Netflix’s planned Australian TV series Tidelands has been met with excitement from a country not known for its sci-fi. Tidelands will focus on an ex-criminal who returns to her hometown, investigating a mysterious group of half-humans and half-Sirens known as “Tidelanders”.
The ten-episode series will be filmed in Queensland in 2018. Co-creator and co-executive producer Tracey Robertson said of the show: The primeval landscapes of Queensland are a perfect setting to tell the story of betrayal, small-town secrets [and] ancient mythology …
Meanwhile, the not-for-profit organisation Scripted Ink. will invest in developing Australian author C.S. McMullen’s sci-fi thriller series Awake. The series is set in a dystopian future in which the world’s richest 1% are able to choose to live without sleep.
Both the US and Britain have produced definitive science-fiction TV shows, such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Dr Who. Popular Netflix science-fiction series include the UK’s Black Mirror, along with America’s Stranger Things. Australia has lagged when it comes to making influential science-fiction TV. Why is this the case, when sci-fi is such an influential genre overseas?
One answer can be found in our literary industry, where sci-fi authors have struggled to find support. Author Cat Sparks says publishers are hesitant to publish sci-fi: I think science fiction still suffers from bad PR from the days when it was considered the domain of nerds and geeks.
Another theory relates to our cliched national image, which is sun-drenched, beach-oriented and carefree. Australia frequently appears on the World’s Happiest Countries list – yet sci-fi, as Andrew Milner has argued, often presents dystopian visions of the future – Mind you, some, such as the late critic Mark Juddery, have pointed out that we have a solid track record of equating the beach with stories about the end of the world. Just think of films such as These Final Hours (2013), The Last Wave (1978) and On The Beach (1959).
Australian cinema seems to have a better budget for the demands of science fiction, including CGI. Notable science-fiction films made and/or produced here include The Matrix (1999), which Warner Bros. co-produced with Australia’s Village Roadshow Pictures, and The Mad Max franchise.
Budgets for Australian films are arguably larger than for Australian television shows. But Martha Coleman, former head of development at Screen Australia, says when it comes to Australian science-fiction television, it’s not just a question of money: It’s about coming up with those high-concept great ideas that are going to draw attention to themselves and achieve it within the right budget.
Past Australian sci-fi shows range from the cringe-worthy (Ocean Girl, Cybergirl) to the cult classic Farscape (1999-2003). Made jointly with the US, it is one of the few Australian sci-fi shows to have gained popularity. Set in space, the series had a predominantly Australian and New Zealand cast, and followed American astronaut John Crichton as he teamed up with a group of rebels to escape the corrupt organisation known as the Peacekeepers and search for a wormhole back to Earth.
More recently, ABC’s Glitch is set to return for its second season. Situated in a fictional country town where dead people come back to life, the series won numerous awards, including Best Television Drama at the AACTA Awards in 2016. Co-produced by Netflix, it will stream internationally (which shows how useful streaming platforms have become for local content).
One of the best science-fiction shows to emerge in recent years is, of course, Cleverman. Launched in 2016, it marries the Aboriginal Dreamtime with supernatural elements. The show follows Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard), who is bequeathed the supernatural powers of his people by his Uncle Jimmy (veteran Aboriginal actor Jack Charles), while a class of sub-humans known as “The Hairypeople” try to gain acceptance in society.
The series aired in the US on SundanceTV and was well received by international critics. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both praised the series particularly for its approach to racial issues and Aboriginal narratives.
In Science Fiction Cinema, authors Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska note that science fiction is a “powerful cultural barometer of our times”. Cleverman attests to this, exploring culturally and politically charged issues relating to national identity, which may help explain its success.
Australia has a unique landscape and culture that could lead to a distinctive genre of local sci-fi. And while sci-fi is not the most popular genre here, it is not completely without industry support. Now in its tenth year, the John Hinde Award for Excellence in Science-Fiction Writing awards $10,000 for the best-produced sci-fi script, as well as providing support to undeveloped work. This award helped lead to Cleverman and Arrowhead (“an interstellar survival story of a stranded mercenary who discovers a deadly secret on a seemingly deserted moon”), among other works.
So while it is still associated primarily with the geek subculture, sci-fi appears to be gaining momentum in Australian television. The Australian Writers’ Guild has noted that we appear to be experiencing a “renaissance” of local sci-fi content, citing Tidelands as evidence. And since sci-fi reflects timely cultural concerns in imaginative ways, it is arguably the most important genre for our “post-truth” era.
Image: Cleverman – courtesy of Goalpost Pictures / ABC