‘Astronauts check our scripts!’: inside the new age of sumptuous sci-fi TV

The Guardian
The Guardian

Dynastic infighting, the decline and fall of a mighty empire, tyrannical rulers and fantastical beasts. You might be forgiven for thinking that Apple’s Foundation – starring Jared Harris and The Hobbit’s Lee Pace – is staking a claim as heir presumptive to the iron throne of Westeros. Or at least that the new adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s seminal series of books – a galactic saga that takes place over several centuries – might succeed in doing for science fiction what Game of Thrones did for fantasy.

Certainly, sci-fi TV has never looked so sumptuous, with court scenes resplendent with couture that wouldn’t look out of place at the Met Gala, and as many candles and torches as there are strip lights. But for David S Goyer, the showrunner charged with bringing the ambitious story to TV, the influence of the fantasy hit was more nuanced.

“I wasn’t trying to make the next Game of Thrones,” says Goyer. “But I was trying to depict an epic, and a story that would unfold over generations. What’s nice about telling a story over a long period of time is that characters grow and change – monsters can redeem themselves, and good people fall from grace.”

Goyer’s genius is finding ways for his lead characters to survive the show’s vast time leaps. His protagonist, Gaal Dornick, conveniently skips 35 years in suspended animation, while the royal court of Trantor is populated by beings who are functionally immortal. There’s an android lady-in-waiting borrowed from Asimov’s robot novels, and an endless stream of clones of the Emperor Cleon I, so magnificent that nobody else could succeed him.
Couture that wouldn’t look out of place in the Met Gala ... the sumptous Foundation. Photograph: AP

Such complex storytelling may challenge mainstream tastes, but Foundation arrives at a time when sci-fi TV is going through a renaissance. Shows such as Amazon’s The Expanse – which takes place in a future where mankind has colonised the solar system – and another Apple series, For All Mankind, set in a parallel universe where the space race continued into the 1990s, demand that audiences take out-there scenarios deadly seriously. “There are deep concepts in the show,” says The Expanse’s showrunner Naren Shankar. “It’s about tribalism, it’s about cycles of history and economics and resource constraints and colonisation. These are big ideas.”

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Those big ideas are matched by big production values. “From a technical perspective, you can do things today you couldn’t five or 10 years ago,” says Shankar. “And when you uncork that – when you understand that this storytelling is not just a guy in a rubber suit wiggling tentacles at you – suddenly you can express things that the genre has done for 50 years, but couldn’t get on screen.”
To boldly go ... Apple’s For All Mankind. Photograph: AppleTV/Youtube

It’s perhaps no coincidence that both Shankar and For All Mankind showrunner Ronald D Moore are products of the last small-screen sci-fi boom in the 90s, having cut their teeth on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Moore went on to moody Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine, while Shankar beamed over to the Jim Henson-produced space-opera Farscape. Both shows, along with J Michael Straczynski’s intricately plotted serial Babylon 5, were instrumental in changing the landscape not just of sci-fi TV, but television drama more generally.

For Chris Nunn, a lecturer in film and TV at the University of Greenwich, the current wave of prestige sci-fi shows is a direct result of choices made three decades ago. “Science fiction now is benefiting from changes brought about by shows like Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine that really had no right to do what they did when they did it. Now we’re seeing science fiction reaping the benefits of long-term changes in how we consume television.”

The current renaissance can be traced to Moore’s groundbreaking 2004 reimagining of hokey 70s space odyssey Battlestar Galactica. Updating the premise for a post-9/11 TV landscape, he turned a niche sci-fi story into mainstream watercooler TV. “Whether you liked sci-fi or not, you found yourself binging all these seasons,” says Ben Nedivi, one of Moore’s co-creators on For All Mankind.

While Star Trek , too, is thriving in the current sci-fi landscape, with no less than five series currently in production, it seems unlikely to cross the final frontier into the halls of prestige sci-fi. For Nunn, this comes down to one thing: aliens. While the golden age shows of the 90s relied heavily on prosthetics – and, in the case of Farscape , puppets – to present characters from other worlds, today’s sombre offerings dwell solely on human problems. “With Battlestar Galactica, you’ve got robots, but you haven’t got aliens,” Nunn points out. “And The Expanse is similar. So they can be read as science fiction but also dystopias, whereas Star Trek and Babylon 5 and Farscape , even Stargate , all had alien life-forms at their core.”

Foundation may include the odd alien being as set-dressing – majestic sea-monsters float under the waves of one planet, while vicious wolf-cum-lizard creatures stalk the deserts of another – but only humans have any impact on the story. And while much of the action in The Expanse concerns a semi-sentient “protomolecule” with the ability to reconfigure matter, the ancient civilisation that created it has long since gone extinct.
‘Groundbreaking’ ... Battlestar Galactica.
Photograph: Syfy/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

For Shankar, a great strength of The Expanse is that it uses space as more than just a backdrop. “This is a show that turns space into a character,” he says. With a PhD in applied physics, he served as Next Generation’s official science adviser. “On Star Trek it was really about maintaining continuity with the fake science, making sure you used the phasers when you were supposed to, and not the photon torpedoes,” he says. “The technical manual [for the Enterprise] was quite detailed, but it wasn’t real. In The Expanse we use real physics to create drama. There’s a sequence in the first season where the ships are turning their engines on and off so you’re shifting from having weight to weightlessness. Two characters suddenly lose gravity and can’t get back to where they need to be, and the solution is conservation of momentum.”

This absolute commitment to accuracy is shared by the team behind For All Mankind. “We have an astronaut who reads our scripts,” explains co-creator Matt Wolpert. “He’ll tell us when we come up with ideas that are against the laws of physics.” The series is so well-grounded in science that Wolpert and his writing partner, Nedivi – whose previous work includes Fargo and American Crime Story – admit the sci-fi elements crept up on them. “We never saw it as a science-fiction show,” says Nedivi, “but the more it separates from our history, the more it becomes one.” The final moments of season two, set in 1995, show American boots on Mars. Nedivi laughs: “Matt and I are constantly looking at each other and saying: ‘How did this become a science-fiction show?’”

As for Foundation, time will tell as to whether it can capture the zeitegist as GoT did 10 years ago. It certainly has the ambition for it. If the first season goes down well with audiences, Goyer has plans for seven more. “It’s definitely a big swing,” he admits. But if he can pull it off, the sky’s the limit.

Foundation is available from Friday on Apple TV+

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