Still not your daddy's Sci-Fi

by Paul William Tenny

One of my pet peeves is people incorrectly labeling certain films and television shows as science fiction. To be clear I'm not talking about or trying to rebut opinionated what the best sci-fi is lists like this and this. That would be a waste of time. I'm talking about people putting shows and movies on lists like that one that aren't really science fiction.

And you can just imagine how I feel about lobbing together science fiction and fantasy, two genres which couldn't possibly be more at odds with each other. Fantasy is the imagination taken to absurd, unbelievable levels for sheer entertainment value. It is the reality TV of feature film genres. Science fiction - in order to even qualify being called that - can't merely have some element of science, it has to be firmly grounded in it and revolve around its imagined impact on society and the human race.

One pretty much excludes the other.
All it seems to take these days is spaceships or even people living in the future for something to be labeled as sci-fi. I've heard a fair number of people call Firefly one of the greatest science fiction shows ever made. I strongly disagree, despite believing that it is one of the greatest shows ever produced, it's not science fiction just because it's set in the future and has spaceships in it. In that context all anyone has done is substitute cars and airplanes for spaceships. What does that say about humanity or society, or science's impact upon them? Nothing more than Law & Order says about humanity when the characters are seen driving around Manhattan in black sedans.

True science fiction is rare precisely because it is so difficult to do well. Science is interesting but it is not inherently entertaining. I've always believed that one of the ten commandments of writing is to go where the story takes you, that it's OK to dive in with preconceptions about the kind of story you want to tell and where you want to go with it, but that you must be prepared to abandon all of that in order to have an entertaining story when you're finished.

If Firefly took time away from what it was doing to explain how the engines worked on Serenity, it might pique your interest for a moment, but then there's less time to tell fantastic stories like this (Tim Minear deserved an Emmy for that episode.) If you compare Firefly to Star Trek: TNG, you'll see what I'm talking about. Now that's not to say that TNG didn't have good stories, it did, and in some episodes managed to achieve some of the better (meaning true to the definition of the world) science fiction in the last decade. But no TNG story was ever as emotionally satisfying and entertaining as Firefly was.

If you ask yourself, what is the definition of sci-fi, and then ask yourself is X and X really sci-fi, most of the time the answer is going to be no, respite popular opinion to the contrary. Star Wars? What possible element of science is there to be found in any of the six movies other than that there are spaceships? "The Force" is classic fanstasy, the rest is mixed drama and action. What about the various Star Trek shows? TNG was closest, but that's not saying much. The original series, Voyager, and Enterprise never touched the stuff. Deep Space Nine was pure drama, and great drama too.

And don't even get me started about J. J. Abrams' movie, that was pure action, and just a train wreck of a film all around. Really terrible movie.

So what of io9's "20 Greatest SF Movies Of The Past Decade"?

Pitch Black - Great movie, one of my favorites. It fit's the two triggers of what people think is sci-fi today: it was set in the future and it had spaceships. Other than that, science plays about as much of a role here as it does in South Park. I'm sorry, but this movie has a drama base and when push comes to shove, is little more than horror set in the future. The sequel is classic (and somewhat cliched) dystopian fantasy.

Avatar - Not released yet, but this is from James Cameron who wrote Terminator, which is actually pretty close to ideal science fiction, although it's fairly unoriginal at this point. Issac Asimov had been writing about man-made robots turning on their creators since the 50s.

Slither - By all accounts it was a typical box office failure that hasn't emerged as a cult favorite. And even if that weren't the case, it's horror, not sci-fi. Replace "alien from space" with "monster from under your bed" and everything works exactly the same.

Star Trek (Abrams) - Pure pop-corn action flick. The script was dumb, forced, and managed to violate numerous and significant chunks of Trek canon. It was an unimaginative carbon copy of every action movie ever made. Bad guy shows up, challenges flawed Hero who isn't a Hero yet, forcing reluctant Hero to become the Hero in the course of battle. Hero wins, bad guy dies. The end.

Donnie Darko - Anytime you call out a "blend of mysticism and weird physics" as positive attributes, you're not talking about a sci-fi film. Decently weird flick but still just drama.

Robot Stories - Haven't seen it, but this sounds like real science fiction. So that's one movie on the list so far.

Spider-Man 2 - Are you kidding me? The very basis of the mythos - a boy bitten by a radioactive spider who magically gains spider-like abilities - is the stuff of junk science. Not to mention the plot device of creating an artificial sun the size of a soccer ball that doesn't burn you to death or crush you with its magnetic field. This movie is action and fantasy, calling it sci-fi is downright offensive.

Sleep Dealer - No science here, either. Perhaps it was written by someone longing to be an economist.

The rest is even worse. The Incredibles, an action cartoon. Cloverfield, incoherent but entertaining horror.

Other lists are equally as silly.

On television you can forget Heroes and Lost. They are both mostly fantasy.

So what's left? Not much, and that's my point. You can't build a "best of" sci-fi list because the total number of real sci-fi properties is so small that everything ever made could fit onto a single list.

Whatever people call sci-fi today ain't your daddy's sci-fi.

Note: There are tons of great examples of how stupid people get when trying to label things sci-fi on io9's 100 SF&F shows list, far too many to address directly. One such show is 3rd Rock From The Sun, a sitcom that was as traditional as they come. You might as well add Big Bang Theory to the list since it says Big Bang in the title. It's that asinine.
in Feature, Film, Television


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