The Paucity of Good Science Fiction on TV and Film

The State of Visual SFReluctantly last night, I watched Eureka, season two, episode four. My brain was fried from a long day at work where nothing went right, and I was too tired to read. The episode was atrocious, with dialog that a sixth grader could have improved upon and a plot that was so predictable that I simply skipped scenes because I knew what was going to happen next. So, you may ask, if the show was that bad, why did I watch it? Simply because good science fiction on television is simply non-existent. There was nothing else on.

There are exceptions: Battlestar Galactica is one of the best shows to come out of of the TV machine in a decade or more, but it’s on hiatus now and won’t be back for months. There’s Doctor Who, which occasionally causes me to dance around the room and sing paeans to the gods when things go right. But that show normally disappoints for its watered-down plots and overused characters (can anyone say, “Dalek?”).

Stephen Moffat is mostly responsible for making me dance the Kermit; he’s the author of the Doctor Who episodes I loved. Recently, he wrote a fantastically fresh retake on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde called Jekyll that I absolutely adored. But that was only six episodes. Now it’s gone. Let’s also not forget that the ready-to-be-lauded Masters of Science Fiction was canceled before it even aired. We’ll still see six episodes, then, fin.

On the big screen, the only decent science fiction I’ve seen in a long time is Sunshine. Though it resorted to sweeping CGI shots from impossible angles that always ruin my suspension of disbelief (can’t they take a hint from BSG? For things to look real, we have to have a real point of view) I found the the movie to be intelligent, and they tried their darnedest to avoid the Hollywood clichés that plague similar movies of its kind. I don’t think the film will endure as one of the classics, but the scenes of the two astronauts repairing the sun-shield just inches away from being burned alive will be hard to forget.

So what else is there? The question arose in my mind last night and the answer was a resounding, “Nada.” Is one great Dr. Who episode a season all we are going to be satisfied with? Must we wait months for another episode of BSG to fill our gnawing SF hunger? There are so many good science fiction stories to choose from, so why do we see so few good SF films & shows? I’m not going to accept the stock answer: that Hollywood execs prefer the dumb, watered-down, mass-appealing scripts to the ones that really make you wonder and think, or that the execs are simply too stupid to comprehend the inherent commentary on humanity in such genius stories as James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur.” (A story, by the way, which made it into a spectacular Outer Limits episode that still gives me chills today.)

If Ronald Moore can create BSG and Stephen Moffat can write TV episodes that make my bowels loosen (in a good way), then surely there are others out there who can do the same. I say, let’s dig them out of the dusty corners and back offices where some well-fed studio exec has forgotten about them and bring them into the fore. Let’s declipse the SF visual arts and bring them into the light of day.

7 Replies to “The Paucity of Good Science Fiction on TV and Film”

  1. Eureka was great in its first season. right up until they turned Joe Morton into a Magical Negro. Then, suddenly, the show went downhill. I wonder if it was a cause and effect thing. I think the main problem is that Eureka has turned from a sweet SF show to a romance with quasi-SF underpinnings.

  2. The show has great potential for both teaching kids real science and for exciting plots, but instead of doing that they really lay on the technobabble thick, and resort to tired old plot lines.

    As for Joe Morton, all I can say is that didn’t he play the same role in T2? The writers can’t think of a new character for him?

  3. From the image accompanying this, I assume you’re a fan of Heroes 🙂

    I actually don’t think there’s a shortage of sf and fantasy on television these days. In the last couple of years, the popularity of shows like BSG and Lost has led to a number of knockoffs. There’s more specfic programming on television than almost ever before, but most of it is either not very good, or it never finds its audience, or it just arbitrarily gets cancelled without much of a chance.

    I haven’t even tried to keep up with all the new shows, so I can’t speak to their quality. Did you like The 4400? I liked what I saw of it in the first season and I hear it’s still pretty good. The fact is, there’s plenty for us to choose from, even if not all of it is brilliant. I can still enjoy fun shows like Smallville and Supernatural and turn to literature and the occasional film for the really terrific stuff. I don’t mean to put down the medium because I used to love it when I had the time for it, but television has rarely elevated itself beyond mere entertainment.

    Probably the only new show I’m excited about next season is Pushing Daisies. I don’t need to add any more shows to my schedule…

  4. I haven’t watched the 4400, so I can’t say much of it, but you’re the first person who told me it was decent (not that anyone told me it was bad, mind you.) I tried watching Lost but never got into it, and Smallville never pushed my buttons in the way I like them pushed.

    Pushing Daisies does look cool — very Big Fish as someone somewhere online said recently. It looks as if the networks are taking chances with programming, experimenting to see what’s beyond the sinful glut of reality TV. If it does well, expect a dozen or so cheap knockoffs.

  5. Ever try Farscape? One of my faves. I love insanity and anarchy in my SF TV, and that’s why I like Dr Who too.

    I wasn’t too keen on Eccleston, but I love David Tennant, he’s bringing the character back to Tom Baker-like nutterism, but still making it his own. I disagree that this season has been meh, if you are referring to S3 that is. I’m liking it. But we in the Commonwealth are very fanatical about our Dr Who. 😉

  6. I think TV is a better substrate for SF than film because it’s longer. You get a whole season (and sometimes several seasons) to tell your story. It’s very hard to establish a rich SF world in 90 minutes plus create three-dimensional characters and a non-predictable story. It’s actually hard to do any ONE of those things in 90 minutes. I think one of the reasons why Hollywood lames out in its treatment of SF is because they basically have to be able to establish the world very quickly, so they take shortcuts. But also, Hollywood is just plain lame these days because they’re not making money the way they used to. It used to be possible to rely on a few blockbusters a year to make up for all the money-losing pet projects that actually get executives excited. Nowadays, even blockbusters die quickly. My prediction? We’re going to see actor salaries plummet, overall budgets come down, greater reliance on CGI, and eventually a return to story-telling rather than star vehicles and explosive set-pieces. Additionally, I think the big screenwriters and directors are going to migrate to TV and the Web.

  7. Children of Men, 2001, Alien(s), Blade Runner (of course) all do a great job of setting up a world in 90 minutes or less. It can be done. TV sometimes, with Lost and Heroes, gives writers too much leeway to drag out plots indefinitely. Sure, the canvas is bigger, but sometimes a short, tight story is better. Jekyll was 6 episodes, self-contained, and in my mind near perfect. I would hate to see a series based on it, however, as I feel it would suck the life out of the idea (no pun intended).

    I can’t wait to see my first straight to Web high-budget production. I’ve seen a few Star Trek fan films, but nothing that made me want to tune in each week. I’d pay a buck or two per ep. for a show I really liked.

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