The golden era of television is dead and buried, murdered by streaming services that blew up the cable bundle, carved up once-monolithic audiences, and now feed us a steady drip of mediocre content designed to be consumed as the blurry backdrop to your smartphone screen (says the guy currently watching Suits on Netflix). A recent Slate article dubbed our current television era “Trough TV,” but out of that dystopian hellscape, a new golden era may be emerging, all thanks to an unlikely source.
“I think you could easily argue it’s a golden age of science fiction,” Ronald Moore tells Inverse. “I don’t think that’s a mistaken idea.”
For any non-sci-fi nerds among us, Moore is the celebrated TV screenwriter who got his start on Star Trek: The Next Generation and spent 11 years with the beloved franchise. He proceeded to create the universally acclaimed 2004 reboot of the military space opera Battlestar Galactica and followed that up with hit historical time-travel drama Outlander. But Moore isn’t talking about any of those shows. He’s talking about his current project, the speculative history sci-fi series For All Mankind, currently in its fourth season on Apple TV+.
For All Mankind isn’t the only sci-fi show pushing the limits of the genre on Tim Cook’s dime. The Apple CEO has been quietly funding some of the best science fiction TV in recent memory, ranging from the centuries-spanning Isaac Asimov adaptation Foundation to the mind-bending near-future of Severance to the globe-trotting Godzilla spinoff series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters — to name just a few.
And while it’s hard to say what exactly defines an Apple sci-fi show, Inverse spoke to several showrunners and producers who all agree the tech giant brings a unique, futurist perspective to the genre that — when combined with endless cash — helps explain why, all of a sudden, it seems like the best science fiction television is all coming from the same company that sold you your iPhone.
Big budget, no problem
One thing you can say about pretty much any show or movie on Apple TV+ is that it probably looks gorgeous. While many Netflix productions have a certain flatness to them that can make it feel like the streamer has been cutting corners, Apple is pouring a lot of money into the look (and star power) of its original series — it helps to have a trillion-dollar cash pile, even if Amazon and Disney are still outspending the MacBook maker.
For Matt Shakman, an executive producer on Monarch: Legacy of Monsters and the director of Marvel’s upcoming Fantastic Four movie, the results speak for themselves.
“As a lover of sci-fi and as a lover of stories on a big epic scale, I’m so happy that Apple is doing it and they’re doing it right,” Shakman says, adding that the company invests in everything from storytelling to the epic scope needed for high-concept science fiction. “They do it correctly in terms of being able to bring these worlds to life. It takes a lot of resources and a lot of talented people, and thankfully, Apple is putting their support behind that.”
Apple may also be more motivated to produce shows like these than some of its competitors. Monarch showrunner Chris Black made a career writing screenplays in the pre-streaming era, with credits that range from Star Trek: Enterprise to Xena: Warrior Princess. He tells Inverse the biggest challenge in making sci-fi TV during that era was simply convincing anyone it was worth the investment.
“I remember trying to pitch a science fiction show to the broadcast networks, and it was always a nonstarter because they were very expensive to produce for what they considered to be a limited audience,” Black says. “But now, suddenly, there are so many places where you can go and tell those stories, Apple obviously being one of them.”
Black has a point. Apple might be the most valuable company in the history of capitalism, but it’s just one of many deep-pocketed streamers fighting over the next big TV show. So what sets Apple TV+ apart? The sci-fi creators Inverse spoke to all hinted it comes naturally from the very heart of the company’s culture.
The Steve Jobs effect
“I think there’s something in their corporate culture about the belief of technology and a better future being achieved,” Matt Fraction tells Inverse.
Fraction is the co-creator of Monarch, but he’s best known as the award-winning writer behind the 2012 Hawkeye comic book, which partially inspired Marvel Studios’ live-action show about the sharpshooting Avenger.
“There’s something about Apple having in its corporate DNA this sense of technology and possibility,” Fraction adds. “Science fiction is the best kind of canvas to tell this story.”
Ron Moore agrees. “Think different” may have just been a clever bit of marketing, but in his conversations with Apple employees, the iconic sci-fi showrunner says he really has noticed a difference in the way the Cupertino company approaches the genre.
“When you talk to the people at Apple, they’re science fiction fans already,” Moore says. “They’re people that have an affinity for this kind of material and speculative fiction and technology. They’re always thinking about the future, and they were informed by science fiction in their youths. I think that goes all the way back to Steve Jobs.”
Maybe that’s what sets Apple’s sci-fi offerings apart. After all, plenty of tech companies have gotten into television before. Amazon makes sci-fi too, but there’s a cynical streak running through Prime Video’s offerings. Jeff Bezos’ admittedly entertaining superhero shows all seem hell-bent on making Superman look like the bad guy (a little suspicious for a billionaire who looks uncannily like Lex Luthor), while the company’s efforts to save sci-fi darling The Expanse ultimately lacked a director’s vision or any coherent strategy beyond turning fans of the show into Amazon Prime subscribers. Put another way, The Boys might be great TV, but it wouldn’t feel at home under Apple’s shiny product halo.
Meanwhile, for the most part, if you’re watching sci-fi on Apple TV+, you can expect a marriage of futurism and big-budget production that defines shows like Foundation and For All Mankind.
“There is a happy marriage of science fiction ideas and programming that lives in Apple TV+,” Moore says. “Certainly they care about things like getting the tech right and making it look correct and spending money on visual effects, not just for the sake of spectacle but for the advancement of story and exploring big ideas in terms of science fiction.”
“So yeah,” he concludes, “I think it's a good place to do this kind of programming.”
Additional reporting by Ryan Britt.