why their characters can walk around a spaceship or a space station without floating all over the place, but those explanations are often based on alien intervention or way out science that’s nothing more than barely sensible technobabble.  Babylon 5 came the closest with the titular station spinning to create centrifugal force, as did some of the Earth Forces ships.  2001: A Space Odyssey and Elesium also used centrifugal force for Space Station V and the Elysium station and did their absolute best to be scientifically accurate.

In Space: 1999 artificial gravity is used on Alpha and inside the Eagle Transporters, and the concept is introduced by Professor Bergman in the episode “Black Sun”.  Bergman describes eight towers that essentially create an artificial gravity field around Alpha… but that field, for reasons no one knows, only exists inside Alpha and disappears when the station crew leave the base but are still in range of the field.

In Star Trek artificial gravity is generated by a series of devices that don’t require something as expensive and essentially unwieldy as centrifugal or centripetal force.

To create artificial gravity right now, with the technology we have available, would suck up ten or so years worth of the world’s aluminium, and the cost of launching the various parts into space to create a rotating space station big enough would be exorbitant.

If you’re interested in learning more, Real Engineering has a wonderful explanation on their YouTube channel.  They get all the info out in a far more measured and accurate way than I could ever hope to.

The video isn’t very long, and if you’re interested in the future of space exploration it’s a fascinating watch.

Check it out here.

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Humans on Mars by 2025

Elon Musk Wants to Take Humanity to Mars

Elon Musk is an ambitious and inspirational human being, and he’s never minced words when it comes to his aspirations for SpaceX, the company he founded and is CEO of.

In recent days, Elon has elaborated on his aspirations to send a crew to Mars, and his timeline for making it happen – with, or without NASA‘s help.

He plans to start sending unmanned craft to the red planet starting in 2018, to be followed by the launch of a much larger craft in 2024 that will hopefully be crewed by the first human beings to ever step foot on the surface of our nearest neighbouring planet.

In-between the first unmanned flights and the eventual flight that will take human beings to Mars, he hopes to send regular spacecraft, approximately every two years, to essentially establish a “cargo route” that will set up the supplies a potential outpost or colony will need.

Is NASA involved with this ambitious project?

It doesn’t seem so.

NASA‘s earliest estimates for a manned Mars mission have them landing a craft sometime in 2035.

How can Musk’s SpaceX do this a decade before NASA?  Maybe because it’s privately funded and therefore doesn’t have the same restrictions that are often applied to government supported projects.

When you look into SpaceX there are some impressive private companies supporting them, including Google (who pretty much want to own a slice of everything).  Thanks to the diverse investors and their quality as companies, SpaceX was recently valued at 12 billion dollars – which is impressive, particularly for a company that’s only been around since 2002.

SpaceX has enjoyed a number of successes, but has also survived it’s fair share of failures.  Elon’s tenancity and vision has kept the company going and literally reaching for the stars.

Is SpaceX just about launching an eventual manned mission to Mars?

No.

Among its goals, it lists creating a string (or constellation) of satellites that will circle the Earth and ‘beam’ the internet into every part of our globe so that anyone anywhere can have access to the web.

They have also been instrumental in advancing rocket technology (as a side note for science fiction fans, SpaceX‘s first rocket, the Falcon, was named for the  Millennium Falcon from Star Wars – he is a child of the 70s after all).

That, and their ambition to lower the cost and improve the reliability of space travel make them a company to watch.

When you read about Elon and think about Richard Branson you can’t help but wish they would get together.  Imagine what could happen if both men pooled their considerable resources?

Back in the early 1970s, when Space: 1999 was developed, I don’t think anyone imagined that private companies would lead the way when it comes to colonising our solar system, but it seems that may be the case.  With companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX pushing the envelope and establishing audacious goals, the first Moonbase, and the first Mars Colony might be owned by private firms that rent space to governments rather than the other way around!

That does actually concern some people and it’s only wise to wonder and ask why private companies want to get to the Moon and Mars?

I think, for men like Richard and Elon, it’s a mix of things.  Vision.  Altruism.  Potential financial benefit.  For many of their investors, I have little doubt it’s about one thing.  Resources.

There’s potentially a lot of money in the form of mineral resources on Luna, Mars and in the asteroid belt, and as Earth’s resources continue to diminish but humanities need for them continues to grow, it’s only logical to look elsewhere and to invest in new opportunities.

If you want to read more about Elon’s ambitions for Mars, visit Blastr here.  To learn more about SpaceX, check out the collection of information on Wikipedia here.

The emergence of companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic creates an interesting future for all of us.  Whether NASA and other government linked space agencies are going slow because of safety concerns or lack of funding, it seems clear that the future of space travel will be the purview of private companies.

That’s certainly a factor I’ll be weaving into my fantasy fan reboot of Space: 1999.

Half of me is deeply concerned by the privatisation of space (can you say Weyland-Yutani?) and the other half is excited.  Thankfully, I think both Elon Musk and Richard Branson are men to be admired, and so maybe, hopefully, the future of space travel is safe in their hands.

These days, we can probably trust them more than we can our governments!

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