In 2011, Netflix ordered what would become its first original series, House of Cards. Based on a BBC miniseries, House of Cards was a political drama about Frank Underwood, an underhanded man who would stop at nothing to seize more power in Washington. House of Cards would serve as a design template for Netflix’s live action series for years, encouraging Netflix to value series that had short seasons, a high degree of serialization, acclaimed actors, and explicit content similar to HBO originals. Later Netflix originals would follow the similar formula of “prestige drama” themes and tight serialization, making Netflix dramas true competitors to the HBO slate. It would take until 2016 for Netflix to develop its own unique style of a drama series, and for a Netflix original to become a true pop culture phenom.
In 2016, Netflix premiered Stranger Things, a scifi/drama series from the young creative team known as the Duffer Brothers. Stranger Things was quite different from the earlier originals created in the “Netflix template”. Its creators and cast were not yet household names, it was strongly oriented towards pulpy horror and science fiction rather than “serious drama”, and it straddled the line between nostalgia for older audiences and a YA-oriented narrative about friendship among a group of kids. And yet, Stranger Things became a massive success because it was so different from the preconceived idea of what a “prestige drama” should be. Its twisty mysteries of Demogorgons and Eleven’s psychic powers were very compelling in its heavily serialized seasons, and its storylines where kids and adults alike were confronted by eldritch powers were like nothing else on television. Stranger Things became the first iconic Netflix original, and proved that Neflix’s “binge model” could generate unique and exciting content.
Stranger Things was not just a massive boost to Netflix, but to the dream of sci-fi programming making it big on streaming services. Suddenly, everyone trying to get into the streaming game had to have a new, popular speculative fiction series to make a name for themselves. There was Westworld (HBO), The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu), Altered Carbon (Netflix) and The Mandalorian (Disney). Although many sci-fi series have been greenlit, it's a valid question as to how many will have true longevity and be given a chance to stick in the collective memory of the audience.
The immediate success stories of sci-fi streaming series are readily apparent. Threee seasons of Stranger Things have been produced so far, with a renewal for a fourth, and the series has been nominated for and won numerous awards. The Mandalorian has been renewed for another season, and has become one of the few Star Wars related works other than the original film to be nominated for many awards. The Handmaid's Tale has also ran three seasons and been renewed for a fourth, and received two Golden Globes over the course of its run. Beyond these acclaimed success stories, the record is much more uncertain.
Streaming series can potentially have a very short life expectancy. On Netflix alone, Altered Carbon and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot were cancelled after two seasons, Amazon cancelled The Tick after two seasons as well, and Hulu cancelled Runaways at three seasons. Many of these cancellation announcements were so quiet that you had to read entertainment industry websites to find out; the cancellations were rarely announced on the sites, and the final seasons were almost never promoted as such. While a series like Stranger Things could easily get a promoted final season, most sci-fi streamers will end their runs little noticed and pass into obscurity without the benefits of network syndication or reruns.
While streaming has granted many sci-fi series with interesting concepts a chance at success, and new series continue to be greenlit at a rapid rate, it is not without its flaws as a strategy. New series have numerous competitors for attention and have to draw and audience rapidly and maintain a fanbase between long season breaks. This will result in more than a few series going the Altered Carbon route--or simply getting dropped while in development, the sad fate of Amazon's series based on Iain Banks' Culture books. Our best hope is that series like Stranger Things and The Mandalorian will have long, stable runs, allowing streamers to generate a loyal audience of sci-fi fans and a catalogue of back content. In the best case scenario, streaming will be a place where sci-fi can regularly gain acclaim, mass audiences, and award nominations, making the world a better place for sci-fi fans, authors, and showrunners alike.