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

It’s Life, Jim, But Not As We Know it.

It may not have the elegance and beauty of the artwork in the Lascaux cave complex in France, but sometimes I wonder if such items as this might one day be seen as archaeologically significant artefacts which document primitive communications between ourselves and evolving new species of Artificial Intelligence.

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Computer punch card, Australia, circa early 1970s. From my personal collection.

On the other hand, early computer punch cards might ultimately be seen a vestigial remnant of our own evolution: in line with Transhumanist ideas, emerging AI technology may combine with us to create distinctive new transbiological phenotype-genotype variations.

Will Artificial Intelligence evolve as a separate species, or will we co-evolve to become a mix of something that is as conjoined as we are with Neanderthals and Denisovans? Will we face Colossus the Forbin Project or HAL9000 as our overlords, or will we simply evolve into variations of bionic people, cybermen, or the Borg? Either way, resistance will not only be futile, it may be as retrograde as those who, today, deny the reality of evolution or vaccines or other scientific discoveries in our modern world.

Despite our cultural fears of everything from Frankenstein’s Monster to the Terminator, I do not fear whatever lies ahead. Indeed, when I glimpse at my old souvenir computer punch cards, I am reminded of Miranda’s utterance from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Our future beckons, full of strange and wondrous things. Let’s make it glorious and embrace it.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Take the Red Pill?

Artist: Miriam English

It is over twenty years since the science fiction film, The Matrix burst onto our screens and most famously introduced possibly millions of viewers to philosophical ideas such as Simulation Theory and the potential dangers of unregulated technological advancement. Are we living inside a computer simulation?

Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie involved the lead character having to choose between taking a blue pill, which would allow him to continue living in a blissfully unaware fantasy state, or a red pill, which would wake him up to whatever harsh reality actually existed in his real world.

This metaphor has apparently been adopted by elements of cyberculture, with one usage of the urban slang term, ‘red pill’ meaning ‘a waking up from a ‘normal’ life of sloth and ignorance’ and choosing the hard road – facing authentic life, warts and all.

By contrast, ethicist Jessica Baron suggests that the western world has been choosing the blue pill – blissful ignorance of the world’s problems:

“Our creature comforts are too nice, too necessary (at least we believe) to give up, and we’ve proved over and over again that we’re unwilling to do so, even if it makes the world safer or fairer for other people.” 

Perhaps the era of COVID is a good wake-up call. While some entitled people in certain western nations bewail home isolation and an inability to get a haircut, others in developing nations live in more severe conditions, where they lack even the most basic food, shelter or medical facilities. Like many other plagues down through history, COVID will undoubtedly prove to be predominantly an affliction of the poor. While world inequity provides opportunities for COVID to linger in poor communities, the virus will remain a threat to us all. If morality is insufficient to motivate us to the task, then surely enlightened self-interest should compel the world to confront such inequality.

It may be time for our culture to get redpilled out of our complacency. Let’s use the era of COVID as an opportunity to change the world for the better.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

From Omelas to Optimists

Binary Takeoff,
art by Ditmar (Dick Jenssen).

Science fiction is a popular form of film and literature, which often combines allegory and archetypes, myth and metaphor. A modern-day secular reworking of ancient mystical or religious archetypes – from Hercules to Harry Potter, from King Arthur to Katniss Everdeen – the lives of modern science fictional heroes echo across time and culture. Superman, Luke Skywalker and Harley Quinn reboot the ancient Rank-Raglan Hero Pattern, and their alien territories evoke unknown places on ye olde maps that were once marked, ‘Here There Be Dragons’.

Amidst this diversity of creativity and counterpoint, Ursula Le Guin was a famous twentieth century science fiction and fantasy author who was perhaps best known for ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, a story that explores themes of both feminism and non-binary gender identities. In 1973, she wrote a short story entitled, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In the ‘Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature’ lecture series, Professor Pamela Bedore examines Le Guin’s latter story as an example of both an aspirational tale and a warning of a future to avoid:

Imagine a perfect society, where everyone has their needs met, and life appears obliviously joyous and carefree. But this society has a hidden secret: in some strange, inexplicable way, their happiness is predicated upon the suffering of a small child who is locked in a basement. Even utopia has its price.

To me, this story evokes the paradox of modern Australian society, self-proclaimed bastion of egalitarianism and land of a ‘fair go’, in which we overlook the disadvantage of indigenous Australians, callously lock away refugees and asylum seekers, and largely ignore the plight of homeless, unemployed and disempowered people.

Extending the Omelas metaphor even further, we can see that affluent nations gain much of their wealth and privilege through the exploitation and suffering of other human beings in developing nations, and from exploiting our environment. Are we really enlightened as a species? What can we do to abolish such inequality?

We can act, but first we have to dare to dream. One popular science fiction genre is the Star Trek franchise, created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, in which his original vision was a galaxy filled with noble creatures, and a future free from war, famine, plague and inequality. Roddenberry challenged us to ‘Make It So’. The possibility of a better world ennobles those who undertake such a quest.

Science fiction, like much of our popular culture, is often dystopian in nature. In reel life, as in real life, we must choose our adventures and our heroes.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn