'The Man in the High Castle': A look at the rise of science-fiction TV

The new Amazon series 'The Man in the High Castle,' which is based on the book by Philip K. Dick, is the newest high-profile science-fiction program on TV. What led to the genre's success?

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
'The Man in the High Castle' stars Luke Kleintank (l.) and Alexa Davalos (r.).

Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” is one of the most high-profile TV shows to debut this year. Its genre? Science fiction.

The fact that Amazon, which has become a big presence in the TV world with the success of its Emmy Award-winning TV show “Transparent,” decided to go ahead with “Man” as one of its TV shows and that the program is getting so much attention from TV critics shows how the popularity and prestige of genre-fiction TV shows have grown in the last decades. 

In the past decades, a sci-fi TV hit would sometimes break through but the major programs of the time were usually shows with their feet planted firmly in reality. The original 1960s “Star Trek” TV show famously got bad ratings and was canceled after three seasons. Programs like “Lost in Space” and “The Twilight Zone” did fine in the ratings but were not major hits. An exception was the 1960s “Batman” TV show, in as far as the superhero program contains sci-fi elements.

Counting superhero shows, the 1970s programs “The Incredible Hulk” and “Wonder Woman” did well. “Battlestar Galactica” was quickly canceled, while “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which debuted in the late 1980s, aired in syndication, meaning it did not air on the same broadcast network everywhere in the country. However, “Trek” became a hit. 

Then Fox’s “The X-Files,” which debuted in 1993, became a big hit for its network, airing not in syndication but in network primetime. 2005’s “Lost” also had another big hand in changing the genre’s fortunes on television. The ABC drama became a huge hit and became the first science fiction program to win the prestigious Emmy Award for best drama.

Success will always spawn imitators. While few found long-term success, “Lost” spawned shows such as ABC’s “Invasion” and “FlashForward,” CBS’s “Threshold,” Fox’s “Fringe,” and NBC’s “The Event,” “Revolution,” “and “Surface.” (NBC really tried.) Most of these, like “Lost,” had strange happenings and the promise of a long-term mystery. Most didn’t make it very far. 

But NBC hit it big with its show “Heroes,” which centers on ordinary people who discover they have strange powers. While “Heroes” wasn’t a perennial Emmy winner and/or nominee like “Lost,” the show’s big ratings had networks paying attention. 

While the exact genre of superhero stories can be debated, the continuing boom of these tales have no doubt contributed to the increased visibility of science fiction. The success of science fiction’s sibling, fantasy, with hit shows like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has also probably helped. 

So now we’re at a place where CBS’s smash hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” which centers on scientists who love comic books and science fiction, is on the air, as are Netflix’s programs “Between” and “Sense8,” and a new iteration of Fox’s “The X-Files” is debuting in January. That’s not counting the many superhero programs, including a new version of NBC’s “Heroes.” Amazon itself is said to be planning a TV show based on the science fiction movie "Galaxy Quest."

As for “Man,” it’s getting mainly positive reviews from critics. If it also becomes a hit, science fiction will be even more firmly entrenched as a leading TV genre.

We bet if you time-traveled back to a "Star Trek" fan in the 1960s, they might have trouble believing it.

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