Scifi.comErasing the Smell of Sci-Fi (firefly mention)
Tuesday 20 June 2006, by Webmaster
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Award-winning critic John Clute informs and entertains as he shines a light on the most important new books in SF and fantasy.
We’re deep into working on the Fall Preview section of the next issue of SCI FI magazine, and as we researched the new shows that the networks have planned for us, it didn’t take long for yet another case of anti-sci-fi bias to crop up.
A producer for one of next season’s shows, containing a premise that you or I or any reasonable TV viewer would immediately identify as science fiction, insisted that the show wasn’t really sci-fi, and hesitated about granting us interviews. I won’t rat out exactly who-just that it was a power behind one of the upcoming series I mentioned in last month’s editorial. But I have to admit that I wasn’t surprised by the attempt to mask the smell of sci-fi. I just sighed. Because this isn’t the first time that someone working on a sci-fi show has tried to deny what’s obvious to the rest of us. Here are a few recent examples:
Jay R. Ferguson, who co-starred with Lake Bell in NBC’s Surface, told SCI FI Wire back when that late, somewhat lamented show was just about to air that he didn’t consider it to be science fiction. "To me, sci-fi is Star Trek or Star Wars. This is almost like something that could be real."
Sean Maher, who played Simon Tam, the ship’s doctor, in both Firefly and Serenity, also once tried to dodge the sci-fi stench. He told a Scottish newspaper that "I feel like Firefly and Serenity are their own genre. It’s not science fiction so much as it’s about humanity and characters and dynamics between people."
Back before Billie Piper stepped down as sidekick to Doctor Who, she was asked whether she’d read much sci-fi before taking the role, and replied, "Not really. But when I read the scripts, I found it was a great balance between sci-fi, which can be a bit detached, and real, genuine emotions."
And then there’s Charlie Kaufman, whose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was, as far as I’m concerned, the best sci-fi movie of 2004. He told an interviewer for Sight & Sound magazine that Philip K. Dick "has certainly been very influential on my work. I like the fact that his science fiction isn’t really science fiction at all."
The human condition trumps genre
Those are just four examples of people who felt it important to stress that, unlike the rest of sci-fi, their projects have "real, genuine emotions" and "dynamics between people." I could easily come up with hundreds more. But why should it be so easy? Why is it necessary for so many otherwise reasonable people to make such indefensible statements?
There have been other reasons in the past, but as for today and that aforementioned producer looking forward to next season, I’m blaming Lost. I believe that they think that by aping Lost’s are-we-or-aren’t-we sci-fi vibe, they’ll also survive where some more overtly sci-fi shows seem to have failed. They want to slip under the radar of viewers who don’t care for the genre. They want to be sleeper sci-fi.
But I’m confident that those who feel that way are wrong. Even the creators behind Lost have a better understanding of sci-fi, as revealed in an interview with us last year. As Carlton Cuse, the show runner and executive producer, explained:
"No matter what genre you write in, ultimately the stories are reducible to stories about the human condition. And I think people forgot that you could do that in the science-fiction genre. Stephen King is a great example of someone who writes books, for instance, that are very high-concept, and maybe they’re horror or fantasy, but when you get right down to it, it’s really about the people that populate those books. That’s what’s engaging about him as a writer. ... You could do that in a hospital show. You could do it in a law show. You could do it in a cop show. But hey, you could also do that in a science-fiction show. And they seem to think that you couldn’t until this show came along."
So that earlier unnamed producer mentioned above learned the wrong lesson from Lost. TV series don’t survive or fail due to the level of obvious sci-fi content-as always, they succeed or fail due to their level of quality.
Last season, we saw shows with high science-fiction and fantasy content succeed (Supernatural, Ghost Whisperer) and shows with high science-fiction and fantasy content fail (Threshold, Invasion). And at a time in which the creators of Battlestar Galactica can get a Peabody Award for "distinguished achievement and meritorious public service," joining the likes of past winners Walter Cronkite, Orson Welles, Studs Terkel, Charles Kurault, Norman Lear, Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey and Christiane Amanpour, I hope that the fear of being seen as sci-fi can be put to bed.
It’s time that creators worried less about getting the smell of sci-fi on them and worried more about just making good shows.