“The astronauts are checking our scripts! “: In the new era of sumptuous science fiction television | Television

Dynastic internal struggles, the decline and fall of a mighty empire, tyrannical rulers and fantastic beasts. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Apple Foundation – with Jared Harris and Lee Pace from The Hobbit – claims the title of heir apparent to the Iron Throne of Westeros. Or at least that the new adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s seminal book series – a galactic saga spanning centuries – could succeed in doing for science fiction what Game of Thrones did for fantasy.

Granted, sci-fi television has never looked so lavish, with gleaming couture courtyard scenes that wouldn’t clash at the Met Gala, and as many candles and torches as there are light strips. But for David S Goyer, the showrunner tasked with bringing the ambitious story to television, the influence of the fantasy hit was more nuanced.

“I wasn’t trying to make the next Game of Thrones,” Goyer explains. “But I was trying to portray an epic and a story that would unfold over generations. The great thing about telling a story for a long time is that the characters grow and change – monsters can redeem themselves and good people fall out of favor.

The genius of Goyer is to find ways for his main characters to survive the vast time jumps of the series. Its protagonist, Gaal Dornick, conveniently skips 35 years of suspended animation, while the royal court of Trantor is populated by functionally immortal beings. There’s an android maid of honor borrowed from Asimov’s robot novels, and an endless stream of Emperor Cleon I clones, so magnificent that no one else could succeed her.

A couture that would not look out of place at the Met Gala … the sumptuous Foundation. Photography: AP

Such a complex storytelling can defy the tastes of the general public, but Foundation comes at a time when sci-fi television is experiencing a renaissance. Shows such as Amazon’s The Expanse – set in a future where humanity colonized the solar system – and another Apple series, For All Mankind, set in a parallel universe where the race for space continued into the 1990s, require audiences to come out. there are deadly serious scenarios. “There are deep concepts in the series,” explains Naren Shankar, showrunner of The Expanse. “It’s about tribalism, cycles of history and economics, resource constraints and colonization. These are great ideas.

With these great ideas come great production values. “From a technical standpoint, you can do things today that you couldn’t do five or ten years ago,” says Shankar. “And when you unlock that – when you understand that this storytelling isn’t just about a guy in a rubber suit making tentacles at you – all of a sudden you can express things that the genre has been doing for 50 years, but which could not be displayed on the screen. “

Go bold ... Apple's For All Mankind.
Go bold … Apple’s For All Mankind. Photography: Apple TV / Youtube

It may not be a coincidence that Shankar and For All Mankind showrunner Ronald D Moore are both products of the last small-screen sci-fi boom of the 90s, having cut their teeth in Star. Trek: The Next Generation. Moore continued with Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine, while Shankar moved on to Farscape, the space opera produced by Jim Henson. Both shows, along with J Michael Straczynski’s intricate Babylon 5 series, helped change the landscape not only of sci-fi television, but of television drama more generally.

For Chris Nunn, senior lecturer in film and television at the University of Greenwich, the current wave of high-profile science fiction shows is a direct result of choices made three decades ago. “Science fiction now benefits from changes made by shows like Babylon 5 and Deep Space Neuf who really had no right to do what they did when they did. Now we are seeing science fiction reaping the rewards of long term changes in the way we consume television.

The current rebirth can be attributed to Moore’s groundbreaking 2004 reinvention of the ’70s Hokey space odyssey, Battlestar Galactica. Uncovering the premises of a post-9/11 television landscape, it turned a niche sci-fi story into mainstream television. “Whether you like sci-fi or not, you’ve found yourself binging all these seasons,” says Ben Nedivi, one of Moore’s co-creators on For All Mankind.

While Star Trek, Also, thriving in today’s sci-fi landscape, with no less than five series currently in production, it seems unlikely to cross the final frontier into the halls of prestige sci-fi. For Nunn, it comes down to one thing: aliens. While the Golden Age shows of the ’90s relied heavily on prosthetics – and, in the case of Farscape, puppets – to feature characters from other worlds, today’s dark offerings only focus on human issues. “With Battlestar Galactica, you have robots, but you don’t have aliens,” Nunn points out. “And The Expanse is similar. We can therefore read them as science fiction but also dystopias, while Star Trek and Babylon 5 and Farscape, same Stargate, all had extraterrestrial life forms within them.

The foundation may include the strange alien being as a skin – majestic sea monsters float beneath the waves of one planet, while vicious wolf-lizard creatures stalk the deserts of another – but only humans have an impact on it. the story. And while much of the action in The Expanse is about a semi-sensitive “protomolecule” with the ability to reconfigure matter, the ancient civilization that created it is long gone.

'Innovative' ... Battlestar Galactica.
‘Innovative’ … Battlestar Galactica.
Photograph: Syfy / NBCUniversal / Getty Images

For Shankar, a great strength of The Expanse is that it uses space as more than just a backdrop. “It’s a show that turns space into character,” he says. Holder of a doctorate in applied physics, he was the official scientific advisor of Next Generation. “On Star Trek it was really about keeping the continuity with bogus science, making sure you were using phasers when you were supposed to, and not photon torpedoes, ”he says. “The technical manual [for the Enterprise] was pretty detailed, but it wasn’t real. In The Expanse, we use real physics to create drama. There is a sequence in the first season where ships turn their engines on and off so you go from weight to weightless. Two characters suddenly lose gravity and can’t get back to where they belong, and the solution is to retain momentum.

This absolute commitment to precision is shared by the team behind For All Mankind. “We have an astronaut reading our scripts,” says co-creator Matt Wolpert. “He’ll tell us when we come up with ideas that go against the laws of physics.” The series is so deeply rooted in science that Wolpert and his writing partner, Nedivi – whose previous work includes Fargo and American Crime Story – admit that sci-fi elements have crept in on them. “We never saw it as a science fiction show,” says Nedivi, “but the more it separates from our history, the more it becomes one.” The final moments of season two, which take place in 1995, show American boots on Mars. Nedivi laughs, “Matt and I are constantly looking at each other and we’re like, ‘How did this become a sci-fi show?’ “

As for Foundation, time will tell if it can capture the spirit of the times like the GoT did 10 years ago. He certainly has the ambition. If the first season goes well with the public, Goyer has planned seven more. “It’s definitely a big swing,” he admits. But if he succeeds, the sky is the limit.

Foundation is available from Friday on Apple TV +

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