more fans freshly minted by high-budget sci-fi television and film. The roots of science
fiction in social commentary continue to this day, but as Hollywood continues to embrace the
genre, sci fi has also become a genre wherein the art of action and big entertainment is
Yet science fiction itself comes in a variety of flavors, with each form of sci fi addressing
different cultural and entertainment needs. Of all those various subgenres of science fiction,
however, it is no surprise that space operas are the most beloved, as they combine the
intelligence of hard science fiction with the action and adventure of Hollywood production values.
What Is a Space Opera?
At first glance, the term “space opera” sounds unattractive. When we think of operas these
days, we think of either soap operas, with their overwrought plots and melodramatic acting,
or traditional operas, wherein the fat lady sings. Neither sound very appealing to the modern
fan of media, and you’re right. However, space operas do in fact share quite a bit in common
with both soap and traditional operas.
Traditional operas do things big. There are large, melodramatic events, massive betrayals,
huge shifts in the dynamics of the plot and the characters themselves. Similarly, space operas
seek to depict massive changes: galactic wars, planets exploding, space armadas clashing in a
dance of light and silent death. Yet, as incredible as these events are, they are often hard to
relate to personally, which is where the soap opera aspect of the space opera comes in.
Shiny New Future, Same Old Problems
We need to be able to connect to the people within the space opera’s plot, and soap operas do
personal connection very well. Devotees to this or that soap opera often form personal
attachments to the characters in their soaps, following their storylines closely, their emotions
riding a rollercoaster of fear and jubilation as soap opera’s plot batters and raises the hopes of
this or that character.
Similarly, the best space operas depict the personal relationships of the people in the storyline
who are simultaneously grappling with the galactic events that make the story true science
fiction. In the modern remake of Battlestar Galactica, humanity is fighting for its survival
against robot slaves-turned-tyrants, but between every brush with species-wide extinction is a
story about alienation between a father and son, or a man’s struggle with his own greed and
cowardice, or a love that can never be. This is what makes space operas such powerful sci fi –
they dazzle our senses while touching our hearts.
Where We Go From Here
While space operas have their origins in literature, their modern form is firmly rooted in the
medium of film. Only film can provide the special effects and alien vistas necessary to
impress the magnitude of space and war among the stars. Consequently, the rise of space
operas as the dominant SF subgenre has been accompanied by such classic films as Star
Wars, which also dabbled in fantasy and coming-of-age tropes as well. In fact, the best space
operas – like most sci fi – mixes and matches genres in order to create an original blend of
story that renews the genre while simultaneously paying homage to it (as Star Wars paid
homage to Flash Gordon).
Many space operas use the “submarine film” genre to put pressure on its characters and
create tense social situations that cannot be escaped from. In traditional submarine films,
much of the action takes place in a confined space, and the threat of the outside world – the
deep sea and the enemies lurking there – serves to highlight how vulnerable the characters
are, packed into tin cans like sardines. Space operas often use the same tropes, with space
serving to replace the deep sea as the hostile environment that threatens to overwhelm and
destroy the characters should their vigilance ever drop.
Science fiction and space operas have moved on to other genres, however, such as video
games. In fact, the space opera has become one of the dominant science fiction genres within
the video game world, with the critically-acclaimed Mass Effect trilogy serving as a stellar
example of top-notch storytelling combined with incredible gameplay and action sequences.
As we move into the future and new forms of media and entertainment evolve, there’s no
telling what shape space operas will take and from what genres they will borrow. One thing is
for sure, though: they will continue to amaze people all over the world.