Is colony storytelling too expensive?

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Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by FaxModem1 » 2018-09-04 04:22pm

I'm a fan of shows that show us futuristic colonies for humanity. It's a fun idea of imagining helping build a new civilization somewhere else. However, it never seems to be popular enough to last. This mostly seems to be due to cost.

Earth 2 lasted a season, than was cancelled, as the ratings didn't justify costs.
Battlestar Galactica had planned for season 3 to be all about New Caprica, but wrapped it up in six episodes due to production costs.
Terra Nova, while also about dinosaurs, was also about a futuristic colony. This show was so expensive it was doomed from the get-go.

Is it just not possible to majorly focus on a colony for television without it being too expensive? Is there a way to go around that?
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Sea Skimmer » 2018-09-04 05:20pm

If you want elaborate sets and an interesting setting it's just going to be really expensive, and then you have a tremendous storytelling problem to get enough people interested to justify it. This is really a job for animation but now animation standards have gotten really high too. In any case many shows have such plot problems that they'd be doomed even without high costs.

Western pioneering-colony shows were incredibly popular in the early days of US TV, because people had a stronger connection to those roots then they do now, and precisely because it was a cheap kind of thing to film. You just needed to rent out a ranch for the outdoors and build a log cabin interior on a sound stage. Firefly was trying to exploit that to do a cheap sci fi show but was doomed by integral plot problems.

In no small way zombie this or that, is linked to the some kind of appeal colony or pioneering shows might have. Trick is a show like the walking dead can just use any setting it wants on the cheap and put the money into makeup.. and have a soap opera like plot because nothing else is relevant anyway. But that trend is running out culturally after 10 years and being replaced by new tricks.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Elheru Aran » 2018-09-04 05:50pm

Eh, I'd say Firefly's problems were more in terms of Fox fucking up the production and less so the plot, although the concept of a space-western was always going to be a hard sell. The same thing with zombies also applies to post-apocalyptic incidentally, see Into the Badlands for an example.

The trick with a sci-fi colony is that you can't get away with just having an Earth-like planet. You need some alien animals or characters, futuristic-ish buildings, props, the occasional bit of spaceship action... so that adds on to the higher cost.

But really it's not so much about the setting and effects as it is the plot and writing, and the audience. You have to hook them and keep them interested. There's a small slice of the audience that will watch anything interesting/sci-fi-ish, but the rest, they have to find something to relate to and dig into. If the audience is there and actually watching, the cost won't matter quite as much and will defray to some extent after the first couple seasons as they'll be able to reuse sets, props and effects. But if the audience never gets hooked, well, that blows it.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Formless » 2018-09-04 06:00pm

I highly doubt that cost is the problem per-say. I mean, yes, setting your story on Mars possibly increases the special effects budget. As The Expanse shows, though, modern special effects are becoming cheaper. However, even now space opera type shows with lots of spaceship action tend to have lots of money tied up in special effects as it is, while space colonies will have no more of that (possibly less) and instead have more money tied up in either sets (for space station type colonies) or outdoor shots (for planetary ones). Now successful shows have actually justified that cost if you look beyond the list you provided. Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 were colonies of the space station variety, and Stargate: Atlantis was an extraterrestrial city and it did fairly well. The real issue, I think, is more likely that a television show needs a dramatic hook, and a space colony in itself is not a hook, just a setting. Notice that the three exceptions to the rule that I point out all have reasons for being set on colonies and space stations that aren't just "for the sake of it." Babylon 5 is a show about diplomacy and the eponymous space colony is a diplomatic hub. A space station makes sense as a neutral territory, and means the writers didn't have to have diplomats meet on alien planets all the time which would be pricey in terms of backdrops. Deep Space 9 is about the usual Star Trek themes of being on the frontier, but shifting perspective from a starship to a space station allows different aspects of the frontier to be explored (it feels more like a frontier town than a wagon train or sailing expedition). Stargate: Atlantis was Stargate, but with a Lost in Space angle for the first couple seasons. It actually was an expedition into unknown territory, and the alien city made for a convenient high tech base of operations for modern humans that would not otherwise have that kind of technology. But just setting a science fiction story on a space colony does not by itself ensure that the story will have strong plot hooks, and given that a planetary space colony will tend to just look like Earth anyway, many of those plot hooks that work on a planetary colony will work just as well if you set them on Earth in the present day or near future. So most experienced science fiction writers will follow the same rules of thumb as all other writers, and remove irrelevant details like "this might look like Earth, but its actually the planet Gemeni B".

Now, if the exoplanet has some kind of exotic properties that creates interesting plot hooks not possible on Earth, that might justify setting the story there. But in many cases that plot hook only supports a film or miniseries, not a multi-season television show.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Gandalf » 2018-09-04 06:39pm

The biggest issue is filming outdoors. It's expensive, and not always practical. An indoor set can be used 24/7. Jerry Seinfeld's flat looks the same, regardless of the time of day. Outdoors is heavily time dependent, as there's only so many hours of day and night available, and you need to schedule around them. Also, weather is a thing. What do you do when you're planning to film a quiet, tense scene on Monday morning, but the rains won't let up? You have to wait, and maybe try to get other stuff done in the meantime. You could wind up with cast and crew with fuck all to do, burning budget. If you try to offset this by doing things like filming overseas, that leads to other issues which prove problematic down the road.

On the other side, you need ways to justify these expenses. You need a lot of people watching, which is where Firefly went wrong. Fox really should have sat Whedon down and told him to make a way cheaper show, so when nobody watched it, it wasn't such an issue.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by The Romulan Republic » 2018-09-04 09:18pm

FaxModem1 wrote:
2018-09-04 04:22pm
I'm a fan of shows that show us futuristic colonies for humanity. It's a fun idea of imagining helping build a new civilization somewhere else. However, it never seems to be popular enough to last. This mostly seems to be due to cost.

Earth 2 lasted a season, than was cancelled, as the ratings didn't justify costs.
Battlestar Galactica had planned for season 3 to be all about New Caprica, but wrapped it up in six episodes due to production costs.
Terra Nova, while also about dinosaurs, was also about a futuristic colony. This show was so expensive it was doomed from the get-go.

Is it just not possible to majorly focus on a colony for television without it being too expensive? Is there a way to go around that?
Actually, it should be cheaper to do a colony set, as opposed to a "planet of the week" type series like Trek or Who, because you'll be able to reuse sets/locations more.

More likely, I think, its that such shows tend to have a smaller audience and are harder to write for given the constraints of the setting, but that's just a guess.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by madd0ct0r » 2018-09-05 05:48am

this one did fairly well if I recall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_Girl

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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Q99 » 2018-09-05 06:27am

I think a fair amount of it is it doesn't have as much hooks in people's brains- it's not as established a line as starships and space stations which, at a glance, seem more interesting (and space stations have a lot of the same story benefits).

Also, weren't Earth 2 and Terra Nova just kinda... okish anyway? Not having a big hit in the past makes it a harder sell, it seems like Ocean Girl's the biggest success to point to.

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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Broomstick » 2018-09-05 04:05pm

Firefly's biggest problem was Fox executives fucking it over - moving time slots, out of order airing of episodes, etc.

There were other issues as well, but that was the biggest one.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Zaune » 2018-09-05 05:13pm

The Romulan Republic wrote:
2018-09-04 09:18pm
Actually, it should be cheaper to do a colony set, as opposed to a "planet of the week" type series like Trek or Who, because you'll be able to reuse sets/locations more.

More likely, I think, its that such shows tend to have a smaller audience and are harder to write for given the constraints of the setting, but that's just a guess.
And the "colony" angle opens up some possibilities for storytelling and keeping your budget under control if you put a bit of thought into it. Emigrating to a distant planet isn't exactly cheap: Anyone doing it without a powerful government or private-sector backer is going to be operating on a shoestring, so if you build your set out of life-expired Portakabins, shipping containers and everything you could carry away from a local DIY store's closing down sale it just adds authenticity.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Crazedwraith » 2018-09-05 05:17pm

Gandalf wrote:
2018-09-04 06:39pm
On the other side, you need ways to justify these expenses. You need a lot of people watching, which is where Firefly went wrong. Fox really should have sat Whedon down and told him to make a way cheaper show, so when nobody watched it, it wasn't such an issue.

You make it sound like Whedon spent a lot of Fox's money without their permission. Presumably they set his budget in the first place.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Q99 » 2018-09-06 10:20pm

And for a SF show, it wasn't especially high budget I don't think.

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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Sea Skimmer » 2018-09-07 01:46am

The Romulan Republic wrote:
2018-09-04 09:18pm
Actually, it should be cheaper to do a colony set, as opposed to a "planet of the week" type series like Trek or Who, because you'll be able to reuse sets/locations more.
A colony set, indoors, would be cheaper then planet of the week stuff. But filing outdoors on location, that's going to be much worse costs then new indoor sets which are end of the day, largely just syrofoam and spraypaint. That's why Trek's alien everything was almost all shot on sound stages.

Moment you go outdoors you hit weather issues like others have said. Also as a practical reality the sets are much more remote since the film industry is so centered on Hollywood, which has huge but finite facilities built into the studio properties, and that really pushes up all the nuts and bolts costs. You pay all these people for travel, you pay them something even if you cancel for rain. Even if you own your own sets on location they'll be built of BS materials to save money and need work to keep them going ect...

The problem is to get good atmosphere for a colony you really do need a lot of outdoors shooting, and some kind of feeling of exploration and change. Trek got around a lot of that with the transporter, and then by focusing on either aliens whom already had development (and thus could be on a sound stage) or stuff that was weird and unusual which became a focus for special effects and still largely focused on existing ship sets. And end of the day TNG had an enormous budget for TV and almost got cancelled a couple times for it. The Original Series went off the air entirely for budge reasons, which is why the animated series is such a direct continuation.

I still love colony fiction, in the past or present or future I see so much one can do with it, and even do it without turning into genocideporn, but it's just so niche its ability to merge well with sci fi is incredibly limited. What we need is AI systems good enough to do most of the special effects work based off concept art and a few peoples direction, rather then 100% of everything being done custom by hand like it is now. I have no idea how far that is off but it's certainly the kind of place progress is being made on a broad front.
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Re: Is colony storytelling too expensive?

Post by Shroom Man 777 » 2018-09-07 04:47am

Give it an element of mystery, like a sci-fi equivalent of... *shudder* Lost... and it might do well.
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