Recently, several friends (both online and in person) watched the finale of Battlestar Galactica, a show that I've heard was a landmark achievement not only for science fiction as a genre, but for television dramas in general. Its popularity among critics no doubt rests on the fact that, unlike many science-fiction shows, it tells one over-arching story instead of relying on situational narratives. Those types of epic narratives are usually breathtaking, and, like a good novel (or series of novels) they give fans the chance to really interact with the story, figuring out secrets and plotlines and picking up on clues that the writers leave scattered about like gems.
Now, you can tell that I really appreciate this type of storytelling. I haven't seen Battlestar Galactica because I did not want to jump into a story in its last season (which is when I realized that I had been missing out). I intend to get the DVDs and watch them this summer, and even though I've already been spoiled to a certain extent (you couldn't go anywhere online without being told who the Final Cylon was, for example), I don't want to be spoiled too much, so keep that in mind in the comments.
One of the reasons I think Battlestar looks like such an amazing show is because it is character-driven (as this promo and this series of promos, all expertly produced, show). Instead of focusing on dogfights or alien races, the show makes a point to be about various interesting and psychologically-complex characters going through a series of fantastic events. That, I think, is good storytelling. I think that often, fantasy and sci-fi works can get bogged down in the ins and outs of their respective worlds. THey lose their characters, in a sense, which should be the focus of any story.
I feel that having a character-driven epic is one of the most difficult types of fiction to write. Not only do you have to build this fantastic world and people it with a large cast of characters, but you also have to make the characters deep and psychologically-interesting. That's hard enough to do when you're just writing a short realistic fiction piece with only one or two characters, so the fantasy epic is quite the feat.
It's also something that I think every mildly ambitious writer (myself included) wants to do, whether they admit to it or not. Whether they are in film or in novel form, people just tend to respond to these types of epic stories. They are often what lasts in terms of staying in a cultural consciousness. The sheer scale of them just does something to people, but only if they are done in a way that talks about people and their relationships with one another more than swords or spaceships.