Whether or not you are a fan of old-school science fiction, the genre is making a comeback on TV. NewsdayTV’s Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

In a career that spans 50 years, John Peel has done it all, written it all and seen it all in sci-fi — published some 120 novels, including a few dozen tie-ins of established classics like “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who,” written sci-fi books for kids and young adults, and sci-fi series under his own name (like “2099").

But the Manorville resident since 1991 admits he has never seen anything quite like this — more sci-fi splashed across more networks and streaming services than any single human being could hope to consume in a year.

Local sci-fi author John Peel in the library/office of his...

Local sci-fi author John Peel in the library/office of his Manorville house on April 18, 2024 where he has a full collections of classic sci-fi series. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Much of this bounty is good, he says, much compelling, much bleak. A proud Trekkie  born in England 70 years ago, Peel explains that “''Star Trek'' was very optimistic because "that was [creator] Gene Roddenberry's vision — that we can make things work. Nowadays, some of these shows say 'No we can't!' ”

Using sci-fi to stare into the dark night of our collective souls is hardly all that's behind this new golden age of sci-fi, he says. Rather, “people are really turning to sci-fi at the moment because the world has changed so much.”

We're frankly living through a moment right now that's science fictional.

- Lisa Yaszek, Georgia Tech, Atlanta

The idea of science fiction as a beacon to guide us forward to a bright and distant future — or a dark and threatening one — has been around since at least the 1940s, when Isaac Asimov first began publishing his monumental “Foundation” series (about, indeed, a “dark” age that would last 30,000 years, now a brilliant series on Apple TV+). TV embraced the genre not long after (“Buck Rogers,” “Captain Video”) and hasn't let go since.

But what's going on right now is unprecedented. There are dozens of series on a half-dozen streamers  not counting cable channel Syfy (which after all is sci-fi-all-the-time, with a smattering of horror). There are another 15 shows in development arriving between next week (“Dark Matter,” Apple TV+, May 8) and well into next year (including “Dune” and “Alien” prequels).

Streaming is obviously behind this TV sci-fipalooza. The adaptations of videogames to TV series are as well.

Yet Peel and some other observers point to something else — a transformative moment in the culture at large that feels both restless and anxious. Sci-fi is, and always has been, made for times like these, they say.

Maybe we look to sci-fi to predict where we are going or to offer some answers

- Ken Deep, Ridge

“There are a number of factors that have come together, but we're frankly living through a moment right now that's science fictional,” says Lisa Yaszek, Regents’ Professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Yaszek cites the “revival of the space race,” funded in part by private billionaires, like Elon Musk, which classic sci-fi author Robert Heinlein long ago prophesied.

“And everyone's talking about AI, which is certainly not quite the way we thought it was going to look like,” she says. “But it's definitely making really science fictional changes right up to the way we do labor and the way we think about humans and how we represent ourselves in politics. So it's a very, very exciting moment — either that or terrifying. Or both.”

Ken Deep, a Ridge resident and sci-fi expert who has run “Doctor Who” conventions on Long Island since 2013 (and just published “The Companions of Doctor Who”), puts it this way: “I feel like we are living in a dystopian nightmare right now, and maybe we look to sci-fi to predict where we are going or to offer some answers. We all want to know that it doesn’t end here, that the future is bright, or at least that we make it through.

 “Or maybe,” he adds, “we are just looking for a fantastic escape.”

Ken Deep, a world-leading expert on Doctor Who holds his...

Ken Deep, a world-leading expert on Doctor Who holds his book The Companions of Doctor Who while standing with a replica Tardis built by and standing in his friend Steven Davis' yard in Baldwin on April 16, 2024. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Indeed, this golden age of sci-fi TV has been driven by lots of disparate elements — social, cultural, and of course commercial — while television just underwent a revolution (streaming), which continues to have a huge impact.

There are a lot of genuinely great sci-fi series on TV right now, and lots of questions, too. Here's a handy guide to some of those.

First things first: What exactly is “sci-fi” anyway? 

Experts like Yaszek insist that anything with a science-fictional hook qualifies, regardless of whether it's set in the past, present or future. That means the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which began on the big screen in 2008) is a type of sci-fi, and so are “The Handmaid's Tale” (2017) and “Stranger Things”' (2016). She argues that those are part of this “golden age,” too.

There are, in fact, at least two dozen sci-fi subgenres, and dozens of subgenres within those, including slipstream, which combines elements of speculative fiction with sci-fi elements (“Handmaid's”), or cosmic horror (“Stranger Things”). Many of these have become well-represented on TV in recent years, most notably animé.

But this TV boom is really about hard science fiction, or that most famous genre of them all, largely preoccupied with trips to the stars, or the application of awe-inspiring theory (quantum superposition) to wildly imaginative leaps (multiple universes). 

Which series got this sci-fi TV renaissance started? 

Doug Jones as Saru, Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham, Chelah Horsdal...

Doug Jones as Saru, Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham, Chelah Horsdal as Rillak and Hiro Kanagawa as Dr. Hirai of the Paramount+ original series "Star Trek: Discovery." Credit: Paramount+/Marni Grossman

 Two of them did. Launching in 2017 after a 12-year “Trek” break on TV, “Star Trek: Discovery” returned with that classic utopian “Trek” outlook that had been so much a part of the previous five scripted spinoffs, but with one critically important twist — the captain of the USS Discovery was a Black woman (with a male name, Michael Burnham), played by Sonequa Martin-Green. Diversity, and especially LGBTQ representation, has been a big part of this boom, and “Discovery” — which ends its five-year run next month — deserves a lot of the credit for that, says Yaszek and others. Since 1966 when the original “Trek” launched, there have been 12 “Trek” series, with five arriving after “Discovery.”

“The Expanse” deserves some credit, too. After Syfy canceled the much-beloved space opera in 2018, fans — aka “screaming firehawks” — collected 100,000 signatures for a petition that persuaded Prime Video to continue for three more seasons. (Incidentally, a letter-writing campaign also extended the original “Trek” by a season.)   

But why has 'Trek' resonated so much over a particularly divisive stretch in American culture and politics?

Stefanie Gangone, a "Star Trek" fan, with her vehicle resembling...

Stefanie Gangone, a "Star Trek" fan, with her vehicle resembling The Galileo from that show, in North Babylon, on, April 17, 2024. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

One of Long Island's leading “Trek” experts (and a Trekkie) has a theory.

Stefanie Gangone, a children's librarian from North Babylon, stages an annual “Trek” convention at the Hyatt Regency in Hauppauge (Gangone says she expects a record 1,200 attendees at the next one, which will run May 31 through June 2).

These newest “Trek” series are “not only about hope, but also empathy for all humankind," Gangone says. "They have characters who are gay or nonbinary. PTSD, depression and social anxiety are also depicted in many episodes. Fans can relate [and] until the Vulcans come to visit us, we aren't going to give up on hope for a more peaceful planet. 'Star Trek' gives us that.”

As Georgia Tech's Yaszek explains, “All moments where we see booms in sci-fi TV coincide with key moments in the space race, or in the evolution of small screens and the stories that we can produce for them; and key moments when we are thinking about the value of various kinds of cultural diversity, especially in terms of feminism and civil rights.”

 After “Discovery” wraps May 30, a sixth “Star Trek” series will arrive later this year (“Starfleet Academy”) and a movie, "Star Trek: Section 31,” about the spy agency known as Section 31, starring Michelle Yeoh. They'll join “Picard,” “Short Treks,” “Lower Decks,” “Strange New Worlds” and “Prodigy” on Paramount+.

What are some of the other big series out there right now?

The first season of “3 Body Problem” — an adaptation of Liu Cixin's trilogy about an alien invasion of Earth — arrived last month to become the most streamed series on Netflix.

“Fallout” — based on the role-playing video game of the same name, and set in the aftermath of a nuclear war in the distant future — premiered April 12 on Prime and was also an instant hit.

Then, on May, 8, “Dark Matter” — a nine-part series drawn from Blake Crouch's 2016 bestseller about a physicist trapped between parallel universes — launches on Apple TV+.

All of this is part of a TV sci-fi wave that's not expected to crest for months. The longest-running sci-fi TV series of them all — a total of 40 seasons — the time-bending “Doctor Who,” comes to Disney+ on May 10, with a new “doctor” played by Rwandan-Scottish star Ncuti Gatwa, as the first Black actor to lead the series and the first to identify as queer.  

What else is coming up?

Mae (Amandla Stenberg) in Lucasfilm's "The Acolyte"on Disney+.

Mae (Amandla Stenberg) in Lucasfilm's "The Acolyte"on Disney+. Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Two new live-action “Star Wars” series are on deck, beginning with the “The Acolyte” (Disney+) on June 4, then “Skeleton Crew” later this year. (The former is a mystery-thriller with Carrie-Anne Moss and Amandla Stenberg, set in the last days of the High Republic; the latter about four kids lost in a galaxy.)

Warner Bros. Discovery is also about to build out the “Dune” universe with a TV series, “Dune: Prophecy” — set 10,000 years before the events of the hit movies, about the sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, a secret order of female spies with superpowers. It will stream on Max most likely this fall. 

Series based on sci-fi classics “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Time Bandits,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy” are in production and should arrive by this time next year.

What has streaming got to do with this?

Lee Pace in "Foundation," streaming on Apple TV+.

Lee Pace in "Foundation," streaming on Apple TV+. Credit: Apple TV+

The streaming revolution — and this golden age of sci-fi — really got underway in 2019 with the launch of Apple TV+ and HBO Max (now Max). The first “Star Wars” series, “The Mandalorian,” ' launched Nov. 12 on Disney+ that year and has since been followed by four others — all of them hits. “Andor,” in particular, was especially acclaimed

Apple quickly got into sci-fi and now has five ongoing series: “Invasion” (alien species on earth); “Silo” (dystopian underground community); “Constellation” (astronaut returns to earth, with problems); and “Foundation” (the long-aborning adaptation of the Asimov series, also critically acclaimed, going into a third season).

“Severance” (about workers stripped of their memories, with a second season now in production) and “For All Mankind” are especially big hits for the service, the latter an alt-history — about the U.S.-Soviet space race, which was recently renewed for a fifth season.

Sci-fi seems made for streaming, because, as Ken Deep explains, "There are no more constraints on running time or formula."

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and the Child in "The Mandalorian" season...

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and the Child in "The Mandalorian" season two, on Disney+. Credit: Disney+

Why do showrunners like streaming so much? 

Joel Edgerton in "Dark Matter" on Apple TV+.

Joel Edgerton in "Dark Matter" on Apple TV+. Credit: Apple TV+/Sandy Morris

In a recent Zoom interview, “Dark Matter's” Crouch said that his serpentine story of a scientist (Joel Edgerton) morphing into identical copies of himself across multiple universes couldn't have possibly played as a movie.

“Originally when I was writing the novel, the first 140 pages leaked and we got a lot of interest in Hollywood for a movie, but I hadn't finished the book yet [and] when I finished the book, it had gotten a lot bigger than a 120-minute movie.”

He then spent years trying to write scripts that would work as one but they “just didn't have any heart to them and to have that, I needed someone to come along and say, 'Here, do nine 60-minute episodes. Just do the book.'

“We have a lot of characters playing multiple versions of themselves and to have the freedom to be able to tackle super-challenging subject matter and not have to reduce it to something that's bite-size was so freeing, and allowed me to really build out a world [over nine episodes]. I don't think it would have been possible to adapt this book back in the aughts because it needed that [streaming] platform to breathe and the resources to render that world, or worlds.” He adds, “I feel like streaming has opened the door to this current boom we're in.”

What about video game adaptations?

Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in HBO's "The Last of...

Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in HBO's "The Last of Us." Credit: HBO/Liane Hentscher

There were countless TV series based on video games — almost all animé and few that have busted out to a broader audience. But that began to change on March 24, 2022, with the launch of Paramount +'s “Halo” (based on the game about a 26th century war between humanity and an alien race called the Covenant). It changed a whole lot more with HBO's January 2023 launch of “The Last of Us,” the post-apocalyptic-mutant-fungus game that had first arrived 10 years earlier.

That was a monster hit, and the race is now on. Gaming website TheGamer.com cites 22 series in development at Netflix, Paramount, Prime and Peacock. Most are part of the so-called “military sci-fi” genre, and include titles like “Tomb Raider,” “Mass Effect” and “God of War.”

So, why do showrunners love video games so much? 

Ella Purnell, Michael Emerson and Dale Dickey in Prime Video's...

Ella Purnell, Michael Emerson and Dale Dickey in Prime Video's Season 1 of “Fallout." Credit: Prime Video/Jojo Whilden

At last year's Comic-Con, Jonathan Nolan — who co-created Prime's “Fallout” with his wife, Lisa Joy — said he started playing the game in 2008 when he was working on “The Dark Knight.” “I was always drawn to adaptations where we have a little bit of room to create. There is, for example, no one 'Batman' canon, but dozens and hundreds of writers and artists who have worked on that character for over 80 years, so we were able to pick it up and tell our own story [in 'Dark Knight'].”

The same, he said, with “Fallout” — which is sci-fi alt-history where humans are forced into underground vaults following a nuclear holocaust. Streaming, he said, allowed “us to tell an original story in the 'Fallout' universe, free to create new characters that connected us to the rest of the 'Fallout' world.”

Does this sci-fi boom on TV reflect a deepening pessimism in the culture at large?

 Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, James Doohan in the original "Star...

 Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, James Doohan in the original "Star Trek" (1966-69) Credit: Paramount/Everett Collection

This depends to an extent on whom you ask, and which shows they champion. There have been many mood shifts in sci-fi TV dating to the 1960s, but the classic standard-bearers like “Doctor Who” and especially “Star Trek” have almost always taken a sunnier, more optimistic outlook on the future — and on people.

Some observers, however, say their influence has waned as sci-fi TV has turned darker and more pessimistic. If “Trek”-influenced sci-fi was all about looking into the future for signs of hope, most series now are about looking to the future for signs of the apocalypse. 

Long Island “Doctor Who” expert Ken Deep says “science fiction typically will either be predictive or reflective.” But the current crop on TV, he suggests, seems to be both. Peel — the prolific author who admits that his lodestars remain “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” — says: “It's harder to look to the future with optimism, to look for something bright on the horizon, but that's what we really need. We need something that inspires people to say, 'Yes! This is possible! There is a way [forward].' But I'm not sure a lot of people see their way out of it [and] that's what's reflected on TV.”

All doom and gloom? (Not entirely)

Cynthy Wu in "For All Mankind," streaming on Apple TV+.

Cynthy Wu in "For All Mankind," streaming on Apple TV+. Credit: Apple TV+

Rowan J. Coleman, a 28-year-old sci-fi TV expert living in Scotland,  who launched his popular YouTube channel as a teenager in 2013, says by email: “I don't think modern sci-fi [on TV] has become cynical, just more pragmatic perhaps. I remember a trailer for 'The Expanse,' which had the line '500 Years in the Future We're Still at Each Other's Throats.' It was gritty but many of its stories were about people defying the odds and coming together to overcome a problem.”

 Apple's “For All Mankind,” is another example, he says: “That show deals with a lot of systemic problems and by no means is the world perfect, but it does show the world getting better and better with each new season.

“Science fiction may have stopped being blindly optimistic, but it hasn't stopped being optimistic.''

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