To those who spent the latter part of the 1970s either gyrating through the short-lived throes of Disco or raging to the nascent, yet scarring bars of punk, one thing was certain, the future was going to be “out there”! Science fiction was on the brink of reality, we were told, the “fiction” flippantly discarded to be replaced by science “fact”.
George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’ may have been taking place in a galaxy far, far away, but Steven Sielberg’s ‘Close Encounters…’ brought aliens to Wyoming. The future was all brightly-lit flying saucers and rebels sticking it to the Empire and, just in case you thought it was all rollicking good fun, a certain Ridley Scott made sure you knew that, in space, no one could hear you scream.
Finally, the big screen was coming closer to a genre of film that was the solid domain of TV. Television was science fiction’s kingdom in the heady days before CGI minituarized the cosmos, and distant stars were dragged closer to the viewer, tugging at them with all the gravitational force of an epic marketing campaign.
‘Star Trek’, ‘Lost in Space’, etc were not so much pushing boundaries as they were terraforming distant parts of the human psyche. But movies were catching up.
Spielberg and Lucas handed the mantle over to James Cameron and the all-encompassing Marvel and DC universes, and the cosmos expanded. If Star Wars was the Big Bang, we would be well past the first minute of cosmic creation by now.
And then something strange happened. Movies picked up the science fiction baton and ran a mile in 10 seconds while television, seemingly, took a smoke break. For decades, TV forgot its relationship with the stars, lost in an infatuated embrace with procedurals, sloppy sitcoms, and soaps masquerading as dramas.
Sure there was ‘The X-Files’, but there was also ‘Stargate’, ‘Babylon 5’, etc: Science fiction without the science, and more pulp than Dashiell Hammett. And then, like a man who’s woken up in a stranger’s bed and realized what’s been missing from his life, TV returned to science fiction, and how.
Over the last few years we have seen a flurry of activity focused not just on the stars, but on the technological spaces that exist between man and his environment. AI replaced aliens, aliens replaced humans, and humans… Well, they just got outta Dodge and headed for the stars.
Netflix has led the charge towards this science fiction renaissance on the small screen with the popular ‘Stranger Things’ (a Goonies-meets-ET-meets-Pan’s Labyrinth) and the surprisingly good remake of ‘Lost in Space’.
And while fanboys will claim sci-fi’s comeback was kicked-off by ABC’s ‘Lost’ (a series so profoundly convoluted, at some point it’s going to be a specialized subject on ‘Mastermind’), the mindbending island saga is not a patch on today’s shows.
Syfy’s (and now Amazon’s) ‘The Expanse’ may not be as revered as the cult classic ‘Firefly’, but it’s better, and not just because it’s based on James Corey’s superb books.
But what’s more interesting is how science itself is playing a pivotal role in these series. No longer is it a frazzle-haired sideshow to the proper business of cavorting with bizarre aliens and zipping around a carbon-based galaxy. It’s the very core around which this neutron star spins.
Take for instance Netflix’s ‘Altered Carbon’ and Starz’s ‘Counterpart’, both very different shows, but both scientifically grand in their own way. Where ‘Altered Carbon’ questions mortality, memory, and privilege (it’s no Proust, but it’ll do for now) ‘Counterpart’ is more grit, intrigue, and what would happen if you met you.
Science is the key to both shows as it should be and, hopefully, this will be a trend for future science fiction TV series. Don’t presume your audience is an idiot, and we won’t presume you’re all smoke and mirrors, should be the message to the studios.
In a way, science fiction on TV is getting harder, a lot harder than it will ever get on the big screen.
We’re still some time away from seeing James Blish’s ‘Cities in Flight’ or Stephen Baxter’s ‘Xelee’ sequence on screen, but we can hope.
There is nothing as wondrous as the universe, a swirling eddy of invisible forces so strong they can rip stars to shreds, and some so gentle they can create life from the cold dark airless depths of a vacuum. As humans in our current avatars, it is unlikely we will ever set foot on a planet outside our solar system. Those pioneers will have as much tech as they will bio. But we’re here today and we need to dream, and hopefully we will be helped along by TV series that see the stars as we do… bright and brimming with mystery.
This is an opnion piece. The views of the writer are his own and may not necessarily be those of Meaww.