Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader

The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader

Edited by J. P. Telotte
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 368
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader
    Book Description:

    Once confined solely to literature and film, science fiction has emerged to become a firmly established, and wildly popular, television genre over the last half century. The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader provides insight into and analyses of the most important programs in the history of the genre and explores the breadth of science fiction programming. Editor J. P. Telotte and the contributors explain the gradual transformation of the genre from low-budget cinematic knockoffs to an independent and distinct televisual identity. Their essays track the dramatic evolution of early hits such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek into the science fiction programming of today with its more recent successes such as Lost and Heroes. They highlight the history, narrative approaches, and themes of the genre with an inviting and accessible style. In essays that are as varied as the shows themselves, the contributors address the full scope of the genre. In his essay "The Politics of Star Trek: The Original Series," M. Keith Booker examines the ways in which Star Trek promoted cultural diversity and commented on the pioneering attitude of the American West. Susan George takes on the refurbished Battlestar Galactica series, examining how the show reframes questions of gender. Other essays explore the very attributes that constitute science fiction television: David Lavery's essay "The Island's Greatest Mystery: Is Lost Science Fiction?"calls into question the defining characteristics of the genre. From anime to action, every form of science fiction television is given thoughtful analysis enriched with historical perspective. Placing the genre in a broad context, The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader outlines where the genre has been, where it is today, and where it may travel in the future. No longer relegated to the periphery of television, science fiction now commands a viewership vast enough to sustain a cable channel devoted to the genre.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7296-5
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Trajectory of Science Fiction Television
    (pp. 1-34)
    J. P. Telotte

    Todd Gitlin has suggested that too often today we “take a media-soaked environment for granted . . . and can no longer see how remarkable it is” (17). Certainly, that observation has much validity for any discussion of television, a media form that twenty years ago Mark Crispin Miller had already described as constituting “the very air we breathe” (8). But the point takes on an added weight when we consider science fiction television (SFTV). For although the genre has been a part of broadcast television practically from the medium’s inception, science fiction was early on often perceived as children’s...

  5. PART I. BACKGROUND: Lifting Off from the Cultural Pad

    • LOST IN SPACE: Television as Science Fiction Icon
      (pp. 37-54)
      J. P. Telotte

      Before science fiction television (SFTV) could come into being, the medium itself had to be created (both physically and imaginatively), find an audience, and establish its own identity. This historical emergence corresponds most obviously to a series of key developments that made television both a technical possibility and a potential component of the domestic environment. However, it also involves a cultural context that enabled those developments, inflected television’s early reception, and produced an incubation space for SFTV. For at its inception, television was seen not simply as one more new technology among the many others that were ushered in by...

    • SHADOWS ON THE CATHODE RAY TUBE: Adapting Print Science Fiction for Television
      (pp. 55-68)
      Lisa Yaszek

      The early years of television were exciting times for science fiction authors, as broadcast versions of previously published short stories and novels promised to bring new audiences to their chosen genre. But the process of adapting the literature to television did not always go quite as authors expected. Consider, for instance, the case ofTom Corbett, Space Cadet. A wildly popular series aimed at a juvenile audience,Tom Corbettseemed to have everything a science fiction fan could want: it was based on a popular Robert Heinlein novel, it boasted rocket scientist (and science fiction author) Willey Ley as its...

    • FROM BIG SCREEN TO SMALL BOX: Adapting Science Fiction Film for Television
      (pp. 69-90)
      Gerald Duchovnay

      One of the key concerns of the nascent television networks in the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s was determining what kind of programming would attract audiences. One place they looked was movies. With a history dating back to Georges Méliès’sVoyage to the Moon(1902); successful serials such asFlash Gordon(1936) andBuck Rogers(1939), themselves adaptations of comic strips and pulp fiction; and films such asDestination Moon(1950) andThe Thing from Another World(1951), science fiction programmers had a “preconstructed and preselected audience” (Elsaesser 93). Considering the variety of demographics, the networks early...

  6. PART II. THE SHAPE OF THE SHIP: Narrative Vehicles and Science Fiction

    • TOMORROWLAND TV: The Space Opera and Early Science Fiction Television
      (pp. 93-110)
      Wheeler Winston Dixon

      Despite their veneer of innocent entertainment, early science fiction television (SFTV) series such asFlash Gordon,Captain Video and His Video Rangers,Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,Space Patrol, andRocky Jones, Space Rangertapped into America’s fear of and wonder at the power of the atomic bomb, as well as the rapid technological developments ongoing in other fields, including television itself. Often produced on shoestring budgets, these series nevertheless excited the imagination of cold war viewers, who were increasingly uncertain about their future both at home and abroad. The message in all these series was often the same: the universe...

    • ANTHOLOGY DRAMA: Mapping The Twilight Zone’s Cultural and Mythological Terrain
      (pp. 111-126)
      Rodney Hill

      Widely considered the first important science fiction television series for adults, the originalThe Twilight Zone(1959–1964) introduced mass audiences to the idea that the genre—which had previously been largely marginalized, especially on television—could present serious subject matter in a well-made dramatic format.¹ What most distinguishes the show from many others of the period is that it addresses political issues generally considered taboo for the medium at the time—racism, McCarthyism, the threat of nuclear war—by virtue of science fiction’s seeming remove from reality. This element also helps explainThe Twilight Zone’s extraordinary longevity: rather than...

      (pp. 127-140)
      Dennis Redmond

      The study of contemporary Japanese science fiction television (SFTV) is a lot like the classic science fiction story wherein intrepid scientists discover space aliens have landed on Earth. The trouble is that no one believes them. Why? The proof aliens are here is precisely that everything is so terrifyingly normal. Similarly, many of the core elements of Japanese SFTV—thermonuclear lizards, giant robots, and cartoon mascots—were once viewed as either outrageous oddities or exclusively Japanese obsessions. Yet nowadays Godzilla, Evangelions, and Pokémon have become almost as iconic and ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse and the NBA. The more popular the...

  7. PART III. WHAT FUELS THESE FLIGHTS: Some Key Concerns of Science Fiction Television

    • “DREAMS TEACH”: (Im)Possible Worlds in Science Fiction Television
      (pp. 143-158)
      Christine Mains

      In “Absolute Power,” a fourth-season episode of the long-running science fiction seriesStargate SG-1, the character Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) is placed into a dream state by an alien who wishes to show him the corrupting consequences of technological power. “Dreams teach,” the alien tells his team, who are unaware that in the hours they watch him sleep, Daniel lives a year as a brutal dictator who becomes responsible for their imprisonment and death. Of course, this sort of immersion of characters in alternate worlds of dream or delusion is a staple of science fiction television (SFTV), one of several...

    • FRAKING MACHINES: Desire, Gender, and the (Post)Human Condition in Battlestar Galactica
      (pp. 159-176)
      Susan A. George

      The Sci-Fi Channel’s updated, reenvisioned seriesBattlestar Galactica(2004–present) has generated considerable attention from both the popular press and media scholars, and for many reasons. First, it takes science fiction seriously and, as the popular press has noted, is heavily informed by the events of 9/11. In addition, unlike other successful Sci-Fi Channel programs, such asStargate SG-1, that consistently show the worst bringing the best out in the human race,Battlestar Galacticaconsistently addresses hard human issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse in the military, the sacrifice of human lives to preserve a way of life, a...

      (pp. 177-192)
      Samantha Holloway

      Humans explore. It’s what we’re good at. When modern humans appeared on the planet, their skill at finding new places and surviving the journey made population of the globe possible. Once we had mapped and inhabited the globe, we began to feel that we needed new space—and what could be more tempting to this human urge to travel, to discover, to conquer than a new planet, a new solar system, or even a whole new galaxy?

      To go places faster, we domesticated horses—and then replaced them with cars. Airplanes soon became pervasive because they could go places cars...


      (pp. 195-208)
      M. Keith Booker

      The originalStar Trektelevision series, which ran on NBC from 1966 to 1969, is arguably the best-known single work in the history of science fiction media. It was certainly one of the most important works of American popular culture in the 1960s, even if its true importance did not emerge until later, when its showings in syndication greatly increased its audience and influence, enabling it to become the inspiration for a long string of other television series, feature films, novels, and merchandise that carried theStar Trekbrand name into the twenty-first century. TheStar Trekfranchise has exerted...

      (pp. 209-230)
      Mark Bould

      This essay considers a range of science fiction programs produced over the last half century in light of two key concerns: the nature of British broadcasting’s institutional and industrial structures and practices and the British experience of postwar modernization, as empire increasingly gave way to a contested position within the consolidating world market and traditional social structures within the United Kingdom rapidly changed.¹ It is hardly surprising that a genre concerned with historical change—with the futures that might stem from the present and what those futures reveal about the historical moment we inhabit—frequently focuses on the dialectical struggle...

    • MAINSTREAMING MARGINALITY: Genre, Hybridity, and Postmodernism in The X-Files
      (pp. 231-246)
      Lacy Hodges

      When it premiered in September 1993, Fox’sThe X-Files(1993–2002) was an anomaly in a primetime lineup then consisting mainly of sitcoms and cop shows. The series, which chronicles the adventures of FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they investigate various paranormal phenomena and wade through murky government conspiracies, developed a small following in its first two seasons and emerged as a mainstream television hit by its third. Taking a cue from earlier series such asThe Twilight Zone(1959–1964) andKolchak: The Night Stalker(1974–1975),The X-Filesdeals with the...

    • BABYLON 5: Our First, Best Hope for Mature Science Fiction Television
      (pp. 247-266)
      Sherryl Vint

      Although not as long-lived as shows in theStar Trekfranchise, J. Michael Straczynski’sBabylon 5(1994–1998) has had a significant if sometimes unrecognized impact on American science fiction television (SFTV). Innovatively conceived as a novel for television—with a distinct beginning, middle, and end to its five-year story arc—Babylon 5demonstrates the capacity for television to tell complex stories and to allow characters and situations to change with time.¹ The show’s five-year production span matches that of the events it chronicles from 2258 to 2262. Much of the pleasure in watching it comes from the elaborate narrative...

      (pp. 267-282)
      Stan Beeler

      The annals of science fiction television (SFTV) are littered with the hulks of series that, for one reason or another, never made it past a few short seasons of broadcast time. Some, if they appeal to the right kind of audience, live on as cult fiction, their plots never developing any further except in the active imaginations of fans whose textual poachings stretch the boundaries of both decorum and copyright law.¹ Others sink beneath the surface of our cultural consciousness, eliciting no interest except among academics or TV executives who desperately try to determine why they failed. Television is a...

    • THE ISLAND’S GREATEST MYSTERY: Is Lost Science Fiction?
      (pp. 283-298)
      David Lavery

      At the beginning of the third season of ABC’s hit television seriesLost, a group of individuals gather in a living room (at the outset the viewer has no idea where) for a meeting of what turns out to be a book club. The host of the gathering, Juliet, whose preparations for the party have included steeling herself before a mirror to the tune of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and carelessly burning some homemade muffins, immediately faces a mutiny. One outspoken member of the group, Adam, has harsh words for her choice of books,Carrie, Stephen King’s novel about a high...

  9. PART V. THE LANDING ZONE: Where Does Science Fiction Television Go from Here?

    • TV TIME LORDS: Fan Cultures, Narrative Complexity, and the Future of Science Fiction Television
      (pp. 301-314)
      Charles Tryon

      In a DirecTV commercial that aired in winter 2006–2007, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, reprising their roles as Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock, promote the service’s picture clarity. A similar commercial, featuring Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Emmett Brown from theBack to the Futuretrilogy, seems to equate DirecTV with a time machine much like the films’ famous DeLorean, with Doc Brown touting the service’s high-definition capacity and channel selection. The commercials evoke the spirit of these science fiction texts to suggest the birth of a new era of television, one defined by freedom and consumer choice. These...

    (pp. 315-320)
    (pp. 321-336)
  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 337-340)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 341-356)