I was excited when I heard that Dan Simmons’ 1989 science fiction novel Hyperion is finally being adapted for television. But my excitement turned quickly to dread. The Hyperion adaptation I’ve imagined for years is finally happening, and it’s going to be awful. What else could I possibly expect from Syfy, the cable channel whose most recent claim to fame is Sharknado?
Bradley Cooper’s involvement as executive producer gives me hope, as he’s been trying to get this series adapted for years and appears to be a real fan. But I would have rather he’d done it anywhere but SyFy. Aside from a few exceptions (Battlestar Galactica being the most notable), SyFy has produced mainly reality show crap and pulpy, low-rent pseudo-sci-fi since it changed its name from “Sci Fi Channel” to “SyFy” in 2009.
That stunt was intended to “refresh the brand,” as NBC Universal executive VP for cable ad sales Steve Mandala said. To put it another way, SyFy wanted to shed its fan base of “dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements,” as TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch the original Sci Fi Channel, put it. In retrospect, it seems Brooks was speaking more from the heart.
So shed us they did, and ever since SyFy’s been known more for crap like Ghost Hunters and Face Off than the B-grade-but-better-than-nothing science fiction, like Eureka and Stargate, that they made before.
But in 2014, SyFy executives drastically changed their tune. The network’s new head of programming, Bill McGoldrick, told EW that they’re going “back to [their] roots,” and he didn’t even try to hide their motivation.
“We have a couple really big shows that are trying to accomplish that,” he said, “which play more toward I think the harder core sci-fi fan who used to be perceived as niche but is now mainstream and commercial in a way they have never been before.”
In other words sci-fi is suddenly cool, and “SyFy” wants to get beamed back aboard the bandwagon.
OK, fine. Good TV for nerds is not an exclusive club; AMC is in with Breaking Bad, and HBO made it with Game of Thrones, two shows McGoldrick cited in discussing SyFy’s new direction (although The Walking Dead would have been more relevant to his point). And he said they’d give shows like Ascension and Expanse the bigger budget that they need to compete in today’s higher-end TV landscape.
Expanse, based on a decent sci-fi book series, hasn’t yet premiered, though its trailer (above) has. It looks OK—hard to tell for sure. Ascension hadn’t premiered yet when McGoldrick gave the interview, but it since has—and it was met with mixed reviews. Other new Syfy shows to debut since the network’s change of heart include 12 Monkeys, which was well-received, and Dominion, which was not.
Those are only the beginning. From the press release announcing Hyperion, SyFy’s other current projects include: “the recently-announced series pickup of The Magicians…Arthur C. Clarke’s epic mini-series Childhood’s End, also set to premiere this December; Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World with Amblin Television; Gale Anne Hurd’s 13-episode thriller Hunters; David Goyer’s Superman prequel, Krypton; and Incorporated, a futuristic espionage drama from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.”
SyFy is trying really hard to prove something, but even with all those other really impressive-sounding shows in the works, Hyperion is its best chance to do so.
THE CANTERBURY TALES…IN SPACE
Hyperion is a widely respected sci-fi novel that won a 1990 Hugo award (the most prestigious honor for science fiction) and yet has never been adapted—despite being perfect for TV.
The series consists of two sets of two books that concern a future on the verge of apocalyptic war, and a group of seven pilgrims sent to appeal to a metallic demon god on the backwater world from which the books take their name: Hyperion. The creature, known as the Shrike, likes to travel through time and impale its victims on a skyscraper-sized “tree” of metallic thorns while it guards the mysterious Time Tombs in one of the planet’s most remote regions. Its true purpose is unknown.
The second book is a different story, but the first, just called Hyperion, is a sci-fi reimagining of The Canterbury Tales, with each of the pilgrims telling his or her own stories as they journey farther and farther outside of humanity’s galaxy-spanning “WorldWeb.”
It couldn’t be more perfect for adaptation as a modern TV event series if author Dan Simmons had time-traveled from the future back to 1989 to write it with the knowledge that Bradley Cooper and SyFy would pick it up. If that’s the case, at least he must be confident that it’s going to turn out.
Each of the pilgrim’s stories could easily be condensed into an hour or so of television, with room for the framing story of the group’s pilgrimage interspersed throughout. And although this universe contains a few large-scale battles, a chrome murder-god and a river that flows through portals to span hundreds of worlds, a lot of the action takes place on the relatively primitive planet of Hyperion itself, where it won’t require many more special effects than the last season of Parks and Recreation.
So: structurally, Hyperion might as well have been made to be adapted for TV. And although it’s definitely hardcore sci-fi—just like “SyFy” wants—it won’t require constant space battles and myriad alien creatures. Just the one—the Shrike—whose presence, at least in the first book, is more felt than seen.
SyFy has a lot to prove with Hyperion. It’s the perfect source material, Executive Producer Rocket Raccoon (read: Cooper) is passionate about it, and it aligns perfectly with the channel’s current goal: to get back in sci-fi fans’ good graces. Maybe—just maybe—it will pull it off.
Then again, maybe I just really, really want that to be the case.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games but mostly concerned with maxing his Destiny characters. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.