“Science fiction has never been more now”

Well, TV science fiction, that is. According to the Guardian, that is.

This is science fiction for the 21st century. What’s more, it’s sci-fi about the 21st century. Fans of the genre have long known that quality sci-fi and its sister genre fantasy hold up a mirror to the times in which they were created, but never before have the TV shows involved seemed so resonant or indeed so influential. Science fiction has never been more now, fantasy never more real.

Discuss. My thoughts:

1. I always considered the ’90s to be something of a golden age, personally — Babylon 5, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Deep Space Nine, Buffy, Angel, Farscape, plenty of others — and have felt we’ve been in the doldrums somewhat for the past five years.

2. Still, it’s true that Lost and Doctor Who have spawned a new wave of US and UK sf shows. Unfortunately, to date most of them have been rubbish. We’ll see if this autumn’s crop is any different.

3. I would object to the assertion that “the event that has made sci-fi and fantasy palatable, and indeed positively appealing, to a mainstream audience is 9/11”, except that I have this horrible feeling it’s a little bit true, at least for the types of sf the article focuses on.

4. The article concludes, “Why gaze at navels when you can gaze at the stars?” But is there really anything that goes after that sense of wonder? Doctor Who may aspire to it occasionally, but the current incarnation is primarily Earthbound. The end of time was notably uninspiring. Meanwhile, Battlestar Galactica is arguably a perfect example of a show set among the stars that chooses to gaze at its navel. The new shows seem to be following the same paths. There’s nothing as expansive as Farscape, or even the best of Trek.

5. And of course, as MKS points out, it is a discussion utterly divorced from written sf. But that’s pretty much par for the course.

6. That said, ITV is planning “Lost in Austen, in which a woman finds a gateway to the Regency era in her bathroom.” Cheap attempt at crossover cash-in, or inspired concept based on knowing full well that Jane Austen is incredibly popular among sf fans? You decide!

18 thoughts on ““Science fiction has never been more now”

  1. Can’t we have Lost in Austin? Where Elizabeth Bennett wanders through a time-portal into the student capital of Texas? And possibly goes round meeting famous Austin sf writers like Howard Waldrop and Bruce Sterling?

  2. The nineties also had large numbers of shows which turned out to be total rubbish and only last a season, as well as some which turned out to be quite good but didn’t last. That’s not a new thing for this century.

    Still, it does point out that Heroes will have a 9pm timeslot, and will not suffer from that other curse of 90s telefantasy, being shown at 6.45pm with all the gory bits cut out.

  3. Liz: I didn’t mean to suggest that the ’90s didn’t have its share of crap. But it seemed to me to have a higher proportion of stuff worth watching, too.

    I imagine that if Heroes were to be shown in that 6:45 slot, nobody would ever work out what Sylar was doing to people.

  4. Niall: Golden Age? Hmmm, I know lots of people liked those shows, but I just don’t get the appeal of Buffy etc, and what i could be bothered to watch of Babylon 5 was uninspired and cliched dross.

    On the other hand there were some intriguing ‘slipstream’ TV shows such as Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, some of the better x-files episodes.

    Doctor Who is earthbound but gazes longingly at the stars and a ‘lost future’ in many episodes. The whole destruction of Gallifrey thread brings a wistfulness to temper the sensawunda.

    Graham: Imagina further, a ‘Turkey City’ episode pastiching Deadwood. With Pat Cadigan guesting.

  5. Niall: My point was directed at the person who wrote the article and seems to think having lots of SF pilots springing up after some shows are successful is a new phenomenon (and then goes on to pick The X Files as one of his top 5 shows).

  6. What I think is certainly true is that sf tv has a higher profile outside sf fans than it had in the ’90s. Lost and BSG regularly turned up in ‘highlights’ section of the Guardian‘s Guide, for instance. Of course, these shows are building on the pioneering work done by the shows Niall mentions – the ambition shown by B5 is key here.

    The lack of written sf being brought into the discussion is not surprising. In the 1960s, the two were connected; sf writers like Sturgeon or Ellison used to write regularly for Star Trek or The Outer Limits. But most writers for sf tv these days (Paul Cornell being an exception, but I can’t think of any others immediately) don’t write for or even read written sf. Some (unfortunately) even make a virtue of this. They have learnt all their sf from other sf tv, rather than going to source, in much the same way as 1970s British bands learnt about the blues from listening to Rolling Stones records rather than Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.

  7. Liz: My suspicion is that the list of top 5 shows is not written by the person who wrote the article, but has been farmed out to a sub-editor.

  8. Kev: well, I guess part of what made the ’90s so good was that there was something for everyone. What do you watch if you’re a Twin Peaks person now? (John From Cincinnati, maybe.)

    Liz: Ah, ok, I wasn’t sure. I think Tony may be right that the top 5 is by someone else.

    Tony: “sf tv has a higher profile outside sf fans than it had in the ’90s.” — yes. I mean, my colleagues watch Who and Lost (although they’re not showing much interest in Heroes). Which is, I guess, what the article is actually trying to say.

  9. The opening paragraphs about suicide missions didn’t seem so radical to me either. That speech sounds more like ‘the old lie to boys ardent for some desperate glory, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ than any understanding of the modern issue. Compare Neela’s anti-war activities in ER for soem real adressing of issues in moderrn TV drama. See The Wire for some real guts on TV.

  10. Kev: Taken out of context you might read Tigh’s speech like that. I’d say it was impossible to do so in the light of the rest of that episode.

  11. And of course, as MKS points out, it is a discussion utterly divorced from written sf.

    Would you expect an article about, say, HBO dramas to discuss Cormac McCarthy, Ed McBain, etc?

  12. I wouldn’t say that the article is completely divorced from written SF. Its attitude and key phrases are familiar from reviews of outsider SF novels like The Plot Against America, Never Let Me Go, and perhaps even The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Just as this article does with Lost and Battlestar Galactica, these novels are praised for mirroring reality, for being topical. In both cases, that topicality is held up as an ideal, and as the attribute by which one distinguishes the new, mature, worthy form of SF from the shlocky, unworthy kind that fans have been reading for decades. Tony is absolutely right that the article is being written for and about SF outsiders. Our reasons for reading and watching within the genre – wonder, change, speculation, and a relevance to human existence that goes beyond now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t topicality – don’t seem to be of interest to McLean or the people he’s writing about and for.

    (This, by the way, ties into the Foundation editorial you sent me this morning. On TV and in novels, the SF getting praised by the mainstream is almost always allegorical.)

    By the way, I don’t think McLean’s attitude has as much to do with genre prejudice or ignorance as it does with a prejudice against fiction for fiction’s sake that is becoming more and more prevalent in the literary world. One increasingly comes across the attitude that a work of fiction’s worth is measured by its topicality, and by its being grounded in, or in direct and easily identifiable reference to, a palpable truth. The real is being held up as superior to the fictional, not just in the fantastic genres but in the mimetic one.

  13. Martin: articles about The Wire will frequently reference the novels by its writers including George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Rafael Alvarez etc. Which ties in with Tony’s comment about the likes of Ellison and Sturgeon writing for Star Trek.

    But mention of HBO prompts me to say that whilst I believe that the best written SF/F is a match for almost any writing in any other genre (and literary fiction is as much a genre as SF) I honestly cannot think of a recent TV SF production that comes close to The Wire, Six Feet Under, Northern Exposure, The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, The Sopranos etc. and that is quite simply because these programmes have great writers involved.

  14. For the record, the top 5 is credited to the same guy as the main article.

    I’m suffering from my lack of knowledge of US ratings, but from a UK perspective none of this century’s US sf output has anything close to the cultural clout of the X-Files. I guess Lost is huge in the States, but I find it difficult to believe that BSG is mainstream in the same way (am I wrong here?).

    Doctor Who is enormous of course, but its political insight is roughly at the level you’d expect from a show which aims a large part of its merchandising at six year olds, so it’s not really a good example for the article.

  15. I’m inclined to agree with the ’90s as a golden age of SF view (one incidentally shared by M. Keith Booker, who recently wrote a book about Science Fiction Television). This was partly a quantity issue as well as a quality one, though since you bring up the point I really did like B 5 (though I admit that its strengths are much more evident if you watch long enough to catch the story arc, the more one-shot episodes and TV movies being more of a mixed bag). (Incidentally, I have an article up at the Space Review (published March 12), which discusses space-themed TV shows during the 1990s, though mainly for how they show SF.)

    As to questions raised here: you’re right, nothing has come close to X-Files commercially. BSG’s ratings tend to be in the 2.0 range (the highest I’ve heard about was a 2.6), which is why it’s on cable, not the networks. (NBC, which owns Sci-Fi Channel, experimented with running parts of season 1 in prime time on the main network, but that didn’t fly.)

    SF, particularly if it’s very visibly SF, as with space stories (unlike, for instance, Lost, or even Heroes), just doesn’t command a mainstream audience here–not on television, not even in film. That’s why Firefly didn’t last beyond the pilot and 13 episodes–it was running on a network, which didn’t bother to run the episodes in order, and in fact pulled the plug before airing all of them, some eps airing only as reruns on Sci-Fi three years later, and that mainly because of the release from Serenity (which also did poorly, very few outside the hardcore fan base going to see it, despite massive critical acclaim). Apart from Star Wars, it’s surprising how few of the all-time blockbusters are stories of this type.

    It may be that viewing audiences outside the U.S. are more open to this sort of content, and I would be curious to know more about that. And by the way, I really do think the effect of 9-11 on viewers’ tastes has been massively overblown–and that BSG’s attempts to provide a running commentary on it are the weakest aspect of the show.

  16. It’s true that I used to have many shows that I was addicted to. Quantum Leap, Sliders, Buffy, Wolf Lake, Angel, Dark Angel, Andromeda, Firefly, Farscape, Earth: Final Conflict, Invisible Man, Prey, Witchblade, Roswell, Smallville, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis(even better than its host series). I do love Heroes, but I don’t really rewatch it 20 times per episode like I did with the others. Now I have one show that I watch repeatedly, Bloodties. It’s great, but why is that my sole TV addiction these days? Why do I have so much more time to clean the house? Where are Joss Whedon’s amazing new worlds when the hairy floor is staring me in the face, telling me I have nothing better to do? I want more fantasy and sci-fi on TV!

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