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Pure science fiction is relatively rare in web series, like pure genres in general (if you take away cross-genre and hybrid comedies). “Good one”, even more (I’m not taking into account companion web series made for TV shows, that travel on another rail).
Quite obviously, because making it with low or zero budget it’s not easy per se. And highest (and merciless) reference standards in movies and TV make things even worse. For independent web productions it’s of course impossible to compete with high budgeted boombastic movies (not that we really need it, btw); but even a more low profile TV standard is quite likely out of reach. But a valid example to look to is independent cinema, that has given us many instances of clever, original and relatively cheap genre movies or shorts, through the years; or, before that, the low budget sci-fi of the classic era (maybe too cheesy for modern audiences) or the one made in that blessed decade in between the Sixties and the Seventies.
But still, the budget of a whole web series is quite likely smaller than the one of a well crafted short movie (there’s a difference in purpose and destination venues, after all). So creators have to come up with ingenious solutions, aside from the usual indie approach (closed environments, few actors, the elimination of any special effect not economically available, character driven stories, economy of means, etc.).
Some tried with cheap animation or choose the universal remedy of found footage/vlogging style; and a few projects grabbed a better budget through branding or studio back-up. But some other creators, following a process that is not dissimilar to the one I already pointed out in some horror web series, choose to go back to the old school or, as I like to call it, to go classic. By this, as I said, I don’t refer only to a general “indie” approach (many other good shows, like Pioneer One, share this method without reminding necessarily of classic works); I mean, instead, that they go a little further, ending up incorporating some story elements, atmospheres and even visuals that make them resonate with a classically established feel of a decade, a current, or even a peculiar, seminal movie. Sometimes, they go even further, recycling an entire, outdated aesthetic. But it’s not the case of a plain derivative writing or a postiche imitative design (like the one, mostly, semi-parodistic, we see in some noir-hard-boiled or seventies-looking-cop shows): it feels, here, more like a reproposal than a mere copy and paste. More or less like Blade Runner did with blending noir and SF in the Eighties or Moon resuming a certain 70’s sci-fi mood and setting in this decade (and I’m not quoting these two at random).
Following this approach, such web series manage to get a great value for science fiction: coherence between their story and visuals. A necessary one. I may be excessively niggling, but I think science fiction, like horror, needs effective and convincing production values to work. I don’t mean “expensive”; I mean “good enough” compared to the ambitions and “in tone” with the series mood (e.g: 60’s Star Trek sets look evidently fake, but convey a sense of fantastic and exotic perfect for that stories). Of course, the story is what matters (and without it, all you have it’s pure style exercise); but, in science fiction I want more.

Ark

I believe you won’t find easily, on the web, a better science fiction production than Ark. This making even less acceptable that such a little jewel was not given any attention or distribution for more than a year, killing the chances for a necessary second season and leaving us with a spectacular cliffhanger. But it’s one of the cases where the race is much more important than the finish line.
First announced with a trailer in 2008, landed on Hulu in 2010 and, at the moment, only watchable there (a more widespread release was mentioned but never happened), it was born out of a deal between the (then thriving, now dead) production company 60 Frames and Oni Press; its original plan featured a double release as a web series and a comic book (but I can’t find any further mention to the latter). Created by TV writer Robbie Thompson and developed by Gabe Sachs e Jeff Judah (“known” for the Beverly Hills reboot), it’s directed by Trey Stokes (also responsible for editing, effects and sound design), previously active in mo-cap and SFX and author of Lucasfilm Star Wars Movie Challenge winning parody, Pink Five Trilogy.
It features Renée O’ Connor in the lead role (and I’ve never liked her so much).
The overall length of the series is around 45 minutes, sliced into 9 episodes ranging between 3 ant 10 minutes each; the complete continuity makes it easily look like a movie’s first half (or maybe first two acts) or, if you like, as a TV pilot; but I’d stick with the movie option, because of its visuals and pace (quite strangely, sometimes you happen to see some crossfades to black inconsistent with the episode structure, almost hinting to a previous “cut” re-edited into episodes only later).
Ark immediately smells like classic because its use of one of the most basic topics of sci-fi movies: the awakening into a closed, unknown environment/ship, followed by a chase for answers. Maybe, the title itself it’s a little self explanatory and classically referential, too.
If the ship’s geodesic structures make me think to movies like Silent Running, the claustrophobic, decadent environment, the twists of distrust, the feeling of a background tragedy, and some character conflicts immediately bring to mind the Seventies’ lesson. The cinematography in itself is quite appropriate and, due to the indie approach, quite far from any contemporary overproduced aesthetic. Like a Moon with gardens, darkness and and action or a Pandorum without derivative CGI monsters (but much, much better than the latter).
I’ll tell you again. Everything in Ark is worth the run. From the symbolism (not too subtle, fine, but it’s part of the game) to the resonance with universal existential questions, to the flawless execution, the fluid pacing and the really hooking atmosphere. This stuff should have gone to theaters.
As said, the production is absolutely high standard for a web show (50.000$ are not exactly your average web budget) but there’s a trick that improves it even more: the sets were recycled from the Whedon’s show Firefly.
Show’s page here.

Continuum

Continuum is a 2011 show (it premiered on Facebook but was fully released only this year, on JTS) that pretty much follows the same premises and classic references of Ark, but with a more distinct TV and contemporary aesthetic. It’s still reminds of good old school, but with a younger look, if we may say so.
Coming from the award-winning creators of the web series Pink and (WB’s) Exposed, it’s written and directed by Blake Calhoun, produced by his Texas based company Loud Pictures, and it features Melanie Merkosky (the gal from Harper’s Globe), Brad Hawkins and (the voice of) Taryn O’Neill.
Continuum is undoubtedly among the best produced science fiction ever seen on the web. And again, it doesn’t exactly seem have been made on a cheap. It has, though, a more light and easy approach than Ark and, due to the premises similarities (it starts, again, with a mysterious and memory deprived awakening into a close and inescapable ship, with immediate hints of something gone really wrong), a comparison comes naturally, and doesn’t serve the series well.
The production, as said, is extremely modern, digital looking, showcasing good digital effects, and the design emphasizes the light (on the contrary to Ark, that was all about shadows); plus, the lead is pure eye-candy, with sexy outfit and always perfect make up and hair. While the writing, here, shows a much less introspective and fine approach and no symbolic references to let your free association play with; the structure is also more clearly episodic, with each of the 9 chapters being about 5 minutes and, while developing a continuative arc, tailored according to a TV-like approach (quick starts and sly ending cliffhangers – a choice, in my opinion, that chokes a little the story’s breath, especially if you watch the show all at once. A re-edited “full feature” edition, also including Season 2, would be really appreciated).
So far, the first season ends up with a cliffhanger but the following has already been announced.
You can see it exclusively on the JTS network. A wider release has been announced, though, and the pilot is available on Youtube as well.

Time Keeper

I’d like to add to the count a recent ad quite interesting series, more loosely fitting the profile of the classic reference: Time Keeper.
A 2012 production, it partially looks back to the Eighties/Nineties as it deals with time travel in a way slightly reminiscent of the classic series Quantum Leap. But with a much darker aftertaste.
The main lead finds himself jumping in time with some missions to accomplish (but “dirty” ones, here) and unable to remember a great part of it, making him an eternal disoriented bloke.
Of course, a perfect structure of doubts, suspect and even paranoia can be built upon this premise, and that’s what gives solidity to the show, together with convincing performances and writing.
It’s written and directed by Daryn Murphy and produced by Florida-based Yitibit Films.
Season One is available on the official site, Youtube o Blip.

“Stay tuned” for the next part, next Tuesday, talking about vintage and stylized science fiction web series.
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