J.J. Abrams created the boom in science fiction TV with the runaway success of his island-castaway show Lost. Can his new show, Fringe, keep that same boom from ending? Despite zig-zagging ratings, Fringe is actually the most successful science fiction show on TV right now, and everything else is softening alarmingly. Could the 2008-2009 season be the end of science fiction on television? Sadly, Fringe had the weakest debut of any Abrams show since Felicity. The second episode did better thanks to the House premiere, and then the third episode dropped again. But the third episode scored better than the first, and as long as House remains reasonably popular, Fringe may be able to ride its coattails. It's hard to overstate how much the current crop of science fiction shows owe to Lost. They almost all feature ongoing mythologies and conspiracies, and wheels within wheels, and unshaven men staring into space. And yet, no other show has managed to sustain viewers' interest — or even build on them, the way Lost did in its most recent season with its flash-forwards. So far, this TV season is looking like a bit of a bloodbath for science fiction. The almost certainly ending Smallville? Down 14 percent from its season opener last year. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles? Dropping steadily, sadly. Knight Rider? Last night's debut had half as many viewers as February's TV movie. And as we've already mentioned, Heroes dropped a quarter of its viewers from last year. New British TV retreads Life On Mars and Eleventh Hour have generated buzz that's muted at best.
But looking at the bigger picture, it's not looking like a great season for scripted TV in general. Most shows seem to be coping with soft ratings, or worse. It just proves the dangers of trying to predict the future: When the writers went on strike last winter, some people claimed the absence of scripted shows from the airwaves would make people miss them more. Instead, a lot of viewers seem to have decided they can live quite happily on a diet of reality TV and game shows. It may also be true that viewers have decided that they're tired of epic science fiction on a small-screen budget. Maybe they no longer want to journey to the center of mystery with a gang of desperadoes. Maybe they've decided that superhero narratives work best on the big screen, and shows like Heroes and Smallville that try and do comic-booky stuff on a small scale, week after week, aren't as much fun as seeing Jon Favreau or Chris Nolan deliver a tidy two-hour (ish) superhero epic with costumes and huge set-pieces. Maybe they no longer want to keep track of who came from which alternate future on shows like Heroes and Sarah Connor. It's really hard to say. One thing does bode well for science fiction on TV, if it can retool a bit. If we really are headed for a stomach-slamming roller-coastery downturn that'll make the Great Depression look like a wee air pocket, then people will need cheery escapist entertainment more than ever. If scifi TV can retool itself to get rid of some of the ominous ooh-everybody's-sinister trappings and go for more of a fun, Glen Larson vibe again — maybe without quite so much camp — it could be the entertainment of choice for the dismal years to come.