My relationship with science fiction began in the early 80s with tv shows like Buck Rogers [title truncated for brevity] and Battlestar Galactica. A hawk man with feathers for hair, a cylon standing in a darkened room somehow reflecting a terrifying amount of light. I remember thinking even as a child that the cylon on screen was not an indestructible killer robot but a person in a suit trying not hurt themselves. The appeal for me was the dress up, making one thing standing for another. The on-screen image externalized fears buried somewhere in my childlike psyche: fear of authority, fear of the dark, fear of any intelligence incapable of feeling pity for my tiny helpless self.
But no, it was never a robot.
When I say I did not believe in cylons, it was not because I was too cool for school. The face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark was realistic enough to give me nightmares for weeks. But cylons made me feel that when my friends and I played spacemen vs. robots, we weren’t performing a imitation of what we saw on screen, it was television and movies enacting more elaborate versions of my friends and I playing spacemen vs. robots.
This is still my preference for thinking about how the futuristic fantasy of movies and tv works.
For me, the joy of that era’s sci fi is the pretending. The actors wear make-up, they interact with props. The knobs on the computer console seem barely enough to turn it on and off, the security doors couldn’t keep out a house cat. Heroes fall into inescapable traps then escape them. Not just the plots but the sets are recycled from westerns (why else cast Lorne Green in both?) in the same way you repurpose your living room sofa as a Martian base. The worlds these shows represented were acted out on a stage. They were play.
These days I’m concerned science fiction is mired in realism—by which I do not mean it adheres too closely to reality or the possibilities of reality, but that it is bogged down by the expectation that the worlds it represents are out there somewhere. (Consider the strange concept of ‘canon,’ which exists to separate out the fantasy events that are somehow real or true from those that are “fake fantasy.”) It is no longer us inventing them, but the fantasies permitting us a glimpses at themselves.
Trying to iron out all of the inconsistencies in the various incarnations of Star Trek is tedious and spoils the fun. Nobody likes a literalist when discussing daydreams. (Listen, I know: I’m pretty literal.) For me, sci fi isn’t an escape from reality. It certainly oughtn’t be a new reality! Rather, at its best it expresses exasperation with reality. It’s creator feels something within our universe, whether a law of physics or a rule of social relations, needs to get bent or broken until the wheels fly off. Something impossible is made possible, something forbidden becomes licit. This can mean time works backward, or that the cynical shitheads (the “they”) lose their power over us. Science fiction is supposed to be a little bit insolent. So are its fans.
It feels like this isn’t the case anymore. Now it is just another place where you are expected to stand in the line and speak from the pre-approved script, keep the toys in the original packaging and follow countless other joyless rituals. And if you don’t, God help you.
I am not saying sci fi used to better because the special effects were less sophisticated, but because it was place someone might slip a sneaker or a potato among the debris in an asteroid field. The universe was not only full of dangers and miracles but improvisation. It riffed on the facts of our biology, our social interactions. It was for freaks and non-conformists, people who saw the potential for things to be other than how they are. It was counter-cultural. Too often today it feels like a domain for the killjoys which sci fi used to be a protest against.
Anyways, no one will ever accuse me of not dickin’ around. Here’s some sample audio from my upcoming novel, The Killbug Eulogies:
Do you have favorite sci fi moments from classic tv or film that you feel the quality standards in entertainment today would no longer allow on screen? I’d be interested to hear! Comment below.
Also, don’t forget to subscribe for more previews like this.