Sci-Fi & I

Another long post, this one possibly of interest to sci-fi fans

I think I’ve finally figured out why most newer sci-fi movies & TV shows (i.e., post Star Wars) leave me cold regardless of technical / aesthetic / dramatic quality while older films & programs, no matter how suckalicious, still manage to entertain me.

(And it’s not a matter of being more familiar with older media & watching it again and again; I’m referring to older movies & shows I haven’t seen before.)

The answer popped out at me like a chestburster when I had a chance to see the “Rebirth” episode of Starhunter 2300 for the first time.

Now, I’ll grant you this episode is probably not an ideal way to get introduced to a previously unseen / now long cancelled TV series:  It’s a desperate scramble to keep a franchise afloat (in orbit?) after jettisoning the creators and most of the original cast.[1]

Still, there was enough endemic to the episode to -- in the words of the original Outer Limits -- “sharpen to crystal clarity” the difference between pre-SW and post-SW sci-fi.

To confirm this, I followed it up by watching the original uncut version of “The Cage”, the first Star Trek pilot.  Granted this is an unfair comparison, like comparing a crisp freshly picked golden delicious apple with a jar of generic brand applesauce, but again it proves the point.

(And to be fair, while I define the line of demarcation as post-SW, truth be told Star Trek itzownsef has contributed much to the problem, and was doing so back in the day of the original series.)

Summed up: Sci-fi stopped being space opera and became either horse opera or (worse) soap opera or (even worsterest) a hideous mutant combination of both.

I’ll focus in on the original Star Trek because, as I said, it is the true patient zero of the contagion.

The original series had a genuine sense of wonder about it: Each episode was a step off into the unknown.  There was not (at least in the first season) a template to follow; each story took an entirely different approach.

Thanks in no small part to Gene Roddenberry’s canny anticipation of budget woes, Star Trek was crafted to put the USS Enterprise way out there -- I mean waaaaaaay out there.  Unable to afford endless special effects, vast sets, complex props, or detailed costumes, Roddenberry deliberately set out to craft stories that would put a minimum reliance on such elements.

This is why so many episodes encounter alien ships “just out of scanner range”. Or single aliens on a deserted asteroid instead of an entire civilization.

Also, a big part of the original series’ charm is its kitsch mix-n-match appeal: Slap an Indian headdress on a suit of armor, drape a toga over it and paint the actor inside chartreuse and -- viola! -- instant emissary from some alien world.[2]

Roddenberry wisely kept the Enterprise out on the frontier, where little was known, where there was no cavalry to ride to the rescue, where the characters were often encountering something for the very first time and trying to figure out what it was and how to cope with it.

In short (to quote the Outer Limits again) “the awe and mystery” that fuels our sense of wonder.[3]

The best episodes of the original Star Trek tended to be in the first season.

Even then, however, they began running into a series of tropes, too many of them brought about by Roddenberry’s own idiosyncrasies.[4] Klingons (read godless red Russian commies) and Romulans (read godless red Chinese commies) were introduced to the mix, ambassadors and diplomats began flitting about, people started talking about treaties, they started visiting planets that were Just Like Earth Except For One Little Detail, and…and…and…

…and the groundwork was laid for a slow spiral out of orbit into the cold, hard ground.

Mercifully (luckily?) Star Trek got cancelled in its 3rd season, but even then it was obvious the magic was slipping.  The episodes veered from the thought provoking into the goofy, and while “Spock’s Brain” has a certain schlock pulp appeal, too often the show resembled re-treads from Lost In Space.

Now, at the time, Lost In Space was viewed with great contempt by most hard core sci-fi fans.  It was a quintessential Irwin Allen product, lacking in logic but filled with heart.  Even more erratic than Star Trek, it careened from good kiv-vid space opera to wild off the wall Batman-esque high camp.

But by accident or design (knowing Allen, probably accident) it, too, managed to capture that sense of wonder that let it stick in viewers’ imagination.

The point of this post is not a series by series analysis of 1960s sci-fi (that would be a blog unto itself!) but a look at linking factors pre-SW and post-SW.  Most pre-SW sci-fi tended to be about actual science fictional constructs and ideas, no matter how ineptly done.

Most, not all.  It’s heresy to suggest that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone isn’t the best example of the anthology genre in the field, but it wasn’t:  That honor belongs to the Outer Limits.  Serling’s shows often had a sci-fi component to them, but too often the fantasy element was a heavy handed effort to shoe horn an O. Henry twist into a story.

Oh, they were well done, certainly well written and acted, but a typical TZ was either an extremely watered down EC horror story (the little jockey wanted to be a big man and now he’s a giant!) or wallowing exercises in nostalgia (ah, everything was so much better five minutes ago…).

Outer Limits’ attitude was more “what now, puny human?”[5]

Yeah, I'm a cheap, goofy looking puppet. You're still poopin'  in your pants.

And while I’ve been focusing on TV shows, the same sense of wonder was present in movies, in paperback books, and in the sci-fi digests and comic books of the time as well.

As a sci-fi fan of that era, I tended (along with 90% of my fellow fen) to look down on the old Planet Stories type of pulps:  Thinly disguised Westerns or spy stories with a few surface details changed to give it a sci-fi patina.[6]

Even in the comic books, where Stan Lee was melding monster comics with romance comics to produce the unique blend of soap opera and super-heroes that made Marvel so much fun, the focus of the stories was in the sense of wonder and how it affected the characters, not on the soap opera elements with just lip-service to the fantastic.

I think David Gerrold’s “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode of Star Trek is a good example of what I’m talking about.  It has a lot of what later became problematic in sci-fi -- mundane political shenanigans of varying stripes -- but the core is about a unique and distinctly sci-fi type of menace.

Had Gerrold been told not to involve space stations and Klingons and interstellar treaties, to simply have the crew of the Enterprise pick up a tribble on a stray asteroid & deal with the consequences entirely onboard the ship using just the regular cast, then the basic story would have remained untouched.

The intergalactic politics were in service of the core idea, not the other way around.

Even in the 1950s this is how sci-fi films approached their material.  Even in such slapdash lo-budget lo-brow fare as The Giant Gila Monster, the characters’ #1 concern is dealing with the giant mammy-jammin’ gila monster, not the need for affordable health insurance.

Star Wars changed that.

After the original Star Trek series was taken out back and shot put to bed, other sci-fi films and TV shows generally tended to explore the ramifications of their sci-fi elements.  Then as now there were always exceptions, but the fantastic element was usually the focal point, not mere window dressing.

Star Wars, however, shifted that emphasis.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a grand space opera, tons o’fun, and still highly recommended[7], but it’s also a mish-mosh of a dozen different movies that George Lucas really liked.[8] As such, with the exception of the Force, none of the various fantastic elements in the film have any import in and of themselves.

The Death Star is just a big battleship packing the nastiest WMD ever conceived.  X-wings and TIE fighters are, well, just fighters.  Wookies are just the hero’s big colorful sidekick, the moisture farm boy is just a farm boy, and the princess is just a princess.  Ditch the cape and the light saber[9] and Darth Vader could have been a James Bond villain.

The Force was the only thing that really set Star Wars apart as a sci-fi film, and unlike the robots and starships and hyperdrive, it really affected the course of the story and the development of the characters.  Yeah, Lucas proceeded to screw it up royally, but it was the core of the story, the real sense of wonder in the film, and the one element that audiences weren’t already familiar with.

Of course Star Wars was visually designed really well and executed almost flawlessly and Lucas was savvy enough in the business end that it turned into a huge license-to-print-money franchise.

And in Hollywood, plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.

It’s easy to see why other filmmakers, producers, studios, and networks glommed onto Star Wars as a template for all things sci-fi.  As noted, the fantastic was mere window dressing; the core story had nothing to do with science fiction, really, but was just a Western / war movie.

Audiences could wrap their heads around that, but more importantly, producers could as well.  As a result, three films were greenlit that pretty much sealed the fate of sci-fi.

Alien had a strong sci-fi core and a unique monster, but was pitched as a haunted house in space story.

A scene from Alien -- whoops, no; from Mario Bava's Hatchet For A Honeymoon

Mad Max was a post-apocalyptic nightmare brooding on the collapse of society that looked like a motorcycle gang movie.

The gang from Mad Max -- sorry, Angels Die Hard.

Blade Runner was a thoughtful examination of what it truly means to be human in the guise of a futuristic film noir.

Why even pretend?  Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

See what happened?

While each film had a strong core sci-fi concept, the package was an already well established film genre with slightly new stage dressing.

And when all three proved popular, and when all three shared the same messy worn out retro-fit future look, well it didn’t take a genius to start knocking out imitation after imitation after imitation.[10]

Which brings us back to Starhunter 2300.[11]

The show has a simple premise: In the future bounty hunters arrest wanted criminals.

Wow.  How…futuristic.  Just like Wanted:  Dead Or Alive only without Steve McQueen.

I've been dead over 30 years & I can still floss more cool from between my teeth than that bunch of wusses would possess in a dozen lifetimes.

And it looked just like every other Star Wars / Alien / Mad Max / Blade Runner clone.

And none of it means anything, not even to the characters in the story.

Look, Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall inhabited his time and place; there was a meaning and a reason to his existence.  Dog the Bounty Hunter inhabits his time and place (indeed, one could argue Dog is more of a genuine sci-fi concept because Dog is at least aware of and deliberately playing to the reality TV environment he occupies).

But Starhunter 2300?

Meh.

The actors all put a lot of Intense Looks and Thoughtful Expressions and Pregnant Pauses in their Dramatic Line Readings and it means jack:  No way are they connecting with anything ‘cuz there is nothing there for them to connect to.

See, this is the problem: Starhunter 2300 and Star Wars and everything in Star Trek after the first season and all the emulators and imitators and flat-out rip-off artists who followed require their stories be set in a universe where law and order prevails.

And that ain’t sci-fi.

Sci-fi requires chaos.  It requires the unexpected, the unanticipated, the strange, the inexplicable, the mysterious, the unknown, and indeed, the unknowable.

It requires a sense of wonder.

And order, by definition, denies chaos.

And law, by definition, punishes wonder.

When a movie or TV show begins incorporating rules and regulations and laws and treaties and ambassadors and trade representatives and alliances and organized commerce it really sets a challenge to it ever becoming real sci-fi.[12]

This is why 99.99% of the time when I watch a new “sci-fi” film or show or read a book or graphic novel, I realize I’ve been lied to, it’s not really sci-fi at all, just cops & robbers / cowboys & Indians / Capulets & Montagues all over again.

Thanx but no thanx.

I’ll stick with the giant gila monster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1]  “Hokey smokes, Bullwinkle -- that trick never works!” -- Rocket J. Squirrel

[2]  This kinda thing goes all the way back to the early Flash Gordon serials, which benefitted from cartoonist Alex Raymond’s paucity of imagination (albeit killer drafting skills).  Flash Gordon the comic strip resembles whatever movie Raymond saw that week, mixing & matching cavemen and Robin Hood and Ruritanian romance with Fu Manchu and Roman legionnaires.  This made adapting the strip to the big screen that much easier since half the stuff they needed was already in the props & costume departments.

[3]  You thought I was going to post on that topic and not mention religion?  But I will limit it to just this footnote:  Much of what draws us to the divine is that sense of awe and mystery.  We are trying to puzzle out in our own lives the universe around us, both seen and unseen.

[4]  They meet God, and he’s a child.  Or an idiot.  Or a machine.  Or some combination thereof.  Viz. “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “Charlie X”, “Squire of Gothos”, “Who Mourns For Adonis?” etc., etc., and of course, etc.

[5]  As a kid I desperately wanted to watch this show and managed to persuade my parents to let me stay up, but I never survived past the first commercial break.  It wasn’t scary horrifying the way monsters movies were, it was scary uncertain in that the foundation of everything I knew and held true and believed as a 10 year old was constantly getting yanked out from under my feet.  One of the very few episodes I managed to see all the way through as a child was “Tourist Attraction”, which starts out as a variation of The Creature From The Black Lagoon -- that I could handle, since I’d seen lotsa monster movies and knew the good guys always win in the end.  The good guys win at the end of “Tourist Attraction”, too -- only this time the good guys are the monsters!

[6]  Mickey Spillane, unable to place one of his spy stories in a regular men’s adventure pulp, changed “communist” to “Martian”, “blonde” to “green skinned”, and “.45 Colt automatic” to “blaster” and sold it as a sci-fi tale.

[7]  In its pristine non-subtitled, non-CGI mucked with original version.  And Han shoots first.

[8] The Hidden Fortress by way of Metropolis and Shane and My Darling Clementine and 633 Squadron and Dam Busters with Triumph Of The Will at the end.

[9]  Nothing more than a noisy, glowing samurai katana when you think about it.  Or a really skinny chainsaw.

[10]  Indeed, it could be argued that being a genius would be a hindrance.

[11]  Bet you thought I forgot.

[12]  It’s not impossible, both the Men In Black films and The Venture Brothers TV series succeed doing this very thing, but they succeed because they are having fun with the juxtaposition of arbitrary order against chaos.

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