Syfy’s new focus on quality drama has a catch

At its upfront presentation last month, Syfy announced several new scripted projects as part of their return to serious-minded science fiction. That the channel behind Battlestar Galactica is again fully embracing the genre after years of lightweight fluff is something to celebrate. Yet Syfy’s newfound ambition is a double-edged sword. They’ve fallen prey to Hollywood’s conservative dependence on existing properties: nearly every project they’re developing is an adaptation.

For science fiction and fantasy fans, Syfy (particularly under its previous name, Sci-Fi) has long been the dominant international producer of SF TV. Other networks have tried and occasionally succeeded to produce their own speculative fiction shows, while other countries have produced ambitious if lower-budgeted SF (Black Mirror, Orphan Black, Real Humans), with Doctor Who off doing its own crazy yet popular thing. But with a run that included Farscape, the Stargate franchise, and Battlestar, Syfy was at the forefront in terms of quantity. They were also the remaining purveyor of space-based SF after Star Trek left the air.

But for the last few years, their policy has been to produce lighter, less overtly spec-fic shows like Eureka, Alphas, and Haven. Each would be acceptable as a variation on the overall slate, but when the entire slate diverges from the channel’s supposed mission, it’s reasonable for SF fans to feel let down.

Coupled with a schedule filled with genre-tinged reality programming and professional wrestling, the name change from Sci-Fi to Syfy in 2009 seemed apt: the network appeared to view its core identity as a liability. Without them, SF TV has been severely diminished. While Defiance and Helix have marked a shift back to ‘proper’ SF, the critical response to both has been so ambivalent that they remain bridging shows rather than the first of a new guard.

Enter new head of original content Bill McGoldrick, who took over earlier this year and quickly declared that he would aggressively pursue quality scripted programming that lived up to the channel’s original mission.

Great, we say. But the shift isn’t entirely about Syfy nobly reclaiming its birthright. Scripted drama is incredibly lucrative today, with streaming services and some cable channels developing shows for the first time. As part of that boom, genre TV is succeeding more broadly in the mainstream than the X-Files days with dramas like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and even a buzzy cult show like Orphan Black. Granted, their widespread success comes from an emphasis on drama and characterisation instead of pure, unabashed SF like, say, Star Trek and Babylon 5. But they still have integrity as genre shows and a level of ambition that distinguishes them from the diluted comfort viewing of Eureka and Warehouse 13.

Syfy no doubt realised that their very identity tapped into the zeitgeist and they weren’t capitalising on it. They’ve remodelled themselves to embrace full-blooded genre shows and pursue top-tier properties and talent in the hope they can offer both premium scripted programming and quality genre TV with crossover potential. They’re essentially picking up where they left off with Battlestar Galactica. This time, however, they’ll want the ratings to live up to the critical acclaim and cult buzz and to eliminate any impediments to a crossover hit like that cheesy title.

And they’re developing some intriguing properties. Gone are the days when a Syfy series announcement augured another forgettable rehash like Being Human. They’re getting ambitious. Let’s look at the shows they’re developing or have already greenlit. Bear in mind that not all the developed shows will make it to pilot stage, let alone to screens with a full season, but so many are in play that some of them will.

[Some dramas that fit the new approach were announced for development in 2012, such as Eyes of the Dragon and Rewind, but they’re either still being developed or have quietly folded. Given Syfy only announced its big push earlier this year, I’ll focus on the projects announced over the last 12 months.]

Forthcoming ongoing series

12 Monkeys - Pilot

Aaron Stanford in 12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys
Based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam movie about a time traveller trying to prevent a plague. Appears to retell the movie story on a longer scale with more complications.

Dominion
Inexplicably inspired by the poorly reviewed, commercially middling fallen-angel thriller Legion with Paul Bettany. Unless Syfy know this to be a Battlestar-style surprise, it doesn’t jibe with their current mission.

The Expanse
Based on the James S.A. Corey series of space opera novels. This is the big one, ordered straight-to-series for a 10-episode first season. Per Deadline, it “follows the case of a missing young woman who brings a hardened detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.”

Because it returns space opera to TV on what looks like a grand scale, it’s easier to get more excited about this one even though it adapts an existing long-form story. The books have been compared to Game of Thrones (of course) and Syfy will likely give it a huge budget, with Howe describing it as their ‘most ambitious series to date’.

Along with DMZ (see below), this project is the strongest indicator that Syfy wants to take on premium cable, and they reportedly had to fend off another major bid. Science fiction is ripe for the Game of Thrones treatment: calibrating a niche genre so it crosses over to the mainstream. Syfy likely doesn’t want to be upstaged by a network that isn’t defined by that genre.

Mini-series

Ascension - H 2014

Ascension

Ascension
Based on an original concept, and already greenlit. About a century-long covert mission launched in 1963 to colonise a distant planet, until a murder occurs en route. Stars Battlestar’s Tricia Helfer, and the trailer suggests a tone and sophistication a cut above Syfy’s usual MO.

Olympus
Already greenlit. Another mini from Robert Halmi, who has made a career out of mini-series adapting classic properties like The Odyssey and Gulliver’s Travels. This one is technically original, but it’s more gods and monsters business. Syfy clearly isn’t wiping the slate clean and starting over, retaining some old workhorses that presumably pay the bills (see also Warriors of Oz, Bitten, and Z Nation).

Pax Romana
Based on the comic book mini-series by Jonathan Hickman about a Special Forces team time travelling to ancient Rome to change history. Sounds ludicrous, but Hickman is a hugely respected writer.

Ronin
Based on Frank Miller’s early 1980s comic about a 13th century samurai reborn in 21st century New York. At one time developed as a film by Darren Aronofsky.

Ringworld
Based on Larry Niven’s classic space opera novel.

Childhood’s End
Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel.

The Man in the High Castle
Based on Philip K. Dick’s classic alternate history novel. You may be noticing a pattern.

Warriors of Oz
A re-imagining of the Wizard of Oz mythos set in a post-apocalyptic future, from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambatov. This is Syfy’s second reconfiguration of Oz and not even the only one in development for TV.

Ongoing series in development

DMZ
Based on the tremendous, daring, and highly political Vertigo comic series by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli. A near-future story about a photojournalist embedded in devastated Manhattan, now the demilitarised zone in a new American civil war. Run by Mad Men writers Andre and Maria Jacquemetton (a big get for a network that broadcasts wrestling), this is Syfy’s other big play for premium audiences and a major departure from its typical programming.

The Magicians
Based on the fantasy book series by Lev Grossman. Summarised by many critics – probably unfairly – as Harry Potter for grown-ups.

Clone
Based on the comic book from Robert Kirkman’s Skybound, about a doctor who discovers he has a host of clones. This sounds like a response to the buzz around Orphan Black.

Letter 44
Based on Charles Soule’s comic book series about an alien construction project found in our asteroid belt.

Z Nation
A post-apocalyptic zombie drama from the company behind a bunch of straight-to disc and made-for-TV genre movies like Sharknado and Transmorphers, and so not terribly auspicious. Like Dominion, this isn’t consistent with Syfy’s quality goals.

Beowulf
Based on Beowulf, which hopefully needs no explanation. Not much more is known beyond that.

Creature at Bay
About the aftermath of a kaiju attack, capitalising on the sorta-success of Pacific Rim and the potential (and now proven) success of the new Godzilla. Bryan Singer is producing, however, so this may be dead now.

Forthcoming international co-productions

Killjoys
Canadian series from the producers of Orphan Black. Original concept about interplanetary bounty hunters during a ‘multiplanetary class war’.

The Almighty Johnsons
New Zealand series about four brothers who have inherited the powers of Norse gods.

 

As you may have noticed, the vast majority of these projects are direct adaptations of comic books or book series, while others are in reliably popular subgenres (zombies, werewolves, mythological gods). Some are both, like The Magicians. Only one project is based on an original concept that doesn’t conform to currently hot genres: Ascension, and even that will have a strong 1960s aesthetic, made retro-cool by Mad Men. It’s also only a six-hour mini and therefore less of a risk.

Suddenly Syfy’s resurgence seems less exciting.

The reason for this strategy is that although we’re rewarding quality drama shows right now, an increasing number are based on existing long-form properties. Consequently, optioning a book or a graphic novel seems to be a requirement to get in the door at Syfy. If you don’t have one, writers need to pitch in a hot subgenre like zombies or magic.

One irony should be noted. Even Syfy’s previous height was defined by two adaptations – Stargate and Battlestar Galactica – that nonetheless developed a firm, independent identity. These shows may well do the same. But that height was also defined by Farscape, a lost-in-space series that evolved into a stridently weird and unpredictable galactic saga that had more in common with the gonzo tendencies of print SF than its screen cousins.

There’s no equivalent to Farscape in this development slate, because even Killjoys will presumably be hampered by a lower budget because of its Canadian origins, and space shows cost a lot to achieve credibility. Syfy seems to have precious little room for original visions.

Not all adaptations are bad news, of course, and nor should we expect them to be as largely faithful and unsurprising as Game of Thrones has been. The Walking Dead has made several divergences from the comics, establishing itself more definitively as a separate entity. DMZ, The Expanse, Letter 44, and Killjoys all have exciting loglines that are either original or sound like a refreshing spin on familiar tropes. Despite its dominance, adaptation shouldn’t be demonised. Any of these shows could be an all-timer.

But underlying this potential is the cold hard fact that even a push like Syfy’s into creatively rich and ambitious dramas still amounts to piggybacking on a bunch of creatively rich and ambitious books and comics.

So for genre fans, the prospect of fresh new visions on screen is tragically dim. Syfy is taking its vanguard role seriously and launching a new wave, but they assume – perhaps rightly – that we’re happier seeing proven commodities on screen than stories where we can have no idea what will happen. Our intensifying discussions where we pine for screen versions and compare shows and films to their source medium hasn’t helped, giving the impression that we enjoy TV and movies most passionately when they’re an expression of another medium and retelling a property we already love.

It’s hard to know what will turn the tide, except making the effort to seek out and support the quality programming that is truly original and attempt to move the needle a little. Game of Thrones and even The Expanse don’t need cheerleaders because they have built-in fanbases. If we rally behind shows like Orphan Black and, with luck, Killjoys and Ascension, we can make a statement that what we want most from genre television is mystery and the unknown.

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