I have a hard time recommending science fiction TV shows to anyone. Not because I don’t watch and enjoy an inordinate amount of sci-fi (I do), but because when it comes to television, I’m John Wick levels of cursed. Everything I love—the stuff that’s weird and complicated and doesn’t just export Earth’s injustices into space—is doomed.
Today, though? Today is a bright spot for the fans still wallpapering the internet with GIFs of Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and all other genre shows cancelled but not forgotten. The Wachowski siblings' Sense8, a sci-fi drama that Netflix canceled last summer after two seasons, is returning today with a two-hour finale.
For fans of Sense8—which, with trans women at the helm, a diverse cast, and relatively nuanced treatment of topics banned from many a dinner table, is the most progressive genre show in recent memory—this is an enormous victory. It wasn’t an effortless one, though. Like Firefly before it, Sense8’s resurrection came only after cast members and thousands and thousands of fans begged the studio not to leave the story brutally unfinished.
Still—again, like Firefly—Sense8 is the exception that proves the rule. Fans of gone-too-soon shows never get their feature-length consolation prize, and it's not because they don’t want one. So if these shows are so deeply loved that the hurt of their cancellation lingers for years and even decades, why are people canceling them in the first place? The easiest answer is always the same: Not enough people were watching. Which can feel so discouraging, so insurmountable because it makes you feel like a lonely powerless weirdo.
But beneath that corporate blanket statement lurks a handful of factors responsible for nearly all these untimely deaths. Some of them are inherent to high-concept science fiction as it's being made now, but some of them, as Sense8 proves, can be slain by the power of the internet.
It's Business Time
First, the straightforward stuff: marketing. Original science fiction tv shows have historically been hard to sell because they're hard to sum up in a logline—or even explain at length. Before Star Trek: The Original Series premiered in 1966, CBS circulated a promotional pamphlet to get critics and advertisers excited. This is how it opened:
According to recent scientific estimates, the number of stars in the universe is so numerous that if only one in a billion of these stars is a 'Sun' with planets and only one in a billion of all these planets is of Earth's size and composition, the Universe would still contain something like three million worlds capable of supporting intelligent life similar to our own.
Set phasers to snooze, right? But when you're building an all-new, precedent-smashing world, everyone assumed you had to start achingly simple before you layered on complexity. As it was, the show didn't really find its audience until after it had basically driven Desilu to bankrupty.
Or you can try what Fox did to Firefly: wildly mischaracterize it in order to Trojan-horse it into people's homes. The network promoted the space western as a wacky comedy, calling it "the most twisted show on television." It gets worse, Browncoats; Fox jokingly refered to escort Inara Serra as "a cosmic hooker" and super-genius River as "a girl in a box," alienating many of those who would end up being fans.
What happened to Sense8 was a distinctly more 2010s variety of marketing mess: Throw everything at the wall and hope watchers will hop aboard the nonsense. For a slippery show like Sense8, that's tantamount to death. Describing the show efficiently—say, "a group of eight people from around the world suddenly find themselves psychically linked and pursued by the agents of a shadowy corporation bent on destroying them"—captures only what makes the show flashy, and none of what makes it lovable. It’s really a show about the power of radical empathy, but the impossibility of conveying that in less than 90 seconds meant that Sense8’s trailer made it seem like a confusing action show with good-looking characters and nice sets.
Due in part to the lack of widespread public interest, the show got few reviews, with most offering wan praise at best. (Even with a huge banner ad auto-playing it at the top of my Netflix queue, I took a long time to finally click in and take a chance on it.) So despite the Wachowskis' high profile—which is likely the reason the show was greenlit in the first place—the show stayed completely under most people’s radar.
Yet, of all the struggles that weird sci-fi shows can have, this is the easiest to fix. Before the rise of streaming services, speculatis unconventionalis was almost always relegated to some little-watched "death slot," where there were no expectations of selling ads like a four-quadrant hit. (Firefly not only aired on Friday nights, it aired out of order.) But the internet has no death slots, and it makes them irrelevant. Being on YouTube is as good (if not better) than prime-time TV.
Unshackling scripted shows from the tyranny of linear programming has also given fans more power than network marketers who don't speak the language. Your friends' hashtag campaigns and GIF obsessions—and fan trailers—are more likely to end up touching your life anyway. That's how viewers rescued Sense8 in the first place. "It's easy to believe that when … a government or an institution or a corporation makes a decision, there is something irrevocable about that decision; that love is always less important than the bottom line," Lana Wachowski wrote on Facebook. "Improbably, unforeseeably your love has brought Sense8 back to life."
My inner optimist thinks that this wasn't unforeseeable, that it was the culmination of a generation of fans who had fought for shows and who had learned to use the internet the way one of your sensates uses their connections to their cluster, to act collectively and to be stronger for it. But my inner realist isn't so hopeful. Sense8 hasn't been fully revived, and a story that probably would have taken seasons to unfold now has to be crammed into two hours. (Which is why Lana Wachowski was so resistant to that fix in the first place.)
What's more, the love of fans—a pretty significant chunk of Netflix's bottom line—still wasn't enough. Because weird, high-concept science fiction TV has certain problems. And those problems need to be addressed.
Sci-Fi's Many Albatrosses
Problem one: mumbo-jumbo syndrome. Worldbuilding is hard; unique worldbuilding is even harder. That's why so many sci-fi shows, including Sense8, improve over their run. (It's also why sequels and remakes, are so prevalent in genre TV shows and movies. They’re easier, more profitable, and don't need as much hamfisted exposition.)
But mumbo-jumbo doesn't just disappear once you've established a world. Some of it is persistent and grating—like the Star Wars prequel’s midichlorian obsession, or the fact that Sense8 has sixty million plots and its explanation for how the sensates communicate relies on a scientific understanding of fungus. (Mycelial networks are a weird trend in modern sci-fi. Star Trek: Discovery, another decent, likely doomed show, also has space mushroom-driven plot.)
It’s not that things should be dumbed down. But you’ve got to see the pattern here: If it’s too weird, too complicated, or is all information and no emotional payoff, a show gets canceled. To appeal to a wider audience and be something other than a pew!-pew! space action show, you have to be judicious about where you demand your audience’s mental energy. The people want good versus evil, love versus intolerance. They’re getting it, but also … fungus.
Which both leads to and is the product of problem two: bananas-ass budgets. Sci-fi is expensive from jump; you’ve got to create something totally alien that's also real enough for your viewers to suspend their disbelief, and costs money. (See: Star Trek, and more recently, The Expanse.) But it’s also easy for it to get out of hand. Sure, you can get away with more boring exposition if it looks incredible—but if you blow your budget decimating buildings or giant CGI tentacle-faced aliens, you have less time and space and writing budget to tell your story properly.
Sense8 was so amazing in part because of a budget (allegedly, $9 million per episode) that allowed it to shoot on location in over a dozen countries and have special effects good enough for the sensate’s body switching and mindmelding shenanigans to be believable. But it’s also dead because its audience couldn’t outweigh that production cost.
But the most important problem isn’t so much sci-fi’s as society’s. Visions of the future and alternate universes are inherently political, because change is political. So often, it can feel like sci-fi fans fall into two camps: People who want to imagine a future in which we've solved intractable institutional problems, and people who want to watch alpha bros going Rambo with an Orion slave girl on each arm.
Ultimately, that dichotomy isn't real; just as with everything else, it’s the people at each pole who are noisiest. (The truly negative reviews of Sense8, for example, either call it social justice warrior nonsense or neocolonialist.) But for these shows, those polarized voices can tip the balance. Weird, risky, or less marketable shows are especially susceptible to political backlash because, for all the reasons above, they're not doing much for anybody's bottom line. That could be why inclusive shows like Sense8, The Get Down, Underground, Everything Sucks, and others have all recently been axed while other, worse shows linger on—and if not, it's certainly how it can look.
To look through the history of these weird and wonderful canceled shows is to see studios trying to nudge (or shove) the creators back towards the safe and profitable political center. Star Trek had to ditch its female first officer in order to air; William Shatner had to sabotage his shots to make sure the first on-screen interracial kiss didn't meet the same fate. Fox threatened not to pick up Firefly not because of that regrettable "cosmic hooker" stuff, but because its female first officer wasn't in love with the captain.
Ultimately, these shows are doomed because their lives mirror the lives of their characters. They're spunky, flawed rebels at the mercy of giant, profit-motivated conglomerates. These shows are objectively weird, sure, but they're also seen that way because they're ahead of their time. Or more often, moving at the speed of culture while the corporations that control them lag behind.
But the beautiful part—and this is what today is really about—is that they were made at all. That fans stuck with them and invested in them so heavily, and will continue to do so until networks and services someday realize they were wrong the whole time: those weird, expensive shows aren't about risk at all. They're about reward.
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