The producers and cast of most recent TV SF shows are at pains to point out that their programme isn’t actually science fiction at all. They tie themselves in semantic knots to make sure we don’t think that their show is anything to do with that woo-woo spacy stuff. This is as true as ever when we look at the press for the BBC’s new drama, Outcasts.
Set designer James North has said “This is futuristic drama with the focus on pioneering humans who, out of necessity, just happen to be living on a planet that isn’t Earth.” Showrunner Ben Richards elaborates, making it clear that the new world of Carpathia is “… an alien planet without scary monsters. Little green men and fearsome creatures isn’t what Outcasts is about at all.”
Which to my mind is a bit of a shame. A first contact show might be more interesting than the programme we’ve ended up with, a frontier drama with a simple message. We can’t ever make a fresh start, because wherever we go, we have to take ourselves along. It’s not a new theme for an SF show. Look at Battlestar Galactica. It’s clear Ben and James have.
When a producer, writer or actor disassociates themselves from SF, they’re really backing away from the furniture. Look out for phrases like “flying saucers,” “space aliens” “ray guns,” or indeed Ben’s own “little green men.” And of course, the dreaded “sci-fi”. But at the same time they’re happy to use the tropes and themes that have been part of the genre since Wells and Verne started marking out the territory.
I guess it’s the G-word that’s the problem. Somehow the idea that SF is either kid’s stuff or entertainment for the socially inept is still a belief that informs the way films and books are marketed and sold. For “genre” read “ghetto”, and if you can make a semantic little wiggle that ensures you don’t get stacked up in the racks at the back where all the pimply, friendless people go, then so be it. This is especially important for the literary types. It’s taken the best part of thirty years for Margaret Atwood to “out” herself as an SF writer. Jeanette Winterston still has problems with the terms, although her novel The Stone Gods is set on another planet in the future.
It seems crazy to me. You wouldn’t set a story in Arizona in the 1860’s, populate it with cowboys, chases on horsebacks and a climactic shootout and say “oh, but it’s not a Western.* It’s a ridiculous stance, and hopefully one that’s on the way out. Michael Chabon’s alternative history The Yiddish Policeman’s Union won a Pulitzer Prize, and Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic vampire story The Passage is a genuine hit on all levels. There’s a misunderstanding about the people that enjoy SF, fantasy and horror that seems at least 30 years out of date. It makes the attempts of creators like Ben Richards all the more silly. Why would you cut yourself off from an big potential audience that can prove itself to be loyal and supportive to the right show?
The thing is, at a deep core level, Ben and James are right. Strip away the silver foil and spandex, and SF transcends it’s often low-budget set dressing. (Not an accusation I can level at Outcasts, by the way. It looks great.) SF acts as a mirror on the times in which it was created. It becomes a pretty relevant document of the hopes and fears of the generation that made and consumed it.
In the 50’s, it was all about the fear of infiltration by a foreign power and nuclear destruction. I Married A Stalin From Outer Space. Invasion Of The Atomic Leech-Women.
In the 60’s, SF began to explore the inner spaces of the mind, and the implications of massive shifts in societal influence. The first inter-racial kiss on TV was on Emergency Ward 10 in 1964, but it’s the second one that everyone remembers – on the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.”
In the 70s, things went dark and creepy as the promise of the Age Of Aquarius melted away, and we were left with three day weeks, Vesta curries and The Generation Game. Sapphire And Steel was un-nerving and bleak. TV’s eternal optimist Gerry Anderson went live action, and in UFO and Space: 1999 crafted shows that were in equal measure silly and almost unbearably harsh. The latter show starts with the moon being blasted out of orbit, effectively ending all life on Earth and dooming the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha to a nomadic life. Even Doctor Who went steampunk and gothy, and featured sequences that are still carved in my psyche today.
SF’s role as social and political commentary is often overlooked, which is a pity but in some ways a major strength. The deep stuff is in disguise, the way a concerned mum will sneak veggies into a pasta sauce for her fussy kid, giving the viewer something to chew on after the end credits have rolled. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Ben Richards can claim all he wants that his show isn’t SF. When the first shot has a spaceship gathering speed towards a strange new world, we all know what we’re looking at. What he’s trying to make clear is that there’s meat on the bones, that his show has substance and depth. Personally, I think audiences nowadays are sophisticated enough to make up their own minds about whether a show is worth watching or not without caring about the genre.
I’ll leave the last word to Jeanette Winterson, who I unfairly sneered at earlier. She nails the argument on her website, thusly:
People say to me, ‘so is the Stone Gods science fiction?’ Well, it is fiction, and it has science in it, and it is set (mostly) in the future, but the labels are meaningless. I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.
(The quotes from James North and Ben Richards come via a Daily Mail piece on January 29th – an article I picked up via Ansible, I hasten to add.)
*Unless you’re Cormac Macarthy, I guess.