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.

Praise for Captain Artie Quelch!

From this month’s Short Fiction reviews in Locus:

“I especially want to highlight an alternate-history piece by Fiona Moore: ‘‘Every Little Star’’ imagines an alternate timeline of space travel where Ludmilla Kovalenko was the first human launched into space (but not successfully returned). She inspired breakthroughs in both technology and the gender barrier, and Captain Evangeline Artemisia Quelch (Artie) is a former space pilot now commanding a moon base, although she still has to deal with the condescendingly sexist press. Her heroic exploits have left her with lingering claustrophobia, and she is now somewhat uneasily settled into a desk job; a friend’s invention of a kind of rudimentary VR reopens her horizons. It’s a great story, well thought out and well dramatized.”

If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so for free here.

Free short story!

Now, on the Mad Scientist Journal website, you can read my short story “Every Little Star” for free. It’s part of a series which is one part Gerry and Sylvia Anderson to one part Quatermass to one part 1950s lesbian pulp novels– featuring the adventures of a moonbase commander battling terrorism, glass ceilings and post-traumatic stress disorder, through the medium of virtual reality….

I’m writing for the Black Archive

It’s official! Obverse Books’ The Black Archive series, which is a collection of book-length in-depth examinations of every Doctor Who story from 1963 to the present, has announced that I’ll be writing their volume on The Robots of Death, which will be coming out in 2020.
More details closer to the time!