How Canada became the mecca for sci-fi television

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If you follow me on social media, you would know that I was quite hyped about the recent news that Syfy have renewed freshmen sci-fi shows Dark Matter and Killjoys. While they’re both great little shows that scratch slightly different sci-fi fanboy itches of mine, I’m not here to tell you why should watch them (that’s for another post in a couple of weeks). It was while watching these shows that my wife made a neat discovery though.

I’ve mentioned in the past that the missus and I are currently doing a rewatch of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis (which have both held up really well, by the way) and while watching a recent episode of Dark Matter my wife noticed the appearance of David Hewlitt and Torri Higginson, better known as Stargate Atlantis’ Rodney McKay and Dr. Elizabeth Weir. Another episode also happened to be directed by Amanda Tapping, best known as Major Samantha Carter on Stargate SG-1. Tapping also acted in an episode of Killjoys a few weeks later.

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My wife thought that this was quite the coincidence, but I explained to her that it’s not so much a case of happenstance as it is geography. See, there’s something all four these shows have in common, and it’s the reason why these actors move back and forth between productions so easily: They’re all made in Canada. And they’re not the only sci-fi/geeky shows we’re currently watching that is shot in the North American country. Orphan Black, Continuum, Arrow and The Flash are all also shot there, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Looking at shows that I’m not watching but are either currently airing or have finished their runs, there’s also Helix, 12 Monkeys, Once Upon a Time, Lost Girl, Human Target, Supernatural, Haven, Ascension and Nick’s sci-fi crush Defiance. The upcoming literary adaptation The Expanse and the Minority Report TV series all also find their productions on Canadian soil.

That’s a whole lot of sci-fi for one country. And those are just the recent shows. Modern classics like X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Millenium, The Outer Limits, Highlander: The Series, Viper and Sliders are all included in the list. Taking it even further back, Canada also gave us Airwolf, Captain Power and MacGyver (hey, some of his inventions could be considered sci-fi, I guess?).

All of this led me to wonder what gives though? Why has Canada, and in particular Vancouver, seemingly become the sci-fi capital of the Western World? I’ve been doing a bit of research online about it, and as far as I can see we should blame the aliens. More specifically, we can blame the two FBI agents trying to find those aliens in X-Files.

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When creator Chris Carter first started production on the huge series in the early 90’s, he planned to shoot in Los Angeles, but unable to find the right moody locations for a number of pilot episode scenes, he decided to “go where the good forests are” and moved shop to Vancouver.

X-Files would of course go onto be a gigantic success, becoming a global phenomenon over the next few years. Eventually though, the show did in fact relocate to Los Angeles after five seasons – one reason being star David Duchovny’s unhappiness at his constant separation from his wife Tea Leoni – but when it did, it left behind a small army of locals with some fairly good skills who had just been working on one of the biggest sci-fi shows in history. Naturally, people wanted to work with these experienced folk and so rapidly snatched them up for their own shows. And thus the Vancouver sci-fi production industry was born.

But somewhere along the lines, even before that, Canadians went from just staffing American sci-fi productions, to realizing they could also produce their own right alongside the big boys, exponentially increasing the Canadian foothold on the genre. The Canadian government were fully aware they were onto a good thing here, and so offered all kinds of tax credits and local subsidies for foreign productions. That huge financial incentive meant that it was nothing but a win-win for both the local economy and for US productions who could get quality work done much cheaper than they would in Hollywood.

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On top of that Canada boasts a huge variety of terrains – from modern urban cityscapes, to dense forests to snow-covered mountains and everything in between, which makes location scouting way easier. Even more appropriate for the sci-fi genre, Canada has a very unique development: As a means of escaping the harsh Canadian winter, several of its cities have massive underground networks of malls, entertainment complexes and the like, all set up so that Canadians never have to go face-first into a snow storm to watch a movie at the local cinema. Montreal has RESO, a massive underground city comprised of more than 2 000 shops, 40 cinemas, museums and more, all situated in 32 km’s of underground tunnels – the biggest such underground complex in the world. Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax and more all boast similar self-contained environments (though some are set above-ground, so no need to get too claustrophobic), all of which make for some very interesting sci-fi production locations that can essentially be used all year round, irrespective of the weather.

All of these benefits meant that networks like Syfy – or as it was known back then, the Sci-Fi Channel – all jumped on the local production bandwagon, resulting in the slew of Canadian sci-fi shows we’ve had over the last two decades. You can check out the full list of all Canadian sci-fi productions OVER HERE, going all the way back to the 1950’s, but be warned: it’s a lengthy one.

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I’m pretty sure that some of the entries on that list are going to be surprising to many of you due to the fact that because they are actually run by American production companies, the shows are often set in or portrayed as the United States. Initially, this was intentionally done so as to be more marketable to foreign markets, but even that’s changed. Shows like Continuum make no bones about the fact that it’s set in a modern, and far future version of Vancouver.

This self-identity has started becoming a lot more prevalent in the last few years, resulting in actual Canadian sci-fi shows, and not just American sci-fi productions made in Canada. Orphan Black takes a very unique approach to this though by intentionally showing or referring to elements from both countries side by side, like having a character in a mock New York train station but using Canadian currency.

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Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson jokingly refers to their show’s location as “Generica”. Cute. Whatever nickname you want to give it though, there’s simply no denying that if you’re a fan of the genre, then you have a hell of a lot to be thankful to sci-fi’s new motherland for. Sorry, South Park, but you guys got it wrong. It should have been “Hail, Canada!”.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: September 9, 2015

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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