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June 27 2007

The new sci-fi. Gareth McLean writes about the popularity and credibility of the "new scifi" in The Guardian today. Buffy AND Firefly feature in the top five list at the end.

[ edited by silvius on 2007-06-27 09:03 ]

I often think it quite strange that people think that BSG is darker than other Science fictions. It may be darker than the original, but how many dystopian futures have we seen before?

Of course most of those are only known to people who like sci-fi/fantasy, so I suppose it is new in the "popular" interpretation of Sci-fi.
I think it's arguably new to US TV sci-fi but definitely not to the genre as a whole, certainly in novels and even on UK TV we had stuff like "Blake's 7" over 25 years ago, which might've (who am I kidding ? ;) been cheesy and overacted and very under-budgeted but was also pretty dark, dystopian and ambiguous (anyone remember Avon looking through a shuttle for Villa, his long time crew-mate, because he'd realised that by throwing him out the airlock, the ship would be light enough to achieve escape velocity ? It was like 'The Cold Equations' but with added selfishness and British accents ;).

McLean's normally a fairly sensible chap but I took issue with a couple of things:
Since the 1960s, Star Trek defined sci-fi on television, and the cult of Trek was ridiculed, most exquisitely in the film Galaxy Quest.

'Galaxy Quest' is, in fact, hugely affectionate about the Trekkie 'type' and sci-fi fans in general, it pokes fun but it's good-natured and, in the film, Tim Allen only saves the world because the fans, with their encyclopaedic knowledge and willingness to believe, help him out.

And obviously, the general gist that sci-fi has suddenly started commenting on our times is fundamentally mistaken, it's always done that. Even original Trek (which McLean seems quite dismissive of having seemingly been blinded by the dodgy effects and primary colours) was of huge social relevance (e.g. the famous first inter-racial kiss on US TV) and asked hard metaphysical, social and ethical questions pretty much every week.

I think it's true though that creators are more able to 'fool' mainstream audiences into thinking they're not watching sci-fi (or fantasy) and that better effects are partly responsible (used to be you just looked for the wobbly set and knew it was sci-fi, now they look at least as polished and stylish as the best other dramas). And BSG is much darker than previous TV was allowed to be (both because of the times we live in and possibly because Trek etc. have traditionally been on broadcast TV, while BSG is on Sci-Fi).
Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, put it thus: "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible."

Reckon that's as good a working definition as any, really like it.
I think his mother put it best:
'I love the characters.'

Sure, we've had dystopian before, but it's only been in the past decade or so that there's been a whole lot of character development in any American scifi, and too many of the characters were stereotypes to begin with. Kirk was the same at the end of TOS as he was in the beginning; none of the TNG characters changed much; and the biggest change I've seen in Stargate's SG-1 was Teal'c growing hair.

Look at Heroes: Claire has grown up before our eyes in one season, going from your standard clueless high school girl to someone who's had to make very difficult choices in the last year. We haven't seen such development in a female character since, well, Buffy of course. In BSG, Lee Adama has gone from a heroic figure to an irritating whiner and may be working his way back to hero again, but still carrying all the baggage of his past (luckily not around his waist anymore). Lost hasn't had such dramatic changes but then they've only been on the island for a few months now. Still, Sawyer is no longer the casually cruel conman, and Kate has gone from appealing runaway to crabby murderess.

Besides characters, I think the episodic nature of the "new scifi" also plays a role. While it can limit the audience somewhat since a viewer can't just dive into the middle of the season, the proliferation of DVDs has at least partly erased that limitation. Many many times I've heard people say they didn't care to watch BSG the first season but all of their friends have been talking about it and so they rented the DVDs and got hooked and have watched it live ever since.

So many things are affecting TV nowadays that you can't even call it just "TV" anymore. It's TV and DVDs and the official sites and the blogs and the webisodes... and scifi shows are uniquely positioned to take advantage of all that with scifi fandom already deeply entrenched online.
Dystopian future is one thing, but I don't know of any television series past or present that is so unrelentingly bleak as BSG can be at times. The beginning of season three was so goddamned depressing, that it was hard to even admit enjoying the show anymore. Even in Buffy's darkest days, there always seemed to be a sense of hope; often BSG is so dark that there seems no way out. And even though there are moments of hope on BSG, they are very few and far between and often undercut by something dramatic.

Cabri wroter:
Look at Heroes: Claire has grown up before our eyes in one season, going from your standard clueless high school girl to someone who's had to make very difficult choices in the last year.

Hmmm, difficult choices? Could you explain? As far as I'm concerned, Claire was one of the most passive characters on Heroes - and that's saying a lot, since most of the core cast kept getting pushed from one plot point to another without making any choices at all.

Comparing that TV cheerleader to our very own Buffy seems a huge stretch, given Buffy is defined by the choices she makes - and the fact she is as often wrong as she is right.

Apart from choosing to find her real mother, what did Claire actually choose to do on Heroes?
The beginning of season three was so goddamned depressing, that it was hard to even admit enjoying the show anymore.


Really? Humanity getting itself together and triumphing over our robot overlords was so depressing you couldn't enjoy it? I thought the first part of S3 was (while at times brutal) a triumph of the art form. After that the rest of S3 just couldn't measure up. The thing to me about BSG is that even though it is so dark, that light of hope and spark of defiance is always there and they always persevere somehow.
The beginning of season three was so goddamned depressing, that it was hard to even admit enjoying the show anymore.

Two words. 'Hot jump'. Who didn't cheer ? As we'd seen before, the old boat turns up to light humanity's darkest hour. And . All pretty uplifting I thought.

BSG is bleak, for sure, but to me, there's always a moment that brightens things, gives them (and us) hope for the future (even if they have to manufacture it themselves, everyone still remember the Chief building the new Viper from scratch ?).
Aww hell. First I start wading my way through Doctor Who, and now after this, I'll have to start BSG. I hate you people. :)
In terms of sci fi becoming suddenly poltiical, I have to resolutely balk at that. As been stated before science fiction has always been somewhat political commentary, its jsut been noticed more by the maisntream nowadays. And in terms of literary works, well Dune(yes im a dune fanboy) is a prime example of sci fi done well with political, socialogical, and ecological concepts weaved together to make a wonderful tapestry. Anyways, I remember right after Lost aired, the season afterwords, alot of sci fi was greenlighted but soon cancelled (*sniff* Invasion, at least 1 full season was completed), so Im wondering how this new crop of scifi/fantasy will fare, colour me skeptical but I doubt it will do well. Maybe with Heroes popular as well as Lost(and BSG on sci fi but its a smaller audiance), that those shows will be given a decent chance. Will see.

[ edited by kurya on 2007-06-27 17:15 ]
As Doctor Who supremo Russell T Davies notes, albeit while emphasising the optimism of his own show: "We live in a time of terror."

No actually, we don't. At least those of us who live in the privileged world where we have the ability to casually discuss such things such as sci fi television over the internet, live in a time where we have unprecedented freedom from the horrors of invasion, disease, poverty, civil strife, oppressive working conditions, unfettered exercise of power by authorities. We live longer, healthier lives, surrounded by more material well-being than at any time in the history of the world.

The occasional acts of terrorism that reach us in the West, statistically speaking are a blip compared to events such as the Influenza Pandemic of a mere 90 years ago - or for that matter the death toll on U.S. highways in any given week, yet nobody speaks of the terror they face daily in their commute to work.

This is not to say that there aren't serious social problems and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale experience those problems to an exponentially higher degree than the rest of society, but all the more reason for those who don't suffer from these things to stop whining about how terrorized they are. At least in the U.S., the constant moaning about terror has been nothing more than a con job used by the current administration to arrogate more and more unconstitutional power. The people who live in a time of terror, are the people who live in the nations our governments are waging war on.
All great shows, although I find it a little odd to see The X-Files on there, as its heyday was more than a decade ago. And I'm fairly incredulous of Buffy's inclusion. Obviously, I'm not saying anything bad about Buffy, but it isn't sci-fi, it's fantasy/horror.

Anyway, I'm glad to see Battlestar, Firefly, and Who on the list.

I must admit, I didn't actually read the article, I just immediately clicked the link to make sure Battlestar was there. I have no idea what "the new sci-fi" is supposed to be, nor do I especially care. I just had to make sure Galactica was getting its due.
barboo, I think when people are not aware from personal experience how scary and violent the world actually can be, and then are abruptly made aware of what could happen by a terrible event, the shock is quite severe. The fear lingers and there's an exaggerated awareness of potential violence of a similar type happening again. I'm not saying I don't agree with several of your points, but there's more than whining to it-- people are genuinely afraid, even as that fear is in many cases being used to manipulate them. For most people, it's their understanding of the world that was profoundly and brutally altered. Which in the end amounts to the same thing in practice as the world changing- we act in the world according to our perceptions of it. In many cases though people's worlds did change-- a lot of people lost loved ones. I don't excuse the decisions made in the name of living in a new world, but the situation is more complex and the fear is more real than you're implying.

One of the beauties of sci-fi and fantasy, in my opinion, is that they allow us to explore different versions of the world and consequences of various actions. In some cases they explore our deepest fears and anxieties, and worst-case scenarios in ways that other types of fiction can't. I expect both genres will continue to explore the idea of living in terror and the consequences for years to come.

ETA: X-Files love!

[ edited by Sunfire on 2007-06-27 18:35 ]
I don't know if I'd consider the Chief building a new Viper, essentially a version of the Stealth fighter, from scratch thrilling as much as ridiculous. I was rolling my eyes pretty heavily on that one. The more a show depends on "realism" to justify its dramatic tropes, the more I hold that show to its self-imposed standard.

And speaking of realism, the whole premise of a population of what, 50,000 or so people, being able to mount a successful guerrilla war against the Cylon empire is absurd on its face. Guerrillas CAN be defeated if you have a large enough force to oppose them. There's a standard ratio of troops to insurgents needed and its over for the rebellion.The Cylons should be able to manufacture enough of the old-style robots to have one escorting every human to the bathroom and back, 24-7. It's fine as a metaphor, I guess, but it doesn't bear thinking about. Although, since I haven't seen S3, maybe the writers have devised some half-assed reason the Cylons can't come up with enough troops.
Interesting article. I agree with the many others here that suggest that SciFi shows have always been political and many have also been dark. The only thing that has changed is that these shows are more in the mainstream than in the past. And I agree that the improvements in special effects which enable the stories to be depicted more believably have a lot to do with this.

And I was happy to see my three all-time favorite shows - Firefly, The X-Files (which only had 7 seasons in my reality :), and Buffy on the list at the end of the article. I've watched the miniseries and the first season of Battlestar Galactica. I've enjoyed it, but it's not quite up there with the other shows for me so far. Perhaps the second and third seasons will change my mind.
crossoverman: Hmmm, difficult choices? Could you explain?

She chose to keep her powers a secret at first, she chose not to confront Nathan when he visited her real mother (which I thought was a smart thing to do). She did go along with Noah Bennet's plan to save her but I think it was clear she didn't go along easily. She chose to leave Nathan near the end.

None of these except the last are that active, but she obviously had been her daddy's darling all her life, used to obeying him in all things, and any move away from that was growth. Considering "most of the core cast kept getting pushed from one plot point to another without making any choices at all," I thought she did pretty gorram well.
I don't know if I'd consider the Chief building a new Viper, essentially a version of the Stealth fighter, from scratch thrilling as much as ridiculous. I was rolling my eyes pretty heavily on that one.

Well, uplifting (what I said) and thrilling are two different things but why ridiculous ? Surely the Vipers on the Galactica are actually very old tech by their standards, not at all equivalent to a stealth fighter today ? We see what happens to the updated version in the mini-series so to my mind it's more like a fully equipped and highly trained bunch of aircraft mechanics building, say, a Spitfire or similar today (except they'd obviously have all the manuals as well as other 'Spitfires' to look at and learn from). Or maybe an F1 crew building a fast family car. Hard for sure (part of the point was it was almost too hard, almost an unrealistic goal, certainly for a man alone) but not impossible. Still, suspension of disbelief varies for each individual. Must confess though, i've never really seen BSG as realistic, just 'real' (they have FTL travel for instance, even on very small ships with, presumably, correspondingly small power plants).

(I agree about the war on New Caprica though Shambleau, one thing a vastly outnumbered guerilla army doesn't want to get into is a war of attrition and that's exactly what they were in. Strategically it was totally unsustainable in the long term)
Saje, great posts on BSG. I remember getting all verklempt when the crew presented the Blackbird to Laura Roslin (Tawk amongst yuhselves). All the angst of the show crystallizes in that moment for me -- what people can build out of nothing. It was symbolic, and that moment of hope and inspiration is what the show is about, to me. Realistic? Maybe not. But it's great drama.

I also think that for every ton of gloom and doom brought to bear on the fleet, there's a tiny, featherweight beam of light like Chief's building the Blackbird. It's those moments that make me want to cry like a baby and write fan letters to Ron Moore. BSG is one of the best stories TV has ever known, and I'm so happy and grateful a show like that is getting play on TV.

(Firefly, you would have been, dare I say it, even better. Damn you, FOX.)
Great article! You don't get much more succinct that the quote about the difference between the Star Trek franchise and BSG .... "Not to go boldy, but desperately".
But I have a major gripe and that is that Babylon5 never gets any credit for being the show that made it possible for hard SciFi (on US TV anyhow) to go darker and more complex, with real character development.
IMO B5 is the show that made the new BSG possible. And re. Firefly, it was also the first SciFi show to get politically subversive, as in "our heros are going to buck the establishment, all the way to a full scale rebellion".
Really? Humanity getting itself together and triumphing over our robot overlords was so depressing you couldn't enjoy it?

Well, zeitgeist that all happened after the Webisodes and the first three episodes - which were bleak with a side of bleak. Compared to it, Season Six Buffy is like a sunshine-lit sitcom of happy!

I guess what I meant to say is that "enjoy" isn't exactly the right word. I respected RDM for going there, for being so bold and not giving an inch. For telling a story of suicide bombers and Saul having to deal with Ellen.

And the "triumph" is almost completely forgotten the following episode - where a self-appointed tribunal begins to search for and murder Collaborators. Brilliant television, but not fun. Depressing, as it should be. Not particularly enjoyable.

Barboo, I think Davies is right - in a way. Perhaps he is talking from the point of view that the West has finally woken up and realised the harsh realities of other parts of the world. Unfortunately, Western Governments aren't doing anything to change why these terrorist attacks occur.

But that's beside the point of article - which suggests that many television series are being informed by 9/11 and the post-9/11 world. Battlestar Galactica is clearly discussing modern-day warfare and terrorism.

Even a show like Doctor Who seems to deal with subjects like these in a more direct way than it ever did in its original heyday. Not that there was never talk of genocide (indeed the Fourth Doctor wonders about destroying the entire race of Daleks), but in New Who, The Doctor is responsible for wiping out the Daleks and his own people, The Time Lords. That's a major shift in the paradigm - and it's informed by a Western World more accutely aware of terrorism. (Uh, not that England has been immune to terrorism; see decades long conflict with the IRA)
(Uh, not that England has been immune to terrorism; see decades long conflict with the IRA)

Heh, I was mentally compiling a post and then I got to that line crossoverman ;). Yep, over here we've been dealing with it on a daily basis for decades even down to tiny things like rubbish bins being removed from train stations because the IRA might stick a bomb in there. Trick is to be vigilant but otherwise get on with your life, some things you can't control (and you're way, way more likely to be killed crossing the road anyway - we're just very bad at assessing risk as a species. Too much caveman, not enough astronaut ;).

(and, unusually, 'England' is - almost - exactly right rather than just an inaccurate synonym for 'Britain', since the IRA never bombed any targets in Scotland or Wales. Misses out 'Ireland' of course, where they kinda did, to say the least)

Barboo's point is reasonable too in some ways. We (especially the US from what I hear/read) are kept in a state of fear about terrorism so we don't look too closely at what's being done to erode our freedoms domestically (or at government corruption/incompetence etc.). It's a nasty version of 'bread and circuses' (not that gladiatorial combat to the death isn't nasty but YKWIM ;).

It's true though that, regarding TV, and TV sci-fi specifically, those themes and questions are much more overt post September 11th (there was a TNG episode banned on the BBC back in the 90s for its IRA connotations but still pretty thin on the ground when you look at 'Enterprise's season long 'Xindi WMD' arc or BSG).
(and, unusually, 'England' is - almost - exactly right rather than just an inaccurate synonym for 'Britain', since the IRA never bombed any targets in Scotland or Wales. Misses out 'Ireland' of course, where they kinda did, to say the least)

Phew! I had to think about that for a moment, because I rarely put just England. But I figured that was mostly right.

Barboo's point is reasonable too in some ways. We (especially the US from what I hear/read) are kept in a state of fear about terrorism so we don't look too closely at what's being done to erode our freedoms domestically (or at government corruption/incompetence etc.).

I guess in that sense, he is right. But in regard to the discussion about television (and RTD's quote is basically there without context of what he said before or after), there is definitely a post-9/11 world that fiction is dealing with. And whether or not the government is right to keep their country in fear (FWIW, it's not right :-), that's the truth of the world we live in - no wonder it bleeds into the films and television we watch.
James Moran (Severance) wasn't overly impressed with the article. And I'd have to agree with him that while the article made some good points it did have that
familiar, snobby, faintly amused tone

Yeah, you do get that vibe but then that's par for the course from mainstream print journalists (even though McLean was always a huge Buffy fan so isn't a stranger to genre).

Read that blog entry (not seen 'Severance' yet but it did quite appeal) and Moran has a point but I think
... mentioning post 9/11 this, political that, when the answer is simple: Lost was good and became a hit, the new series of Doctor Who was also good and became a hit ...

is simplistic (though part of the truth) and rather misses the point i.e. that previously, many sci-fi/genre shows have been good but they haven't been hits, which is one of the points the article, for all its flaws, tries to address.

(and coupla things crossoverman, barboo is a she - just FYI ;) - and yep, I figured you'd know the difference between Britain and its component parts - after all it's not Scotland or Wales' arse you guys keep kicking at cricket ... just don't bring up the rugby ;)

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