The Colour Out Of Space Opera: What Is A Space Opera?

The following blog post series is based on a talk I gave at Eastercon in 2018. While normally the talks I give at conventions usually wind up becoming either academic papers or magazine/fanzine articles, this one involves way too much visual content– videos, photos, links to outside sites– to work in this format. However, including visual content and meta-content is of course what blogs do best.

If you’re interested, you can watch a video of the full talk here, and before I begin I would like to thank Caroline Mullan for asking me to give it, and Tony Keen for coming up with the title.

The subject of this series is the use of colour in space opera, and how colour and style are used to cue and direct the viewer, even without them necessarily realising it. According to structuralist anthropology, humans tend to view the world, unconsciously, according to certain classification systems (e.g. nature versus culture, raw versus cooked…), and the colours used in many space operas need direct our minds in certain ways.

Why?

For the present purposes, I’ll be defining space opera as an ongoing series based on or around a spaceship and its travels. If all television series are, to paraphrase the old saying, either Gilligan’s Island or The Fugitive, then space operas are the SF version of The Fugitive: rather than waiting in one place for the action to come to them, the protagonists go to where the action is. This a bit of a rough-and-ready working definition, as there are certain series, like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which tend to get considered “space opera” despite being based on and around a space station. However, in some ways they are exceptions which prove the rule: DS9 is not only part of a wider, more conventionally space-operatic, franchise, but after the introduction of the Defiant it fits much more in a space-opera mould, whereas Babylon 5, by virtue of being an epic saga spanning multiple star systems, manages to get the distance aspect as well.

My examples here will mainly draw on Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Battlestar GalacticaStar Trek is in some ways the archetypical space opera; as for the latter two, as well as representing some of the different directions space opera can go in, they are also series that I know something about, having written a book or two on them (that was the word from our sponsor. We can now resume the programme).

The nature of space opera has certain knock-on effects on production. One of them is the need to establish character fairly quickly and easily for anyone new coming in (particularly for programmes like original Star Trek, which don’t follow a story-arc structure but are made up of mostly stand-alone episodes), and even for regulars (as space operas tend to have constantly-changing guest casts). Mood also has to be established quickly, and not too blatantly.

The other main point is that you need to differentiate locations easily and cheaply. If a series is going to a different planet almost every week, building a whole new set is out of the budget even for a series like original Battlestar Galactica (at the time the most expensive television programme ever made). Locations tend to be affected by geographic proximity: you want to film somewhere within easy commuting distance of the studio (hence the frequent use of Vasquez Rocks in Star Trek, original Battlestar Galactica and other California-made series, and Kamloops in the 2003-10 Vancouver-made Battlestar Galactica).

Given this, it’s not too surprising that colours are frequently used to establish character and mood, and to turn a small number of sets and locations into a dazzling array of new planets.

Next post, I’ll be giving you a brief guide to what structuralist anthropology is, and what it’s got to say about all this.

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Professor Fiona Moore

Academic, anthropologist and SF writer, living, teaching and working in a global city.

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