Until recently, science fiction and fantasy were things you only went to see at the cinema - unless you were a teenage boy. Now, with the success of Battlestar Galactica, Lost and Heroes, the major networks can't get enough of the stuff. Gareth McLean asks: how did sci-fi become so popular, so credible - and even so political?
Wednesday June 27, 2007
The fact that the character talking is not some swivel-eyed terrorist but, in fact, a hero - or, at least, what passes for a hero in this TV show's murky, shades-of-grey universe - makes his speech more surprising still. In a further do-not-adjust-your-set moment, the show in question is Battlestar Galactica. Yes, that Battlestar Galactica.
Well, nearly. The reimagined BSG, as it is now known, is light-years away from its cheesy late-1970s incarnation starring Dirk Benedict, later of The A-Team, and Bonanza's Lorne Greene. The premise is the same - the last vestiges of humanity are being pursued by the sentient monotheistic robots that they created as labour-saving devices - but instead of cheese, there's grime, the harsh realities of living hand-to-mouth in space, and some of the sharpest, smartest writing on television. Gone is the comforting binary of "humanity good, robots bad", and in its place is a universe in which the good guys practise torture and recruit suicide bombers, while the bad guys are devoutly religious, embarking upon a genocidal war in the belief that they are cleansing the universe of corruption.
This is science fiction for the 21st century. What's more, it's sci-fi about the 21st century. Fans of the genre have long known that quality sci-fi and its sister genre fantasy hold up a mirror to the times in which they were created, but never before have the TV shows involved seemed so resonant or indeed so influential. Science fiction has never been more now, fantasy never more real.
Now, even those shows that aren't strictly sci-fi or fantasy are heavily indebted to it. Other than Doctor Who, which is about a time-traveller in a police box, the most talked-about British drama of recent years has been Life on Mars, about a time-travelling policeman. ITV1 - already home of Primeval, which is about a team of scientists tracking prehistoric creatures through rifts in time - is, apparently, planning a drama called Lost in Austen, in which a woman finds a gateway to the Regency era in her bathroom. Meanwhile, Life on Mars producer Kudos is developing Outcasts, for the BBC. It follows a band of ne'er-do-wells in the future searching for an alternative home to Earth as the planet's prospects look increasingly precarious. It has been described as being about "life's big imperatives - cheating death, seeking suitable mates and surviving as a species". Such is the commissioners' keenness these days on "high-concept" dramas - which is to say, dramas that borrow devices or themes from sci-fi and fantasy - that writers now complain that it is difficult to get them interested in anything else.
Among new dramas debuting later this year in America are a remake of The Bionic Woman; Journeyman, which has a man travelling in time to right wrongs; Pushing Daisies, about a detective who can bring people back to life; Babylon Fields, which is about zombies rising in contemporary America; Moonlight, about a detective who is also a vampire; True Blood, another vampire drama from Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball; and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, based on the Terminator movies. Of 45 pilots picked up for series by US networks for next season, around a quarter are straightforward science fiction or fantasy, or influenced by them. The fantastic future is here.
(Before we go any further, as the weary time-traveller might say, sci-fi probably requires definition. It is, basically, fiction that makes imaginative use of scientific knowledge or conjecture. It extrapolates about possible futures, based on the present. It's speculative fiction. Fantasy, as its name suggests, pertains more to the fantastic, the supernatural, the unexplained. So The Matrix is sci-fi while Buffy the Vampire Slayer is fantasy. Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, put it thus: "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.")
This is all something of a reversal of fortune for sci-fi. For a long time, science fiction and fantasy have been seen as something for teenage boys, genres you grow out of. Since the 1960s, Star Trek defined sci-fi on television, and the cult of Trek was ridiculed, most exquisitely in the film Galaxy Quest.
Of course, sci-fi and fantasy can't be that specialist: of the most successful films of all time, most have their origins in one or the other. As well as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies, consider also the Alien quartet, the Jurassic Park films, the convoy of Harry Potter movies and ET.
Somehow, though, the suspension of disbelief that sci-fi and fantasy often require was too much for television audiences to swallow, and there the stigma remained. But Battle-star Galactica, along with the likes of Lost and Heroes, has changed that. All three shows are prime-time in America - Lost and Heroes on ABC and NBC respectively. Those are networks and not cable channels. This is a big deal.
Lost, with its employment of an unexplained plane crash on a mysterious island, unseen jungle monsters and strange initiatives, hatches and buttons, mixes elements of both sci-fi and fantasy. Perhaps disingenuously, given that the pilot cost a whopping $5m, Damon Lindelof, the show's executive producer, says it was never supposed to be a hit show. "It was meant to be a cult show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Alias. Somehow this show became broader. The fact that my mother was ever watching Lost in the first place is a shock to me. It's weird and there's a monster and there's the Dharma Initiative. And she said, 'I love the characters.'"
So what went so right for TV sci-fi and fantasy? For starters, the advances in CGI and the relative inexpense of creating it for the small screen has meant that sci-fi and fantasy have become more believable and spectacular. As Tim Kring, creator of Heroes - a show about a disparate group of somewhat dysfunctional, ordinary people who each discover that they have a superpower - says: "In the last five years, there would be a major leap forwards every couple of months in what you could do within the budget of a television show. Extraordinary things that took giant mainframe computers and 12 programmers to do 10 years ago, a guy on a Macintosh can do now."
Meanwhile, in the wider world, the event that has made sci-fi and fantasy palatable, and indeed positively appealing, to a mainstream audience is 9/11. 9/11 shook value systems and certainties, making the heretofore incredible seem not so outlandish. In a world in peril, we look to the fantastic for succour. The fin de siècle feeling that pervaded culture at the end of the 19th century, when the end was thought to be nigh, produced a burst of enduring science fiction and fantasy literature.
Calton Cuse, executive producer of Lost, says they weren't trying to consciously make a post-9/11 show, but, "We live in a tenuous world in which all sorts of threats can come out of nowhere and that affects us as people and what affects us as people affects us as writers."
Tim Kring, creator of Heroes, concurs with Cuse - he didn't set out to make a post-9/11 show - but "the wish-fulfilment aspect of the show feeds off a feeling that the world is a scary place. Issues like global warming and diminishing natural resources and terrorism are issues that seem really out of control and huge. That these ordinary people may be coming along with special powers and can ultimately do something about these larger issues taps into a sense of helplessness we may feel."
It can't be a coincidence that Lost, Heroes and Battlestar Galactica are laced with paranoia and suspicion - of government, of others, and, in Lost, of the Others. Just as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers in 1956 played on fears of reds under the bed, these are the times in which we live. Kring points out that heroes emerge in popular culture at times of crisis in the real world: Superman, for example, was born from the depths of the Depression. As Doctor Who supremo Russell T Davies notes, albeit while emphasising the optimism of his own show: "We live in a time of terror."
The suicide bomber's speech, as mentioned at the top of this article, is made by Battlestar Galactica's Colonel Tigh, an irascible, unpleasant, bigoted alcoholic, who leads the human insurgency when the planet he inhabits is occupied by the robotic Cylons. The Cylons, incidentally, aren't the giant metal machines you may remember from the original series. Now, they can look much like any other human, hidden in plain sight. One in particular, Number Six, whose feminine wiles lead a brilliant but vain government scientist to betray his species, looks an awful lot like a Victoria's Secret lingerie model - which is actually actor Tricia Helfer's previous occupation.
If talk of religious zealots, insurgency and occupation sounds familiar in the show, it's meant to. Executive producers David Eick and Ronald D Moore, who worked on the Star Trek franchise shows for 10 years, both studied politics at university and were drawn to the possibilities of exploring the world now through an imagined future. "I had wanted to get away from sci-fi and do something more overtly political, like The West Wing, but I watched the original Battlestar and realised how resonant its premise had become," Moore says. "It's about people who have survived a terrible attack on their civilisation and how they struggle with an ongoing war. The show is a prism through which we explore themes and situations that are relevant now."
Certainly, it feels more real today than the United Nations-in-space, technology-as-panacea world of Star Trek. Moreover, it's one of the few American dramas that deals with terrorism and the war on terror head on. The only other major US drama to do so is 24, and its all-guns-blazing approach is to the detriment of any thoughtfulness.
Where once the future, as imagined in sci-fi, was a place of possibility and a time of shininess, in BSG, it's a dark, dreadful circumstance. Humanity hasn't ventured starward to seek out new life and new civilisation - they've scarpered to escape annihilation. They go not boldly, but desperately. In Lost, its multi-ethnic, metaphor-for-America cast of characters has been downed by a plane crash and thrown into an uncertain, unfamiliar world. In Heroes, power is both a blessing and a curse, mostly attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Science fiction and fantasy have changed and, in turn, are shaping other genres. Battlestar Galactica's Moore says they deliberately eschewed aliens with knobbly foreheads, brothel planets and other sci-fi cliches. "We wanted to avoid the aesthetic trappings that sci-fi can get bogged down in and opted for a naturalistic look to the show."
BSG is the vanguard of a slew of sci-fi and fantasy shows that work within their genres, within our times, and - most importantly - as good old-fashioned emotional, engaging dramas. The producers of these dramas have created credible, cool shows - ones that are earthier and more grounded than many apparently firmly placed on this planet in the here-and-now. The drearily domestic but strangely alien Brothers and Sisters, I mean you. Why gaze at navels when you can gaze at the stars?
The far side: five of the best sci-fi/fantasy shows
Battlestar Galactica (2003-present)
Rebooted for a new century. Characters have changed gender, the clunky robots now look human, and the moral, political, sexual and ethical knots in which the characters find themselves are Gordian indeed. Also, the cast is very sexy.
Set in the year 2517, when America and China have joined forces to become the somewhat sinister Alliance, a band of rogues, smugglers, criminals and reprobates - diamonds, the lot of them - struggle with existential problems more than they do with warp engines. Created by Joss Whedon, and often described as a western in space, it's more Deadwood than Bonanza. Cruelly cancelled after 14 episodes, it spawned the feature film, Serenity.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
High school is hell. In Joss Whedon's genius show, the metaphor grew fangs and claws as a blonde schoolgirl - so long the archetype victim in the horror genre - became the heroine and kicked demon butt, averting apocalypse time and again. Smart, funny, sad and brilliant.
The X-Files (1993-2002)
From the shapeshifting, liver-eating Eugene Tooms to killer midgets on skateboards, from alien abduction to bees bred for nefarious purposes, Chris Carter managed to scare with monsters-of-the-week while building a compelling mythology that would eventually throttle the show. Still, there was the Unresolved Sexual Tension between sceptical Dana Scully and Fox "Spooky" Mulder.
Doctor Who (1963-present)
When Christopher Eccleston bowed out after one series, the wheels might have come off Russell T Davies' reinvigoration of the British classic. Instead, David Tennant took the Doctor from strength to strength. Stories as clever as that involving Charles Dickens, as emotional as that in which Rose bade goodbye, and as terrifying as Steven Moffat's Blink, with its Weeping Angels, mean that Doctor Who succeeds in being both chilling and life-affirming.
· Battlestar Galactica, 11pm Saturday, Sky Two; Lost, 8pm from August 4, Sky One; Heroes, 10pm Monday, Sci-Fi, and coming to BBC2, 9pm, from July 25; Doctor Who, Saturday, 7.05pm, BBC1.