Friday, August 28, 2020

Streaming Towards the New Frontier: Sci-Fi on Streaming Serivces


    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. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

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Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Killer Shrews

This 1959 B-movie is one of the earliest cinematic examples of what may be dubbed "eco-sci-fi."  The subgenre can be tentatively defined as a story that posits an apocalyptic perspective based on earth-centered biological and environmental dangers independent of alien invasion or influence or nuclear radiation.  In this case, a Scandinavian biologist has acquired a remote island where he and his associates conduct experiments on high-metabolism shrews with a view to altering humans and other species to avoid starvation on an over-populated Earth.  The group includes the leader's saftig daughter, as well as a nerdy fellow zoologist, a Hispanic servant, and an ill-intentioned overseer played by Ken Curtis, the future Festus Haggins of Gunsmoke's later years.  They are visited by a supply boat skipper (James Best, eventually to play Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane of The Dukes of Hazzard) and his African-American crewman, Griswald.  Unfortunately, instead of shrinking humans to lessen their environmental impact, miscalculations have caused the ravenous shrew population to develop into giants possessing a poison even more lethal than the original, tiny beasts.

It makes for an amusing 69 minutes of viewing for many reasons.  First, the predictability of a plot that borrows unabashedly from better films: tropical isolated from the various Isle of Dr. Moreau versions and claustrophobia reinforced by a convenient hurricane as in Key Largo.  The black man, the Latino and the nerd all die first, in that order.  The alcohol-slurping scientists are remarkably unterrified by the obvious failure of their research and its effect on the hired help.  The nerd actually expires while typing out the effects of his own poisoning after being grazed by a passing shrew.  Curtis provides just enough naturalistic relief as Jerry Farrell, the nervous, unreliable, scheming, and pusillanimous messy character.  

The most hilarious elements are definitely supplied by the "shrews" themselves.  These monsters are obviously a pack of German Shepherds enhanced with clumps of extra hair.  Their fangs are so loose that they always seem on the verge of falling out.  One can only imagine how much of the attack footage wound up on the cutting room floor.  They are never filmed in the act of actually devouring -- or even biting -- a victim.  When the humans are mobbed by the creatures, cameras cut away before the crucial moment.

One of the odder features of Killer Shrews is that this biological apocalypse has a built-in sunset clause.  The shrews are permanently confined to their island because they cannot swim.  Moreover, they are on the edge of eating themselves out of house and home, since they have already consumed all animal life on the island apart from the science group.  Even if they can manage to consume these few humans, they will quickly run out of food and resort to cannibalism, resulting in extinction.  They are the victims of the same biochemistry that has produced their gigantism.   Thus, their threat to the human race never really materializes.  This is not quite Monster a Go -Go's anticlimactic ending of "There was no monster," but it's certainly in the same league.  

Other examples of B-movie eco-sci-fi gigantism are generally due to atomic radiation.  One can mention Them, The Attack of the Giant Leeches, even Shrews' double-feature partner, The Giant Gila Monster.  Spectators would have to wait for 1972's Night of the Lepus or 1976's H. G. Wells-inspired Food of the Gods to find a parallel in terms of population, consumption and biochemistry.
In such other early giant animal films as Tarantula and Beginning of the End, biochemistry is altered for the sake of research, but radiation is used in the  experiments.  The atomic threat quickly displaces problems of population and nutrition as the central focus.  Another film with a near-ecological theme, Wasp Woman, never really engages the dangers of population because the experiments in question  involve mainly the rejuvenation of feminine beauty.  

One almost has to venture into the realms of outer space to find a movie comparable to The Killer ShrewsSoylent Green, based on the wonderful Harry Harrison novel Move Over! Move Over!, projects human overpopulation to the point where people, rather than shrews, begin to practice cannibalism as a last survival strategy.  The cult classic Silent Running eventually will show earth outsourcing its ecological treasures onto floating spatial domes.  Humans have taken up so much space that the national parks circle in lonely orbits, tended by Bruce Dern and his companion robots, until stingy Earthlings decide to pull the plugs from these last, expensive bits of natural flora.

Perhaps 1959 was simply a time when threats to the ecology had not yet formulated sufficiently in the popular imagination.  Although the movie dimly envisions a world of ever-tightening biological alternatives, it too easily transforms itself into a more traditional man-versus-nature tale.  Homo faber falls back on ingenuity and technology to impose himself, jerry-rigging a kind of shrew-proof armored vehicle by welding discarded metal drums together and conquering the threat of savagery.  James Best sums up the displacement of ecology pretty well in the film's final words, as he embraces the shapely Swede he has rescued and plans to marry: "I'm not going to worry about overpopulation just yet."

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Did "We" Go to the Moon?

Despite massive international proof, many Americans are still tempted by the conspiracy theory, notably represented by the 1977 film Capricorn One, that manned space missions were staged simulacra rather than real events.  How, scientifically-oriented people ask, can such attitudes persist and grow?  There are several reasons for this that are worth noting, mostly having to do with a sense that many Americans did not have much skin in the game.

1) "We" did not go to the moon.  The humans who did were an exclusive group of white, male, military, "well-rooted" Americans.  The "right stuff" was too restricted.   Although NASA has made considerable efforts to represent a wider population base since the moon landings, female, non-white, and foreign-associated Americans remain a minority that cash-strapped NASA has done little to publicize, as Hollywood movies have recently stepped up to emphasize the ground-based contributions of minority women in the space race.  This exclusivity promises to become more exaggerated again as NASA is replaced by the military Space Corps that has just been founded.  Meanwhile women, African-Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and others have grounds to feel "left behind" in the race to the stars.

2) The devaluation of corporate-controlled American mass media has caused an erosion of confidence in traditional sources of public information.  It's no secret that the owners of TV and newspapers -- an increasingly restricted group -- exercise censorship of all kinds over daily events, while flooding the airwaves and print pages with Happy Talk delivered by smiling faces and would-be pundits who often have little idea what they are talking about, or else too much prejudice from a set of political and financial agendas.  This bombardment of mush saps the public trust in a system funneled mainly through the AP wire service and forces citizens to open up to a wider range of true or false information spread on the Internet.

3) The secretiveness of our space program encourages doubt and disbelief.  The fact that our govenment maintains unapproachable bases, unadmitted types of aircraft, black ops missions in space, dubious financial transparency, and so many other veils to truth makes many in the public wary of accepting even those bits of information that are factually supported.  Of course, some secrecy within the heart of the military will always be present.  However, the sheer volume of undercover activity and the flimsiness of the cover stories, going all the way back to Roswell, makes it difficult for the public to fix the boundaries of what is real, plausible, or possible.  Obfuscation of programs like the X-37B can only add to simultaneous skepticism and gullibility to unlikely fantasies.

There may be additional factors, but we feel these are among the most prominent.  In short, it lies within the government's range of options to address this area or to provide even cloudier information in the realm of space.  If it chooses the latter, it is inevitable that the American public will become more dis-invested in space programs and less willing to give them wide support.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Free Audio Access Codes

We have some free audio access codes to the Audible edition of Life Sentence read by the Hollywood actor Andrew Thacher.  All we ask is that you give us an Audible review when you've heard it.  If you want one, you have to COMMENT on this post, indicating whether you want a US or UK code and I will send you one on Facebook Messenger.

Saturday, April 18, 2020


Hey, sci fi fans!  Our latest short story has been published in the journal El Portal.  It involves a first contact a bit unlike most you've seen and read about.  Check it out beginning on page 63 at this link:

Thursday, February 27, 2020

We're on our way to Mysticon 2020!

This is one of our favorite annual events, held for 3 days in February each year in Roanoke, Virginia.  This will be our fifth year in attendance and we look forward to a great time with the panels and the featured guest, Larry Niven.  Mysticon also features lots of gaming and cosplay and fun in general.  Stay tuned for big promotional savings on our novels after we return.