Why Sci-Fi on TV is Taking Off

Streaming TV services focus more on sci-fi, as technology grows in our world

Posted Mar 10, 2018

In the past year, Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services have ambitiously expanded their self-sponsored TV offerings. Netflix has noticeably added numerous international shows as well from places like Germany, Japan, Brazil, and more. Many of the shows seem to lean towards two genres: crime/detective procedurals, and science fiction. While crime shows are a longtime network TV staple, science fiction has tended to be marginalized to syndication or genre channels, and mainly related to major franchises like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. So this new burgeoning of sci-fi shows is an exciting new trend.

The reasons for this focus may be multifold. Sci-fi is a quick way to garner attention as a groundbreaking entertainment genre, given its futuristic bent and future-based themes. By its very nature, these shows give these networks the cache of being cutting-edge; the shows utilize and advertise the new technologies themselves that can make this new streaming method of entertainment successful. (Ironically, one episode on Amazon’s new show Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams focuses on a dystopian world created by an Amazon-style distribution factory run amok.) These shows frequently feature fun and intriguing new technologies that may very well be coming everywhere, such as emission-less self-driving cars a la Tesla, and instant access viewing screens like IPods in the air in front of you. Computer imaging technology has also probably reached a point where visual special effects are more easily achieved (and probably at more economical cost for studios).

Partnered with the fun and intrigue of technology is the inherent anxiety and dread behind technology as well; these shows do not shy away from the dark side of science, and in many ways frankly trade on the horror aspect of sci-fi, arguably pioneered by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Her famous story did not shy away from describing how the human impulse to create in the name of science and innovation could also approach unchecked egotism and unforeseen consequences. The hubris of “playing god” and manipulating natural law to serve the human instinct for survival and convenience can backfire spectacularly. Horror has also always been a popular entertainment genre, as people enjoy the combination of relative safety with vicarious thrills of watching their worst nightmares on a flat screen.

The Netflix show Black Mirror has fully embraced this combination sci-fi horror theme by putting forth standalone cautionary tales on the dark side of technology, in the vein of the classic show Twilight Zone. Episodes portray a world much like hours, ever so slightly in the future, with various bits of technology that we still see in infancy today working in full swing, like neural networking, human memory encoding, cloning, androids and robots, social media, and more. The general theme is that technology can magnify and enable the best and worst of human desires and tendencies; these exacerbations can have at best mildly annoying and at worst largely frightening consequences. Memory playbacks can be used to berate and torment heartbroken lovers or disgruntled employees or children of anxious parents; robots can bring back beloved dead spouses or brutally exterminate you. The episodes that reflect technologies that are nascent but generally already in play are arguably more unnerving, like the episode “Nosedive” where mutual rating systems and manipulation of social networking cache are all too familiar.  

The German Netflix show Dark takes one sci-fi element, time travel, and uses it as the linchpin of a vital narrative interweaving the lives of a small town. The show brilliantly and movingly heightens the ways time defines our sense of meaning in daily life, and how when that one variable is manipulated, those meanings become chaotic and confusing. The Brazilian Netflix show 3% follows a Hunger Games-style story of young adults trying to pass a brutal multi-step exam to enter a privileged world, and how this struggle mirrors aspects of how our real-life societies control and threaten young people’s lives and social mobility.

At best, these sci-fi shows illuminate and enlighten aspects of our human existence: our inherent fragility and search to avoid pain and mortality. The Emmy award-winning Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” movingly explored how a couple of women who otherwise never would have met fell deeply in love across boundaries of time and physical deterioration. Technology brings them together, but it also brings up painful dilemmas about the lives they lived beforehand.

Sometimes quantity means quality may suffer; some of these shows have tilted towards exploitative clichés, particularly regarding sex and violence, or have flagrantly copied predecessors like the seminal film Blade Runner (there is a difference between homage and ripoff; some scenes of vaguely Asian neon-glazed markets in perpetual dark rain in the weaker show Altered Carbon are just de facto stolen from that movie). But overall, it is a refreshing trend to see these creative and vital explorations of our rapidly changing world, and the new challenges we all face.

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