Space Opera

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"It'll be fabulous, believe me, Jerry. It's Grapes of Wrath in outer space! Oh, it's got heart, it's got laser battles, it's got a timely message of interstellar poverty—!"
Lorne, Angel ("Life of the Party")

Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually, though not always, set in the future, specifically the far future. Technology is ubiquitous and secondary to the story. Space opera has an epic character to it: the universe is big, there are usually many sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigue. The action will range part of a solar system, at least, and possibly a whole galaxy or more than one. It frequently takes place in a Standard Sci Fi Setting. It has a romantic element which distinguishes it from most Hard Science Fiction: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring scenery, and insanely gorgeous men and women.

Historically, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations. Planetary Romance was more or less Heroic Fantasy In Space. While works such as John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs were pure Planetary Romance, Buck Rogers and its imitators had essentially codified the Space Opera concept in the popular imagination by the late 1930s, though the earliest strips took place on an After the End future Earth. (Flash Gordon, at least in the classic Alex Raymond era remained resolutely Planetary Romance, tied to the planet Mongo.)

Expect to see a dashing hero cavorting around in a Cool Starship, Green Skinned Space Babes, Crystal Spires and Togas civilizations full of Space Elves, Wave Motion Guns capable of dealing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom on a daily basis, and an evil Galactic Empire with a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, including an entire universe full of beat-up mechanical objects capable of being resurrected with Percussive Maintenance.

Note that this is quite different from the original definition of space opera, which was originally a derogatory term, following "horse opera" (cheap westerns) and "Soap Opera" (so named because soap operas began as hour-long ads for soap), which requires no explanation. The phrase was coined in 1941 by Wilson Tucker to describe what he called "the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn". (It's said that before 1975 or so, the only author who ever intentionally set out to write a space opera was Jack Vance, who wrote a novel, Space Opera, literally about an opera company in space.)

Via semantic drift, well-regarded works such as the Lensman series are today held up as prime examples of Space Opera. As more authors and writers came to embrace the style, the term came to lose many of its negative connotations. Assisting that process were writers who regarded all tales of action and adventure in space as bad, and so tried to pejoratively label it all "space opera"; they succeeded with the label, but not with keeping it pejorative.

Star Wars is inarguably the most famous modern example of space opera. (Indeed, The Empire Strikes Back may have shifted "space opera" from insult to a more neutral genre descriptor, due to the involvement of veteran sf writer Leigh Brackett.) In Star Wars, technology is either magic (the Force) or jazzier versions of today's gadgets (blaster rifles, hovercars, space ships). Any Star Wars character (evil emperor, farmboy, princess) would feel at home in a thick fantasy novel, in part because editor-publisher Lester del Rey derived the "epic fantasy" template partly from Star Wars and partly from The Lord of the Rings, though also because these works borrow from the same source of Jungian imagery.

The genre is useful for long story and character arcs but also expensive to film, unless rendered in animated form, like countless anime series.

While Hard Science Fiction defines itself in part in opposition to space opera (and vice versa), in recent years, however, there has been a trend towards incorporating hard science fiction elements into space opera, as in Starship Operators, the 2000s Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and especially Alistair Reynolds' Revelation Space. In fact, "New Space Opera" has gained some currency as a term referring to works that combine fast-paced adventure plots with some degree of hard SF rigor.

See also Space Western, Two-Fisted Tales, Pulp Magazine, and Wagon Train to the Stars. In many ways, this is the science fiction equivalent of High Fantasy.

Note that while many more famous space operas go to the "ideal" side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, more recent ones are harder and more cynical: Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly being most prominent in Live-Action TV.


Examples

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  • Andromeda: Originally pitched by Majel Roddenberry and steered by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. In Season Three the network pushed for a more episodic show with more focus on Kevin Sorbo's character. It was a Vancouver production and it shows: you'll see the ensemble recycled in other Canadian productions from that era: SG-1, Lexx, etc. The last year (Hercules: The Legendary Space Journeys) was terrible. These days, it is best remembered for Lexa Doig in tight outfits. Can't blame Michael Shanks for knocking her up, though it did remove her from the show for a while. ("Sturdy.")
  • Babylon 5: A sort of "five-year miniseries" which rewards multiple viewings. It is essentially a longer and more coherent Star Trek: Enterprise seven years early (though it was actually inspired by Tolkien): alien races put aside their differences to fight a common enemy, resulting in a new federation. It is a little more cyberpunk than the shows listed here, and isn't afraid to portray Earth in an unflattering light.
    • The spinoff, Crusade, suffered from frequent network meddling and budget restrictions, and isn't worth the time unless you're a genuine fan. The second spinoff, Legend of the Rangers (LOTR...geddit?), is pretty much the Babylon 5 Christmas Special: 15 minutes of G'kar (one of Andreas Katulas' final performances before he died!) and an hour and 45 minutes of wasted time.
  • Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Battlestar Galactica (2003) are at opposite ends of the Idealist-Cynic scale. Both had their share of movies and spin-offs.
    • Galactica 1980 was geared more towards children, and rather stupid ones at that.
    • Ron Moore's ambitious spin-off series, Caprica, had positive critical reviews, but it suffered from the same fate all prequels do: A central tension between the new characters (who do not appear or get mentioned in the later saga) and the predecessors to the originals (whose fate is already known to us). A second prequel series, set during the First Cylon War (Blood & Chrome) was pretty much all-action, with none of the gravitas/nuance viewers had come to expect from the BSG brand.
  • Although Doctor Who is not Space Opera in itself, some individual stories make use of the subgenere.
    • "Mission to the Unknown" and the epic twelve part "The Daleks' Master Plan". Oddly, "Mission to the Unknown", the prelude episode feels like an Unbuilt Trope version of the sort of stories Star Trek popularised. "Mission to the Unknown" has the Space agent Marc Cory discovering the Dalek plot to invade Earth's solar system but dies before he can even send a message of warning. Earth's central government, which encompasses the whole system also has a subtly dystopian feel to it.
    • "The Space Pirates"
    • "Frontier In Space" and "Planet of the Daleks", which taken together form a twelve part story like the earlier The Daleks' Master Plan, though of a very different kind.
    • "Earthshock".
  • Earth: Final Conflict: Another botched series from Roddenberry. The lead actor was run off the show because the studio felt that it needed to be more episodic. The tone of the show changed from a sci-fi detective story ("Who are the Taelons and what do they want in exchange for improving Earth") to a cop show with very few sci-fi concepts beyond those already established.
  • Farscape: The sci-fi equivalent of Marmite. It starts off relatively tame, but then the show stops pulling punches and shows how savage and alien the universe can be. The puppets are mostly well done, and the show has a very grim atmosphere to it. It is also unafraid to resort to fanservice, Dutch angles, and Large Ham actors to spice up a lukewarm script. (As happened often.)
  • Firefly, which has the unusual distinction of being both a Space Opera and a Horse Opera. However, Firefly is only a borderline Space Opera, as it has no aliens and according to Word of God is set in a universe with no faster-than-light travel (although this is difficult to reconcile with some of the on-screen events).
  • Power Rangers
    • Power Rangers in Space had begun to to drift this way before the season ended. The Rangers spent more and more time in space fighting evil or trying to rescue Zordon, and the villains were slightly more fleshed out than usual, with the apparent main villain being the franchise's first case of Luke, I Am Your Father.
    • Power Rangers Lost Galaxy followed suit, depicting a human colony ship's season-long journey to a new world. Along the way the Rangers deal with Space Pirates, a ruthless Anti-Hero with a tragic past who ends up sacrificing himself, and the (temporary) death of one of their own.
  • Lexx: One of the crewmembers is an escaped sex slave. The ship is a literal dildo. Don't say we didn't warn you.
  • Space Cases
  • Star Trek, perhaps the most famous example in television, with its grand tales of interstellar exploration, romance, intrigue, and war. Though there is (some) serious consideration of how technology and science would change society (not surprising, given that creator Gene Roddenberry originally envisioned using the setting to address social issues that could not have been dealt with in a normal drama back in the 60s). Coincidentally, there was in fact a Star Trek Opera performed on stage in New York.
  • The Stargate-verse is a borderline example. Technically the center-of-operations is on a single planet (Earth in Stargate SG-1, the Atlantis base in Stargate Atlantis), but with the instant wormholes provided by the Stargate, the bases function like a spaceship or space station in a standard Space Opera, as far as most story purposes go. Both series also have the Big Universe, Big Empires, Big Heroes, and Big Villains elements in spades, and it gets bigger yet once Earth has a space fleet. However, many individual episodes, especially in early seasons, feel more like Planetary Romance. Stargate Universe, the second spin-off, is probably closer to a traditional Space Opera.

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  • The long-running The Stars My Degradation, (a parody of the Alfred Bester classic SF novel The Stars My Destination), a cartoon strip that ran in the Sounds music paper in the 1970's-80's:
    Dempster Dingbuster is my name, Sputwang is my nation;
    The depths of space gob in my face,
    The stars, my degradation.
    • It was drawn and written by a then-nearly-unknown Alan Moore. Examples may be seen here

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  • BattleTech: the backstory and novels put the Soap back in Space Opera.
  • The Cathedral setting in Big Eyes, Small Mouth is intended for this kind of adventure.
  • Fading Suns
  • The forgotten board game Imperium was used as a source for some of the Traveller universe. In it, a young and expansionist republic on earth, conquers a Vestigial Empire in space. There are a number of other Space Opera board wargames, but this one is notable for historical reasons.
  • Rifts has the Three Galaxies setting, a Space Opera with the same blend of magic, technology, and plain weirdness as the main setting. As may be expected, it's way way down on the hardness scale, but it has pretty much all the elements of the Standard Sci Fi Setting.
  • Rocket Age only covers our solar system but the epic themes and intrigues of space opera are definitely there. Just replace The Empire with actual Nazis.
  • There was a RPG named Space Opera.
  • Pacesetter's 1980s Star Ace RPG, in the spirit of ''Star Wars', but set in an original universe with fewer mystical undertones.
  • The Star*Drive setting originally made for the Alternity system and later reused for d20 Modern.
  • Star Frontiers was TSR's attempt to do D&D in a space opera setting.
  • Traveller was the first RPG set in the Space Opera genre, and set the standard for those that followed. It's in the harder end of Space Opera and a lot of work went into the Backstory including fairly realistic science and social science. Traveller is flexible enough that a wide variety of flavors of Space Opera can be played, since the setting is one designed for the telling of stories.
  • Warhammer 40,000 is overloaded Up to Eleven with adventure, battles, intrigue, and fantasy (including Space Elves, Orks, and even Gods), all in a setting where mankind possesses a galaxy-spanning empire with planet-spanning cities and a population in the trillions. However it's also overloaded with about as much cynicism, grimness, and darkness as you can get (hence the common description "grimdark").

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