The Way of the Firefly

The Syfy channel, via Craig Engler, has just announced that they’re ending Stargate Universe after they finish out the next ten episodes of the current season, effectively stopping the franchise on the television. It’s a shame, because SGU has rapidly become one of the more interesting and compelling science fiction dramas on television, and it was doing good things for the franchise, taking it in a very interesting direction.

Unfortunately, it’s also not a surprise. Going out on a short limb, the ratings for the show have been pretty low, on par with what Caprica was getting, and it seems that unlike in prior years, with a solid block of Stargate SG-1/Atlantis and Battlestar Galactica, the combined efforts of Starate Universe and Caprica on a Tuesday night didn’t have the same effect on audiences.

There’s a recurring lesson here: the reasons for a show getting cancelled are generally up to audience numbers, and fans, just as much as the channel are on the hook. In every instance of a cancelled science fiction show, low ratings have been generally been a universal factor: Firefly, Life on Mars (US), Stargate SG-1/Atlantis, Kings, Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse are all examples. Off the top of my head, the only shows that haven’t been canceled only because of ratings was Babylon 5 (which almost didn’t make it) and LOST, (which saw its release altered to lower numbers of episodes per season). The circular logic kicks in as fans don’t stick with a show, and the home channels don’t do enough to keep them.

In this instance, Stargate Universe had an incredible uphill battle to keep going for even a season. The show as a whole is very much against the grain when it comes to the style of shows that its predecessors were, and opted to go for the darker, edgier route that Battlestar Galactica had gone. It’s increasinly appearing that Battlestar was an oddity, which has darker implications in and of itself. Given the dropping ratings and low audience numbers for the show, I can’t get too angry at SyFy for cancelling the show. Like any channel, it’s a business, and when things get unprofitable, it’s impossible to keep them going in that type of environment. For all of the arguments about new media such as Hulu, on demand viewing and the like, Engler has talked a lot on his twitter feed about how there’s no model yet for payment, and that a lot of these types of things are still playing out. This is all within an increasing environment where piracy is on the rise, which further impacts a show’s audience. (I think that this is a bit of a lesser degree than argued though).

Stargate‘s long been a favorite franchise of mine, and Universe especially so. They’ve done some cool things with it: brought on John Scalzi as a creative consultant, brought in a very cool cast, and told some stories that are amongst the best that I’ve seen in the franchise. There’s some great, real-world science things brought in, and a take on military science fiction and characters that makes quite a lot of sense to me. Even the visuals have been fantastic.

The moral of the story comes down to the fans. For all of the rage that’s directed at the SyFy channel, it’s a bit misguided: they’re certainly not going out to cancel major projects that they’ve sunk a lot of money into. At the same time, as the channel works to put on more and more B-movies for their weekend shows and fairly mindless shows such as Warehouse 13, Sanctuary and Haven, I wish that they would find a way to make some of their investments work better for today’s audiences, and use these new means to bring better, compelling and interesting science fiction to the small screen.

The next one on the horizon is Fringe, moved ominously to Friday night (and which moved episode is titled ‘Firefly‘), which has also seen diminishing numbers. Hopefully, with ten episodes to go, SGU will be able to end on a good note, with a bit of proper closure. Hopefully, they’ll get home and remain as brilliant as they’ve been for the past two years.


13 thoughts on “The Way of the Firefly

  1. Really, if people want a show to last, they have to watch it themselves. I didn’t become familiar at all with Firefly until after it had been canceled, though I did go to the movies to see the theater and watched all of the episodes on dvd. The fans really do have to make it worth the while of the networks to keep their favorite shows. If a show can’t draw enough viewers it usually isn’t going to last, and that says something about how few people like “dark” or “edgy” or “realistic” science fiction.

    • Yep, that’s generally how it goes. I *do* wish that some of these shows would be given a bit of a chance (and in this case, they probably did get a chance).

      In SGU’s case, I can’t fathom why they pushed things out of Friday night to Tuesday. Moving it (looking at audience numbers) dropped at least 300,000 viewers when you compare the two seasons – that’s quite a drop.

  2. A tweet by David Blue suggests the episodes are already shot. It sounds like it’ll end on a cliffhanger, or at least without full resolution.

    Fringe going to Friday doesn’t concern so much as this is its second move. Shows that are perpetually shuffled around the schedule rarely last, Friday night on Fox death curse or not.

    • Huh, that’s unfortunate, and hopefully, there will be some resolution somewhere. SyFy has gone and done follow ups in some instances, and if they can do something like that, I’d be happy. I guess we’ll see. Hopefully, they won’t just dump the remaining episodes into a single day marathon like they did with Captrica.

    • The episodes that I’ve caught, yeah. It was a while ago, so that could have changed, but I wasn’t impressed with it.

  3. For the most part, I fit into the “mindless action” fan niche. There are certainly exceptions (I loved Caprica), but generally speaking if I go more than about 15 minutes without an explosion, laser or big visual effect, I lose interest.

    I’m not proud of this, but it’s what I am. And sadly, I think I am the majority here.

    I found SGU to be a lot of “people on a ship talking” and not enough action.

    BSG had a lot of acting and drama, but it was balanced with a lot of space combat, action, and beautiful women.

    Look at Clone Wars. I love that show as much as anyone, but even I’ve struggled to make it through the last few episodes. I really needed that kick from the Savage Opress storyline to wake me back up.

    That is, I think, where both SGU and Caprica went wrong. They had all the bits for success, but didn’t balance the story advancement with action to keep the short attention span audience there.

    • No arguments from me there. We’ve talked about this before, and I know exactly what you mean. For me, Stargate’s always been about exploration, rather than straight up action and I loved it for what it did in that vein. Plus, lots of geeky science stuff that made sense. It’s a balancing act.
      Caprica, for what it was, was just too complicated, I think. Too many story lines, characters and all too varied. I liked it, but it didn’t surprise me to see it go. SGU had a bit of a singular focus, but yeah, not enough action, I think.

  4. While the networks really haven’t wrapped themselves into a model with things like hulu, have they really figured out viewership based on DVR viewers. I know in the past few years, some of the gripes with BSG and other sci-fi shows was that there wasn’t enough “live” viewers (as opposed to Tivo and DVR viewers who would watch it that same night or in the next few days). There are very few shows that we regularly watch that we don’t DVR, even if we watch them later in the same night as their airtime, just so we can skip commercials, or fit it around our schedule.

    I’m bummed to see SGU going, but glad to see that it will get to at least finish out its season.

    and what’s this about a Caprica dump marathon? did i miss that? i thought they were just going to push it to next spring…

  5. To nit pick a little, I was under the impression that Firefly was canceled, not because it had fewer than expected viewers, but because those viewers were not in the network-defined demographic that they had planned their advertising around… I can kind of understand the cancellation of well-loved shows when their viewership drops, but a truly ethical company that aimed to both turn a profit and entertain their customers would both give their cast and crew advance warning, and give the writers enough notice so that they can quickly complete their main vision for the show.

    • Regardless of what the expected viewers they were bringing in, that would still translate into fewer than required, would it not?

      Ethics don’t enter into it: this is business. SyFy clearly doesn’t have confidence in the remaining episodes to turn the profit that they need, and with those episodes already filmed and in the bag, they’re not going to reshoot and re write parts of it.

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