Prepare to scare
Year Million peers into the future and finds it unsettling, writes while Stephen Colbert cheerfully informs us the present is already terrifying.
Few things make satisfyingly escapist telly better than killer robots – that is, of course, unless there’s a chance they could actually turn up on your doorstep.
Folk have always slightly feared the march of technology – from Luddites smashing automated looms in the early 1800s, to the death rays scorching from HG Wells’ Martian machines in his 1897 novel War of the Worlds. Even when the word “robot” was introduced by Czech playwright Karel Capek for his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots, he took a Slavonic word for “forced labour” and wrote a tale of soulless automatons conquering the world.
Just last weekend, the founder of Kiwi company X-craft Enterprises, Philip Solaris, told Stuff he wanted the United Nations to ban robotic weapons that can kill without human control, saying they were already a “spooky” reality.
So now’s a great time for National Geographic’s latest high production value six-part docudrama Year Million. The channel has set a high bar with big budget space exploration mini-series Mars and Einstein bio Genius, so now it’s tackling a grander topic: the future of humanity.
The title doesn’t literally mean 1 million AD, it’s more a figurative age in the deep future when humankind is “practically unrecognisable” – and the series’ shtick is to demonstrate how one family might reach that era “one invention at a time”.
The show’s success is to colour in the “what-if” outlines of topics such as longevity and artificial intelligence with our fictional family, plenty of theoretical physicists, inventors, pop science rent-a-brains and mind-blowing present-day examples (Erica, the neural network android from episode one, reveals her learning capacity by telling us she was created to demonstrate “what it’s truly like to be human” and then offends a nerdy Canadian called Ignatio by saying he doesn’t like “the finer things in life” like art).
But right from the start, Year Million struggles to combine the futuristic wow-factor with our inherent worried whoa-there factor. Narrator Laurence Fishburne – whose Matrix performance as Morpheus makes him ideal for this already Emmy-nominated role – begins by describing how a couple’s daughter can be virtually resurrected after a car crash but quickly moves on to a deep-future scenario when we’re “all computer, all the time”.
Year Million is the future, for good or bad – but the Star Wars clips, soundbites from fatalistic comedians, the odd humorous aside from Fishburne and terrifying, apocalyptic visions of the “singularity” when artificial intelligence outpaces humanity, sit a little strangely.
“Squirming in your chair yet? You should be,” Fishburne growls soulfully.
Mind you, you don’t need a crystal ball to squirm these days – there are plenty of quick-witted satirists dissecting current affairs to show we’re all going to hell in a handcart.
US late night talk shows have become the bedrock of American political comedy – well, as long as you are part of the “liberal elite”, if you’re on the right or one of Trump’s despicables, they’re something between Stalinist propaganda and an outbreak of Ebola – and the king of the timeslot is Stephen Colbert.
It’s not just his caustic one-liners, commitment to the daily news cycle and colourful monologues, but how he works his stage and camera that place him a few rungs above Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel, and saw him top 2016-17 ratings with 3.19 million nightly viewers. And now Prime will be showing his Late Show with Stephen Colbert just an hour or so after it’s aired in the US, so you’ll be able to get your fix of Trumpian America without bouncing between Fox News and CNN.
It’s just as scary as killer robots, but with more laughs.
In the world of politics, being your “authentic self” is hot right now. This feels new. Time was, politicians were supposed to look and sound like politicians. Measured, buttoned-up, careful of their language.
In America, presidents were supposed to look “presidential”. There’s a popular theory that JFK won against Nixon in 1960, not because of policy, but because of his telegenic appeal. Matinee idol good looks versus Nixon’s flop sweat. Later, a literal matinee idol – Ronald Reagan – held the White House for two terms. Everyone talks about the unmistakable charisma of Bill Clinton. Men who became president, at least in part, because they looked like presidents.
In New Zealand, we’ve liked our prime ministers to look “prime ministerial”. Someone whose face you could frame and hang above the mantelpiece. The kind of person you’d be OK to have presiding over family dinners while the kids were in the room.
And then the Trump wind blew. For some, the wind has a smell of locker room to it, and not in a good way. But for others, dirty talk (or mean talk, or angry talk) sounds a lot like “straight talk”. Refreshing because it’s different. Unencumbered by good manners, lacking obvious signs of being scripted or measured, it is a way of talking that cuts through.
Like all fashions, it reaches around the world to us eventually. When Gareth Morgan used the phrase “lipstick on a pig”, my mother was horrified, but there were other ways to react. He wasas talking like Gareth Morgan rather than like a politician. None off that pandering to other people’s sensitivities. For some people,e, being outrageous looks very much like being bold.
Winston Peters, an early adopter of being your authentic self,f, will no doubt be able to bluster and obfuscate his way out of trouble for receiving a higher benefit that his living circumstancesces should have allowed – despite the fact that if NZ politics was an n episode of Mastermind, superannuation payments would be hiss specialist subject. And his back-up subject: the bluster and obfuscation the people who support him love him for.
Authenticity, though, doesn’t work for everyone. Just a few short weeks ago, another politician, Metiria Turei, made a similarar confession about receiving a higher benefit than her living circumstances should have allowed. Both blamed the system foror letting them down. Winston pointed to an individual clerical errorror and insisted there was no intent to defraud; Metiria blamed thee whole system driving her and women like her to do something they weren’t proud of. Ultimately, they both made an honest confession. But perhaps people find him easier to forgive because it’s Winston doing what Winston does. And there are all kinds of ways to be a man in politics.