Sci-Fi TV Shows That Were Really Soap Operas (nerds still welcome)
By Brad Pike
It’s a little known fact that the most critically acclaimed shows, from Mad Men to Game of Thrones, owe a vital debt to the most critically lambasted television genre out there: soap operas.
At a time when typical shows told one story within a single episode, soap operas pioneered open-ended, concurrent narratives, stories that stretched for several episodes, even several seasons.
The idea of a season finale cliffhanger originated with soap operas along with unusually deep explorations of characters, allowing for greater emotional investment by the viewers. This emotional investment is why your grandmother still watches General Hospital even after all these years.
These elements have even found themselves inserted into unexpected genres like science fiction. KoldCast’s hit ITV series, Milgram and the Fastwalkers, is a fascinating sci-fi soap opera mashup that follows Dr. Daniel Milgram as he uncovers the dark and mysterious world of Ufology while also negotiating a troubled marriage.
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Milgram and the Fastwalkers
Success is a great disguise for personal failure.
Episode 2 of Milgram and the Fastwalkers
The series explores how people react to evidence of the impossible, particularly when the impossible turns out to be the most likely explanation. Unlike the typical sci-fi show, Milgram doesn’t concern itself so much with spaceships and alien invasions as with the human relationships and a realistic portrayal of a UFO investigation. This authenticity is aided by creator Richard Cutting’s 15-year-long involvement with Ufology, lending the show a sense of realism.
The opportunities opened up by the storytelling devices pioneered in soaps weren’t lost on the creators of network television’s biggest hits. The following four shows that we’ve been quick to label sci-fi may have more to them than meets the eye.
Lost has all the classic soap tropes: characters returning from the dead, ludicrous deus ex machinas, mind-blowing cliffhangers, and love triangles. For six seasons, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse dragged out the island’s mysteries with questions like: what is it? Why is it so mystical? What the hell is that smoke monster? Of course, many argue they never fully answered these questions.
Similarly, Milgram and the Fastwalkers withholds many of the secrets of the “fastwalkers”, gradually disseminating information to viewers as the main characters receive it. In true soap opera fashion, Lost also leaned heavily on relationship drama, the ‘will they or won’t they?’ of Jack and Kate, Sawyer and Kate, Charlie and Claire, Desmond and Penny, Hurley and Libby, and countless other tumultuous couples. Wacky plot twists occurred in almost every episode, as crazy as any demon possession from Passions.
Take Locke’s return from the dead, for example, or Desmond’s time travelling. And just as with many soap opera villains (like rapist Luke Spencer from General Hospital), Lost’s Ben Linus goes mostly unpunished for his countless murders and manipulations. While it wore the guise of science fiction, Lost was, at its heart, a drama-filled soap.
Girlfriend replaced by an evil twin? Try ‘girlfriend was actually a robot killing machine in disguise’. Battlestar Galactica had not one, not two, but three men discover their girlfriends were cylons, genocidal robots out to destroy the human race, and each time, they were shocked. Oh, the romance! The betrayal! And then the confusion when we find out practically everyone on the show’s a cylon, the Final Five.
This show reveled in its big reveals, leaving the larger questions open ended and never quite answering them fully, not even in the series finale. It also switched between several concurrent plotlines, usually with a romantic relationship subplot simmering in the background of the spaceship explosions.
Like Milgram and the Fastwalkers, BSG adopted a brooding realistic tone, reinforced by the documentary style filming. It also brought a character back from the dead when Kara Thrace mysteriously reappeared after seeming to explode in a solar storm. And once again, Gaius Baltar is the unpunished villain, given a redemptive character arc even after he helped murder billions of people.
A spinoff of Battlestar Galactica, Caprica capitalized even further on its soap opera elements, constructing the show as a sci-fi version of Dallas. Two families, the Adamas and the Graystones come into conflict after losing family members in a terrorist attack instigated by the daughter of the Graystones.
Though the Syfy network had reservations about green-lighting another series with multi-episode arcs because intense serialization tends to alienate new viewers, they let show-runner Ronald D. Moore plunge in anyway. Much like Bold and the Beautiful, All My Children, and Dynasty, Caprica explored complex family relationships and conflicts. But unlike those shows, the families lived on a technologically advanced faraway planet in the distant past.
It had wacky plot twists like characters returning from the dead as holographic avatars and, once again, morally ambiguous characters that went unpunished for their crimes. Perhaps the most non-soap-like characteristic was its length; Caprica was cancelled after only one season, a stark contrast to All My Children, which ran for 41 years.
For most of its long run, Doctor Who lacked the levels of serialization and relationship drama distinctive to soap operas, but that all changed with the introduction of show-runner Victor T. Davies and his successor, Steven Moffat (who revitalized another loquacious British hero with Sherlock). They began accentuating continuity between episodes and character development, ramping up to multi-episode arcs, and, by the time Steven Moffat took over, season-long arcs like “The Silence.”
These soap opera elements revitalized the show and created a rabid new fan base of women as well as men (unlike most sci-fi shows, which typically flop with the female demographic). With the Doctor’s steadily rotating sets of companions, viewers always have a new and interesting relationship to invest in. His most recent companions Amy and Rory offer something altogether new to the show, a steamy love triangle.
The soap opera genre thrives on big reveals and mystery. Without spoiling anything, the events surrounding the UFOs in Milgram and the Fastwalkers do not disappoint those looking for both drama and imagination. Though sci-fi and soap opera seem irreconcilable for some to whom comparing shows like Star Trek and Days of Our Lives would be nothing short of blasphemy, it’s actually a match made in heaven – or maybe a mad scientist’s laboratory.
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Milgram and the Fastwalkers
Everyone has a breaking point.
Episode 4 of Milgram and the Fastwalkers
Brad Pike is a writer and standup in Chicago. He also writes for Thought Catalog.
Twitter: brad_pike; Blog: ieatfoundthings.blogspot.com