Here’s the second part of Scoob’s missive wherein he asks a very good question: What is it about Sci-Fi that is so difficult for TV to get?
His point is that, in an era that is ready to embrace the genre as its own – there’s even a channel dedicated to it now – why is it that program after program appears, only to screw things up, or, on showing promise, disappear?
He theorizes that it may be the marketing of the program, citing examples like Firefly, and Invasion, which ended on what may be a never-resolved cliffhanger. Also, he speculates that the overall vision, and the control over same as exercised by the creators, may have something to do with it, citing Roddenberry’s influence over the return of the Trek franchise. That could explain the endurance of shows like Babylon 5, which was almost the single-handed work of J. Michael GuywhoselastnameIcan’tspell.
One factor I think he missed is that, more and more often, programs are not given a chance to find their audience. I seem to recall an odd little sitcom that got off to a rocky start, being bounced from one time slot to another. But the core audience stayed loyal, and word spread, and soon it was a hit. It was about some bar where everybody knows your name.
Nowadays, airtime is money, and if a show is not the hit, it gets the axe. Note: this is also true of music acts and authors now.
But there’s one other thing that I think is at work. This should be the Golden Age of SF Cinema (lumping TV in with that for convenience). After all, the years of bad 50’s Sci-Fi are behind us, special effects are incredible, and there’s never been a bigger market for the stuff.
Yet so much of it is terrible. And so much more is just plain gone wrong.
What’s the deal?
I think the main issue comes down to a second question: Why can’t Hollywood seem to get Science Fiction right?
Personally, I think it’s because Hollywood has little if any concept of how ingrained Science should be in SF. They think that if you put a scientific concept, e.g., space ships, in something, it makes it Science Fiction. Not.
(Case in point, Gene Roddenberry’s pitch to NBC about what Star Trek was all about: “It’s Wagon Train in space.”)
There are a lot of definitions of SF out there. Probably the best one is “Science Fiction is what we’re pointing at when we say it.” I’m more of a purist and prefer my own less-forgiving criterion: Take a Science Fiction story. Remove all of the Science. Do you still have a story? Then it’s not Science Fiction.
This is because I feel that science should be integral to the plot. Note that this instantly dismisses stuff like Star Wars*, the Alien films, two thirds of classic Star Trek episodes,** and in the interest of being fair, most of my own SF novels.
When you lose sight of that, you lose sight of what makes SF, meaning you put out bad product, which gives you something like… okay, I’ll pick that scab one more time: Jericho. Yes, I know that the show is supposed to be CBS’s answer to Lost, therefore making it Not Sci-Fi, but bear with me for a moment because it’s flaws illustrate my point well.
And the point is the unwillingness of Hollywood to go the extra mile to make something worthwhile. When Stanley Kubrick sat down with Arthur C. Clarke, their goal was to make “the proverbial good Science Fiction movie.” I don’t know what the creators of Jericho were thinking, but they did prove one thing: a little research is a dangerous thing.
In the case of Jericho, the creator knew that one nuclear bomb could ruin your whole day. But then, he tells an interviewer, he did some research and found out some amazing things about nuclear explosions, things that nobody thought much about. Apparently this had to do with fallout, and how rain could wash it out of the sky. So he strove to reflect this in the series.
Unfortunately, his research stopped there. The episode I saw showed a guy poking around a barn looking for some stolen horses (honest). He saw hoofprints in the dust. He kicks at the dirt and stirs up some dust. Cut to a medium shot and he’s surrounded by a nice sunlight that shows he is surrounded by… you guessed it.
If our Hollywood writer had bothered to keep reading the chapter on fallout, he would have learned some other things. Like about “half-life” and “residual radioactivity” and “this stuff can be dangerous for weeks” and “even years later can still make you linger with painful cancer that there are no longer any drugs to treat.”
Needless to say, I gave up on the show just after that. I can only hope that the half-life of Jericho is only a couple of weeks.
So what does work in the world of SF? What has Hollywood done right? In my opinion, films that are true SF are few and far between: 2001: A Space Odyssey and yes, its sequel 2010 (just because it stayed so true to the book); Blade Runner; The Andromeda Strain; and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
This brings us back to Scoob’s original question. I just listed five films that should be seen as the Gold Standard for great SF . How many of these were hits? How many are considered “difficult?” How many are even argued over vis a vis their worthiness as entertainment?
I hate to say it, but the answer to Scoob’s question might be as close as a look in the mirror (okay, not for Scoob, and definitely not for me – but you get the idea). The audience just might be as responsible as lazy Hollywood. Do they want something that will provoke thought about man’s insignificance when compared to the cosmos? Do they want something that makes them think about what it means to be human? Do they want to believe that science can save us at best or enslave us at worst?
(Time or Newsweek did a story not too long ago about the fantasy boom saying that SF was in decline because, in real life, the science that was supposed to save and enlighten us has let us down.)
Or does the audience want spectacle, even if there is a casual disregard for the laws of physics? Hey, Star Wars got away with that – and bad writing, too.+
So what’s the answer? Smarter writers? Smarter producers? A smarter audience? Unfortunately, judging from what I’ve seen written about this nation’s composite SAT scores in the Math and Science fields, those won’t arrive any time soon.
Our recourse? We vote. We vote with the only thing that Hollywood understands: our dollars. So the next time you see something challenging, brilliant, moving, and soundly grounded in whatever makes SF proper SF, see the movie, get the T-shirt, buy the soundtrack, see the movie again, then buy the DVD.
But don’t hold your breath. Because the next great SF film or series probably won’t come around for another blue moon.++
Now you and I make up perfect things
Watch me trade my wheels for wings
But don’t ever use the wings to fly
Just the essence of a lullaby
* Star Wars could have been a great pirate movie, with the two robots being a stuffy English butler and a bulldog. To make this point, at one time I proposed rewriting (and trying to sell) my novel Desperate Measures as not only a pirate novel, but a biker novel, a trucker novel, and a western.
** Note that I like the first two Alien films and I adore classic Star Trek – in fact, it’s hard for me to pull myself away from G4’s uncut airings of Classic Trek on Saturday mornings (as opposed to Star Trek 2.0, which is just plain goofy). I never warmed to The Next Generation – it got too bogged down in political correctness and Gene Roddenberry’s sense of self-importance. I guess this means that TOS is for Republicans and TNG is for Democrats, huh?
+ Kind of like how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera was a hit despite a lack of singable songs because of the falling chandelier.
++ The metaphorical blue moon, not the scientific one.