Sci-fi masters, or confused bloggers?

by Paul William Tenny

I wrote a story a few days ago setting the story straight on the common misuse of the term 'science fiction', inspired by a couple of posts on io9 doing various things like ranking the best sci-fi shows/movies over the past decade.

The problem is that most of what they ranked wasn't actually science fiction. 

Everyone is free to have their own unique opinion on what the popular meaning of sci-fi is, and what is good and bad sci-fi is -- I'm not interested in something that subjective -- but that doesn't really give them the right to redefine the term entirely.
So it's the ranking post that stands out as the worst right now, even though posts like this are common and ordinary in every way. In fact what io9 is trying to do, rank "the true masters of science fiction were this decade" is purely an exercise in boredom for everyone involved. Very little of what's on the list is justified and the criteria is vague. Normally that'd be what people are going to argue with, but when bother when the people on this list aren't actually making science fiction at all?

firefly.jpgJoss Whedon, I think, is as good an example as any of how distorted the term has become, to a point where anything that's either set in the future or involves space ships is now considered science fiction. I admire Whedon professionally and love his work, so nothing I'm saying here is criticism of him -- it's about people misunderstanding what it is that he and these other people on the list are doing.

Look at his body of work over the past decade or more. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel -- both vampire and demon shows, were fantasy and drama. Buffy, more so in the final two seasons and Angel it's fifth, were more drama than they were fantasy. There's no science in either show. Firefly -- what I consider the best show in many years -- was maybe 75% drama and 25% comedy, what people are calling a dramedy now. And what's the argument for that show? It's set in the future? That has nothing to do with science. Perhaps it's because the main cast lives on a space ship? So what. As I've argued before, in that setting a space ship is little different than a car in that it gets you from A to B and little else.

In shows like Star Trek, sure, a space ship is more than just a vehicle to move around. But that in Firefly.

If you're going to argue -- pardon the meta-show discussion here if you've never seen it -- that what the Alliance did to River qualifies as science fiction (surgical/psychological modification of an already extremely intelligent human being to make them something more deadly), I'd counter that easily by noting that in the few short episodes that were produced, that was never explored in any great detail.

River's condition was always a catalyst for storytelling, but nobody sat around exploring the nature of science and humanity and why impact the former would have on the latter when abused.

The movie based on that show, Serenity, on the other hand did explore more familiar sci-fi themes. Humans using science to try to make humanity "better". That qualifies, but the show does not, because the show didn't explore that. Perhaps given more than half a season that would have surfaced eventually, but it didn't and we can't go around classifying shows based on what might have been.

Whedon's Dollhouse is a different story though, I think that qualifies well enough. But it's hard to say since I haven't been able to see the second season yet. The first half (most of it, really) of the first season wasn't quite there. Like Firefly, brainwashing people into becoming programmable servants with any skill set you need or want is a catalyst for storytelling. In the beginning they never explored what that meant, what it said about humanity. I'm sure part of that is the fault of FOX interfering creatively. They got the show they wanted at first (episodic and trite) and that's almost certainly why it wasn't terribly deep. Later on the drama ramped up, but not so much the science.

I'll concede Dollhouse though because it's close enough to be debatable, and that's enough. I'm not interested in that debate, I'm just pointing out shows and movies that aren't even close.

And what about the bearded one? Battlestar Galactica (original) wasn't science fiction and Moore's remake was even less so. Let's be intellectually honest here, BSG spent far more time dealing with religious questions than it ever did the nature of the consequences of science on humanity. And even if you're going to cave on BSG, is Moore really a master of sci-fi for rewriting one of the most over-exposed science fiction concepts in history; humans create sentient robots than turn around and kill humans?

We've been telling that same story over and over again since the 50s with Asimov. If you want to make a list of "masters" doing what literally everyone else has already done, you need to do it better than all of them combined.

Moore didn't do that, as good as BSG was at first, it was little different than Firefly; a drama set in space.

If aimed the right way, his pilot Virtuality would probably have qualified. But one show in the decade that was panned by the time it ended as aimless, confused, and overly dark doesn't make you a master of anything.

The rest of the list doesn't get any better. Chris Nolan has no business here, he hasn't done a single science fiction movie this decade and that's not even up for debate.

heroes-1x04.jpgBryan Fuller, talented as he may be, doesn't belong on this list either. Neither Deep Space Nine nor Heroes were/are true science fiction, although you could still find room to debate the latter. The problem there is how much science has there really been in Heroes, and is it enough to be of consequence amongst what otherwise would be a fairly typical comic-book fantasy-drama?

The only scientist character in the show has always been relegated to second class status and at times either crazy or missing from the significant parts altogether. Stories about the persecution of people who are different are common place in our culture, as are battles of good versus evil, where for a time the good people become lost and fall into darkness. Some find their way back, renewed, while others don't and just get killed off.

Drama 101, in other words.

Again, this isn't criticism of any of these people or their shows. DS9 was the best trek show of them all, and I personally loved Heroes and appreciated what BSG was doing early on. But you can't let your personal feelings get in the way here.

With Heroes you've got to ask yourself if that is even a debate worth having, since Fuller (on-again off-again exec-prod) has quit Heroes twice, being absent for I'd say at least half of the series, and wasn't the showrunner while he actually was there. Don't get me wrong, you can count me amongst the people that think Fuller was the prime talent on that show and that it isn't nearly as good without him. But being a critical piece to a single show that you've missed half or more of -- when that show is borderline sci-fi in the first place -- hardly seems like enough to get your name on a list of genre "masters".

Nothing else Fuller has done in the last decade is debatable.

What about Peter Jackson? No, he doesn't do sci-fi at all. You could count Lord of the Rings if you're one of those people who think SF&F (science fiction & fantasy) somehow belong together, but I don't. And Jackson didn't write the script (which was adapted, anyway). LOTR was an amazing accomplishment and Jackson deserves a lot of credit for that, but come on, the guy has done about as much science fiction as Tina Fey.

lost.jpgJJ Abrams? Lost isn't science fiction 90% of the time -- if you want to get meta again, most of the "science" in Lost is junk science -- and his Trek movie wasn't anything close to resembling sci-fi. It was more Transformers than Star Trek and more mindless and cliched action than it was sci-fi. Fringe, from what I saw of the first season, wasn't science fiction anymore than the X-Files was. And how much can you credit a person like Abrams with those projects? He didn't write the Trek film, hasn't worked on Lost for a long time now, and isn't working full time on Fringe from what I understand. Don't Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof deserve more credit for the success of Lost than Abrams?

Some other notable names:

Sam Raimi: Love the man and his work, but really? Since 2000 he's done The Gift (not sci-fi by anyone's standards), three Spider-Man movies, and Drag Me To Hell. None of that is science fiction. The only element of science to Spider-Man has been laughable junk science that is insulting and so ridiculously wrong-headed that it qualifies as fantasy. I'm not saying they were bad movies, but if your definition of science fiction is so broad that you'll include a movie about a man bitten by a radioactive spider who then magically can spin webs with his hands and climb walls, then you're nuts my friend.

James Cameron: The Alpha Male of Hollywood hasn't been terribly busy with fiction this decade. In fact he's been limited to just two projects: Dark Angel for television, which he undoubtedly was only a consultant for after it was launched (and failed, and was less sci-fi than dystopian drama), and Avatar. I haven't seen Avatar so I can't call it either way, but at this point I don't think a single film ought to get anyone on a "master" list for an entire decade.

George Lucas: Star Wars? Give me a freaking break. Pure fantasy. Not a single sci-fi project in the last 10 years.

If you're curious what kind of list I'd put together -- I'd wouldn't do so willingly because I think the idea itself is absurdly subjective -- it would at the very least contain something like The Outer Limits. That's some of the best true science fiction ever made, this decade or any other. I mean really, just what kind of list of science fiction masters doesn't have Harlan Ellison on it?
in Film, Media Criticism, Television


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