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Adventure Awaits: A Brief History of Space Opera

As the galaxy celebrates The Last Jedi, we celebrate the unappreciated sub-genre of science fiction that paved the way for our favorite space adventures.
Star Wars
By  · Published on December 15th, 2017

As the galaxy celebrates The Last Jedi, we celebrate the unappreciated sub-genre of science fiction that paved the way for our favorite space adventures.

A new Star Wars movie is upon us, which means the entire universe is experiencing one big widespread galactic fever. It’s been 40 years since George Lucas first took us to a galaxy far, far away and ultimately changed science fiction, pop culture, and our lives forever, but even after all these we still get all giddy whenever a new movie comes along. To celebrate the occasion, we’ve been having our own Jedi Week here at FSR and acting like a bunch of nerds.

But as we celebrate all things Star Wars, I feel it’s also a time for reflection. Even the most influential sci-fi saga in the entire universe needed ideas to mine from along the way. My colleague Cooper already looked at some of the aviation movies that inspired the franchise’s iconic space battles. But I want to look at the once-maligned strand of space romp that Star Wars is very much a product of — the space opera.

What is that, though?

Given that space opera has a history of being scorned by critics and dismissed by academics and sci-fi scholars alike, only a few commentators have tried to define the subgenre. The term was originally coined in 1941 by influential critic and fanzine trendsetter Bob Tucker, who, despite dedicating his life to the study of science fiction, had no kind words to say about the stories he defined as space operas.

“In these hectic days of phrase-coining, we offer one. Westerns are called “horse operas”, the morning housewife tear-jerkers are called “soap operas”. For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn, or world-saving for that matter, we offer “space opera.”

Space opera was unwanted and not welcomed by the more sophisticated aficionados of sci-fi, but they just had to learn to live with it. Since Tucker’s definition, however, other experts have adopted a more level-headed, objective, and even appreciative approach when describing these interstellar pulp stories. In her essay “Not Just ‘Cosmic Skullduggery’: A Partial Reconsideration of Space Opera”, Patricia Monk characterized space operas as “romantic, action-oriented, imaginatively circumscribed, optimistic, socially naïve.” Meanwhile, author and reviewer Gary Westfahl simplified them as “fast-paced adventures in outer space or alien worlds.”

Regardless of the myriad of meanings, various writers have applied to space operas throughout the years, most have acknowledged common themes in the majority of the stories — such as the existence of alien lifeforms and conflicts taking place in outer space.

The origins of space opera are disputed, but French writer Charles Defontenay penned the first intergalactic adventure with his 1854 novel “Star (Psi Cassiopeia).” The ambitious tome depicts a solar system of non-human lifeforms with their own cultures, folk tales, and traditions. Other early texts with space opera characteristics include Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s “Conquest of Mars” (1898), Robert W. Cole’s “The Struggle for Empire” (1900) and George Griffith’s “A Honeymoon in Space” (1901).

While some would argue that these texts lean towards other variations of science fiction, they did at least pave the way for the space adventure yarns of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t until the 1920’s when stories of this otherworldly nature started capturing the public imagination, due in no small part to Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the Andromeda nebula — the day we discovered the universe — which became public knowledge in January, 1925.

Suddenly, the notion that humans were the universe’s only inhabitants didn’t seem so far-fetched after all.

The space opera genre skyrocketed in the latter part of the decade due to the emergence of sci-fi magazines and serials like “Amazing Stories” and “Weird Tales.” E.E. Smith’s 1928 “The Skylark of Space” is widely considered as the first true space opera by traditional standards, and the author is often hailed as the subgenre’s forefather.

The 1930’s were a golden age for space opera across a variety of mediums. Literature started to blend narratives from westerns, detective, war, and adventure fiction with tales of interstellar voyages to create a popular new era of sci-fi storytelling. Writers like Edmond Hamilton, John W. Campbell, and Jack Williamson led the popular wave, and plenty of imitators were happy to surf it.

In addition to stories appearing in novels and pulp magazines, comic strips, television, and film also started to embrace space opera during the late 1920’s and into the following decade. The Buck Rogers character made his comics debut in 1929; then, in 1933, he made his screen debut in the 10-minute film Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars. (Saying the title out loud actually takes longer than it does to watch the film).

In 1936, the Flash Gordon serial, based on Alex Raymond’s popular 1934 comics series of the same name, was adapted by Universal and became one of the highest-grossing films of that year. A second serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, followed in 1938, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe completed a trilogy in 1940.

The subgenre’s transition into visual media soared at the tail-end of the 1940’s and into the 50’s. Shows like Captain Video and His Video Rangers, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Space Patrol took television into space, while characters like Captain Comet and Adam Strange graced the panels of DC titles.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the space opera truly blossomed on the small screen. In 1965, Lost in Space made its debut and even got the attention of NASA, who saw the show as an opportunity to promote their space program at the time. Unfortunately, both parties didn’t see eye to eye when it came to logical space travel guidelines, however; NASA prided themselves on science and all that fancy stuff, whereas Lost in Space only cared about one thing — entertainment.

Another popular sci-fi show with a strong space opera flavor to emerge during the Swinging Decade sought to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Star Trek differed from the fare that came before as it coupled the action-orientated characteristics that were commonplace within the genre with philosophical, thought-provoking themes. For a brand of science fiction that was introduced to pop culture discourse as “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn,” Star Trek proved that this type of accessible entertainment could contain substance as well as pure entertainment.

In “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” Westfahl notes that Star Trek was the first on-screen space opera to successfully combine the classic pulp adventure elements with “Ruritarian” themes. The Ruritarian space opera is distinguished by sophisticated characteristics which often entail romance sub-plots and solar systems governed by their own political establishments. In these stories, alien lifeforms tend to be three-dimensional and driven by their own personal motives — such as greed, thievery, etc.

In 1977, Star Wars came along and changed the game completely, inspiring a new era of space yarns as a result. These included imitators like The Black Hole, Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, and the television series Battlestar Galactica (which Lucas tried to sue for plagiarising his ideas).

Star Wars sequels, knock-offs, and Flash Gordon are synonymous with 80’s space adventures, the decade also saw various toylines inspired by the genre hit the shelves — usually with their own cartoon series to promote them. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers, Bravestarr, and The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers are a few examples of space yarns which captured childhood imaginations and probably depleted their parent’s bank accounts — because action figures are cool.

Of course, while the space opera has filled our daydreams with interstellar adventures, there’s no denying that these stories often boast an inherent silliness which makes them fair game for parody and satire. As such, genius minds in the past have embraced this notion and given us comedy gold. Harry Harrison’s “The Stainless Steel Rat” novels and comics were some of the earliest space adventure stories to feature tongue-in-cheek humor, while Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” went all-in with spoofing and then some. The long-running 1988 British cult TV series Red Dwarf played with genre conventions to generate laughs. Elsewhere, movies like Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest are beloved for similar reasons. Currently, Seth MacFarlane is ripping on the genre with The Orville — but he’s not doing a very good job of it

In the 2000’s, shows like the Battlestar Galactica reboot and Firefly kept quality space operas alive while George Lucas tried to destroy all goodwill he’d built with his original Star Wars trilogy with his prequel series. Thankfully, the Star Wars universe was salvaged by The Clone Wars. 

These days, space operas are bigger than ever. We’re going to see a Star Wars movies every year for the foreseeable future, while the final installment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is hotly anticipated and will undoubtedly be a planet-sized success. Thor: Ragnarok was a blast, and Star Trek Discovery is a welcome return to the small screen for Trekkie entertainment. There’s also a Quentin Tarantino Star Trek movie reportedly in the works, which probably means Samuel L. Jackson will call a Vulcan a “motherfucker.”

For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarns they are, space operas have a way of stealing our hearts and imaginations time after time — and they have done for well over a century.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.