The 10 things that make watching sci-fi and fantasy special

Odd List James Sherlock 26 May 2011 - 04:19

You know that moment when someone asks you what makes science fiction and fantasy so special? We've got the answers right here...

Imagine a world where pubs put up big screen TVs to air the new series of Doctor Who, where Joss Whedon isn't cancelled on such a startlingly regular basis (in this world Firefly would be on its eighth season).

This is a world in which Captain Janeway, not Paris Hilton, would be considered a role model for young girls and Yoda could prove to all growing boys that size really isn't everything.

It seems unlikely, impossible even, but all we have to do is spread the word. It's time for us to demonstrate to the world that sci-fi and fantasy are for everyone. So, whenever anyone asks you what makes sci-fi or fantasy worth watching, here's what you tell them...

It's optimistic

In mainstream television, happy endings are no longer the done thing, and are more often scorned than revered. Heroes are men like Jack Bauer, who shoot first and listen later, not Jedi, who are the calm keepers of the peace.

Modern audiences ask too many questions. Can the hero really always win? Surely that would be far too unrealistic?

Such optimism, then, only exists in two genres, children's television and science fiction. Where else can you find worlds where humanity has exceeded greedy capitalism, where self-improvement is what drives mankind, and where fighting the good fight is considered honourable, not foolish.

In a world full of cynicism, science fiction remains a genre in which what is right is admired and that which is cynical and dishonest is shown to be wrong.

The Evidence: Star Trek: The Original Series, The Lord Of The Rings, Angel

It's escapism

The fantasy author, David Eddings, once said in an interview, "Fantasy takes people away from the real world and almost everybody dislikes the real world."

With television that generally focuses on realistic and pessimistic portrayals (either gritty and disturbing as in Trainspotting, or desperately mundane, like Coronation Street), sci-fi remains one of the few genres that lifts us gently out of our front room and places us into a world of infinite impossibilities.

From the depths of the hellmouth to the farthest reaches of the universe, science fiction and fantasy can take you anywhere, anywhen and by any means.

When all else fails, it is this particular characteristic that that keeps us coming back for more. We are as powerless to resist as Boromir presented with the one ring.

The Evidence: The Star Wars Trilogy, Battlestar Galactica, Avatar

It has limitless possibility

In an infinite universe, the only limit is the writer's imagination. The odds are, then, that there will be something for everyone in the vast arena that is encapsulated by the title 'science fiction'.

Everyday people with superpowers your thing? Done, easy. How about gateways to other worlds? Please, it's been done to death. Okay, here's a real challenge, how about an evil corporation that rents out people with made-to-order personalities, until one of these people, ('dolls', if you will) becomes self-aware? Yep, got that as well.

There is no genre, not a single one, that can offer such a vast range of big, ambitious ideas, simply because conventional genres have limits that are set by the real world. With sci-fi there are no limits, and anything is possible.

The Evidence: Doctor Who, The Matrix, Stargate SG - 1

It's for old and young alike

Never were genres so suited to all ages than that of science fiction and fantasy. This could be endlessly proved, but none has done this so well as Russell T. Davies with The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, two spin-offs that allowed everyone, old and young, an entry into the Doctor Who universe.

More than this, there's a universality in science fiction that means it can be loved by people of all ages. I know children who love Torchwood and adults that love The Sarah Jane Adventures. This is because science fiction is a great leveller. It doesn't talk down to the children or try to overcomplicate for adults. The result is that children and adults can watch these shows together, as equals.

The Evidence: The Sarah Jane Adventures, X-Men, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

It promotes tolerance

There are plenty of shows that promote tolerance, tolerance of gender, colour, creed and so on, but few genres are so emphatic about it. What's interesting about the big wide universe of science fiction is, there's just not enough space for such vast diversity to be conveyed in a single narrative.

To get around this problem, these genres simply adopt the highly effective method of ignoring these differences with mute acceptance, a sort of 'well, we're all in the same universe' approach.

No-one in history cares that Martha Jones is black, and Captain Jack's sexuality never proves to be an issue, and, in fact, is an example of tolerance in itself. What a fantastic message this is for children.

This isn't an all-encompassing rule, of course, and the themes of many a series have hinged around racial tension and intolerance, but the message is always overwhelmingly clear: tolerance is the desired end, no matter what differences we have.  

The Evidence: Torchwood, District 9, Harry Potter

It speaks to the child in all of us

Let me ask a question. Could you, in all honesty, pick up a toy lightsaber and refrain from making the trademark humming noise?

Samuel L. Jackson famously couldn't, and was so enthusiastic about playing a Jedi that he even asked for a purple lightsaber, rather than the conventional blue or green. He was fifty-one years of age at this point.

The joy of science fiction is the way in which it immediately taps into the child inside all of us. Deep down there is a little child that still wants to be the arse kicking hero, to be able to use the force, to have a spaceship, to be able to fly, travel in time, to have superhuman strength, or, at the very least, get our hands on a sonic screwdriver. And these wishes remain intrinsically childlike.

No-one is thinking that being able to use the force would make it easier to negotiate Tesco once a week, or wangle that extra day's holiday that you need. No, in the realm of imagination, these abilities take us beyond our mundane lives. They give us the ability to do everything we always wanted. In short, they give us the sort of fantasies that only a child is capable of believing.

The Evidence: Firefly, Quantum Leap, Back To The Future

Everyone loves a scare

Fear is a basic human emotion, and, for many, a kind of fetish. People enjoy being scared. Roller coasters, extreme sports, scary movies, the popularity of Katie Price, there's plenty in this world to frighten us, and even at a young age, children are subjected to frightening fairy tales as an introduction to life's morals.

Where better to find a scare than in a genre in which literally anything is possible?

Statues that attack you as soon as you blink, an ominous, power-hungry corporation in Dollhouse, wives and girlfriends plastered to the ceiling in Supernatural. The truly terrifying nature of some aspects of these genres demonstrate that they're more than just silly adventures played out for kicks (although there's certainly an element of that too).

True scares come from more sophisticated places than simple blood and gore. They come from psychological places. They get inside our head and keep us awake at night (the Supernatural pilot definitely did), and this is where science fiction can work absolute wonders, whilst at the same time having the range to do so much more.

The Evidence: Supernatural, Alien, Predator

It's for men and women

Joss Whedon is among the biggest advocates of changing the image of the female 'victim'. His original motivation for Buffy The Vampire Slayer was to subvert the overly familiar trope of the pretty blonde girl being stalked and killed by a nasty in an alleyway. Once asked why he writes such strong female characters, Whedon replied, "Because you're still asking me that question."

These are genres that have consistently created strong female characters, and did so before any other genre jumped on the bandwagon.

Whoopi Goldberg was said to be inspired when she saw Lieutenant Uhura on television as a girl, which prompted her to approach the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation and take on the role of Guinan.

Star Wars produced Leia, and Doctor Who created a vast range of strong, independent, female companions.

These genres were among the first to show that women didn't have to behave like a man to be the hero. They could be heroes in their own right.

The Evidence: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Voyager, Lost

It's Timeless

It would be an interesting, if ultimately pointless experiment to have a look through the television schedules and to list the amount of repeats being shown. With the exception of endless Friends reruns, and, of course, The Simpsons (no complaints there), I suspect we would find that the majority of television repeats are taken up by science fiction programmes. Doctor Who, all the Star Treks, and enough Stargate to keep us all well and truly confused are shown daily on digital television, but why is this?

I would argue that this is because these shows have a timeless quality that is rarely found in other genres. Star Trek: The Next Generation began in the late 80s, but unlike many shows of that era, it still looks fantastic, almost as if it was filmed yesterday. Sci-fi set in the future, whether dramatic or comedic, often has the advantage of not looking dated a decade from its first showing.

But, more importantly than this, these stories are timeless in themselves. The huge amount of science fiction remakes that have cropped up in recent years tells us that these are stories that have something for every generation to enjoy. To use a horrendous cliché, these stories are like a fine wine. Well, you know the rest.

The Evidence: V: The Mini Series, Blade Runner, Red Dwarf

The human element

Ah, a personal favourite, this one! The thing is, whatever else science fiction is, whatever it can do, it essentially tells very human stories.

Star Trek was as much about the characters on the ship as it was about the exploration of space. What made Data so interesting in TNG wasn't that he was an android, but that he aspired to be human, forcing other characters, and indeed, viewers, to consider what 'being human' actually means.

Programmes such as Buffy are as much about the trials and tribulations of high school as fighting evil. Later, the show developed the theme into becoming adults and taking on responsibilities. It will be a long time before we forget the harrowing scenes when Buffy comes home to find her mother dead on the sofa, a scene that was more terrifying than all the monsters on the show put together.

Essentially, the human elements on these shows are there to give us a point of identification, to give us something to relate to.

At its core, science fiction simply plays out the old human stories of love, loss, friendship, betrayal, heroism and loneliness, across the grandest arena we can imagine.

The Evidence: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Dollhouse

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