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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")
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Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually set in the far future or A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.... 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 across part of a solar system at a minimum, and more commonly will extend over large tracts of a galaxy or several. 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.)

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Military Science Fiction is another similar genre which may sometimes overlap, but is not quite the same. The main difference is, military science fiction places a greater focus on warfare, while space opera is epic and places a greater focus on adventure and Melodrama.

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.)

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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.

The ideal space opera, as described by Brian Aldiss, contains most if not all of the following criteria:

  1. The world must be in peril.
  2. There must be a quest.
  3. And a man or woman to meet the mighty hour.
  4. That man or woman must confront aliens and exotic creatures.
  5. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher.
  6. Blood must rain down the palace steps.
  7. And ships launch out into the louring dark.
  8. There must be a woman or man fairer than the skies.
  9. And a villain darker than a Black Hole.
  10. And all must come right in the end.

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.

Space Opera is defined above all by one thing: hard science will never be allowed to get in the way of storytelling. How exactly the hyperdrive works to jump from planet to planet isn't important. The focus is on the characters and themes of the overarching story. For the same reason, certain common tropes like Planet of Hats and Single-Biome Planet tend to appear frequently in Space Opera (though harder science fiction is by no means immune to them). For storytelling purposes, interstellar civilizations are analogous to countries, and planets analogous to cities. Space Opera is an Earth-sized story lifted onto the galactic scale. The logistical challenges that would actually result from this are safely ignored.

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 Versus Cynicism, more recent ones are harder and more cynical: Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly being most prominent in Live-Action TV.

Sadly, there aren't too many actual Operas set IN SPACE! One famous example in the music world, however, is Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl's Aniara (1959), based on Martinson's poem (1956).


Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Tytania, the closest thing to an anime Dune and written by the same author as Legend of the Galactic Heroes though it is an independent story.
  • Ulysses 31, essentially The Odyssey in space.
  • Vandread: Humanity has split into two factions: Men and Women, who are continually at war with each other. Our story starts with a shipful of women and three guys, all thrown together and having to cooperate to stay alive. As a metaphor, the technology of the two factions combines together to become far greater than the sum of the parts, barely keeping them alive and fueling the story line.

    Comic Books 

    Comic Strips 
  • Buck Rogers and its imitator Flash Gordon are the Trope Codifiers, though the former began as an After the End story and only moved into space and the latter originally stayed on the planet Mongo, where Flash, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkoff were stranded. (The story takes place in the present day.) However, the popular image and later iterations of the strip have Flash Gordon adventuring in space. Star Wars began after Lucas failed to obtain the rights to Flash. King Features, realizing their mistake, made the Flash Gordon film after the wild success of Star Wars.

    Fan Works 
  • Earth's Alien History is a collaborative project Mega Crossover between numerous Sci-Fi franchises (including many of the ones listed elsewhere on this page), which quickly expands into a truly massive universe. The Reaper War Arc alone could constitute a full story all on its own, and a spinoff featuring Colony Ships sent to the Andromeda galaxy has begun as well.
  • Hellsister Trilogy features several interplanetary wars in the far future, set off by the ambitions of planet-destroying evil sorcerers and evil gods.

    Film — Animated 
  • Titan A.E.is a space adventure produced by Don Bluth.
  • Treasure Planet is a story of the golden age of piracy moved into a fantastical version of outer space crossed by literal space ships, setting brave heroes and black-hearted villains on a quest for legendary treasure across the gulfs of space.

    Film — Live Action 
  • Captain EO, a Disney Theme Parks 3-D movie, is less than 20 minutes long but clearly takes place in this genre: A dashing hero with a crew of misfit alien creatures is sent on a mission to transform a grim, H.R. Giger-esque planet. There's a skirmish with the evil Supreme Commander's fleet of starships, and later the heroes are taken captive by her forces — but they use The Power of Rock to turn into it a land of Crystal Spires and Togas and its people (including the ruler) into happy, Day-Glo dancers.
  • Pandorum has a love story (Bower's wife), battles, a dashing hero (Mahn) and an insanely gorgeous female lead (Nadia).
  • Star Wars is perhaps the most famous modern example (as noted in the main description), with its grand and fantastical tale of heroic rebels fighting against the evil Empire set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

    Gamebooks 
  • Fighting Fantasy:
    • Starship Traveller, the first installment in the sci-fi genre, is heavily inspired by Star Trek. You play the captain of the titular starship, who ends up getting sucked into a black hole leading to the Selstan Void, and has to travel across planets, meet various alien races, and try to find your way back to Earth before running out of fuel.
    • Rebel Planet: In the future, planet Earth has been conquered by a reptilian race of aliens known as Arcadians, and you need to sabotage the Arcadian's super-computer and help reclaim Earth back for the humans.
    • Star Strider has you playing a bounty hunter from outer space, who have to race against time to save the Earth's president from the hostile Gromulans.
  • The Star Challenge gamebooks series set in 2525, when mankind are capable of travelling across galaxies and forming an alliance known as the "Network of Worlds" with other alien races.

    Literature 
  • The Warriors of the Elector by Imogene Nix has big love stories and a heavy focus on fairly realistic Sci-Fi setting and big battles.
  • Aeon 14 is an epic about a colony ship, Intrepid, trying to leave the insanity of slower-than-light life in Sol, only to run into even bigger problems and ultimately Slept Through the Apocalypse and land in a more typical Faster-Than-Light Travel setting.
  • Instrumentality Of Man includes light-based and biologically-based computers, robot copies of dead people, robot police, the elimination of unhappiness, by measures escalating to putting the terminally unhappy to death, an underclass of animal-people who are without rights, the immortality drug stroon, ornithopters, telepathic computer interfaces, and other proto-Space Opera and proto-cyberpunk tropes.
  • John Carter of Mars and other Planetary Romance novels contain elements of Space Opera, making it an Unbuilt Trope.
  • Lacuna is firmly in the "New Space Opera" (space opera with hard science) genre.
  • Lensman is generally given as the defining example, along with its predecessor and spiritual twin the Skylark Series.
  • The Lost Fleet is a setting of average hardness (more hard than soft, actually), with a special emphasis on tactical fleet operations in a 'verse with lightspeed sensors and communications, so all maneuvers have to account for the enemy's current position and state being unknown. There's a century-long war between two galactic polities: one that is more or less good, and one that is more or less evil. There's a hero who leads the good guys to victory, being an unintentional Keeper of Forbidden Knowledge (namely, the knowledge of fleet tactics, forgotten over the course of the Forever War). There are hidden forces working behind the scenes. The Genesis Fleet prequel also reveals that the protagonist of the main series has a Secret Legacy he never knew about, i.e. that an ancestor of his was a hero too.
  • Lucifer's Star is a dark space opera story about how the Red Baron-esque pilot of a Feudal Future nation discovers his side is the bad guys in a war and has to deal with the consequences. It also includes bioroid slavery, Elder Races, and a massive interplanetary war.
  • Molly Fyde
  • Omega Force
  • Thousand Cultures:
  • Perry Rhodan (over more than 2500 books that span from 1971 to 5050).
  • Most of Peter F. Hamilton's books, though technological advances have significant societal and cultural impacts.
  • The Secret King has a race of aliens fleeing their doomed homeplanet to travel to Earth in the present day.

    Live Action TV 
  • Andromeda: Originally created by Gene Roddenberry, pitched by Majel Roddenberry, and steered by Robert Hewitt Wolfe (of Deep Space Nine). 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. These days, it is best remembered for Lexa Doig in tight outfits.
  • Babylon 5: A sort of "five-year miniseries" which rewards multiple viewings. If their direct competitor borrowed from old westerns and war movies, B5 was a space-based Middle Earth meets space Casablanca —but with enough verisimilitude to take those tropes and make it into something you can believe in. It helps that Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar) and Peter Jurasik (Londo) have such a commanding air that pretty much everybody raises their game in their presence.
  • 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 is more Family Friendly.
    • Ron D. Moore's ambitious spin-off series, Caprica. During the first season, Moore stuck to his guns about keeping it a family drama, but the last few episodes were so packed with story because the showrunners knew they weren't going to get a second season, and didn't want to leave their open storylines dangling in the wind.
  • Although Doctor Who is not Space Opera in itself, some individual stories make use of the subgenere.
  • Earth: Final Conflict: Another posthumous series from Gene Roddenberry. The pilot takes place only 3 years after First Contact. What the series captured perfectly, but ignored in later seasons, was that humans had only recently come to terms with an alien race as part of their world.
    • The lead actor was run off the show because the studio felt that it needed to be more episodic. And then they did it again in season five; not a good sign when you have to continually cycle cast members to save money. 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 Monster of the Week show with very few sci-fi concepts beyond those already established. Sandoval, played by the capable Von Flores, turned out to be the saving grace of the series at that moment, something even the execs could not topple.
  • Farscape: The first few episodes are purposefully cheesy sci-fi, inspired by Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon with some weird muppets and makeup. Then "A Human Reaction" arrives and covertly sets up the story arc that will carry on throughout the entire rest of the series. The addition of Scorpius a few episodes later heightens the drama even further as the war between the Peacekeepers and the Scarrans grew in scale. All with a hefty dose of Mind Screw to keep things from getting too serious.
  • 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).
  • Lexx: One of the crewmembers is an escaped sex slave. The ship is a literal dildo. Don't say we didn't warn you.
  • Pandora or so its creators claim. Judging by the first episode, it's more of a teen drama.
  • Power Rangers
    • Power Rangers in Space had begun 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. Doesn't apply to its Japanese counterpart Denji Sentai Megaranger, which is set on Earth, with the Megaship just orbiting the planet.
    • Power Rangers Lost Galaxy followed suit (unlike its Japanese counterpart, Seijuu Sentai Gingaman), 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Star Wars live-action shows such as The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett explore "lower deck" sides of the Galaxy Far Far Away outside the main conflicts that reshape said galaxy.
  • Uchu Sentai Kyuranger. Super Sentai often has heroes or villains from outer space but in general, it doesn't fit this trope thanks to being set mostly on Earth. Kyuranger, however, fits neatly into Space Opera. It's set in a future where the villain pretty much rules the entire galaxy. The heroes and heroines comprised of Human Aliens, a wolf-man alien, and robots. It's actually set in space as the protagonists travels the galaxy using their Cool Starship, which also functions as their headquarters, to defeat their enemies.

    Music 

    Newspaper Comics 
  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.
  • Paizo's second game, Starfinder is set in the same universe as Pathfinder but advanced thousands of years into the future, with technology and magic being equally ubiquitous among the solar system.
  • 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.
  • Twilight Imperium may as well be the Trope Codifier for space opera board-games. Spice-dealing, trader lions, peaceful turtle-people who smoke weed, living flames put into mechanical bodies, snake-women who have psychic powers; the Twilight Imperium's got it all.
  • 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", for which its tagline is the Trope Namer).
  • Coriolis The Third Horizon mashes up Space Opera with "Arabian Nights" Days and Middle Eastern mythology in general. This ranges from simple terminology (artificial intelligence are 'Jinn', for example), to culture (the titular station Coriolis is akin to the cities of the tales), to the concept of the Icons and Dark Between Stars taking its basics from Zoroastrianism (ie, Cosmology of good and evil) with touches from Islam, particularly an emphasis prayer. (Praying to the Icons is even a game mechanic.)

    Video Games 
  • The Mass Effect series could be seen as putting the Opera back into Space Operas, with lavish and often dreamy environments, exotic cultures, and tales of great personal tragedy. At the same time, it's surpringly hard, is quite serious in tone, and takes place in the relatively near future (2180s to be precise). Like many other newer Space Operas, it also has Lovecraft Lite elements thanks to the series' main antagonists, the Reapers.
  • The Metroid series, although this slides more towards After the End Planetary Romance in the context of individual games. Played straight with Metroid Prime: Hunters and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, as they are the only games in the franchise that internally take place on multiple planets, and the latter shows a bigger interaction with the Galactic Federation.
  • Starcom: Nexus involves a tiny (but modular) ship encountering a Negative Space Wedgie which transports it to the extremely distant past, where it must help prevent a rogue AI from wiping out all non-human species in the galaxy.
  • The Star Control series started off with a rather bare-bones Space Opera premise - a great war between two groups of alien species - that served only as a backstory for what was essentially a simple arcade game. The sequel took this premise much further, exploring both the history and the aftermath of the war in great detail, and charging the player with liberating the entire human race and its allies from slavery, while also saving the rest of the galaxy from mass genocide. The backstory as presented in-game spans several dozen millennia, and the game itself takes place across an entire quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy.
  • The Star Ocean series, when you aren't exploring underdeveloped planets.
  • The Wing Commander franchise, which was conceived by its creator Chris Roberts as being "World War II in space". It also has elements of Top Gun as well (with main character Christopher Blair's [canon] callsign "Maverick" being a direct shout out).
    • Chris Roberts' current project, the MMO game Star Citizen is also an example. Furthermore, it has been conceived as a persistent online universe that's constantly evolving. In addition, there's also its single player campaign "Squadron 42", described as a Spiritual Successor to the above mentioned Wing Commander franchise.

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

 
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Dune (1984)

Set in the distant future, the film chronicles the conflict between rival noble families as they battle for control of the extremely harsh desert planet Arrakis, also known as "Dune". The planet is the only source of a drug known as "the spice", which allows prescience and is vital to space travel, making it the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe. Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan, in his film debut) is the scion and heir of a powerful noble family, whose inheritance of control over Arrakis brings them into conflict with its former overlords, House Harkonnen.

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