Sci-fi growling

Charles Stross says he hates Star Trek, which is an admirable sentiment, but then he flubs and says he hates Babylon 5 too, which is a sacrilege. And this is his reason why —

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert “tech” into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they’d have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

“It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories,” Moore said. “It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we’d just write ‘tech’ in the script. You know, Picard would say ‘Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.’ I’m serious. If you look at those scripts, you’ll see that.”

Aargh, thrash, flail, curse, and a disclaimer: as far as I remember, I’ve never ever watched a full episode of Star Trek, ever.

Sure, you can do drama that way; but teching the tech means the tech itself is meaningless, and (as Stross says) the story might as well be one of pirates on the high seas because you’re not using the unique possibilities and limitations your environs have to offer. The story becomes generic; and that is a bone-headed betrayal because the most defining and essential part of science fiction is that it posits some genuine difference, and tells stories of all the differences that follow.

If only I had a few spare tens of millions, I’d make a sci-fi television series that would try to get things right — and as I don’t, and I don’t even play lottery (because mathematicians don’t), I can just as well spill my great and mostly unoriginal ideas here.

1) Future simulation, not just entertainment. In a grand gesture that defeats the purpose of the show as entertainment, it tries to show a whole, somewhat thought-out future a few centuries (or whatever) into the future — with all the parts that are fodder of manufactured controversy and occasionally touchiness now included. What this means is the show wouldn’t just have bland and simplistic morality play vistas of tolerance between alien and man — it wouldn’t shy away from bits on the future of abortion, euthanasia, genetic choices, religion, homosexuality, marriage, sex and every cultural-war plank ever fought over, and wouldn’t lean on the stupid platitude of “It’ll always be with us” — smallpox ain’t, sexism is going, and there’s no reason why any particular folly, scourge or opinion of wo/mankind should be forever! (Myself, I’d like a situation where Our Intrepid Explorers encounter an alien religion — and the anthropologist of the group has to explain to the others what a “religion” and a “god” are — but that’s because I’m a dirty, realistic atheist, of course.)

The problem here is that “good entertainment” and “good future-simulation” don’t overlap; but since so many shows are so bad entertainment anyway, I’d really like to see one that made its simulations comprehensive and serious.

It’s been years since I last saw the movie so my recollections might be hazy, but I have this persistent creeping feeling that the Stallone movie Demolition Man was despite its silliness more serious and comprehensive in its mapping of a future than most sci-fi series of today. (“They have elections every few years for this parliament thingy, they work daily and get paid for it, they marry one-man-to-one-woman and raise children in their own household, and have a priest lurking somewhere, and have hand-held computers and car-like personal vehicles and sea-ship like star-ships, and are buried in the ground in a coffin with a stone marking the spot — in a wholly different exciting future! Bah!”)

One can use the distance of sci-fi to treat the problems of today — talk about racism when one shows anti-alien species-ism (phylum-ism? life-origin-ism?), say — but I’d just as much like to see speculation about the problems of tomorrow. If I want to see people struggling with the prejudices and follies of today, I’ll watch bloody Emmerdale; when I turn to sci-fi, I want to hear about the problems of future, too, such as these:

  • the mental and physical problems of immortality, and the cultural problems of having literally ten billion descendants alive, or
  • the ethical quandaries of sentient computers and their backups and copies, and whether you can own your code once it has a name and a favorite color and a girlfriend, or
  • just how well a person could erase herself from a society a thousand times more retentive than the birth records and Wayback Machines of today, and why she might do that and how one might live anonymous and identifier-less in a world where there are public eyes everywhere, or
  • whether the perfect form of government wouldn’t be a democracy, but a perfect dictator, that being a machine, or
  • some of a million other dilemmas and troubles, ethical and technical and sociological and philosophical and exceedingly dramatic that aren’t current but (if you want a lofty justification for spinning dreams for your and others’ amusement) one day might be.

The actual starships are kind of dull, actually; the fun is in the effect of starships on man. (woman, Thing, you know what I mean and you know it’s the short elegance thing, not the unconscious sexism thing. Right?)

Normal human drama is not necessarily boring, but it’s generic. Sci-fi can do that, but doing that is like using a Stradivarius as a hammer: sure, can do, but you’re missing the uses the instrument is capable of.

2) No reset button. And I don’t mean just a show where the episodes of any particular season could be shuffled without the viewer noticing; I mean less easily reversed events, too. That just isn’t realistic, and realism is what I’d like. No cases of people turning into energy-beings and then back, just as they were — no cases of the main character becoming a techno-hybrid thingie and then being his usual self a day later — no cases of two characters sudden getting all estranged, or feuding, or one grievously insulted by the other, with the feud being resolved without any further trace!

Resets buttons are of course nice because they make it easy to jump in even if you’ve missed as couple of episodes; but I’d much rather struggle with a sudden difference than yet again sit down to the same old, same old.

3) No immortality. I think (as I don’t know) that one of the problems of TV series is that characters, or rather actors, tend to drop out only when a season ends: they’re hired for one season and not for the next. And main characters, well, they’re hired for as long as the show lasts. I’d say expletive-deleted with all that — no character would be sure to survive. The captain and his gang going to a shootout wouldn’t be immortals, wouldn’t be sure to get just flesh wounds; wouldn’t be sure to emerge unscarred or even alive from every minor thug, kidnapper, assassin and blazing starship battle. Characters that got into danger would die in exciting and dangerous ways; and that would make the drama dramatic — what excitement is there in any action if you know that characters A, B and C will survive because they’re the main characters and this ain’t a season-ender yet?

Also, to impress the finality of things on the viewer — no-one would drop into a bottomless pit or be lost in a crash or under a collapsing Thingamajic, ever. There would be blood and body parts enough to not dread some dreadful normality-restoring return.

Indeed, it might be “fun” to get the entire main cast into some life-threatening crisis halfway down the first season, and then let them all die in the desperate conflagration of it, seconds from rescue. Then pick up all the bit characters that happened to survive, and use them as a new main cast. The point of mortal danger is that it’s supposed to be dangerous.

And, and please excuse my emotion-filled expletive in the following, no fucking resurrections. If you’re dead, you stay dead. The dissolving of the organic brain-state (or computer memory, or whatever) that makes someone someone is not a revolving door. Or if it is, fine, but every time that door swings, the drama dies a bit more. Then again, there could be a lot of nice drama in imperfect resurrections, but generally speaking, as with cake, you can’t have the drama of a grand exit and keep the exiter too. (And it would be nice to see a show that didn’t go and roll around in the scientifically untenable and laughable new-age crud of souls, afterlifes and floating glowy energy light thingies.)

Somewhat related: I think I heard that the makers of Lost decided to include a standard-heroic character in the first episode and then kill him in it to impress on the viewers that they were doing something new and brave — but of course they, the sentimental cowards, got attached to the character and the actor and just couldn’t off the Brave Doctor. I’m somehow unreasonably bitter over this factoid, especially since by my viewing — the first season only, so far — doctor Jack is my favorite character of the lot.

4) And on the “glowy energy light thingies” subject: No stupid eye candy. What I’d like is mind candy: ideas, possibilities and hints that astound, trouble and tantalize; not just glitter. And certainly no glitter just because a sci-fi show “should” have glitter and big explosions and stuff. Some things just are not nicely dramatic and shouldn’t be made so or the accuracy, and thus plausibility, and thus the willingness to suspend disbelief, is lost: there is no sound in space, you can’t (usually) see or dodge laser beams, computer search interfaces don’t tend to waste their resources on flipping every fingerprint or face they’re going through to the screen, and spaceship commanders with hundreds of men (and women, and Things) under them don’t go alone on perilous scouting missions. (Or if they do, there’s a reason — maybe they’re involved in a treasonous plot and can’t trust their underlings, as in Babylon 5, or maybe the military organizations of the future are different in some way, preferably explained, that makes this a logical thing to do. A lot of dramatic things can be excused by saying “things are different in the future”, but it only works if you tell that, and show that, and don’t forget that!)

I’ve nothing particular against eye candy, but it shouldn’t be in violation of science and common sense; and it’s ridiculous to have sci-fi that goes for the shallow and ultimately generic glitter and explosions when sci-fi can so much be about the unique mind candy — the ideas and possibilities of things that are really different, and can generate much better and profound glitter and eye candy of their own.

5) As a final thing, and one I’ve touched on before: science! (Said as in the she-blinded-me-with song.) And here we return to the quote in the beginning: I honestly believe that sci-fi can produce much better drama, better entertainment, and above all much better mind candy when one does (and I pause in my rant to acknowledge that Stross said this first) do the science first, and lets the drama follow from that. Because if you decide on the drama first and then just tech the tech, your drama will be drearily generic. (And worst of all, you’ll likely conjure up a world-changing invention, a cancer cure or something that makes you young again — and then never mention it again. The greatest invention of the century — used for nothing more than getting your fool of a main character back to the reset square again!) The same generic quality is inevitable when the science is just an afterthought, or something for which one needs a consultant, or an advisor — the science is just an icing for the humdrum human drama beneath. (And there is no escape from this since, as Scalzi said, the failure mode of sci-fi is not “science fantasy” or any such thing; the failure mode of sci-fi is bad and badly done and thoughtless sci-fi.)

Now, I don’t have anything against generic human drama, with or without icing — in fact I rather like histrionic and hysterically melodramatic antics; I am a fan of manga, after all — but the most precious and unique part of sci-fi is that it can be, and can be defined to be, and in some sense should be, about the science, or whatever world-rules and environs one takes, and their effect on mankind. (The difference of sci-fi and fantasy might be that the rules of the first are plausible or at least superficially plausible; those of the second are eh whatever.) Science first, humans second: not in importance, but in causality. That’s a wholly different dynamic, and I think it would create much different and better shows; or at least ones I’d much rather watch; but hey insert a bitter ending growl at and about the dumbosity of TV producers here when in the end the money-pushers are to blame though the audiences are at fault but you can’t say that, and anyway at least I have JMS who made B5 which is perfect and immaculate and without a flaw amen.

* * *

And I think these 2400 words of bitter amateur-consumer grumbling are enough for today. I guess I’ll have to wait for the twenty years it’ll take to make the making of shows like those currently on TV so easy they’ll only require a computer-analogue, two friends and their cat. Then there might be something like the ideas I threw up above; one just needs that physics student and that of philosophy with too much free time… and their cat to play Zorg the Conqueror.

(That is, extrapolating from the fact that video production and special effects are no longer a matter of money, but of dedication; see Star Wreck; and assuming three-dimensional printers and unusual inks actual physical props aren’t a problem either. How far computers can fix wooden acting, I don’t know though there may be some equivalent of Auto-Tune for that; but as I’m a steenking idea elitist I don’t care for the nuances of human emotions anyway. And yes, wasn’t that “human” in the previous sentence creepy?)

(Stross’s post begat Scalzi’s post begat this post.)

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