Television: Dreams or Destiny?

TWELVE TV SCIENCE FICTION EPISODES WORTH WATCHING
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!

Apollo 11 lunar footprint (NASA photo)

Science fiction on television is a combination of fabulist, prophet and harbinger, all coming together to tell of the human condition in the face of unknown futures. What can we learn about who we are or who we may become? The following special episodes testify to their times and cultures, and are presented here in chronological order, according to their original transmission dates. Watch them and enjoy!

1. The Sky Is Falling (from ‘Lost In Space’ *original series*)
Teleplay by Barney Slater and Herman Groves, CBS, 1966.

Although it is remembered largely for its embarrassingly campy episodes, this series occasionally presented a great story. One example is The Sky Is Falling, which contrasts discrimination and fear versus friendship and interdependence, and evokes To Kill A Mockingbird through its use of children’s perspectives. From its opening words – in which Dr Smith bewails the sparsity of rescue from their barren planet, and then reacts with fear and intolerance when possible rescue actually does arrive – the episode explores the rise of xenophobia borne from difference, ignorance and poor inter-cultural communication; elements which, tragically, could be taken from today’s news headlines.

2. View of a Dead Planet (from ‘Moonbase 3’)
Written by Arden Winch, BBC, 1973.

Moonbase 3 was short-lived series that deserved a much longer run due to its ‘hard science’ depiction of lunar colonisation in the near future. This episode explores the frightening scenario of watching a suspected planetary extinction event on Earth, as viewed from a cosmic (lunar) perspective. The Moonbase staff must come to terms with their increasingly helpless horror, and try to balance both personal and national politics even while larger events appear to be unfolding in the sky above them. Viewers experience a compelling perspective of humanity’s fragility and cosmic insignificance in a Universe that has suddenly become breathtakingly claustrophobic and lonely. The story’s only weakness is its heavy reliance upon exposition from a stereotypically eccentric scientist.

3. The Legacy (from ‘Planet of the Apes’)
Written by Robert Hamner, CBS, 1974.

This series contains poignant allegory about the rise and fall of empires, and the horrifying fragility of civilisation. The Legacy asks viewers to ponder the value of scientific knowledge, and the profound impact upon our world should such knowledge be lost. Watching scenes of the physical destruction of computers – technology which has become ubiquitous in our modern daily lives – was difficult to watch even when first telecast in 1974. Other episodes explore the potential loss of medicine, science, and civilised society. All this while watching Roddy McDowall wearing an ape mask.

4. Voyager’s Return (from ‘Space: 1999’)
Screenplay by Johnny Byrne, ITC Entertainment, 1975.

The first season of this series is possibly most fondly remembered because of its interstellar vistas which portrayed the universe in stunning grandeur; however its scripts displayed erratic science and faltering character development, and an over-reliance upon a supernatural deux ex machina to untangle some stories from their own convolutions. Voyager’s Return rises above such problems, telling a tale in which scientist Ernst Queller and the staff of Moonbase Alpha are forced – individually and collectively – to face the ethics of their technology. This is a refreshing mix of humanity and hubris.

5. Man Out of Time (from ‘Logan’s Run’)
Written by Noah Ward, CBS, 1977.

Following on from the moral challenge posed within the Space:1999 episode mentioned immediately above, this episode from another series also explores humanist/scientific ethics. In this case, Logan, Jessica and Rem meet scientist David Eakins, who has time-travelled from the past and into their post-apocalyptic world. His heavy countenance represents the burden of a man who – having learnt of future events – intends to travel back to his own time and avert nuclear war, even though this may possibly cause his new friends to disappear from an altered timeline. With this ethical dilemma, Eakins becomes an ‘Everyman’ figure who must determine how to balance his considerations for those around him against the greater needs of humanity. Such ethical questions are vital at every level of science and society. If every episode of this short-lived series been this good, Logan’s Run would likely have been in production for many years.

6. Starscape (from ‘Starman’)
Written by James Henerson & James Hirsch, ABC, 1987.

A sequel to the original Starman film, this series – featuring the return of its title character to mentor his half-human teenaged son – was short-lived. Its downfall was the formulaic nature of its scripts: father and son as fugitives who face a weekly adventure and avoid capture before moving onto their next adventure. The penultimate two-part episode, Starscape, effectively ended the series on a poignant if ironic note of sorrow, loss and unfulfilled expectations. Starman follows the flawed human template: his compassion is revealed to be jointly his potential salvation and downfall. These characters are – like us all – aliens in a hostile world, seeking identity, belonging and meaning. Despite such melancholy, the episode Starscape hints at the optimism to be found by those who look up… at a starscape.

7. Three to Tango (from ‘Alien Nation’)
Written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider, Fox, 1989.

The arrival of millions of Tenctonese (alien) refugees allows for the creation of a new minority group to serve as an allegorical underclass, in a series that often explored racism, sexism, anti-refugee bigotry, gender roles, and homophobia. In this episode, one Tenctonese friend of the main characters turns out to be a Binnaum, effectively a third gender required for Tenctonese reproduction. He is invited to assist the main characters in conceiving a child. Thus the episode explores polyamory, bisexuality, intersexuality, non-binary gender roles, and the subversion of heterosexism. (This was the episode which had my teenage students – I was a school teacher at the time – arrive at school the next day, excited and eager to talk about ‘how aliens have babies’). Naturally, the Fox Network had to cancel the series shortly thereafter.

8. Darmok (from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’)
Teleplay by Joe Menonsky, Story by Philip LaZebnik & Joe Menonsky, 1991.

A series which strove to shape its own unique self-identity as a sequel to the classic Star Trek series from the 1960s (which will likely receive its own separate blog article soon), this late 1980s-early 1990s incarnation struggled to balance futuristic aspirations with disappointingly reactionary conservatism. Within this cultural fruit salad, there were some stand-out episodes, and Darmok is one of the finer stories. Superficially reminiscent of Arena (an episode of the original Star Trek series, with similarities to the Frederic Brown story of the same name), Darmok instead explores cultural difference and perceptions of individual and collective self-identity. Metaphor and allegory abound, and the Epic of Gilgamesh was probably introduced to fifty million viewers, as was the life-changing mantra: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

9. Running for Honour (from ‘Quantum Leap’)
Written by Bobby Duncan, NBC, 1992.

A cross between the earlier Time Tunnel (1960s) and the later Sliders (1990s), Quantum Leap features a scientist jumping from one time period to another within the bodies of individuals who are already living inside those particular time periods. The series tackled racial and gender issues, suicidal ideation, injustice, and changing social attitudes. Running for Honour delivers a story of a closeted gay man living in the homophobic 1960s. Possibly the most controversial episode of the series, it was also reportedly the episode to gain the highest viewer numbers. Somewhat quaint by today’s social mores, it was arguably a brave exploration of homophobia in both the 1960s (when it was set) and the 1990s (when it was created). Forget Star Trek, this episode really did boldly go where no American mainstream science fiction TV series had gone before.

10. The Original Wives’ Club (from ‘From the Earth to the Moon’)
Written by Karen Janszen and Tom Hanks and Erik Bork, HBO, 1998.

Viewers seeking uplifting TV should watch this real-life science-fictionalised biographical series and revel in its inspiration. What makes this particular episode significant is that it examines a rarely explored topic in media SF: the effect of science, technology and culture upon the lives of the women who have traditionally been denied public recognition. From enduring trite 1960s fashion shows and female gender stereotyping, through to facing the astonishing solitary devastation of widowhood, these women are shown to have courage and resilience equal to that of their Apollo-era astronaut husbands; however only the men get the glory. In the intervening decades, movies like Contact and Hidden Figures also provide strong ‘inspired by real life’ female role models.

11. Vincent and the Doctor (from ‘Doctor Who’)
Written by Richard Curtis, BBC, 2010.

Vincent and the Doctor is a worthy representation of TV SF at its best: science fictional technology (time travel) being used to explore a very human experience within a clever tapestry of real-life art. The Doctor and his companion confront a variation of the traditional time travel ‘grandfather’ paradox, and experience possibly the most emotional of any Doctor Who story in its fifty-plus year franchise. The use of the monster-of the-week format, to metaphorically explore the darkness of a lonely human soul, is a brilliant inversion of the series’ own sometimes-shallow monster formula. All the characters display frailties and a desire to learn from their experiences; the tragedy is that they each fail in their own way. The only desirable addition might have been for the Doctor to comment wistfully on more recently-evolved responses to mental illness; kudos nevertheless for daring to confront a challenging social problem.

12. Pride (from ‘Outland’)
Written by John Richards, ABC TV, 2012.

While more famous deep space franchises pointedly ignored the existence of LGBT people – or at best, reluctantly acknowledged their implicit existence through the use of problematic allegories – the six-episode TV series Outland was out and proud. It focussed on a club of LGBT science fiction fans and, in a strange case of art imitating life, it was produced in Melbourne, which was the one place in Australia that did (at that time) actually have an LGBT SF club (started by myself and friends in 1999). The final episode, Pride, resolves a number of story threads and delivers a satisfying climax at a fictional Pride March. “Beta, go!”

What do you think?
Have I left out any particularly significant episodes from other series? Please let me know! I am keen to possibly write a follow-up article to this one; a study that is not so predisposed towards US culture.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

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