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Why Television Sci-Fi Sucks

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For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching Battlestar Galactica seasons one and two on DVD. I missed most of the episodes when they were broadcast, so I bought the DVDs. Battlestar Galactica is one of those sf television programmes that is allegedly so good, people desperately try to find ways to describe it as not science fiction. The same has been said of the new Doctor Who. And yet, and yet… If television sf is good, then it seems to me it’s more by accident than design – after all, we’re talking about programmes created by people who are not sf fans, and aimed primarily at an audience that is not composed of sf fans. And so it should be – for a TV programme to succeed, it has to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. What this means is that sf programmes are often good drama but bad science fiction. Sometimes, they’re both bad drama and bad science fiction. But programmes that are bad drama generally don’t survive.

This post was sparked off by BSG. On the whole, I like the series. It’s well written, well acted, and it presents its fictional universe convincingly. Well, okay: it presents its fictional universe mostly convincingly. The laws of physics are still frequently sacrificed to the rules of drama. And, if you think too hard about the Cylons, you realise they don’t actually make much sense. They’re supposed to be machine intelligences, a “race” of AIs created by the humans. Fair enough. That doesn’t mean the interiors of the raiders can’t be organic, or that there can’t be ones who resemble humans. Except… the latter are humans, by any meaningful definition of the term – biologically, and they’re sentient and aware. They just happen to have been created artificially. It strikes me that the makers of BSG haven’t actually worked out the full ramifications of “machine intelligence”. The Cylons are merely television villains – in other words, a blank canvas on which to paint a suitably-disguised version of Western society’s current enemies.

But I didn’t set out to pick apart the Cylons. I wanted to show that good science fiction and good drama are not only possible, but result in excellent television sf. And that doing either badly can spoil a programme. I recently found myself annoyed at the direction the story-arc took in BSG’s season 2. Beginning with the final episode of season 1, ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 2′, in which Adama “terminates” Roslin’s presidency. The last time I looked, in a democratic state the military does not have the authority to unseat an elected ruler. It happens, yes – Musharref in Pakistan, for example. But that’s a coup, a military takeover. So, Adama doesn’t “terminate” Roslin’s presidency. He seizes power. And he does so in a fit of pique – because Roslin persuaded Starbuck to undertake a mission against orders. It gets worse… Several episodes later, in season 2, Adama hands power back to Roslin. There’s a clear inference that the democratic process only exists through his largesse. Which makes a mockery of earlier episodes in which various people – including terrorist Zarek – insisted that the fleet must maintain a democratic government. It seems that in BSG, a democratic government can only exist if the military allows it to. Which makes any political commentary the series might wish to make immediately invalid.

In season 2, a new battlestar appears, commanded by Admiral Cain. And the annoyance factor shoots sky-high. Cain, the superior officer, takes command of the fleet. The president is completely ignored. In the US, the president is also commander-in-chief. But not in BSG. (There’s no reason why she should be, of course.) Cain’s singlemindedness then results in her and Adama almost going to war, and actively plotting each other’s assassination. Why bother putting a government in place in the fleet, if the programme makers are going to ignore it every other episode? Especially when Cain’s past actions come to light, and are clearly those of a war criminal. Not only are these actions ignored, they are tacitly condoned. After attempted genocide by the Cylons, Cain deliberately left survivors to die – and no one thinks this is a terrible offence? There is an off-putting current of militaristic fascism running throughout BSG which has been steadily increasing as the series progresses.

It’s not just the laws of physics or politics which are blithely ignored in order to present “good drama”. There’s economics, too. In episode 11 of season 1, ‘Colonial Day’, Zarek makes a long speech about how people in the fleet no longer require money. Since supplies are provided, there is nothing to buy… and so no reason to pay people for the work they perform. This makes sense – the fleet is comprised of refugees, and whatever supplies they might carry are being managed by the military. But sometime when writing season 2, the makers chose to ignore this. In season 2’s episode 14, ‘Black Market’, Commander Fisk of Pegasus is murdered, and the Galactica officers learn he was running a black market. In fact, black market profiteering is rife in the fleet – and is controlled by a single gang lord. So much for not needing money. You can’t have a black market without money – not only so that people can buy from it, but if there were no profit in it then it wouldn’t exist. Not only does this directly contradict earlier world-building, but the episode’s situation was clearly created for drama’s sake. It’s implausible within the setting. Story-telling discipline is more important in science fiction than it is in other genres. Readers know what is and what isn’t possible or plausible in the real world. In sf, the creator determines what is possible or plausible. And if they chop and change that from episode to episode, they undermine their creation. It’s no different to Hercule Poirot pulling a clue out of thin air to solve the crime.

It’s not enough that science fiction should have a central conceit, but it should also follow its own internal rules. Television sf may be the intellectually-challenged brother of written sf, but if it wants to be “good” then it’s still bound by the same rules, it should still use the same techniques. It recently occurred to me that part of the problem is television sf’s lack of subtlety. Written sf is not just action-adventure in outer space – even some Star Wars tie-in novels aim higher than that – but whatever commentary it might present is often disguised. Television sf has much less room to manoeuvre – episode lengths of up to an hour; aimed at an audience chiefly ignorant of the language of science fiction; and must appeal to the least sophisticated members of its audience as much as it does to the most sophisticated. As a result, commentary in a television sf programme – where it exists, which is not often – frequently involves beating the viewer about the head. I don’t have a problem with this – except, when the desire to create such drama means the rules and techniques of good science fiction are abandoned. Throughout season 2, Battlestar Galactica has done this.

All this makes for an interesting comparison with Doctor Who. BSG, of course, is American; Doctor Who is British. I was as excited as any other fan of sf when I learnt Doctor Who was returning to television. And, on the whole, I have to say the new series are a great improvement over the old ones. We might well remember past Doctor Who stories with fondness, but it’s often best to leave them as that – memories. Watching them anew on DVD only spoils the magic because, let’s face it, many of them weren’t very good. They were done on the cheap, and it showed. In Doctor Who – The Green Death, the UNIT air support proves to be a two-man helicopter, with the words “Twycroft Helicopter Rentals” (or something like that) painted on the side and a man leaning out and dropping hand-grenades!

Of course, nowadays it would all be done with CGI – and CGI has been used to great effect in the new Dr Who. This is both a blessing and a curse. The ability to realise alien worlds with such convincing verisimilitude often results in poor science fiction – just look at the Star Wars prequels (not that the original Star Wars trilogies were paragons of science fiction; far from it). Doctor Who series 3, for example, we had the sfx-heavy ’42’ (the title no doubt a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), in which the Doctor and Martha find themselves aboard a starship falling into the sun. They have 42 minutes to save the ship. Not only did the episode seem like a rip-off of Sunshine, but a race against time to survive when you know the protagonists will be back hale and hearty next week is entirely pointless. And suspense-free. Yet the best episode broadcast so far – of all three series – was pretty much sfx-free. Steven Moffat’s ‘Blink’ was not only excellent drama, it was also excellent science fiction. It was gripping drama, peopled by engaging characters, and made clever use of the Doctor’s time-travelling abilities. ‘Blink’ deserves both a Hugo Award and a BAFTA.

The remainder of the series could only be a let-down after an episode like that. And so it was. The humans at the end of time in ‘Utopia’ were, well, too human. When Worlds Collide at the heat death of the universe strikes me as more like a heat death of the imagination. And then in the two-parter ‘The Sound of Drums’ and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’, we had the Master conquering Earth… and the Doctor putting it all back as it was before it happened through some sort of psychic deus ex machina… From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Interestingly, Doctor Who’s much freer set-up means it rarely drops into the trap into which BSG so often falls. The Doctor travels so far and so wide, that any rules as to what is possible and plausible attach only to him and his behaviour. There is no setting, as such, in which the series is, er, set. The world or universe need only be consistent within the episode itself (we’ll ignore the greater inconsistency of baseline humans and Goths inhabiting Earth at the end of time in ‘Utopia’). The only objects within the “Whoniverse” which require consistency are those which are common to many stories – such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, the various other alien races which have made more than one appearance. Admittedly, the Doctor’s time-travelling nature means any inconsistencies with these can be explained away as his encountering them at different points in their history. So, for instance, series 1 and series 2 can end with the destruction of the Daleks… only for them to pop up again halfway through series 3. As anti-narrative consistency devices go, time travel is both the perfect weapon and the perfect defence.

I set out with this post to discuss how internal consistency in television science fiction should not be sacrificed to drama, that good drama and good science fiction produce superior television. Instead, I’ve just pointed out why BSG is often bad science fiction. And that the best piece of television sf I have seen recently is Steven Moffat’s ‘Blink’ – an episode which clearly demonstrated the benefits of good sf as well as good drama. I probably need to think more on this subject. I shall endeavour to do so. Expect a continuation of this post sometime in the future…

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5 thoughts on “Why Television Sci-Fi Sucks

  1. I’ve never watched the new BSG. All the hype and adulation (it’s too good to be sci-fi!)for something that is a remake of -ahem – Battlestar Galactica just put me off right away. But I’ve never let that stop me having a go before. I see you mention that they’ve introduced a shades-of-gray terrorist character. Would I also be correct in assuming that they use lots of hand-held camerawork, five o’clock shadows, cigarette smoking and washed-out lighting? That’ll be what makes it seem so like real life. Or so like so many other modern television dramas that couch-potatoes confuse it with real life.Jim Steel

  2. I’ve never watched the new BSG. All the hype and adulation (it’s too good to be sci-fi!)for something that is a remake of -ahem – Battlestar Galactica just put me off right awayGee, since you’ve never watched the thing I guess I don’t fucking care what your opinion is then! oh well!

  3. Hi Chris,Sorry to take so long to get back to you, but the word on the street is that BSG is haemorrhaging viewers. If it can’t keep its audience or, conversely, replace them with with new viewers (such as myself), then it’s going to get cancelled again. I’m going have to assume that you’re a fan of the programme, and therefore you really should be worried as to why people don’t want to watch it.Jim Steel

  4. Totally agree…but it’s about ratings. I gave up on good TV years ago, and now just have fun trying to predict the next ridiculous or inane item to befall us. (e.g. a battlestar with a bit too much chrome and fog lights will drive up on the side slowly and ……driveby shooting in outer-space!). BSG makes me laugh. 24 makes me laugh. Rock of Love makes me laugh. Strangely, I don’t like sitcoms tho….Give up. Next thing you know, you’ll be posting how the media only covers gossip and human-interest stories; and rarely can get its fat ass out of bed to do a little fact checking!

  5. Hi Ian.

    I do think that, because of its format, Doctor Who can hit highs and lows, sometimes with consecutive episodes, that other SFnal series don’t manage.

    As far as the politics in the BSG universe, the politics of the 12 colonies are not our own and don’t have to be–but they could have better handled some of those storylines. A couple of bits of world building dialogue would be all that would be needed.

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