How science fiction is creating a strange new world of prestige TV

A collage of 10 cutouts of people
Clockwise from top left: Kiah McKirnan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sissy Spacek, Naomie Harris, Cass Buggé, Morningstar Angeline, Josh Brolin, Clarke Peters, Imogen Poots and Adam Bartley.
(Illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; photos by Richard Foreman / Amazon Prime Video, Aimee Spinks / SHOWTIME, Rico Torres / SHOWTIME, Chuck Hodes / Amazon Studios)

With storylines rooted in the Cold War or climate change or any number of other deep-seated earthbound concerns, no fewer than four new series (and counting) are boldly proclaiming an emerging era of prestige science fiction this season.

Why this sudden surge?

“Science fiction has always flourished when things weren’t going too well, and right now, there’s just a ton of anxiety in the world,” says David S. Goyer, showrunner for the Apple TV+ series “Foundation.”

That anxiety is reflected in these wildly variegated, star-packed offerings: Goyer’s “Foundation,” starring Jared Harris, traffics in “Dune”-style interplanetary strife set 25,000 years in the future; folksy heartland drama “Night Sky” (May 20, Prime Video) features Oscar winners Sissy Spacek and J.K. Simmons as a couple who periodically visit a distant planet via the teleportation device ensconced in their backyard shed; time-travel western “Outer Range” (Prime Video) stars Oscar nominee Josh Brolin as a Wyoming rancher spooked by a giant hole on the edge of his property; and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (Showtime) casts Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor as a charismatic extraterrestrial.


And while “Star Trek” in all its versions has been a relatively constant presence on screens big and small since the mid-1960s, its presence in these current times is growing ever larger, adding to the mix the recently launched “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” (Paramount+), which follows Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and his USS Enterprise crew on fresh adventures. And there’s still more to come as Apple TV+ will be back in the space race soon with “Constellation,” featuring Noomi Rapace and Jonathan Banks.

The Envelope spoke to these showrunners about how they’re reshaping sci-fi TV amid troubled times.

For the record:

6:22 p.m. May 19, 2022An earlier version of this article misstated the number of episodes for “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” The number is 10, not eight.



For his part, “Foundation” co-creator Goyer credits the surge in part to a fantasy series. “Audiences, due in no small part to ‘Game of Thrones,’ have become accustomed to novelistic approaches, so they have the patience for epics that can spool out over the course of 20, 30, 40 episodes,” he says, speaking from Prague, where he’s midway through the second of what he hopes will be an eight-season run. “That means you can take on more ambitious works like ‘Foundation.’”

Based on dozens of short stories and novels written by Isaac Asimov between 1942 and 1993, “Foundation” takes place 25,000 years from now. The first season filmed in six countries and featured 3,900 visual effects shots. “It’s a big swing,” Goyer notes.

“I like employing the tropes of science fiction,” he adds. “Quantum computers, faster-than-light travel, aliens, space elevators, cloning techniques — that’s what makes it fun. We use all of that to tell a story about the anxieties so many people in the world are having right now. I mean, that’s what Asimov was doing. Even in the ’80s and ’90s, he was absolutely an environmentalist who believed in climate change. He wasn’t really telling a story about the future. He was telling a contemporary story about the world he was living in, and that’s what I’m trying to do with this adaptation. I do believe we’re running out of time, so I didn’t have to stretch very far to reach that metaphorical aspect of the show.”


Collage of six figures
Clockwise from left: Jared Harris, T’nia Miller, Laura Birn, Amy Tyger, Cassian Bilton and Lou Llobel.
(Illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; photos by Apple TV+)

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‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” co-created by Alex Kurtzman (“Fringe,” “Star Trek”) and Jenny Lumet (“Rachel Getting Married”), is a sequel to the 1976 David Bowie movie and the 1963 Walter Tevis novel on which it was based. This 10-episode series follows Ejiofor’s Mr. Faraday and his earthling host (Oscar nomin10d I were having a hard time wrapping our heads around Chiwetel’s character because he’s a spaceman.” Lumet adds, “But as we talked about the character, we somehow knew in our gut — we looked at each other and said, ‘Buster Keaton.’”

Kurtzman adds, “The funny thing is, after we wrapped we saw this candid shot of David Bowie in his trailer on ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ set and he’s holding this Buster Keaton biography right next to his face.”

Describing the show as “science fiction-adjacent,” Kurtzman says, “When we started writing ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ in 2018, Jenny and I were understanding the choices we were making as a species less and less. Rather than do something finger-waggy, we wanted to create a story that answered the questions we were asking ourselves but do it in an entertaining way.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris star as an alien and the scientist who befriends him, with Bill Nighy reprising the role originated by David Bowie.

April 22, 2022


‘Night Sky’

“Night Sky,” created by Holden Miller, presents teleportation as backdrop to the main event: The relationship between Simmons’ and Spacek’s retired couple Frank and Irene York. Showrunner Daniel C. Connolly (“Longmire,” “Colony”) says, “More than once, Holden and I talked about ‘Night Sky’ as being Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ but with the cast of a Mike Leigh movie. Our guiding star was to create a realistic portrait of this couple, and then add the sci-fi element as a tool to ask questions about the magical elements in life.”


Amid the mysterious visitors and intergalactic vistas of the eight-episode storyline is a sprinkling of the naturalistic nuances of everyday life — doctor visits, nosy neighbors and a grandchild’s concern for her aging grandparents.

“The sci-fi genre used to be relegated to second-tier status among prestige dramas, but it’s now coming into its own by getting audiences invested emotionally in the characters,” Connolly says. “I think Sissy was excited by the grandness of this story.”


‘Outer Range’

“Outer Range,” created by Juilliard-trained playwright Brian Watkins, opens with an unseen cowboy asking the audience, “You know anything about a Greek god named Cronos? He carried a scythe and used it to cut a hole, a tear in the cosmos...” Thus begins an eight-episode contemporary western centered on Josh Brolin’s Wyoming rancher, Royal Abbott, and his family. Things get weird when Royal stumbles across a giant, perfectly round and apparently bottomless hole that triggers flashbacks when he gets too close and might just function as a tunnel to the future.

“Our dictum in making this show,” Watkins says, “was that the sci-fi is not going to be about extraterrestrials. It’s going to be terrestrial. Earthbound. Of the soil. For me, having grown up in Colorado, the West has always been the kind of place where you can walk up to the edge of a forest and feel like you’re staring out at another world.”

Citing “No Country for Old Men” as a key influence, Watkins hopes “Outer Range” strikes a chord among world-weary viewers. “There’s something in the water right now about the unknown,” he says. “We want to hit people in the emotional center of this collective angst and disenchantment so many of us are feeling today.


“We’re asking the audience: ‘What happens when the inexplicable comes knocking at your front door? What happens when the unfathomable sits down with you at your kitchen table?’ With ‘Outer Range,’ we’re trying to marry the science fiction genre with the unknowability of our contemporary world.”

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April 15, 2022