What Makes A Good Sci-Fi Show?

Falling SkiesI’ve been watching more and more science fiction (perhaps loosely defined, in some cases) television shows lately, something I haven’t really done much of in a while. Some have really drawn me in, while others – even though the production values are probably very similar – haven’t, but in some cases I’m having a hard time coming to grips with just why one sci-fi show appeals to me and another doesn’t

Let’s take two examples that are along similar basic lines and who seem to have significant followings: Falling Skies and Defiance. Falling Skies caught me right away and has held my attention. Defiance, on the other hand, resulted in an interest score of “meh” from the get-go, and after a few episodes my wife and I couldn’t bring ourselves to spend time watching it anymore.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjroVVhe8G0]
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlC7scqXthE]
The question is, what’s the difference between them? Is it just a matter of taste, or is there something deeper?

Some of my other favorite shows include Fringe (which probably ranks as my current fave overall) and – this came to me as a surprise – Grimm. Granted, Grimm isn’t exactly science fiction, but I include it because the producers took what I initially thought was a pretty silly premise and made into something exceptional. But on the “meh” side we have Warehouse 13 and Primeval (although I’ll confess that we need to watch a few more episodes of Primeval to give it a fair chance).

So, what are your favorite vs. your “meh” sci-fi shows, and why do you think one appeals and the other doesn’t?

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24 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Sci-Fi Show?

  • Arthur LaMarche

    It is all about characters. Call me a Jungian, but I believe in the hero of a thousand faces and scifi/fantasy/real_life are simply set dressing

  • Tim Moon

    I agree, Falling Skies is much better than Defiance. The issues and characters in FS are more interesting. They’ve also done a great job of balancing character development and action. Grimm is decent, I like to watch it here in Korea because it’s filmed back home in Portland, Oregon. The other great shows are fantasy – Game of Thrones and Walking Dead.

  • robert

    Well i loved babylon 5 for its deep interweaving story. It told a great war story but it was filled with powerful subplots. I always felt it made aliens seem real because of the amount of detail each race got.

    Where deep space nine felt like a generic watered down spin off. I never liked ds9 it was a meh for me.

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      Yes, DS9 — and, to be honest, all the other Star Trek spinoffs (although slightly less with Voyager) — left me totally meh from the pilot onward. I think I watched the first couple seasons, but dropped it after that. The same with Next Generation – I watched a lot of it, but it was never even close to the interest I had in the original show.

      • Jonathan Silverthorn

        DS9 went from near death to surviving a couple more seasons when they introduced “bad guys” and started blowing things up. While that may be a simplification it seems to me that most people that watch a Sci-Fi show don’t watch for character driven soap opera drama. I didn’t care or want to watch them walk the corridors and look deeply into the teen angst or troubled relationships of the crew, UNLESS, they were blowing stuff up. While I know there are people that love the in depth character development and how the people of the future deal with life’s little problems I think the majority watch Sci-Fi for action and heroes. They want to see villains and be amazed by technology. The strong main character can have problems, even needs problems to overcome WHILE they are going forth to face down evil. Why do you think they introduced the Defiant? To get them off the station and going to new places. And blow things up.
        Falling Skies has a seemingly unbeatable enemy empire that the band of rebels have to find a way to defeat (sound familiar?) Defiance, while it does have some action, is more day to day life of a small town in a post apocalyptic earth. Has potential but needs serious changes. Firefly was a good future western. This is a weak Gunsmoke clone with aliens and minor tech.
        In my opinion we watch/read science fiction for what the name implies, science and fiction. Not day to day life or mundane struggles. There are plenty of books and shows for that. Give us overwhelming evil, a small band of regular people forced into being heroes and cool technology. Hit that little mix right and you have a hit every time. Fail on one or more elements and you are probably doomed. I say probably because there are always exceptions.
        These are the reasons that I’m a successful powerhouse in the realms of film, television and literature today. Or would be if anyone would listen to me and I wasn’t so lazy. And thanks for sticking with this to the end of my babble. Most people gave up about three sentences in.

        • Samantha Grace

          How do you know that most gave up about 3 sentences in? Just wondering. Anyway, I haven’t seen Falling Skies or Defiance yet but I agree with you about what makes sci-fi work. I loved all the Star Treks but did find myself losing interest when they focused for too long on the personal dramas. When I watch sci-fi I want to see action and cool new tech ideas. I also want to be surprised and impressed by the creativity of writers who can still come up with original story lines and villains.

  • Theresa Snyder

    Mike, our tastes are very similar. I know my preferences are based on the characters and the overall production quality. Falling Skies has so much depth in its characters, the father is not only concerned about his sons, but also about the human race as a whole. He is forced into leadership. He has a history (no pun intended) and he interacts with all the other characters, sons, right hand man, wife, other leaders, aliens etc. And, all the characters are that well drawn. The situation is plausible. The setting believable.

    The thing that left me cold to Defiance was the lack of interaction. Yes, the characters talked to each other. Yes, they had history, but I didn’t ‘believe’ any of it. There was no depth.

    In short, if I can’t get involved with characters, feeling for their plight, it’s a ‘no go’ for me.

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      Agreed. I think the other thing about Defiance is that it starts out with this hodgepodge of alien races living in this “post-war” town. I just never achieved any level of suspension of disbelief over that in itself! LOL!

  • Jack powell

    I may have a little age on some of your readers, but the Golden Age of science fiction TV (40s, 50s, 60s in my opinion) had a lot of great stories converted from decent books for TV. But… There were sure a lot of duds also. Even the premise of some like “Lost In Space” were just plain stupid, others like “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea” had at least some good science in their scripts.
    What bothers me more with current SciFi programming is the lumping the Fantasy programs in with good hard Scifi. It has always been that way and I enjoy a good fantasy like Grimm as much as anyone, but a story about vampires trying to kill all the werewolves is not Scifi, but Fantasy. Post apocalyptic fiction is many times only SciFi for that reason, that it is after an apocalypse, many times with no other “science” in it. Many are just like an old western or historical romance, in fact there are many based upon old stories that just happen to be in the future. You could take any romance or western, change Montana to Mars and it becomes SciFi. Really?
    Just because it is in the future is not enough to be called SciFi, it is really fantasy, and may they ever be kept separate from the hard science fiction.

  • Ben

    Of course, BSG should be on a list. It’s simply about humans being human, though I’m sort of disappointed there’s not a lot of discussion of uplifting morality. All the characters are anti-heroes.

  • Marilyn

    I’m old enough to remember when the original Star Trek first aired and I still like all the spinoffs except Voyager. I stopped watching Revolution after about six episodes. The ads leading up to Falling Skies didn’t grab my attention but based on these comments maybe I should give it a try.
    Due to circumstances beyond my control (movers broke my tv) I haven’t watched anything except online shows for about two months. A few days ago I ran across Farscape. I loved that show and I’m having such a good time watching it whenever I want. And, since I see nothing wrong with gun toting space cowboys, I loved Firefly. Watched an hour of each last night.
    If the writers aren’t telling an interesting story, with strong characterization, the show won’t hold my attention. I watch television to be entertained so really poor acting skills have been know to shorten my attention span too.

  • Travis Hill

    I’ve spent the last two months yelling at the television like an old man as I watched all three seasons of Falling Skies. The premise is great, something I based one of my own novellas on lightly, but the truth is, it is NOT the type of sci-fi show that I like. Since I’m old and grew up with Star Wars, the original BSG, Alien, etc., I want action. I want aliens blowing up humans, humans blowing up aliens, and a true fight for survival. FS for me is barely watchable, though I persist because I keep thinking it will get better and focus on the two alien factions more than it does on the mostly ridiculous human characters.

    I do like Tom Mason, and I like the idea of the harness, but I get angry that such petty human arguments would take precedence over their fight for ultimate survival against a far-superior alien race. The character of Pope to me is like Jar Jar Binks, minus the racist overtones. There will always be humans who are only in it for themselves, but this character is completely unbelievable and always gets me ranting, which takes me out of the little fantasy world that the show creates within my mind.

    I will admit though that I yelled at the television about a thousand percent less during season three than the previous two seasons. I’m hoping the final episode and next season will be more to my liking.

    I completely enjoyed the premise of the new BSG, and was hopeful that it would be the type of sci-fi that I thoroughly enjoyed (the premise of BSG is fantastic), but then it got bogged down in a parody of the US-Iraq war with the political scheming, making the show almost unwatchable. However, I persisted, like I always do as a good sci-fi nerd, until it felt like 99% of the characters were Cylons.

    Fringe felt like a completely unbelievable (I mean, I know it is sci-fi, so belief is a subjective thing of course) ripoff of the X-File (X-Files did it first and did it a million times better in every single way).

    Star Trek…I’ve been known to post 10,000 word rants on just how stupid I think the show is, though I do have my share of favorite episodes of TNG (Q is my favorite character of course, and then there’s the Borg, whom I consider one of the best enemies in sci-fi). I do love the original Star Trek, but I could only watch a couple of episodes each of all of the spinoffs of the new versions before I grew tired of them.

    I really, really wanted to love Stargate (because of the movie), but I lost interest within three episodes as well.

    I guess I’m just one of those sci-fi dorks who is extremely picky about what I enjoy and what I cannot stand to watch. The same is true of sci-fi books…I’ve read probably a thousand or more, and very few I can make it to the end of. Of course, Mr. Hicks’ series is one of my favorites, or I wouldn’t be here posting, but this post is about television so I won’t go down that road.

    To me, the next sci-fi series I want to see is something that HBO or Showtime produces. I would love to see something like Hyperion (Dan Simmons) made into a 10-episode epic like Game of Thrones (one of the best shows I’ve ever watched, and I’m still working my way through the end of book #3).

    The problem with television sci-fi is that sci-fi requires a lot of visuals that have to be rendered with CGI or created with the old-style costumes/animatronics. I understand that the budgets for the shows not on premium cable networks are very limited, and this is why I will probably always give Falling Skies a pass, knowing that they are doing the best they can within their budget. Season three seems to have picked up the instances of CGI and such, and is the reason I believe it is the best season yet.

    But as always, this is just my opinion, and we all know how opinions go ;).

    Good discussion though, enjoying reading the comments. And I apologize for a lot of word spam.

  • Wesley Morrison

    “Defiance” is a show I didn’t want to like, but the Tarrs slowly won me over. They’re a great example of how in the end characters need to be interesting more than likable. Most of the other storylines and characters I could take or leave, but Datak and Stahma, especially when they were just interacting with each other, kept me coming back. Even in spite of the “alien” gorilla.

    “Falling Skies,” on the other hand, is I show I keep trying to like. I’ve watched all three seasons now, and it’s still a mixed bag for me. For every scene they hit exactly right that makes me believe we really are at war with aliens who outmatch us in every way, and that this is how real people would react, there’s always another that feels like Dad and the boys go camping. And meet aliens instead of a bear. It lives up to its potential just enough to keep me watching.

    In the end, the shows that really click with me are the ones that make me forget I’m a writer and don’t have me thinking “No, no, no, don’t do it that way” and mentally rewriting the episodes as I watch them. “Stargate: Universe” and “Fringe” did that for me most recently, and “Continuum” is doing it now.

  • Monty Fowler

    BSG (2004-09) is, in my opinion, the best example of everything SciFi can be when done well. The story arc was brilliant, and the characters were complex, flawed, and multidimensional. The production value was top notch (for TV), the directing was consistently excellent, and the creators had great vision in knowing just how far to take the story over the right number of seasons. For me, it is the benchmark for all other TV SciFi shows.

    Falling Skies is my current favorite. Like BSG, the characters are people you care about. My only complaint are some fairly obvious continuity gaps (more like sinkholes), but heck, it’s SciFi…so they can stretch it a bit.

    I wish someone would have the guts to bring the MYST books or The Chronicles of Amber to the small screen. Both would make for great TV in the hands of the right writing and directing team.

  • Normalene

    I liked the short-lived Andromeda and not just for Kevin Sorbo. The back story was well done and the characters had motives I could buy into. I liked Babylon 5 also for the cool characters and the evolving storyline. Once I watched the Serenity movie, then went back and watched the whole Firefly series, it made sense and I liked it more. I’m re-watching the StarHunter series with Michael Pare and even though Firefly is a direct copy, Firefly was so much better.

    This year, I checked out BBC’s TV series Orphan Black and found it interesting enough to look forward to the next season. if you haven’t seen it, the different parts the lead actress plays to represent several different clones of herself are pretty awesomely diverse.

    I’m currently loving reading James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes/Caliban’s War/Abaddon’s Gate about first contact with an alien spore and the trouble it causes when it is discovered it is possibly sentient and no one knows it’s motives. The cliffhanger at the end of volume 2 is awesome. As a librarian, I’m always looking for good stuff to recommend and these are high on my list for scif fans.

  • Teresa

    What about Haven? I like Haven, although I sometimes lose track of what’s going on. The new season starts Sept 13 and I’ll be watching.