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July 21 2006

How Sci-Fi Doesn't Work. Interesting article about mistakes and misconceptions in sci-fi movies and t.v. shows. Small mention of Firefly and Serenity in the "Lasers, Sound and Strange New Lifeforms" Section.

An interesting read. Their science is immaculate, but some of the research is left wanting. For one thing, PHASERs in Star-Trek are not LASERs, but an entirely new type of energy projection - so criticising the show for not making them behave like LASERs seems a bit unfair.

Furthermore, it's good to see them give Firefly/Serenity due credit for having silence in space, but the screencap they use from Serenity is the final battle where there actually *was* sound, despite their caption: "Serenity was attacked by the Reavers and Alliance ships without a sound." A little embarassing to use the one scene without silence to demonstrate that the show had silence.

Hehe, I'm such a geek.

(hello everyone, btw, first comment for me!)
Pretty interesting, and it's always cool to see Firefly and Serenity getting praised, no matter what it's for.

The Least said:
"A little embarassing to use the one scene without silence to demonstrate that the show had silence.

Hehe, I'm such a geek."

Don't worry, you were'nt the only person that found that a bit amusing.
But in fact the photo itself 'explains' why we hear sound in that segment (though agreed, the caption's still wrong). Serenity (and the other ships) are within some kind of gas cloud, so there's an atmosphere of a sort. Would it be dense enough to carry soundwaves ? Yep. In Joss' head ;).

(personally I think the no sound choice works best as a device when it's contrasted with noise e.g. in 'Out of Gas' where we see the frantic bustle inside the ship contrasted with the dead silence of space outside or BSG where we hear what the pilots would hear inside their Vipers including particulate impact as when Starbuck hears 'nothing but the rain' near the end of the mini-series)

Also, the alien in the Alien movies may look insectile but that doesn't make it one so I doubt we can judge it by those standards and the queen doesn't actually move around too much either (at least not while attached to her bulky egg sac), maybe acknowledging her fragility, with the drone creatures being more conventionally humanoid in size and shape (so avoiding the volume/cross-section problem).

Also, also, a (very) large spinning black-hole could theoretically produce a toroidal event horizon, maybe allowing a ship to fly through the 'hole in the doughnut' so to speak. I doubt you'd end up in another universe though ;).

Minor nit-picks aside though a nicely written article about an interesting subject (and I really recommend the included links to 'Bad Astronomy' and 'Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics'. I've whiled away many an hour I should've been working at both sites ;).

[ edited by Saje on 2006-07-21 13:53 ]
I've long thought the flat-out dumbest "science" in sci-fi was the replicator in Star Trek. If technology has evolved to the point where you can make a machine that creates not only matter, but even "tea, Earl Grey, hot", what's the point of exploring, boldly or otherwise?
Honestly I don't see the difference in how shows like CSI can make up procedures and scientific facts for the purpose of making a good story that don't necessarily match reality, and when sci-fi shows do it, except that when science fiction does it it's bad or stupid. It's good to be as accurate as possible but really no genre of television keeps to reality so why should sci-fi? The article does say that sci-fi fans care more than others about the reality of the shows they watch, but my view is that as long as explanations are given and they're well thought out (therefore not taking me out of the world of the show), I don't care if they're based on real science.

Television is supposed to be creative, not factual, that's why it's fun to watch. That said, I agree writers can't be lazy but that goes for all television writing, not just sci-fi.
ChrisinVirginia, replicators don't create matter they create macro-objects from existing matter (i.e. they need the raw materials to begin with as seen in Voyager where restrictions on power and raw materials mean that the crew have 'replicator rations'). As I understand it they're just an adaptation of transporter technology and need a pattern to tell them exactly what constitutes 'tea, earl grey, hot' so that they can transport and combine the appropriate atoms into the finished product.

Not really sure what you mean about not exploring given replicators. Do you mean why would people bother when they already have everything they need ? Roddenberry's vision was that post-scarcity (i.e. after poverty etc. have been eliminated thanks in no small part to technology like replicators) people would no longer feel the need to compete for basic resources leaving curiosity to drive us onward.

True, noonien but 'How Stuff Works' has just picked the genre of science-fiction to explain some simple physics and biology to readers using mistakes as the jumping off point. They've also produced an article on CSI possibly pointing out some of the issues with that show (don't know, haven't read it yet) so it's not like sci-fi has been singled out.

Also, each to their own of course but for me just being well thought out doesn't make an explanation sci-fi (even though it might be great entertainment, IMO it'd be fantasy). There should indeed be some element of 'real science' at the foundation for it to qualify (or at least an acceptance of the scientific world-view). Entertainment television is indeed about creating and entertaining (I specifically put 'entertainment' to exclude documentaries which are obviously also meant to be factual) but sci-fi TV is, to me, about being creative within the bounds of reality or some plausible variant of it.
There's an interesting tidbit about this matter from the Battlestar Galactica panel at Comic Con.

During a brief question-and-answer period, an audience member asked Grazer what the role of a science consultant on the show entailed. The tech expert replied that it was his job to read the scripts when they come in and help ground a lot of the science aspects of the show in reality. But when another audience member pointed out that “Battlestar Galactica” features noise in space, Grazier simply shrugged his shoulders and said the network made the decision despite their protests.

Their science is immaculate, but some of the research is left wanting. For one thing, PHASERs in Star-Trek are not LASERs, but an entirely new type of energy projection - so criticising the show for not making them behave like LASERs seems a bit unfair.

The name doesn't really matter - if it's a beam of energy, it's going to share many characteristics with the beam generated by a laser.
But when another audience member pointed out that “Battlestar Galactica” features noise in space, Grazier simply shrugged his shoulders and said the network made the decision despite their protests.

No sound in space worked for Firefly because there were no space battles, but the space scenes in BSG tend to be a lot more hectic and silence wouldn't suit them. I don't think it would have been worth being accurate in that particular case, and I'm kind of surprised a consultant would care much about it to be honest.
Saje, yeah sorry, I do think that the article was fair (as well as interesting), I just dispute the significance. I should have made it clear that my comments were more general cause I've been a sci-fi fan for ages and the issue of real science constantly comes up. Although not by this article (thanks for the CSI link!) I think sci-fi gets singled out a lot for criticism of accuracy, but that’s just my impression. It's totally subjective though, some people actually know physics and science better than others which means mistakes will take those viewers out of the story, whereas others (me!) are pretty ignorant anyway and are happy with the invention.
I think attention to detail like this is important because for me, my suspension of disbelief has a load limit. When I'm watching I want to lose myself in the experience. Every time a TV show or movie does something that makes me think "that doesn't make sense, but it's just a show" it runs the risk of losing me because suddenly I'm not a watcher anymore, I'm a critic.

Even a nod to physics suffices. In Superman Returns, when he slowly lowers the airplance nose-first to the ground, there's no chance it wouldn't collapse from its own weight or rip away from the part he was holding. But when the nose crumpled in his hands, it was enough for me. Never mind the physics of a superman are impossible anyway, as long as everything else around him acts properly, I can accept him.

If a battle in space isn't dramatic enough without sound, maybe we need better directors/composers.
I'm one of those perhaps overly forgiving genre fans that tends to accept most entertainment simply for entertainments sake. However, having said that I completely agree with Chris Bridges in that my suspension of disbelief will only go so far. In many cases, the more "reality" mixed in with my "fantasy", the better.

And I totally second your comments on the little nods to physics in Superman Returns. (Oh, and your remarks about better directors/composers... spot on.)
It's good to see science fiction being treated seriously -- weeding out the horrible stuff from the stuff that actually gets the science right, or at least tries.
It would be interesting to see that laser light thing properly used. It could be very creative.

And for the space species, I always find very prepotent when they apply our laws and categorically say "it's not possible".
Hello, you're using OUR laws. How can you say that, when you just know such a bit of the universe?
We're not a million miles away from Star Trek style replicators today - linky
Well, yes Angel The Vampire, up to a point. We are still young and our knowledge is very incomplete but if we see, for instance, a contravention of the laws of conservation of energy i'd go so far as to say that's just wrong. If we're wrong about conservation of energy then we're wrong about pretty much everything, which doesn't seem to match the evidence, so some things we can say are impossible, IMO.

Pretty much agree with Chris Bridges'/Haunt's sentiments. Certain things just have to be allowed but only up to a point. 'Stargate' and 'Star Trek' for instance both get free passes on the 'galaxy speaking English' issue because, purely from a story-telling perspective, needing the cast to constantly speak different languages or show sequences where we see first contact taking months of painstaking language aquistition is just too limiting (though it's great when the writers can use those limitations to tell a story as with the mentioned ST:TNG episode 'Darmok' where the words are totally intelligible but the language, being metaphor based and therefore culturally dependent, isn't).

I tend to also let a show 'build credit' towards major leaps by doing lots of little things right or even just making it clear that the creators have at least considered the problems (as with your 'Superman Returns' example - especially as I tend to see Superman as pretty straightforward fantasy with sci-fi trappings since if you think about him for even a short time he just doesn't work. I won't even go into the whole 'Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex' issue the film raises ;).

Ah, no worries noonien. I know people that go way too far the other way (for instance a friend that can't watch anything involving computers unless it's totally realistic - 'Hackers' and 'Swordfish' especially had him practically foaming at the mouth ;) so I think your 'che sera, sera so long as it's good' approach is probably healthier (and it sometimes does seem like sci-fi is held to a higher standard than other genres).

Interesting link mobileHQ but am I the only one filled with a sense of foreboding reading
The RepRap project has just begun, but Bowyer's aim is to build a "universal constructor" that not only can manufacture objects but can actually make copies of itself. Over the next four years of development, he plans to release the blueprints and software code for free online to accelerate progress.

Yikes. I'm all for the open source approach to development but shouldn't we maybe limit access to technology that can replicate itself ad infinitum ?
Well, you wouldn't be able to replicate it without the base resources. Interestingly it would mean that eventually there would be no price for one of these as you could just get a friend to make you one... It wouldn't surprise me if large manufacturing companies tried to license these in the same way as software.

As someone who downloads a good deal of stuff from the internet, I've pondered before how nice it would be to be able to download myself a washing machine or a new set of plates rather than going to the shops and buying one.
Personally I don't really mind if sci-fi deviates from science. After all that's why there is the word "fiction" in there. Very little of it is completely grounded in reality, although I can understand why sometimes they want to make it as believable as possible.

But then you look ay Joss' work and realise that no matter whether the story has monsters or spaceships or alternate dimensions, he always manages to get to the truth of the characters and make the audience care about them, which is really the only important thing. But there's always such a willingness to suspend belief in every type of genre and an appreciation for carefully crafted mythologies and worlds that it makes it more interesting if they're set in space in the future or in a galaxy far, far away.
Good article. I think it failed to give props to Babylon 5 for handling gravity accurately, though.
Good point jclemens not only with the Star Furies (one of my favourite sci-fi ships and one of the first mainstream TV ships to show proper 3D vacuum maneuvering) but I also remember an episode where Sheridan has to leap out of one of their internal 'train' transports running along the axis of B5.

As would happen with an actual O'Neil Colony, he 'falls' very slowly in the middle of the cylinder allowing a chance to be rescued. I remember being impressed since they used a bit of science to advance both plot and character by showing that Sheridan would know anough about even such a comparatively unnatural environment to save his own life (or at least prolong it). That's science-fiction.

MobileHQ, I think that kind of replicator probably would be controlled for just the reasons you mention. Economic systems as we know them would basically collapse since the only things of value would be raw materials, patterns for replication and things which can't be replicated (e.g. art and entertainment, living things). All manufactured commodity items would be pretty much valueless in and of themselves.

If you think the US government's against reverse engineering now, just wait until every large corporation depends purely on Patent enforcement for its income.
It's funny how people who complain about depictions of sound in space, don't seem to mind shows that feature music in space. In both Firefly and in 2001, the musical score was played during space scenes. Where is this music supposed to come from? How is it supposed to be heard from the point of view of a camera floating in empty space? Why is this not an issue?

It's because we are accustomed to having musical scores. It's accepted. It is something that adds to the telling of the story, and to our enjoyment, even though it logically makes no sense for music to be playing. So why not think of space sound effects in the same way?
Similarly, visible lasers could be likened to subtitles. When people speek a foreign language in real life, English translations of their words don't magically appear in front of them in glowing letters. It's not real, and it's not logical, but it's perfectly accepted on TV and in movies. It is a movie/TV convention - a visual cue to help viewers understand what is happening.

One can regard those glowing laser trails in sci-fi in the same way. Kind of like those glowing pucks that American TV execs experimented with in hockey broadcasts a few years ago, in the belief that many Americans had trouble watching hockey because they had trouble following the puck.
Well, conventions that affect the viewing experience only are probably OK (though the constant orchestral background music has been parodied to great effect in a lot of movies). To me, music is like the presence of the camera. Often you see a scene from one angle and then immediately from the opposite angle. Obviously this couldn't happen in real life (i.e. without cutting) since we'd see the other camera but no-one complains about that because it's just part of film-making, as are accompanying music and subtitles.

That said, I buy the justification with visible lasers since it'd make telling the story quite a lot less interesting visually and harder without them. Sound in space i'm not so sure about since as we've seen with Firefly, Serenity, 2001 and to a lesser extent BSG, it's perfectly possible to tell stories just as well (i'd argue even better in some cases) without it. Just because it's an accepted convention doesn't make it a necessary one.

BTW, personally i'm not particularly against either sound in space or visible lasers and don't think either necessarily constitutes bad film-making. The article though, is pointing out that it's bad science and that's definitely true.

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