The Fall and Rebirth of Syfy

In All, Television by David

Science fiction television has been on rather shaky footing since the ending of stalwarts like Lost and Fringe. There are a number of reasons for this. Too many networks simply tried to copy Lost (hello FlashForward and The Event) or The X-Files (Fringe itself was one of the few successes, and eventually Fox just brought Mulder and Scully back themselves). Plus, fantasy and horror are more in vogue, with shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead ruling the airwaves. But one often overlooked aspect to the dearth of sci-fi on TV is that the channel that should be pushing the genre forward, Syfy (yes, the name still looks silly) has been largely MIA since the end of Battlestar Galactica in 2009 (and arguably before that, considering Battlestar‘s decline towards the end). Over the past year and half, however, that all looks to be changing, as Syfy has been slowly rebuilding themselves as a network for quality science fiction. After allowing Stargate Universe to be canceled without much of a fight in 2011 (yeah, I know the ratings were shit and it was expensive, but I am still bitter), it seemed like Syfy had given up on sci-fi shows. But this new renaissance is an impressive act of self-restoration–one which can only be fully appreciated by looking at the channel’s long, uneven history that led to this point.

Pre-Battlestar Galactica (1992-2003)

Seriously, though, this was pretty good.

Seriously, though, this was pretty good.

While it would be a stretch to say that nothing on Syfy before Battlestar Galactica really mattered, it wouldn’t be by that much. Before Battlestar, Syfy was basically a place for syndication, and other than Farscape (which was a solid show), the network’s original programming came from it picking up shows that were canceled by other networks, including Stargate SG-1, Sliders, Andromeda, and even Mystery Science Theater 3000. At the time still under its original name, the Sci-Fi Channel was trying to find a direction. That direction turned out to be…

Battlestar Galactica Era (2003-2009)

Sigh, it is baffling at times how one show could be both beloved and reviled at the same time.

Sigh. It is baffling how one show could be both beloved and reviled at the same time.

Having built up a decent base of shows rescued from other networks, the still-named Sci-Fi Channel was ready to make a change. Part of this was the network embracing the idea of mini-series. Battlestar Galactica was one such series, and it did so well that they brought it back as a full show. Battlestar was a bold program that showed the powerful ways in which science fiction could be used to spotlight controversial ideas and themes while also offering a commentary on current events. It was the kind of show that made this channel more creatively successful than its corporate parent, NBC (which had begun the descent that plagued the network through the later part of the 2000s).

Emboldened by Battlestar‘s success, the Sci-Fi Channel began taking more risks. They imported shows like the reboot of British classic Doctor Who, created shows like The Dresden Files, continued making high concept mini-series like the Wizard of Oz-inspired Tin Man, and broadened to incorporate more comedic science fiction shows like Eureka. Not all of these were huge successes (or in the case of Dresden, a success at all), and none of them ended up receiving the kind of critical plaudits BSG did. But these shows did mark a time when the Sci-Fi Channel was relevant and taking risks to create a rather balanced programming platform.

In a way, the shifting critical reaction to BSG showed the seeds of the network’s coming decline. A well-produced, issue-conscious drama, Battlestar was a big part of television’s First Golden Age, bringing the lessons of prestigious shows like The West Wing into the realm of science fiction. But as TV moved on to its Second Golden Age, BSG got left behind–rather than adapting to new paradigms, the show became increasingly problematic and critically divisive right through its ending in 2009. Shows like BSG that swing big can also miss big, and during this same period (presumably at parent network NBC’s command), Sci-Fi began introducing broader and less ambitious programming. As the network’s flagship drama came to a close, reality TV, wrestling, and the high floor/ low-ceiling comedies began to replace the risk taking science fiction that defined this era of the Sci-Fi Channel.

Post-Battlestar Galactica (2009-2013)

Ahh, what could have been...

Ahh, what could have been…

As BSG came to an end, the network changed its name to Syfy and sought to rebrand itself. The problem was, the network didn’t exactly know what it wanted that new brand to be, and as a result this period was a real mess. Despite what it said, Syfy just didn’t know how to move on from Battlestar. They tried to squeeze out whatever last piece of magic was left in the franchise with Caprica, but there simply wasn’t any left, and the prequel show ended up as one of the network’s biggest misfires.

More importantly, the Caprica failure showed that, whatever its name, the network didn’t know how to explore this type of science fiction without BSG as a guide. The lone exception in this era was Stargate Universe, which, while finally being the gritty version the Stargate franchise had desperately needed, was also basically everyone involved trying to squeeze the last bit of magic out of that franchise (the answer turned out to be slightly more than nothing, but not by much). Meanwhile, Syfy seemed to be under the mistaken impression that it should basically be a nerdier version of fellow NBC owned cable network USA–which has gone through its own series of transformations over the years, but which at the time was embracing a series of breezy, summer-y buddy shows–and that made it hard for Syfy to stand out in a crowded cable environment.

Once again there was solid work during this time, including Warehouse 13, Alphas, Haven, and to some extent Sanctuary, but none of it seem to really fit together. Syfy increased focus on a wide variety of reality television that never seemed to work (other than Face Off and I guess Ghost Hunters), and the network doubled down on its relationship with the WWE, even though it was a poor fit with everything else (albeit a decently rated poor fit). Overall, this time just felt like the network really didn’t know what the hell it was doing. The bright spot here was Syfy taking advantage of the fact that in Canada, sci-fi shows were still quite popular; imports like Lost Girl and Continuum began to pull the network away from being “USA for nerds” and toward:

Experimentation Period (2013-2015)

We just weren't ready for this yet. Also maybe the show could have been a little less boring.

We just weren’t ready for this yet. Also, maybe the show could have been a little less boring.

This period was marked by Syfy slowly becoming willing to take real risks again, as it sought to find a way to make its programming work in a coherent fashion. One such risk was Defiance, a kind of post-apocalyptic Western-with-aliens which saw Syfy attempt to make a television show that ran along (and sometimes even crossed over with) an MMO video game of the same name. An ambitious idea that never quite worked as a show or a game, Defiance still represented the kind of large scale commitment Syfy seemed to have been avoiding ever since the failure of Caprica. This period also pretty much justified the entire existence of the Roger Corman-esque Saturday night made-for-TV movies Syfy had been doing for years when they created Sharknado, which exploded on social media and has since spawned several amusingly-named sequels. Meanwhile, Syfy kept taking swings with more ambitious shows like Helix (proudly advertised as the new show by Ron Moore, executive producer of BSG) and Dominion (loosely based on the angel-filled action movie Legion). Both moved Syfy closer to its goal, but ultimately weren’t good enough on their own to avoid cancellation. Ironically, the show that has had the most staying power from this time looks to be Z Nation, which figured out a way to make zombies interesting again. The important thing is that Syfy was trying again.

The Rebirth (2015-Present)

Or have we not gone far enough?

Or have we not gone far enough?

This has all led to the present era of Syfy, a true renaissance still in progress. In its successful bid for rebirth, Syfy basically cleaned out its programming and started over after ending most of its long running shows in 2014, and then finished the job in 2015, when it allowed WWE to move Smackdown over to sister network USA (where the show always should have been). This clean slate gave Syfy the chance to build its new brand from scratch. Sure, there were still reality TV holdovers (there may or may not be life after death, but the immortal Ghost Hunters will never find out), plus a pipeline of Candian TV shows that have proven to be either boon (Wynonna Earp, Dark Matter, and Killjoys) or bust (Olympus), all which have provided a safety net; but none of these (other than maybe Face Off) are foundational parts of the network going forward, but instead supplemental pieces that fill in gaps in the programming. Instead, the network  has built its new momentum around three exciting new shows, all adaptations of existing works: 12 Monkeys, The Expanse, and The Magicians.

  • 12 Monkeys: Of all the shows that have succeed over the past couple of years, few were as unexpected as this one. At first it looked to be an ill-conceived cash grab based on a 20-year-old movie that is divisive at best. Questions of how the hell this story could work as a television show were rampant, and overall the project seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. Except then it turned out, as it sometimes does, that the show is actually good. Syfy’s adaptation retooled the movie’s fatalism for TV without completely discarding it, and the show went on to relish how crazy it could really get within its outlandish, stylized premise. Most surprisingly, the show manages to keep things emotionally grounded. I’ll admit, I was one of the people who didn’t realize how good this show was until after its first season, but this moment was the real start of Syfy’s recommitment to quality original programming. This show has a strong voice, and by extension, helped Syfy find its own again.
  • The Expanse: If 12 Monkeys is a low round prospect that blossomed into a star, The Expanse is a blue chipper that seems to be living up to its promise. Based on a beloved book series by James A. Corey, this show has had huge buzz ever since it was picked up, and dubbed a potential Game of Thrones in space (which is a super unfair comparison, but an obvious marketing strategy). That is a lot for a show to live up to, but so far The Expanse has succeeded in handling the hype. In bringing it to the screen, the network finally found a hard sci-fi successor to Battlestar. It remains to be seen how far this show can take Syfy, but this could be the prestige show they’ve been looking for. It could be the show that does for Syfy what Game of Thrones is doing for fantasy; at worst, it sets up the network to create that show in the near future. After a very good first season, this could break out in a big way in season two. The Expanse still has a long way to go, but right now, the sky is the limit.
  • The Magicians: This is a tricky one. Like The Expanse, this show is based on a beloved book series (by Lev Grossman). Despite not really being a Syfy show, the source material could have taken the network to new heights–imagine a fantasy Mad Men aimed at 18-35s. Instead, the direction of the series has been a bit broader in tone, which has led to mixed success. On the one hand, this show has definitely managed to justify its existence, at times exploring Grossman’s novels with humor and heart; but on the other hand, the creators seem uncertain whether to stick strictly to the series or commit to finding their own direction. Unlike 12 Monkeys and The Expanse, the show has struggled to find its own voice, or even the right marketing (no matter how many times Syfy promos tried to press the whole “magic is a drug” thing, the show never seemed to want to go with that as hard as the promos insisted). The big thing The Magicians represents is simply that Syfy is fucking going for it. This is a risky and expensive project that no one else was going to make (it had already been passed on by other networks multiple times), but Syfy was willing to do it anyhow. From a creative perspective, The Magicians has struggled to live up to the massive expectations set by fans of the books, but it’s done quite well so far ratings-wise thanks a strong concept and a fun (if messy) execution. But what makes it so important is that it tells everyone that whatever Syfy makes next, it’s going to swing big.

None of this means that Syfy is perfect now. After a string of successes adapting prior works, Hunters was a pretty big miss, but at least it was an ambitious miss dealing with terrorism in a sci-fi context. It remains to be seen if the new Van Helsing can overcome its initial middling reviews, or if Incorporated can be as good as its pedigree suggests, but both look to be attempts by the network to target specific niche audiences, which is exactly what a network like Syfy needs to be doing. Meanwhile, the network appears to retain its desire to combine storytelling across multiple platforms. Defiance was an idea before its time, and we may yet have a couple of years before something like Halcyon, the network’s attempt to try its hand at VR storytelling, to really work. But Syfy’s willingness to make the gamble, along with its three flagship programs and other interesting, ambitious upcoming shows, suggest that Syfy’s renaissance is in full swing.

While it remains to be seen whether Syfy will continue its long-time commitment to trying to make quality mini-series like Childhood’s End or Ascension, in general the Syfy channel has finally found its way again, and in doing so showed a perfect blueprint for what a cable network needs to be doing in the current television landscape. As we move closer and closer to the day when channels can be bought individually and not just in packages (which is is admittedly still a ways away for most consumers, but at the same time closer than one might think), networks have to be ready to have unique content that will encourage viewers to pony up for specific access to their channel. This also requires networks to be selective about what they greenlight, because while it is true that in the current television landscape, the key is to find an under-represented demographic and appeal to it as much as possible, there is a limit to how many shows you can actually make at once time (unless you are rolling in money, like Netflix and Amazon). Syfy learned this lesson well, and that is why it wiped almost all of its scripted programming slates clean to start anew in 2015. Now the network is creating programming that it feels like only it could create, and that unique voice is going to allow it to continue to justify its existence for years to come. Over the years, Syfy has been a template for both how to and how not to build a programming slate. But now that TV audiences seem once again ready to give science fiction a shot, Syfy has positioned itself right where should be: leading the charge. I appreciate what Syfy has accomplished in rebuilding a languishing brand, and I hope that other networks follow a similar path toward identity and relevance.