My Science Fiction Life

I’m a sucker. I was genuinely looking forward to My Science Fiction Life. Yes, on the one hand, it was a documentary about science fiction fans, and we know how those turn out. On the other hand, though, it was on BBC4, and it was coming at the tail-end of a perfectly respectable season of sf-related programming, and they’d gone to the trouble of sending a camera crew to a First Thursday, and they were going to be drawing talking heads from the general public. The signs were good, I tell you.

But look how it turned out. For starters, the format was a million miles away from The Martians and Us. I don’t mean that My Science Fiction Life should have been deadly serious — clearly that would have been disastrous in its own special way — but that it would have been nice to have got a sense that the programme-makers respected their subjects. Many of the contributions from the real people who contributed to the MSFL website (including Paul Cornell! Of whom more anon) were saying perfectly reasonable things, in good humour, in response to some pretty daft questions. But the frame that was built up around them made them seem, by association, like pedigree oddballs.

The opening narration, even, was quite promising, saying things like “science fiction fascinates everyone from bus drivers to brain surgeons, up and down the country”. The programme proper, though, was divided into segments, each of which was built around an interview with A. Person with a Science Fiction Life, and supplemented with the aforementioned MSFL interviews, and clips from sundry sf shows and films, and you can see where this is going already, can’t you? So, yes, under “They came from outer space” we got Jeff Wayne and Nick Pope, and under “Man & Machine” we got the ever-more-bonkers Kevin Warwick (and an atrociously misrepresentative piece of narration along the lines of, “From Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL to Isaac Asimov’s renegade I, Robot, that recently starred alongside Will Smith, science fiction writers have been imagining the damage that out-of-control machines could do”), who revealed that he had been first inspired by none other than Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man. Under “Designs on the Future” (probably the best segment) we got Will Alsop, who revealed that Blade Runner is an architects’ favourite, and talked about redesigning Barnsley; and under “The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything” we got everything from Scientology (although that was introduced with a rather nice interview clip: “L. Ron Hubbard, do you ever think that you might be mad?” “Oh, yes.”) to the vicar who uses Star Wars and Star Trek in his sermons.

It rapidly became staggeringly obvious that for all that My Science Fiction Life had looked like it was going to be about the communities that have built up around science fiction, what the producers actually wanted to make was a programme about the people who take sf, or sf-related pursuits, to extremes. I’m trying not to be either too flippant or too grumpy here, since I realise that arguably any attempt by sf fans to explain the fundamental appeal of sf — to say that, yes, thinking about the future and about possibility matters — is liable to end up looking either over-earnest or just a bit barmy. But as it turned out, the gestures My Science Fiction Life made in that direction were superficial at best. The narration would make the (quite reasonable) point that sf can be a venue for looking at moral and ethical questions; cut to scientology and the sf priest. The narration would make the (perfectly understandable) point that our living spaces are likely to change in the future; cut to the man who’s made his flat into a Star Trek flat. And they didn’t use any of the footage from their trip to First Thursday, after all, although in the final analysis that’s probably a blessing.

But there was a bright spot, at least for me: Paul Cornell, who (bafflingly) was just listed as a MSFL contributer (rather than as, say, a writer of Doctor Who and other sf), but whose oblivious enthusiasm for his science fiction life shone through every time he was on-screen. He got the last word before the credits, too, with the rather endearing observation that “Oddly, without science fiction, I would be unmarried, lonely, and penniless.” Which is, it seems to me, as good a note as any on which to say that I’m off to the wilds of York, with little more than an 1,100 page Thomas Pynchon novel to sustain me, to spend a few days with people I wouldn’t have met except for my science fiction life. I’ll be back next Wednesday or so with best-stuff-of-the-year posts. Happy New Year, everyone!

6 thoughts on “My Science Fiction Life

  1. Sounds like the show could have had alot of potential had it been made by people who loved/understood science fiction and its fans. I felt the same way about the LOTR documentary that came out earlier this year. I felt they did too much to make the fans all look like basement dwelling psychos rather than have any serious look at fandom. The Firefly documentary was probably the best that I have seen in this regard. Treated the subject matter and fandom with respect while still having fun.

  2. A similar embarrassment ensued when Swedish Televison broadcast an interview with SF writer Richard Morgan, not long ago.
    (They video-painted green antennae on Morgan’s head. GREEN antennae. And a couple extra eyes.)

  3. The Star Trek flat features a “fully-functional transporter room”? I would pay £2million for that.

  4. It may be worth pointing out that the ‘sf vicar’ is actually Neil Hook who is also a very respected sf academic and someone I have seen deliver papers at a number of conferences. In real life he is also one of the funniest people you are likely to meet. I’ll lay odds that none of that came out in the programme.

  5. Carl: Yeah, I very nearly mentioned Done the Impossible, which I thought was very good. The obvious difference, of course, is that (as I understand it) it’s fan-made from start to finish. Which has a couple of obvious limitations (e.g. no clips from the show), but also equally obvious benefits.

    Paul: unfortunately, no, that didn’t come over — though on the plus side, such as it is, he wasn’t as patently bonkers as Kevin Warwick — and I must have missed his name if they put it on screen.

    (They video-painted green antennae on Morgan’s head. GREEN antennae. And a couple extra eyes.)


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