The success of Game of Thrones has shown HBO that geek genres like fantasy can be profitable while not undermining their brand, so it was only a matter of time before they ventured into science fiction.
Although they were developing a tantalising mini-series version of Trent Reznor’s dystopian Nine Inch Nails concept album Year Zero a couple of years ago, that project doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. This new one, The Spark, is long-form and suggests that HBO is cool with genre now that Game of Thrones is their second most successful show ever, which makes it a milestone.
The Spark is from Karl Gajdusek, co-creator of Last Resort and co-writer of Oblivion. Not the most impressive pedigree since the swiftly-cancelled Last Resort reputedly couldn’t turn a stellar pilot concept into a series and Oblivion was derivative and hollow. But D.B. Weiss didn’t even have any produced credits before Game of Thrones, and that turned out okay.
To quote Deadline’s synopsis from their announcement:
The project, now in development, is set in a world undergoing a technological/industrial revolution in the near future when contacted by a signal from beyond the solar system. It centers on the human reaction to a mystery still spiritually and technologically out of reach and follows a female protagonist as she works on the cusp of the Earth’s effort to discover the origin of the signal. Gajdusek is writing and executive producing the potential series, which promises to explore on a human level what he calls the five pillars of science fiction: Alien Contact, Artificial Intelligence, Technological breakthroughs, Space Exploration/Adventure, and Origin Stories.
The premise evokes Carl Sagan’s Contact, but Sagan didn’t invent the notion of receiving a distant alien signal, and exploring the sociopolitical impact of that signal over many hours of screen time will set it apart. The future setting will as well, and the revolution will perhaps involve sustainable energy technologies, which didn’t play into Contact. Hopefully, Gajdusek will hire some futurists to consult rather than winging it with a familiar future milieu.
And it sounds damn ambitious, which is what HBO likely wants to stand out from the pack. Just as Game of Thrones was nothing like Legend of the Seeker, they will not want The Spark to resemble Syfy shows or Star Trek at all. That’s partly because this sounds like an expensive show, so this will need to be a crossover success like Game of Thrones. That show’s prosperity comes down to Martin’s original novels, which doled out the fantasy elements gradually, hooking fantasy agnostics with character interactions and political intrigue before revealing that the show is still resolutely fantasy.
What’s unknown is whether Game of Thrones keeps those fantasy elements to a minimum because the books do, or the show was greenlit because of that. Will HBO want this science fiction show to not feel too science fiction-y? Will we have entire episodes about feuding scientists playing political games with each other, and in the season finale they’ll throw us a bone about the signal? Just as Thrones feels more like historical drama than fantasy because of the focus on politics and human characterisation, will The Spark need to resemble a contemporary drama most of the time?
That would be the easy route to a crossover success, but HBO seem to enjoy the challenge of making niche shows work for larger audiences. Deadwood was the first Western on TV in years. Luck was about horse racing. And Game of Thrones speaks for itself.
Another high point of this pitch is the female protagonist, all too rare in TV SF. With luck, she’ll be a highly competent professional with compelling internal and external conflicts that aren’t a result of problems with men. I may be asking too much though.
And the best bit is that HBO aren’t necessarily shying away from overt science fiction, with ‘Space Exploration/Adventure’ one of Gajdusek’s pillars. I was a little disappointed that HBO didn’t go all out and accept the challenge of making an uncompromising space show into a mainstream hit, but this project still has a bit of everything. Some elements may not be introduced until later seasons, but such format shifts would be an exciting change in how most TV SF shows play out.
The project is way too early in development for us to get remotely excited, of course. If this were airing on any other network, I would be as dismissive until the reviews emerged as I now am for most network shows, having been burned too many times.
But HBO tackling science fiction – particularly when so little is now being produced for TV – is a potential game-changer for the genre, and their track record means the eventual show will more likely be worth our time. Please, accept the gauntlet, HBO, then throw it back down for everyone else to catch up. You lost Mad Men and The Walking Dead to AMC; don’t let another cable outlet be the first to transform TV SF.