Science Fiction on TV

In the last few Weeks, there were two Pilots for new science fiction TV shows: Virtuality and Defying Gravity. Both looked quite decent on pictures and summaries – and turned out to be very similar.

So here’s a joined summary/criticism:
Set in the near future, a group of astronauts (all scientists and engineers) go on an epic mission aboard a large spaceship. The world apparently didn’t change anywhere near as much as you could expect. Socially everything is the same and technologically there were only a handful of changes which just enabled the premises (like better spaceships) to exist – but nothing more. The voyage is documented in the style of a reality show watched by all of humanity, even though it obviously interferes with the mission by distracting and even angering the astronauts – but it is critical for funding reasons. There are no weekly votes for who gets thrown out of the airlock – but people don’t really seem to be able to stay aboard anyway or at least bring a functional suit when they leave.
The crew is said to have been selected from a huge pool of applicants. Judging from their performances, key criteria were either very good or very bad looks, high irritability, complete inability to control their emotions and urges, having delusions or hallucinations and strictly immature behavior. They either hate or love each other, equally passionately – rendering them absolutely unfit as a team for such a mission right from the start.
Aboard the ship, there is some gravity-like force keeping the astronauts on the “ground”, with a more or less reasonable explanation. There is no excessive techno-babble or anything beyond comprehension, and the physics seem credible – to anyone who does not know anything about physics. Information technology on the other hand is portrayed surprisingly well with only minor glitches, at least for the part that is doable today. There are elements that have not changed at all.
While not being the sole hero, the commander is the main character of the show. He is white, male, conflicted and has a secret affair with one of the female crew members. The computer scientist is not a complete stereotype, but still arguably the most pathetic person on the ship. The biologists and geologists are hot and female and one of them happens to be the commanders love interest. There are some crew members who display especially erratic or psychotic behavior, almost making the rest of the team look sane.
The show has a very promising science-fiction part. There is a certain realism to it that makes it believable enough to be watchable and even entertaining. There are little errors, some big improbabilities and the usual inaccuracies – but nothing that would push it from science fiction to “space fantasy”. Science fiction shows tend to take us several hundred years into the future, bringing a mix of (probably) impossible technology combined with inventions that exist today and will be laughably obsolete in only a few years (for example, computer screens are a very good indicator of the production year of a show – as are hairdos). This show however has almost nothing that could be called impossible (other than some stupid supernatural influence) and very few things that might be obsolete in the next ten years.
The other part – that is interpersonal relationships, tensions and so on – gets old very quickly. While the characters are not completely two-dimensional, they are nothing you haven’t already seen. On TV and in movies, that is. They tend to behave like teenagers and not at all like scientists or professionals, and seeing them try to carry out a very important mission makes a strong case for unmanned spaceflight. Actually it happens to make a strong case for unmanned everything.
Combining these two parts – sci-fi-stuff and interpersonal stuff – sounds like something that should be able to charm a very wide audience. Battlestar Galactica did it, even with a story that was more fantasy that sci-fi. There seem to be a lot of people who want space, realistic social conflicts and some kind of battle for ideals. The show clearly aims for that.

But this is where I’ll have to treat the two separately. Defying Gravity is OK, but all the talk about destiny, abortion (not sure what the point even was), natural selection, god and how great it is to be an irrational human made me almost dry-heave several times. I’d probably watch a few episodes, but if it goes on like that – count me out.
Virtuality was more interesting, even though it was going to be a kind of “Star Trek, but holodeck only”. Even though I didn’t really like any of the characters or that “reality show”-premise (can a mission to save the entire humanity really depend on ratings that much? Also, reality shows suck.), I was really excited about what comes next. Or what would have come next.

I think both shows should not have tried to appeal to the reality show audience. I don’t mind social conflicts, breakdowns, suspicions, secret affairs and so on, even in a group that is supposed to be made of specially selected scientists. But please, TAKE IT EASY! You can’t just take all the emotions and conflicts from the entire Battlestar Galactica -population and cram it into a single little crew and turn them into brain-dead reality show participants! It won’t work, you’ll end up scaring away the geeks and confusing the rest. Instead, commit to a smaller audience – but really mean it. Making science fiction in a time where with technological progress, even the rate of acceleration accelerates is not an easy task. Whatever you think of will either seem stupid/obsolete in a few years or accurate then but too weird and complicated now. Coming up with a story between these two extremes is hard enough, don’t make it even more complicated by trying to please everyone.

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One Response to Science Fiction on TV

  1. […] Defying Gravity In an earlier post I compared the Sci-Fi-Series Defying Gravity and Virtuality to each other. In short, while there […]

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