There are many reasons to be sad that Fringe is over. But chief among them is the fact that its passing leaves a conspicuous vacuum: there's just not a lot of science fiction on television any more. Fringe reveled in its science fiction trappings, featuring a mad scientist hero and stories about time travel, future mutants and alternate universes.
Now that Fringe is no longer with us, what's left of science fiction on television? And is there any hope that science heroes could make a comeback? Let's take stock.
So it's not true that there's no science fiction left on television. Here are some shows that are on now or coming soon:
Falling Skies is coming back this summer, or maybe late spring. And it's a full-blown show about an alien invasion and a post-apocalyptic world, complete with multiple different alien races that we're just starting to learn about. Also, there's the whole ongoing storyline where most of the children have been fitted with alien "harnesses."
Defiance is coming to Syfy in April. This is also a show about the aftermath of a war with aliens, some of whom now live on Earth. It appears to be delving pretty deeply into the aliens and their culture, as well as how the world has changed after the war. And there's an MMO that crosses over with the TV show. Fingers crossed!
Person of Interest is about the world's first true artificial intelligence, a machine that can see everything that happens via webcams and surveillance cameras and use it to predict future events with astonishing accuracy. As the show has gotten into its second season, we've learned a bit more about the Machine and had more overt discussions about the nature of A.I.
Revolution is coming back in March. And even though Eric Kripke and company could easily have said all of the world's energy and power was shut down due to black magic — especially with Kripke's Supernatural pedigree — they chose to go with science. We've glimpsed a supercollider, which seems to have something to do with it. Kripke even claims to have vetted the premise with a physicist. Image via Revolution Fancast.
The Neighbors is on now — and it's basically your standard Married With Children-style sitcom about family life, except the neighbors are all aliens. Including an alien family, who interact a lot with the human family. We learn dribs and drabs about the aliens' culture in every episode.
Beauty and the Beast is coming back this week. And it's definitely a show that could have been fantasy — as far as I know, the 1987 show that it's based on was purely magical. But the new show has completely revamped the Beast's origin, making him the result of military "supersoldier" experiments that mutated his DNA. He's sort of like the Hulk, actually.
Touch is coming back in February, and it's sort of mystical but sort of sciencey — Jake the mute child can see the connections between numbers and see what's going to happen (sort of like the Machine in Person of Interest.) And I guess Jake can see the "pain of the universe" through the numbers, because he understands how everything in the world is connected.
Under the Dome is premiering this summer on CBS, and it's an adaptation of the Stephen King novel about a small town in Maine that's covered by an impermeable dome. And in the King novel, at least, there are other science fiction elements.
Various Cartoons. Actually, when it comes to cartoons, science fiction pretty much dominates. Among others, there's Ben 10, who can transform himself into various alien creatures. There are a bunch of science-based superhero shows, including Green Lantern, Young Justice, Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble. There's Star Wars: The Clone Wars. And the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who have "mutant" right there in their name. And of course, there's Futurama.
The Walking Dead. Thanks to Brad Hage for mentioning this one — it's never entirely clear what's turned people into zombies, but it's at least hinted that it's a virus.
Continuum just started on Syfy, and it's a full-on time travel show about a cop and a bunch of terrorists from the future coming to present-day Vancouver. It wears its science fiction trappings pretty proudly, including supersuits, expandable guns and neural interfaces.
Doctor Who comes back in April. It's definitely been mining the "fairy tale" vein pretty intensively the past few years, and just today William Shatner insisted the show was "science fantasy" rather than "science fiction." But it's still about a man of science, who has a time machine and finds rational explanations for things.
Borealis is the show we wish would become an ongoing series — the pilot just aired in Canada on the Space Channel, and we dearly hope they decide to greenlight more of it. It's set in the future and includes some fun technologies like zero-gravity pleasure rooms. But it also talks about important issues like the future of energy and conservation of endangered species.
Black Mirror is coming back to British TV, hopefully this year. And in just a few potent hours of weird one-off storytelling, Charlie Brooker's show will probably hit us with more science fictional ideas and jarring images than a whole season of most other shows.
Primeval: The New World has been airing in Canada recently. It's a spin-off of the British show about time travel that brings monsters from the past and future to the present. Thanks to Blackoak for mentioning this one!
Utopia just started airing on Channel 4 in the U.K. — it's set in the future, with a looming famine, and although it's unclear how much of the show's events are supernatural versus super-sciencey, there's still plenty of weird science to go around. Thanks to everybody who brought this one up.
Misfits features kids with superpowers, which they got via lightning. Weird science? Magic? Kind of hard to say.
Is there hope?
Right now fantasy is kind of ruling television, with shows like Game of Thrones, True Blood, Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Vampire Diaries and various others riding high. Even Syfy seems mostly geared towards fantasy at the moment, especially since they just pulled the plug on the mutant-tastic Alphas.
A similar thing happened in books at one point — science fiction book sales were tanking, and there was a huge spike in sales of fantasy books. And yet, if you look at this chart, it turns out that spike was a one-year thing, and now both fantasy and science fiction are declining at about the same rate (in print sales, anyway.) If anything, fantasy and science fiction books are converging somewhat — and in e-books, where the growth is, a lot of the popular titles seem to be space opera or post-apocalyptic science fiction.
So it's easy to mistake a blip for a trend — and things change all the time. And things definitely go in fads. And of course, science fiction premises are still huge at the movies this year, with most of the big original blockbusters featuring future Earths, giant robots and whatnot.
I'm guessing the hard part, on television, is sustaining a science fiction-y premise week after week, in a way that feels welcoming to new viewers and unthreatening to people who mostly watch police procedurals. Something like Person of Interest seems to do well, because it has a lot of the elements of a procedural, including a small family of characters that the viewer invests in. A ton of science fiction shows in recent years have tried to go "high concept," with huge mysteries and confusing conspiracies, but a more low-key, character-based approach seems like it might work better for audiences in 2013. And we may not be getting back to the format of "people in polyester trade technobabble for five minutes" storytelling any time soon, but that's okay.
Anyway, there are a few trends that seem likely to bring more science fiction to our screens, sooner rather than later...
Android cop shows. I've actually lost count of how many android cop shows there are in development. There's the untitled show that Howard Gordon and Josh Friedman are working on, which seems to be still in the works. And Fringe's J.H. Wyman is working on an android cop show with J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions. I have a feeling there were one or two other android crime shows in the pipeline, but I'm not sure if they still are. In any case, it seems like a decent bet that one of these will get aired.
Syfy might do a proper space opera again. Syfy hasn't aired a show about spaceships since Stargate Universe — and they chose to turn Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome into a webseries months before airing it. But at some point, they'll want to roll the dice on spaceships again, and they have a couple prospects in the works: the Blake's 7 reboot, with Martin Campbell on board to direct the pilot, and Robert Hewitt Wolfe's Defender. And meanwhile, Stephen DeKnight is still developing his interstellar war show Incursion for Starz. And I could still see us getting a new television Star Trek in the next five years.
Superhero shows are on the upswing. It seems pretty likely we'll be watching S.H.I.E.L.D. this fall, and it'll include weird superweapons and insane technology, plus the after-effects of an alien invasion of Earth. And if S.H.I.E.L.D. and Amazon both debut and do well, the networks might take more chances on televising some of the other superheroes who have science-based origins. Martian Manhunter, anyone?
All it really takes is one or two more shows to hit big with conspicuous science fiction elements, like weird technology, fascinating science, or alien creatures — and we'll probably have a new trend on our hands. In the meantime, there's actually quite a bit for science fiction fans to look forward to.