The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Ian Cuth­bert­son

Af­ter decades of ne­glect, qual­ity science fic­tion is mak­ing a come­back

‘ THERE is noth­ing wrong with your tele­vi­sion set. Do not at­tempt to ad­just the pic­ture. We are con­trol­ling trans­mis­sion. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the vol­ume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whis­per . . . we can change the fo­cus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crys­tal clar­ity. For the next hour, sit qui­etly and we will con­trol all that you see and hear.’’

In the black-and-white world of 1963 tele­vi­sion, this eerie mono­logue, ac­com­pa­nied by demon­stra­tions of the de­creed au­dio-vis­ual ad­just­ments, was how ev­ery episode of The Outer Lim­its opened. For its day, it was a thrillingly sin­is­ter de­vice. As dis­tinct from its pre­de­ces­sor The Twi­light Zone (1959-64) which dealt in the supernatural, hor­ror, psy­cho­log­i­cal drama and fan­tasy — of­ten with a moral or so­cial comment — The Outer Lim­its was char­ac­terised by its strong em­pha­sis on clas­sic science fic­tion. Both were an­thol­ogy pro­grams that con­sisted of un­re­lated episodes, and both de­lighted in clever plot twists. Taken to­gether the pro­grams rep­re­sented the be­gin­ning of se­ri­ous, philo­soph­i­cal sci-fi on TV.

A long fal­low pe­riod fol­lowed in which sci-fi on TV was all but aban­doned (the in­cred­i­ble 726 episodes of the six it­er­a­tions of Star Trek across 30 years be­ing the no­table ex­cep­tion). Of course there were brief flares of bril­liance — Baby­lon 5, Blake’s 7, the lo­cal pro­duc­tion of Farscape and some Doc­tor Who. But for the most part dur­ing the five decades since The Twi­light Zone com­pleted its orig­i­nal run, science fic­tion has pen­e­trated TV as a se­ries of cliches, a no-go zone for se­ri­ous minds and like­lier to be satirised in pro­grams such as Red Dwarf and 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Now, at last, there are signs science fic­tion is about to en­ter a new, golden era on TV. Pro­duc­ers seem to have twigged that view­ers want crisp plots that stim­u­late our minds and moral dilem­mas that chal­lenge our souls. We need mys­tery, sus­pense and ideas. In short, we want the kind of science fic­tion that lights up the cin­ema — much of it based on books — on our screens at home. Think of the power of films such as those based on sto­ries by Philip K. Dick, in­clud­ing Blade Run­ner, To­tal Re­call and Mi­nor­ity Re­port, of 2001: A Space Odyssey — per­haps the ul­ti­mate clas­sic of the genre — in which some thoughts by Arthur C. Clarke were made into the ma­jes­tic 1968 film by Stan­ley Kubrick. Im­pres­sively, some of the ideas are from Clarke’s 1948 short story, The Sen­tinel.

In a stun­ning re­turn to form hark­ing back to The Twi­light Zone and The Outer Lim­its, the three-episode Black Mir­ror de­buted on Fox­tel’s Stu­dio chan­nel last month. As in those two pi­o­neer­ing pro­grams, each episode is a stand- alone story with a techno-para­noia feel set among or­di­nary and not so or­di­nary peo­ple. De­but episode The National An­them, closer in spirit to the spec­u­la­tive so­cial com­men­tary episodes of The Twi­light Zone, is set in a fic­tional present-day Eng­land with­out a hint of tech­nol­ogy, aber­rant or oth­er­wise. It con­sid­ers what would hap­pen if a royal fam­ily mem­ber were ab­ducted and held to ran­som with a sur­real de­mand: the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter must have sex with a pig on national tele­vi­sion.

An ad­ver­tis­ing bill­board placed promi­nently in Syd­ney’s Kings Cross show­ing ac­tor Rory Kin­n­ear as PM Michael Cal­low ap­par­ently hav­ing re­la­tions with the pig se­ri­ously back­fired and made news bul­letins for all the wrong rea­sons be­fore be­ing hastily re­moved. Taken out of con­text, it seemed a crass evo­ca­tion of bes­tial­ity. In the con­text of the pro­gram, the dread of the sick­en­ing event is what drives the nar­ra­tive along in plau­si­ble cir­cum­stances: the PM can­not risk the blood of the Princess Royal on his hands. At­tempts in the show to keep the whole thing se­cret and man­age­able are com­pletely foiled by Twit­ter, Face­book and YouTube, the three vil­lains of the mod­ern com­puter age. Wicked twists at the end are very much in the spirit of the genre.

But it was the sec­ond and third episodes of Black Mir­ror that rang the bell for fans of clas­sic science fic­tion. In 15 Mil­lion Mer­its, a dark satire on the age of com­pet­i­tive re­al­ity TV, peo­ple live alone in cells in which five of the six sur­faces are gi­gan­tic TV screens, nau­se­at­ingly close and luridly colour­ful. The req­ui­site 15 mil­lion mer­its, earned by ped­alling to pro­vide elec­tri­cal power, can buy an ap­pear­ance on a re­al­ity show that may pro­vide a con­duit to a bet­ter life if the whims of pa­tro­n­is­ing judges can be fath­omed in time.

In the third episode, The En­tire His­tory of You, cit­i­zens of the near fu­ture can choose to have a ‘‘ grain’’ im­planted be­hind their ear that records ev­ery­thing they do, see and hear. This al­lows mem­o­ries to be played back in front of the per­son’s eyes or on a screen that oth­ers can see, a process known as a ‘‘ re-do’’. Trou­ble­some mem­o­ries can be re­moved by push­ing an erase but­ton while a re-do is in play. One char­ac­ter, over­whelmed by end­less ob­ses­sive re-do’s of hap­pier times, ends the episode by mess­ily cut­ting the grain out of his neck with a ra­zor blade, an echo, surely, of the fi­nal scene of the 1963 schlock hor­ror film The Man with X-Ray Eyes, in which cen­tral char­ac­ter Dr James Xavier (Ray Mil­land) takes lit­er­ally a bib­li­cal phrase from Matthew 18:9: ‘‘ If thine eye of­fend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee.’’ Three more sto­ries of the bizarre and un­ex­pected will be shown here in a highly an­tic­i­pated sec­ond sea­son of Black Mir­ror, be­gin­ning on Au­gust 21.

Science fic­tion on TV hasn’t al­ways been as imag­i­na­tive or well crafted. For ev­ery de­cent out­ing, such as Ter­mi­na­tor: The Sarah Con­nor Chron­i­cles, a sur­pris­ingly fine TV drama spun off from The Ter­mi­na­tor film se­ries (the ax­ing of which in 2009 is still mourned by fans of the genre), there are 10 such as Lost Girl and Ware­house 13. In th­ese pro­grams science fic­tion is mostly just back­drop to the re­la­tion­ship trou­bles and weak com­edy rou­tines of poorly drawn char­ac­ters. In Lost Girl a suc­cubus in the form of a pretty girl ex­plores her supernatural pow­ers af­ter she in­ad­ver­tently sucks the life out of her boyfriend dur­ing sex. In Ware­house 13, a cast with in­sipid pow­ers such as the abil­ity to read auras, an in­fal­li­ble mem­ory and the ca­pac­ity to pick up vibes, good or bad, acts out flip­pant sto­ries for

teenagers. In the US in par­tic­u­lar, Ware­house 13 rates its socks off. A fifth se­ries is in pro­duc­tion, though it will be the last.

Al­though it is not based on pre-ex­ist­ing ma­te­rial, the orig­i­nal Alien film, re­leased in 1979, rep­re­sented a sig­nif­i­cant shift in the way space travel was de­picted in science fic­tion. The crew of the doomed Nostromo — a se­ri­ously ugly space freighter — is as far from the pointy-eared Vul­cans, meringue-headed Klin­gons and uni­formed con­form­ity of the Star Trek uni­verse as it is pos­si­ble to get. The char­ac­ters are work­ing stiffs, re­luc­tant space trav­ellers who put up with be­ing in space be­cause they need the money. They are adults in a recog­nis­ably adult world, like mer­chant sea­men — and women — of the skies, trapped in­har­mo­niously to­gether for the long haul.

But the most in­ter­est­ing idea in Alien — af­ter the spec­tac­u­larly well-re­alised crea­ture burst­ing out of John Hurt’s chest be­fore grow­ing into a hideous adult mon­ster with acid blood and a fan­tas­tic over­bite — is the char­ac­ter of Ash, the ship’s science of­fi­cer. In dra­matic fash­ion Ash — played im­mac­u­lately by English vet­eran Ian Holm — is re­vealed to be an an­droid. Clues to this for au­di­ences are scat­tered through the first half of the film, but it comes as a huge shock to the crew of the Nostromo when his head is knocked off and syn­thetic white blood gushes out. Ash is a com­pany plant, with se­cret or­ders to pre­serve po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive alien life forms, at the ex­pense of the crew if nec­es­sary.

The idea of the evil an­droid is a science fic­tion sta­ple, dealt with most mem­o­rably per­haps in Blade Run­ner, in which ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered or­ganic ro­bots called repli­cants — vir­tu­ally in­dis­tin­guish­able from hu­mans — are man­u­fac­tured by the Tyrell cor­po­ra­tion. Vol­umes have been writ­ten on whether cen­tral char­ac­ter and a hunter of de­fec­tive repli­cants Rick Deckard, played by Har­ri­son Ford, is him­self a repli­cant.

An­droids were also at the cen­tre of Real Hu­mans, a 10-part tele­vi­sion se­ries made in Swe­den that aired last year on SBS One. In an al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity, peo­ple have been liv­ing with do­mes­tic ro­bots for more than 10 years. Hubots, as they are called, have be­come so so­phis­ti­cated they live with peo­ple as full part­ners, re­place lost sons, func­tion as nan­nies, sex work­ers and, in one of many nods to Blade Run­ner, rebel against their mak­ers. What Real Hu­mans lacks in orig­i­nal­ity it makes up for with a beau­ti­ful re­al­i­sa­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial-look­ing peo­ple in var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment and de­cay, ter­rific char­ac­ters and down­right creepy scenes that par­al­lel con­tem­po­rary sto­ries of worker ex­ploita­tion and hu­man traf­fick­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Swedish pub­lic broad­caster SVT’s web­site, a sec­ond sea­son is in pro­duc­tion, due on Swedish screens in Septem­ber. Many char­ac­ters from the first sea­son re­turn but the net­work is also promis­ing new faces. ‘‘ Some time has passed since the end of the first sea­son and a vir­u­lent virus is spread­ing like a pan­demic, mak­ing in­fected hubots un­con­trol­lable and danger­ous.’’

An­other re­cent en­try into the qual­ity science fic­tion for TV stakes is Un­der the Dome, now rat­ing re­spectably on Ten. Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Stephen King (who also serves, with Steven Spiel­berg, as a coex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer), the se­ries is set among or­di­nary peo­ple in the here and now. With­out warn­ing, a gi­ant, trans­par­ent yet im­pen­e­tra­ble dome de­scends on the small US town of Ch­ester’s Mill, cut­ting res­i­dents off from the rest of the world. No­body knows where it has come from, what it is made of, how long it will last or if it is the only one. The dome it­self — so pre­cise in its mys­te­ri­ous in­ser­tion that it cuts at least one cow clean in half — is the only spe­cific sci-fi el­e­ment, at least in the episodes we have seen so far. The spe­cial ef­fects built around it, such as light planes and trucks crash­ing into the in­vis­i­ble mem­brane at speed, are sen­sa­tional and come pre­sum­ably courtesy of Spiel­berg’s in­volve­ment. Oddly, the se­ries is less con­cerned with where the dome came from than the dystopian life un­der it, a study of how peo­ple be­have when cut off from the so­ci­ety they have al­ways be­longed to. It’s a theme as old as Robin­son Cru­soe, with echoes through Ge­orge Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four, Wil­liam Gold­ing’s Lord of the Flies and the re­cent hy­per-re­al­ity desert is­land se­ries Lost.

At last there are signs of in­tel­li­gent life in science fic­tion for TV, a genre that has been triv­i­alised, mocked and dumbed down for too long. It seems Black Mir­ror, Real Hu­mans and Un­der the Dome are just the be­gin­ning.

Un­der the Dome, Tues­day, 8.30pm, Ten. Black Mir­ror (sea­son two), Wed­nes­day, 8pm, Stu­dio (be­gin­ning Au­gust 21).

Real Hu­mans (sea­son two), 2014, SBS Two.


A scene from Black Mir­ror episode The En­tire His­tory of You

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