Another Decade in Science Fiction

9 Jan

Last year (that’s 2009) cable’s foremost source for time travel, space travel, and scantily-clad aliens shocked fans with a controversial name change—from Sci-Fi to Syfy.  Personally, I like it.  The fandom needs to be shaken up (science fiction should never have an orthodoxy), and the uninitiated need to inch away from that viewer stereotype of bespectacled adolescent boys watching Star Trek in their basement.

And Star Trek, actually, is a great example of a show that’s always done a brilliant job focusing on the now and never nostalgia, often making the future look eerily like the best—and worst—aspects of the modern day.  Captain Kirk and crew of The Original Series (1966-69) tackled racism and sexism, for one, and The Next Generation’s Captain Picard’s battles with the terrifying Borg Collective aired during (you guessed it) the heat of the Cold War.

J. J. Abrams continued the tradition of taking the present to the future with a new Star Trek movie that put 2009’s international relations problems on the big screen, and an intergalactic scale.

Romulans and Vulcans, we learn, share a common cultural ancestry—but it’s hardly an amiable one, with black holes imploding home planets left and right.  (Young) Spock’s stoic observation that perhaps 10,000 Vulcans exist in all the universe, and the entire cultural history and traditions in a handful of elders, sounded chillingly like the story of the Jewish diaspora.  The fact that the warring humanoids are distant cousins only puts audiences more in mind of the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

That’s heavy lifting for a franchise popularly seen as somewhat cornball (although, I should add, there was one incident of Jim-Kirk-and-a-half-naked-bright-green-alien-girl action).

In any case, it’s a stereotype pretty successfully debunked: don’t let anyone tell you that science fiction is escapist.

Another excellent case story is Whedon, who you might know as creator of cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and spin-off series Angel (1999-2004).

Unfortunately for Whedon, his two attempts to bring sci-fi to FOX in the new millennium were shot down as fast as the USS Kelvin in a Romulan phaser-storm.  And Firefly, which generated a massive fan base after the series’ DVD release, barely even made it out of the loading dock.  Only 11 of the 14 episodes were actually aired on television, and those not even in the proper order—don’t ask.

Firefly demonstrated the “radical presentism” (quoting Cory Doctorow: always appropriate) that keeps science fiction relevant, and rather less fictitious than one might imagine.  In Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his motley crew, we find an assortment of war heroes and petty thieves dodging the all-seeing eye of a totalitarian—and universal—government.  Add roving cannibal marauders who wear their victims’ skin, and space begins to look like a pretty scary place.

Also a lot like our more terrestrial society.  Firefly shows us a future where a war for independence fails, and an all-encompassing government (however well-meaning) trades liberty for paternalism.  Premiering almost one year to the day after 9/11, Whedon’s message about liberty versus security was particular pointed—not to mention probably more effective than quoting Ben Franklin, whose aphorisms (however incisive) haven’t had so much punch since the periwig went out of fashion.

When 2005 brought the cancelled series new life as a feature film, Serenity, space’s frontier savages (“Reavers”) got further treatment, as well as a backstory involving genetic-engineering gone terribly, terribly wrong—another issue making headlines at the time.

The more recent Dollhouse picked up, thematically, where Serenity left off: the moral ambiguity of rapidly-advancing technology, particularly as it applies to the brain, memories, and identity.  Though tragically terminated, Dollhouse demonstrated, again, that science fiction can posit answers to modern questions (and raise more questions)—in this case perhaps surrounding the very contemporary fear that, when it comes to technology, what can be done will be done.

This may be bad in brainwashing human “dolls,” perhaps, but it’s definitely good for Whedon in the realm of production and dissemination of a more successful 2008 project: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. With Dr. Horrible, Whedon got his revenge on big networks and showed (in the middle of the WGA writers’ strike, no less) that current technology could make TV a little more personal while spreading science fiction to the masses.

If the title doesn’t hint at the venue, Dr. Horrible (featuring a singing and dancing Neil Patrick Harris and Firefly’s Nathan Fillion) was distributed exclusively online—and was named #15 in Time magazines Top 50 Inventions of 2008.  As for the theme—NPH’s Dr. Horrible desperately aspires to supervillain status (his love interest, by the way, runs a homeless shelter).  Is it too deep to suggest this is a protest against the impersonalization of a mass-produced, mass-consumer-oriented America?  Whedon’s rejection of the traditional format certainly is: there’s not much more democratic than an Internet release.

In the end, the “Ohs,” despite setbacks, continued to pull off what science fiction has been doing for decades: reflecting current concerns in what may look, at first glance, like an alien setting.  As for now—onward to the twenty-teens.

2 Responses to “Another Decade in Science Fiction”

  1. Malka Mcglathery February 1, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    I loved Star Trek! My brother and I have been huge fans since we were adoloscents. I loved the way that teh characters have developed their friendship. The decision of young performers was idealyoung Kirk and Spock, amazing! I really can’t wait until the next Star Trek.

  2. Stephen Prosapio August 4, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    Excellent article!!!

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