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Space Opera, Please Come Back

The announcement of new Star Wars movies the other week filled me with a bit of trepidation, but mostly a lot of childlike excitement. I’m not merely excited for the prospect of three new, hopefully really good, Star Wars films, but for the idea that maybe this will bring a resurgence of one of my favorite subsets of science fiction: Space Opera. Space Operas are characterized by being, essentially, romantic adventure melodramas set in space or on another planet. They’re kind of just Westerns, samurai, or seafaring adventure stories set in outer space. There’s very little “science” behind this breed of science fiction, but what it does have is wide expanses, huge vistas, heroes, villains, big emotions, action, and, my favorite bit, shots of spaceships flying.

There was Space Opera dating all the way back to the mid-1800s, but in film and TV, we can see the beginnings in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, though that’s usually classified under the term “Planetary Romance,” and the TV shows Star Trek and Lost in Space. The original series of Star Trek in the mid-’60s was not nearly as steeped in scientific reality (or fictional reality) as it became with The Next Generation and beyond. It was really more about exploration and drama. Lost in Space had elements of Space Opera, but it was certainly more about being on a planet than it was being, actually, lost in space.

Then came Star Wars in 1977, when George Lucas ushered in a huge demand for classic adventure stories told in a fantastical future-past, turning his love of classic sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers into a big screen world where the hows and whys are wholly unimportant. We don’t need to know how the mechanical things work; we just need to know that they work. The special effects were groundbreaking and the score became arguably the most iconic in film history. Every little bit of Star Wars achieves the goal of telling a simple story in an unknown but relatable setting. Mining Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for story inspiration, the film introduced indelible images and characters which, like it or not, are still relevant today.

Immediately following the unprecedented success of Star Wars, Space Opera had its day in the binary suns. The amount of space-based science fiction that was released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was truly staggering. If it had a spaceship, a young person becoming a hero, and a bad guy with minions, it made it to the screen. Some were better than others, but the sheer volume of them proved that people were willing to see them. Whether they were particularly successful as films is up for debate. Some of my personal favorites from this period of time are not considered particularly good, including The Black Hole and Battle Beyond the Stars. One real problem is that many seemed unable to strike the proper tone, all too often making the melodrama incredibly over-the-top and, whether the special effects were good or not, if the stories were silly, people didn’t really like them. (I’m looking at you, Starcrash and Flash Gordon.)

Space Opera on television has fared a lot better for a longer period of time. Immediately following Star Wars we had Battlestar Galactica, which had pretty damn near cinema-quality space effects while still being mostly mired by TV blocking and interiors. We also had Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the return of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape, Andromeda, and Firefly. Anime also had a huge number of space opera titles, which actually pre- and post-date Star Wars quite a bit, with titles like Mobile Suit Gundam, Gatchaman, and Star Blazers.

One Japanese Space Opera show I wish was available here in the United States is Star Fleet (known as X-Bomber in Japan). It has puppets, and from the looks of it, very good puppets, not unlike Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds program. Just look how cool that looks!

I think, really, what I love most about Space Opera is that it, even today, unabashedly makes me feel like a kid again. I still get such a kick out of seeing elaborate model ships flying around a studio or in front of a green screen with visual effects lasers put in later. I’m aware that any new Space Opera we get will be all CGI, but it’s really more what the effects represented. It’s about telling a compelling and exciting adventure story with good characters and relationships, but also about seeing a ship whiz by shooting lasers that went “Pew! Pew! Pew!” You don’t have to be a kid to feel like a kid and movies like Star Wars are all about feeling like a kid; like we’re small but can accomplish big things. So, yes, I’ll probably go see Episode 7 at midnight when it comes out in 2015 regardless of how it looks, but, with any luck, it’ll be a movie that makes people excited for science fiction again, like back in the ‘70s when it was just called Star Wars.

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  1. Thomas says:

    I wouldn’t really call any series of Star Trek “steeped in scientific reality”.

  2. actually, to be a bit pedantic about it, Star Wars is science FANTASY, not space opera; and shame, shame for referring to Forbidden Planet as a planetary romance and suggesting that it might be space opera – it is pure science fiction – with the science being as accurately presented as it could be for the time.

    Planetary Romance is better represented by worjs such as Burrough’s Martian or Venus tales, just about everything that appeared in the pulp mag Planet Stories, much of Leigh brackett’s pulp work, etc.

    Space Opera used to refer only to those lesser works appearing in the pulps that had little to no redeeming literary qualities and virtually no connection to science; today, space opera generally refers to the ‘new’ space opera – works written on a galactic scale, across millennia of time – Fire Upon the Deep and Gray Lensman types of works: they do mostly adhere to science and invoke no fantasy-based powers.

  3. Bill Smith says:

    I also share a love of space opera. It started with Star Trek (original) and blossomed with Star Wars and continued with Battlestar, Buck Rogers, Babylon 5 and so many others.

    Space opera is flexible enough to tell almost any kind of story and that’s what still thrills me about the genre.

  4. Andy says:

    Space opera is definitely one of my favourite genres. I also love the pulp sci-fi action adventure books like the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Kline etc, that probably inspired those movies too.

  5. Mndrew says:

    Proposed: Showtime’s response to “Game of Thrones”: “E. E. Smith’s Lensmen” the series.

  6. GuanoLad says:

    I watched Star Fleet when I was a kid, and it was quite fun, with an odd sense of humour running through it (which I guess you find in most Anime too). I also liked Gerry Anderson stuff right up to Terrahawks and the more recent Captain Scarlet.

  7. RG says:

    I love Star Wars for the same reason I loved it as a kid: cool ships, cool aliens, cool planets. It’s the worldbuilding that I love… not the acting, not the science, but a simple morality tale told in an amazing world. That’s why I’m a prequel defender. The prequels still had cool ships, cool aliens, and cool planets, and I don’t think Lucas betrayed Star Wars… TIME betrayed it. Time inflated the original trilogy’s quality to the point that no one can see its flaws, charming though they were… time made people grow up and lose interest in narrative simplicity… time made the movie business move on, and thus its audience no longer accepts scripts that aren’t trying to hit you over the head with how clever they are… time made everyone cynically pursue something that Star Wars could never really be.

    After reading Michael Arndt’s words about Star Wars, I think his take will be incredibly, incredibly promising. He analyzed the spirit of it and the flow, and what made it great on a deeper, unquantifiable level. Though his focus isn’t on the canon, hopefully later rewrites will fix that and bring the setting into line with classic Star Wars.

    @Diane: As a prequel defender, I love that that video isn’t just scathing butthurt nonsense. The only thing I disagree with is that the character development wasn’t actually that great in ANH… years of reflective projection (and the retrospect provided by Kirshner’s directing in ESB) caused us to infer a lot more about the characters than George actually gave us in the beginning… but otherwise, his plot ideas are cool.

    WAY better than those stupid Redlettermedia reviews… that guy could pick apart Citizen Kane and make people hate it.

  8. This was a really fun article. I’m looking forward to Episode 7 when a whole new generation can fall in love with the Star Wars Universe.

    If you haven’t seen this it’s worth a watch! This guy is a genius: