We expect a lot from Syfy, because it's the only cable channel devoted to science fiction. So it's inevitable that the network formerly known as the Sci-Fi Channel will disappoint us occasionally. And sometimes people blame Syfy unfairly — like when Syfy pulls the plug on a low-rated show.
But at the same time, it's fair to say Syfy has made a few actual mistakes over the years. And in our opinion, here are 10 of them.
People sometimes attack Syfy for doing stuff that actually makes sense, at least from a business standpoint. Like showing pro wrestling, which is actually a sort of fantasy in its own right, and which generates crazy ratings for the channel. Also, it's important to stop and realize that Syfy has done some stuff right — the Being Human remake is better than we could have hoped, and has brought in women viewers for the first time in ages. And Warehouse 13 and Alphas are continuing to rule. Plus we pretty much love the Saturday night original movies, zany monsters and all.
At the same time, here are things that we're pretty sure really were mistakes:
1. Canceling Stargate Atlantis.
Stargate Atlantis ran concurrently with Stargate: SG-1 for its first three years. So there was plenty of precedent for running two Stargate shows concurrently. And Stargate Atlantis was still scoring pretty solid ratings when Syfy decided to pull the plug on it and launch Stargate Universe instead. Continuing Stargate Atlantis after the launch of Stargate Universe might have kept fans of a lighter Stargate happy, as well as signaling that the Stargate franchise was merely growing, not changing direction. Thanks for this idea, Tom!
2. Making Flash Gordon non-space-bound.
This one still makes us scratch our heads. You get to do the rights of one of space opera's most recognizable characters, who's famous for flying around on rockets and battling against aliens in space — and you never put him on a spaceship. Syfy's Flash Gordon reboot involved Flash stepping through a portal to another world, Mongo, which managed to be simultaneously ultra-campy and kind of dull. (We nicknamed the show's villain Ming the Middle-Manager, for his aura of seeming fussy and dyspeptic, rather than actually bad-ass.) They ditched the cool part of Flash — the space adventure — in favor of all of the campy, dated stuff.
3. Abandoning Friday nights as an action-adventure bloc.
Would Battlestar Galactica have maintained its rock-solid ratings if Syfy had moved it to Tuesdays or Mondays — or would it have suffered the same fate as Caprica and Stargate Universe? We'll never know. But BSG had been steady on Friday nights since the beginning of its second season. In fact, Friday night had become a reliable home for Syfy's more action-oriented shows, and lately only Haven appears there, alongside wrestling. (Which might do just as well on another night.)
4. Marcel's Quantum Kitchen
When word first leaked that Syfy was doing a cooking show, we mocked. It seemed to be pushing Syfy's identity a little too far away from science fiction — and outside their core competency. And indeed, Marcel's Quantum Kitchen was a pretty dismal failure, winning just 330,000 viewers for its final episode. (Even if it is cheap to make.) Syfy has carved out a niche in spooky reality TV like Ghost Hunters and Destination Truth — shows that I personally will never watch — and Marcel's Quantum Kitchen was just a few steps too far.
5. Making Caprica a Battlestar prequel instead of a standalone show
Producer Remi Aubuchon came to Universal with a pitch for a new show about artificial intelligence, robots and the creation of life. And the studio and/or Syfy encouraged Aubuchon to collaborate with Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, to turn his idea into a Battlestar Galactica prequel — instead of launching it as a new venture. In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. Everything that was great about Caprica could have been great as a new show, but the show felt weighed down by the need to connect up with what we already knew would happen later. The show was caught in a chokehold of existing mythology from the first episode — and it was clearly bursting with new ideas that we'd have loved to see develop further.
6. Not picking up Firefly
Okay, so this one might have an element of wishful thinking. But around the time that Firefly was getting axed by Fox, there was plenty of clamor for the Sci-Fi Channel to make a bid to continue Joss Whedon's masterpiece. There were certainly reports at the time that, as a 2003 article from the Deseret News puts it, "Firefly was shopped to other outlets (including the Sci-Fi Channel) but nobody bought it." Maybe this was never a serious possibility. Maybe it was impossible, for economic reasons. But the Sci-Fi Channel had picked up Stargate: SG-1 from Showtime not long earlier. Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images.
7. Letting Doctor Who get away.
When Doctor Who came back to life in 2005, Syfy seemed to have mixed feelings about it. Everybody expected Syfy to pick up the new show, since after all the channel had launched with classic Doctor Who repeats in heavy rotation — but Syfy dragged its feet for months, not airing the Christopher Eccleston episodes until March 2006. The channel frequently aired Doctor Who in first run with deep cuts to episodes, and never seemed to have much urgency to air them soon after their British airings. Finally, Syfy let the show go off to BBC America, which has propelled it to new ratings heights by treating it as a major event.
8. Not owning space opera
In the past decade, space opera on television has gone from half a dozen shows to... none. The 2011 fall TV season in the U.S. won't include any shows set in space or on a spaceship, on any channel. This presents a huge opportunity to Syfy, to be the channel that gives you what you can't get anywhere else. and here's where we mention Syfy's mistake in cancelling Farscape, as well as the aforementioned mistakes with Stargate Atlantis and keeping Flash Gordon grounded. Syfy can reach out to a larger audience that doesn't want to see shows about starships and pew-pew-pew — and still nurture the audience that seeks those things out. Those are not contradictory goals.
9. The name change
Actually, this one is still up in the air, because Syfy's strategy still hasn't played out. Part of the rationale behind creating a new brand name was the ability to brand new associated Syfy ventures, including Syfy Kids, Syfy Films and Syfy Games. So far, these ventures appear to have generated very little heat — but it's early yet. Syfy Films is supposed to have its first theatrical release in 2012 — although shouldn't that already be in production at this point? In other ways, though, we can judge the name change a failure. According to Proud Creative (PDF), which worked on the brand campaign, the goal was "retaining the positive associations from the genre of science fiction, whilst appealing to a broader audience and embracing the benefits of imagination." And the marketing campaign for Caprica, for example, seemed to emphasize its appeal to that broader audience, without much noticeable success. Also, as Wired's GeekDad blog pointed out recently, Syfy's Mark Stern told io9 in 2009 that the name change would allow Syfy to greenlight more hard science fiction, because "hard scifi on the Sci-Fi Channel is almost like this double whammy. Now that we have a brand that is a little broader ... it also gives us a lot of freedom to do more hard scifi." (In the same interview, Stern said the channel was looking at launching a new space opera in 2010 or 2011 — we're still waiting!) So if one goal of the name change was to free up Syfy to do more hard science fiction, then it clearly hasn't worked. Photo via Loren Javier on Flickr.
10. Canceling Eureka
And finally... this is what started us thinking about this topic. Eureka wrapped production on its final ever episode yesterday. And this still seems really arbitrary, for a show that was still going strong after four seasons. It would be one thing if Eureka was pulling in Stargate Universe numbers, but it's not. The most recent episode drew 2.1 million viewers, compared with 2.3 million for Warehouse 13 and just 1.8 million for Alphas. As Geek Dad points out, this follows a legacy of canceling Farscape and Dresden Files, both of which were still enjoying decent ratings.