The Evolution of Space Opera
When I was growing up, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea aired at 4:00 on KTLA, and then Star Trek followed it. We also had Lost in Space. I also had this big yellow book of the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century comic strips.
All of these started with the pulp magazines in the 1930s, which introduced space opera. They paved their way for the shows above. But Star Trek did something different:
Another popular sci-fi show with a strong space opera flavor to emerge during the Swinging Decade sought to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Star Trek differed from the fare that came before as it coupled the action-orientated characteristics that were commonplace within the genre with philosophical, thought-provoking themes. For a brand of science fiction that was introduced to pop culture discourse as “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn,” Star Trek proved that this type of accessible entertainment could contain substance as well as pure entertainment.
In “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” Westfahl notes that Star Trek was the first on-screen space opera to successfully combine the classic pulp adventure elements with “Ruritarian” themes. The Ruritarian space opera is distinguished by sophisticated characteristics which often entail romance sub-plots and solar systems governed by their own political establishments. In these stories, alien lifeforms tend to be three-dimensional and driven by their own personal motives — such as greed, thievery, etc.
There’s a lot of interesting history that starts with the pulp and how it goes not only into our reading of books, but also TV and movies. We move so fast forward that we sometimes forget how things originated and what we can learn from it.
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