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.
COMING SOON — FOUR OF THE BEST