There are many reasons for the decline of science fiction. OK, in all fairness, my version of science fiction. As an avid sci-fi fan who almost never watches the Sci-Fi channel, I’ve started to reflect on where it all went so horribly wrong. There are many culprits. First, the movie Outlander comes to mind. Outlander, not the Scottish decapitating swordsman dude, but the Sean Connery as an aging space-cop dude, was a sci-fi crossroads of sorts. This movie was simply a cops-and-robbers story set on one of Jupiter’s moons. For the first time, the setting, the actual reason we are watching a science fiction movie in the first place, took a backseat to a space-marshal human drama. Support your local Cylon?
A second crossroads came as Gene Rodenberry passed the torch to Rick Berman, who immediately set to work flying the starship Enterprise into a black hole. He made some god-awful TV shows, on TV show budgets, and called them “movies.”.
Somehow he thought, “Hey these really intelligent, detail-oriented Star Trek freaks won’t notice recycled footage, dumbed-down FX, and poor storylines, right?”
Great thinking there, Rick. This, coming from the same man who brought us Deep Six Space [Deep Space Nine], or, as I like to call it, “Melrose Space,” as it sadly competed for the Melrose Place audience. For those not familiar with Beverly Hills 90210 or Melrose Place, you might know their viewing audience as the cheerleaders who would never date you. This human-drama soap opera always danced around the possibility of a true science fiction storyline, although that rarely happened. Berman decided it’s much easier to have the same actors, the same makeup people, and deal with the same alien races each week. It’s much too expensive to beam down to a new planet each week, see something novel, blast it out of existence, and then beam home. So, instead, we get the same few Ferengi who are in love with the same few Bajoran. This was beginning of the end for the franchise. Even Enterprise, which tried to go back to the old themes, failed because of its multi-episode, cliffhanging, only-really-interesting-at-the-end-of-the-season, recycled plot gimmicks. AHHHhhhh, AHhhhhhhh! Sorry, I just had a Sam Kinison moment. Was there even one episode of Enterprise where they beamed down to the planet, met the creature creeping around the alien landscape, then had the captain bang something green, rip his shirt, and blast the bad alien into space dust? Even once? My guess is never. So what worked in the first series was never actually tried in the last.
While I have many concerns with the latest incarnations of the Star Trek, I have to say that The X-Files was the single most destructive force in sci-fi. There were about eight episodes of the TV series that I absolutely loved, which hooked me onto countless, conspiracy-entangled empty hours, none of which can I ever get back. I held out for those wrapped-up-in-one episode gems, where they’d meet the ancient killer bug or hunt the strange alien creatures in the woods. Sadly, nine out of ten episodes were cheaply done cliffhanger rip-offs designed for one purpose: tune in next week to find out another meaningless piece of the meaningless puzzle, kids! And don’t forget to drink Coke. One day, while watching Mulder muddle through yet another dead-end lead, the clouds parted and I remember a voice from the heavens saying, “My god, they don’t know where this is going either!” And I didn’t even care, because I kept waiting for the monster episode, which grew rarer as the series wore on.
The most recent affront to sci-fi, Battlestar Galactica, borrowed from a lot of these cheats. I’ll grudgingly give the show some credit, as it started with great writing and great special effects, but the space/action soon gave way to human drama, just like all the rest. Human drama, which has nothing to do with space, but is much cheaper to deal with, always creeps in like a Triffid on Amp. It’s the law of diminishing returns: it becomes less about Cylons and more about human-looking Cylons, and then ultimately who is banging the human-looking Cylons. As a sci-fi traditionalist, I want the women to literally suck the chrome off the bumper, so to speak. If you’re going to show me robot sex, then let’s get down with something that can suck the chrome off the Millennium Falcon.
Today’s sci-fi shows use trickery to draw you in; then, before you know it, the only worthwhile episodes are the season premiere and the season finale. Luckily, I have a wife who tells me when the first and last episodes air each season. During the commercials, she’ll fill me in on all of the plot gimmicks, sub-themes, and who is inter-galactically banging who. Yes, she has watched every episode of Battlestar Galactica, yet she still calls the bad guys “Zylons”. Women,. I think they are part of the problem. Remember Species? My wife knows every elf in friggin’ Rivendell, including the correct elvish pronunciation, but four years later and the bad guys are still the “Zylons”. She’s lucky she’s cute, and not in any way an android.
While independent movies can be wonderful, these folks need to stay away from sci-fi. I have bad news for you independent film buffs, a.k.a. morons: formula movies work in sci-fi. Endless variations on the same theme trigger wonderful things in our collective psyches. Such formula movies include Night of the Living Dead, Night of the Lepus, Night of the Comet, Night of the Jackal, Day of the Dead, Day of the Triffids, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Frankly, anything with “day” or “night” in it will work. I will even accept “morning” or “evening,” if you insist on change. The Morning the Robot Badgers Struck; or how about The Evening the Radioactively Enlarged Ice Weasels Ate Yuma. Basically, they come, whoever “they” are, from outer space, but they must land via meteorite, spacecraft, or via solar wind, radiation, or melting ice floes. Atom bombs will work in a pinch. Anyone in the opening scene must die no exceptions. Bonuses awarded if they are cute scantily clad women. Some mysterious entity picks off the protagonists, one by one, until the survivors are huddled in some structure or other, be it church, house, bunker, Starbucks, whatever. Oh, and boarding the windows during the end sequence is a must.
Screw the rest of you trying to pull sci-fi into something other. Refresher course: “other” is typically Melrose Space. Be imaginative, but stick with the theme. Show me something. We are in the outskirts of space. I don’t give a radioactively enlarged rat’s ass who is banging who. If everything must evolve, how about setting that end sequence in a Starbucks? Starbucks even sounds space-appropriate (it worked in Battlestar Galactica). You can have the survivors using cordless screwdrivers to board themselves in, or for super-futuristic, how about laser drills digitally enhanced by Lucas Film?
Bottom line, don’t change what works. Change what doesn’t work, you know, like Pokey McDooris.