Future Imperfect: The TV season in sci-fi
Writing about science fiction to a general audience is the kiss of death. The self-designated fanboys already know ten times more than you, and the rest of your audience, which unless you’re writing for Star Wars Insider or Wizard Magazine is most of your audience, wish you’d grow up.
But the fact is science fiction makes for good TV. It grapples with the issues of the day, whether they’re racial and political relationships, as in the original “Star Trek” TV show, or the good old-fashioned post-Nixonian government paranoia of “The X-Files.” Usually the genre asks the big questions, too: what does it mean to be a human being? What should our relationship with science and technology be? What sort of future are we building for ourselves? Are we alone in the universe?
With that in mind, here’s a look at three science fiction shows worth your attention this winter.
The 1970s original show “Battlestar Galactica” was a science fiction embarrassment—Lorne Greene belongs in the stars like my grandma belongs in the Kentucky Derby. Plus, it featured “killer” robots that walked like the Tin Man; R2-D2 could kick their rear compartments.
The SciFi Channel’s new “Battlestar Galactica” came as a great surprise. This dark, brooding reboot has spent the last five years exploring the complexities and moral ambiguities of the geopolitical situation of the world in which we live more than just about any show on television. (For those who might ask—What about “24”?—let me note I said “explore the complexities,” not “exploit the anxieties.”)
The premise: humanity is nearly wiped out by robots (the Cylons) who have basically evolved into a race of their own. Many Cylons appear human, and can feel, love, can have children, even bleed. The human race goes on the run seeking refuge on the lost 13th colony (i.e. Earth); the Cylons hunt them down.
Since its debut in 2004 “Battlestar” has considered virtually every post-9/11 issue—preemptive war, invasion, occupation, torture, intertribal warfare, reconciliation—and always with an eye toward an authentic presentation of the multiple and conflicting points of view. This is a show about our fears of being annihilated, our fears of those that seem radically other, and their fears of us. Everyone’s prejudices are explored—and subverted.
Don’t take my word for it. Before the final season begins this January, rent the first season. The only problem you’ll have is how to stop saying "frak."
I don’t care how old you are, or whether you only watch shows that involve crime scenes; if you watch TV, you’ve heard of NBC’s “Heroes.” Perhaps you know the premise, too: young people all over the world begin to discover that they have super powers: they’re super strong, or they can fly, or they can turn invisible or they can stop time. A great calamity is about to happen—a bomb going off in New York (Season 1) or a terrible virus being unleashed (Season 2)— and the young heroes, mostly working unknown to each other or at cross-purposes, have to stop it.
The third season is built much like the first: a terrible future must be prevented, this one four years down the road. Though it got messier and more disconnected as it went along, at times it’s been a real barnburner—lots of great cliffhangers and turnabouts, heaps of new bad guys (including a disturbing turn from actor Robert Forster), and some heroes in desperate need of a Father Bill Barry crash course on spiritual discernment. Brilliant scientist Suresh injects himself with a super-serum to get powers and begins to mutate into nasty-insect-person. Multi-powered Peter Petrelli jumps into the past to stop the future crisis and ends up putting it in motion. If the first season was characterized by the bold assertion of the young that they can make a difference, no matter how unlikely that seems, the third seems a new challenge, namely that making your life better or saving your world is not necessarily the same as saving the world or making it a better place.
With its earnest spirit “Heroes” offers a great hopefulness; but its world is constantly haunted by the threat of catastrophe at one’s own hands, an interesting comment on the experience of its (mostly young) audience. What’s more, the problems the heroes face generally emerge from bad decisions their parents made (and continue to make); the young are left to clean up the mess.
And a million tweens and 20-somethings say, "Amen."
While “Gossip Girl”, a private school drama set on New York City’s Upper East Side, seems to take place in “our world,” I would argue it offers the greatest science fiction of all. No naturally-formed group of young people is uniformly that beautiful. Someone pop a zit, please.
OK, so “Gossip Girl” isn’t really science fiction, but it is popular fare. Also controversial: the Boston Herald declared the show “every parent’s worst nightmare.” The San Diego Union-Tribune said it was “very bad for you.” The CW network promptly used these condemnations in its ads for the new season, which has been a great success. If you’re 65, this is the show your grandchildren are texting about. (If you’re 35, it’s your guilty pleasure.)
While the show offers oh-so-glamorous teenagers drinking, doing drugs and occasionally having sex, it’s more than idle titillation. Much like “Heroes,” “Gossip Girl” offers a vision of adolescence that may well fit many young people’s experience today—young people exposed to the dangers and pleasures of the world all at once and without many healthy adults around to help them work through it. What parents are present are at least as mixed-up as the children.
There are no aliens, no clones, no robots in “Gossip Girl”—or no literal ones, anyway. But the future some of its characters imagine for themselves might be the bleakest of all.