‘It’s Bigger on the Inside’: Blockbuster Science Fiction TV

Stacey Abbott


In their announcement about their three-month retrospective and celebration Science Fiction: Days of Fear and Wonder, the British Film Institute declared: ‘The BFI unveils a major celebration of film and television’s original blockbuster genre’ (2014). Through this statement, the BFI suggests an indelible association between the genre and the notion of a blockbuster – an association that is the subject of this issue of Deletion and one that is commonly held with regard to SF cinema. The inclusion of television within this statement however raises many interesting questions about the nature of blockbuster and its applicability to television.

The meaning of the term ‘blockbuster’ is a slippery one, even when discussed in relation to cinema, the media for which the term is most commonly accepted. Sheldon Hall looks at the blockbuster industrially, arguing that the word refers to any film that is ‘extraordinarily successful in financial terms’ and also which ‘needs to be this successful in order to have a chance of returning a profit on [its] equally extraordinary production costs’ (2002: 11). Richard Maltby equates the blockbuster with the ‘event movie, a product designed to maximise audience attendance by drawing in not only the regular 14-to-25-year-old audience, but also that section of the audience who attend the cinema two or three times a year’ (2003: 184). Julian Stringer identifies textual characteristics common among many blockbusters in the form of a film’s size, or more specifically, its perceived ‘bigness’ (Stringer: 8). Size can take the form of box-office and budget but also can be visualised in the form of excessive style, set design, and special effects. With regard to SF blockbuster cinema, this emphasis upon excess is often represented in the genre’s ‘preoccupation with science and technology’ as a means of ‘showcas[ing] new developments in cinematic special effects’. Spectacle is a significant component of the cinematic SF blockbuster (Abbott: 469).

To apply the term and these definitions to SF television raises questions. How do we position a term defined by ‘bigness’ to a media often described as the ‘small’ screen and what does the application of the term blockbuster bring to our understanding of SF TV? To begin this discussion historically, television production and broadcast was, for the longest time, perceived to be too technologically limited to be a vehicle for the spectacular display we associate with the cinematic blockbuster. These perceived limitations – low budget, limited special effects, small screen, poor resolution – have impacted on what has been deemed achievable and suitable for the ‘small’ screen. For instance, up until a few years ago, these factors lead to a common argument that the horror genre was not appropriate for television, a belief that Lorna Jowett and I have challenged elsewhere (2013). Television, however, is often viewed as an ideal place for science fiction because these technological factors have meant that TV SF is not distracted by special effects and spectacle but able to concentrate on the ideas, themes and characters that underpin the genre, leading to the prevalence of literary adaptations such as George Orwell’s 1984 (BBC 1954) or John Whyndam’s Day of the Triffids (BBC 1984). In the programme for the BFI science fiction season, the television programmer Marcus Prince acknowledges this perception that television cannot ‘compete with big budget movies’ by declaring that television ‘has been attracted to science fiction not for the spectacle or special effects it affords, but for the human interest in stories that reimagine future societies, and the moral dilemmas that new technologies might bring.’ By this argument, television is presented as an apt medium to explore science fiction while it seems to be incongruent with the blockbuster approach to the genre.

Yet there is a sustained history of SF television that has achieved blockbuster event status, in which the nature of the broadcast has served to capture large audiences for the media, particularly during moments of change and technological development. Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier ’s The Quatermass Experiment (1953) stands as one of the earliest examples of event television in the UK, after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953). While Kneale acknowledged that his alien invasion serial was hampered by limited technology and hand-made special effects, the serial is reputed to have emptied the streets, pubs, shops and businesses as people went home to watch the show (Newman and Petley: 1998; Rolinson and Cooper: 2002). While the serial is characterised by its exploration of SF themes around the perils of new technologies and the potential dangers of an unexplored galaxy, expressing cultural anxieties about a burgeoning international space industry, we cannot divorce its success from spectacle. Despite its small screen format, the climax of the serial is spectacular, involving a terrifying confrontation with the alien monster, in the form of Kneale’s handmade glove puppet, in Westminster Abbey, made televisually famous during the Coronation. The Quatermass Experiment is spectacle through special effect and also spectacle by association with another historic televisual event.

This notion of the single or serialised SF drama gaining blockbuster event status has occurred within more recent television science fiction such as Torchwood: Children of Earth (Season 3). While Torchwood (BBC 2006-11) was originally conceived as a cult adult spin- off to the more mainstream and family oriented Doctor Who, its growing audience lead to its move from the niche BBC3 to mainstream BBC1 for season three. Children of Earth’s event status was enhanced by the changes to its programming strategy, moving from a ten episode weekly series to a five episode serial, broadcast nightly between the 6 and 10 July 2009. While the reduction of episodes was a result of cuts to the show’s budget, and was perceived as a punishment by star John Barrowman, the impact of this programming strategy transformed the series into an event. It exceeded all previous viewing figures and fostered a culture in which fans stayed in each night in order to see the next instalment, while discussing the series in detail online and in person the next day. As Daniel Martin pointed out in the Guardian after the broadcast of the final episode:

But something extraordinary happened this week. These forums have been rife with reports of people who never even watched nu-Who turning out, and the casual fans there who became die hards. On Thursday night, 6.2m saw the death of Ianto Jones. For a show that started out with a not-undeserved reputation for a default setting of sexing-the-alien-to-death this is victory indeed (2009).

This was British event TV in the tradition of The Quatermass Experiment.

Of course blockbuster television is not simply defined by its ‘eventness’ but also its scale and ‘bigness’ in terms of audience, budget, special effects and production design. The mobilizing of the blockbuster potential for ‘bigness’ with respect to science fiction has played a role within the changing broadcast context of television. For instance in the American three-network era (TVI), in which ratings success were measuredly purely on the size of the audience, science-fiction has historically suffered, most famously by Star Trek: The Original Series (NBC 1966-69) as its loyal fans were not sufficient for NBC to see the benefit of keeping the show on the air (Pearson and Messenger Davies 2014).   In the mid-1980s, and the era of high-profile mini-series designed to attract large audiences, the same struggling network strategically, and successfully, banked on the science fiction blockbuster in order to rejuvenate its ratings in the form of the alien invasion mini-series V (NBC 1983) (and its follow-up series V: The Final Battle [1984]). In V, NBC brought together all of the characteristics of the blockbuster – event TV, big budget, spectacular special effects. With a budget of $13 million, the original series earned a 40% share of the ratings, with estimates that more than 65 million viewers watched part or all of the series (James 1984). The scale of this production and its three-part sequel which cost a further $14million, marked a transition from the perceived limitations of television to a medium increasingly pushing the boundaries of the ‘small screen’. This transition is embodied in serial’s signature images of giant alien space ships appearing the sky above every major city and landmark on the planet, pre-dating a similar moment in the blockbuster SF film Independence Day (Roland Emmerich 1996) by thirteen years.


Independence Day


For the sequel the special effects expert Richard Bennett, whose previous credits included Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg 1977) and Battlestar Galactica (ABC 1978-79), was brought on to build upon the visual success of the original series by embedding its drama of human survival against fascist dictatorship within a dazzling display of elaborate effects, including 300 laser shots (at $1000 each) and an additional 700 effects (James 1984). Here TV science fiction is defined by a humanist drama surrounded by near-cinematic spectacle.

While the success of V was a notable moment for SF within the network era, the return of cult TV series Star Trek to television in 1987 marked a significant transition in television broadcast from network to post-network era broadcast (TVII). Having built up a cult fan base for the original series through success in syndication and its subsequent resurrection for the cinema, the new show could not return to low-budget, comparatively small-scale production. Star Trek: The Next Generation (Paramount 1987-94) had to be blockbuster television in order to meet and/or exceed audience expectations and bring them back to the ‘small’ screen. Budgets were lavish and spectacular special effects were visibly on display while the narratives maintained the humanist SF traditions of Roddenberry’s original series and films.

Next Generation

Next Generation

 Furthermore, Paramount had decided to gamble on the market value for its product by not selling the show to one of the major networks but rather sold the series directly into syndication, opening the door to an increasing array of cable channels, focused less on size of audience and more on demographic. In this manner, The Next Generation, and the subsequent series within the ST franchise, played a pivotal role in the breakdown of the network monopoly of television production.         

Television has once again undergone another transition from the post-network era to one of digital convergence around small niche channels and multiple streaming services further splintering audiences across an exponentially increasing number of platforms (TVIII). The shift to digital broadcast has not necessarily meant the end to blockbuster television. Simon Brown makes a strong case for its prevalence in the contemporary media landscape in the form of Game of Thrones (GoT) (HBO 2011-). Not only did season five’s finale bring in an audience of 8.11 million viewers (Kissell 2015) but it remains the most downloaded series in the world and a show that conforms to the blockbuster’s size and scale in terms of audience, production cost and large ensemble cast (Brown 2015). In terms of audience, The Walking Dead (AMC 2010-) also qualifies as blockbuster television, whose own season 5 finale exceeded GoT by attracting 15.8m viewers, breaking its own series’ records and contributing to its position as the top-rated cable show for the 18-49 demographic (Kenneally 2015). Both highlight the increasingly lucrative role that genre television plays within the contemporary media landscape. The success of the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ – gaining an average audience of 10.2million viewers while setting the world record for ‘the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama…broadcast across six continents’ and screened in 1,500 cinemas — demonstrates the continued potential for blockbuster SF television (Graham 2013).

As the nature of broadcast continues to evolve, however, so does our expectation and understanding of SF television and the continued significance of the notion of the blockbuster. With the move toward more niche programming for small, cable channels and streaming services seeking to harness loyal audiences, SF television has primarily become small once again – in terms of audience figures and budget. Developments with computer generated imagery, however, have meant that sophisticated special effects are increasingly affordable and therefore accessible to niche channels such as Showcase, Space, Syfy and BBC America. As a result there has been a blossoming of exciting, challenging, dynamic, and thought provoking SF television, such as Orphan Black (Space/BBC America 2013-) and Continuum (Showcase/Syfy 2012-), aired on niche channels for small audiences. These shows effectively showcase big screen SF special effects with spectacular displays of technological wizardry while utilizing the serialized television narrative to focus on character and develop human-centred, earthbound science fiction stories.   These shows integrate CGI into their very matrixes while also inviting the audience to revel in their sophistication. We see this in the evocation of cyborg technology and the transformation of contemporary Vancouver into the dystopian future depicted in Continuum:


And in the spectacle of the CGI cloning of actress Tatiana Maslany into a growing number of sister-clones in Orphan Black as we are invited to participate in a clone dance party:


These shows may be intimate in scale and audience, in comparison to Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead and as such they may not seem to be blockbuster material. In true Tardis-fashion, however, these shows are bigger on the inside and represent the future (I hope) of blockbuster-styled SF television for a changing digital and multi-channel/multi-media future.


Bio: Stacey Abbott is a Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires (2007) and Angel: TV Milestone (2009), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013).  She is also the editor of The Cult TV Book (2010) and General Editor of the Investigating Cult TV series at I.B. Tauris.




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Graham, Daniella. 2013. “Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special is ratings triumph as The Day of the Doctor pulls in 10.6 million viewers,” Metro 24 November[online]. Available at: http://metro.co.uk/2013/11/24/doctor-who-50th-anniversary-special-is-ratings-triumph-as-the-day-of-the-doctor-pulls-in-10-6million-viewers-4199601/. [Accessed 22nd June 2015].

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Martin, Daniel. 2009. “Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day Five.” The Guardian 11 July [online]. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/tvandradioblog/2009/jul/10/torchwood-children-of-earth-day-five. [Accessed 24th June 2015].

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