Star Trek (TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT). Battlestar Galactica (original and reimagined). Andromeda. Firefly. Space 1999. Blake’s 7. Babylon 5. Stargate SG-1. If you are still reading, there is a good chance that you, like me, have wasted some time indulging in the delights of space opera. Space opera is television that classifies itself as science fiction, but which belongs to a sub-genre so popular people forget that other kinds of science fiction are shown on TV too. Space opera, as the name suggests, tends to be set in space, or at least involves characters that pop to the next star like you might pop to the newsagent’s. In space opera we see the stories of the same group of people every week. Unlike soap opera, those stories are not confined to one planet, never mind a single street. The characters may visit different planets, but there is good old oxygen to breathe on every one. Which leads to my next point. As you know already, the cliches of space opera have been around for a long time. They were established not when Gil Gerard was Buck Rogering the 25th Century, but when Buster Crabbe was Buck Rogering pre-WWII America. Being so well established, I hardly need to tell you the best known cliches. Spaceships never fly upside down. Everyone speaks English, unless they speak Klingon, and even the Klingons speak English to each other when nobody else is around. You can hear sound in space. Rugged human males are considered surprisingly sexually attractive by females from alien races. The list of cliches is long, and you know plenty of them already. But probe within the exoskeleton of sci-fi cliche, and you will find even more cliches underneath. Here are a few of my favourites.
Deep Space, Deep Underground
Think of space opera and you tend to think of… space. That much is obvious. Or is it? No space opera series can afford to set every episode in space. Sets are expensive, and once you have done a few planets that look a bit foresty, a bit deserty, or a bit like a disused factory just outside Luton, you still need a couple more episodes that get the crew out of their spaceship. Whether it is caverns or corridors, no space opera writer can resist the temptation to set a few cheap stories underground. Best of all, claustrophobic plots also mean you can do with even fewer extras than usual.
Clothes Maketh the Alien
They have great clothes in the future, made with advanced sweat retardant fabrics. The clothes are so great, nobody ever needs to change. In the future, people wear the same outfit every single day. Heck knows what they wear on laundry day. You might imagine the ones with uniforms just have lots of tunics and pants that all look the same, but the ones who dress casual have no such excuse. The only people with two outfits are Captain Kirk, who has a regulation uniform yellow sweater, and an alternate green sweater, and hot alien females, who might have three or even four sexy outfits they can change into. How typical of women to waste so much money on fashion.
Seeing Eye to Eye
Tailors must struggle to find work in the future. Not only do most people own only one outfit, but everybody has roughly the same dimensions as humans, reducing the range that haberdashers need to stock. Two arms, two legs, a head on top of a neck, a face at the front of the head – very few aliens deviate from the norm. There is an upside to that. It means the standard interiors of spaceships (ceiling height, door width) always accommodate everyone.
Shocking Interior Design
They build spaceships to last. Torpedo them, phaser them, laser them, nuke them, crash them and bash them with asteroids, and they just keep going on and on like they were built by Ariston. But gently tap on the hull, and you will instantly cause any interior glass to smash and the work consoles to blow up in the face of the person using them. For some reason, whilst the outsides of spaceships are made for war, the insides are a veritable death trap for the occupants. With viewscreens and keyboards guaranteed to electrocute the nearest crew member following the tiniest little fender-bender, they should seriously consider changing the manufacturers. Star fleets should switch suppliers, giving all their contracts to the guys who make the one device that hardly ever malfunctions, no matter how bad a beating the ship gets…
[On the bridge, the captain holds on to his seat as the ship is buffeted by enemy fire. In the background, somebody struggles with a fire extinguisher, trying to dowse the flames from a science workstation. An ensign gets to his feet after being thrown to the floor. There is a gash across his forehead. He gets back to the helm and reports on the ship’s status.]
Captain: Shield strength, ensign?
Ensign: Down to 17%, Captain. I don’t think they can withstand another attack.
Captain: What about warp power?
Ensign: Warp drives are off-line. Thrusters only.
Ensign: We’re out of torpedoes. Laser banks are down to 9%. Not enough to penetrate our enemy’s ablative armour.
Captain: And what about life support?
Ensign: Life support is on backup emergency power, sir. We’re also venting atmosphere on decks 3 and 9.
Captain: There must be something working on this ship?!?!
Ensign: Artificial gravity is fully functional and operating at maximum efficiency.
Starry Nights, Peaceful Nights
If you ever take a flight to the East, or West, you might have noticed a phenomenon called timezones. It has something to do with when the sun comes up. But in space, everybody keeps the same hours. Aliens might attack at any moment during the day, but they have the good grace not to attack when people are sleeping. And when you go to a new planet and call the locals to say you have arrived, you never need to say sorry for waking them up. In the future, the two things nobody needs is voicemail, or to bang on the wall and tell the neighbours to keep the noise down because it is late.
New Worlds of Opportunity?
All space institutions have an equal opportunities policy. Any alien, whether blue, green or purple, can be an ensign, bounty hunter or scientist. Scots and Irish can be engineers and doctors. Women are encouraged to lead the way in hand-to-hand combat (especially when using the favoured ‘double fists clasped together’ technique). Russians are trusted to fire the weapons. Blacks can not only steer the ship, they can give orders. But captains must always be American. Even Space 1999, which was a British production financed with European money, had to import American Martin Landau to be in charge (though they also kept the Italian backers happy with the part of Security Chief Tony Verdeschi). The exception that proves the rule is Patrick Stewart’s French captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard. Somehow the only French space captain in space opera history was portrayed as a demure and private man, who avoided liaisons with women, drank tea and spoke with an English accent. Incredibly, they wrote the character without feeling the need to explain his anglo-eccentricities as a transporter accident.