Lazy Science Fiction TV And Film

Science fiction – sci-fi, if you prefer your genres shortened and hyphenated – is the choice I pick more often than not when it comes to watching a television programme or movie. There are reasons for this: science fiction babes are hot, of course; fashion in science fiction is without equal; science fiction can make you think in a way that insipid romances in teen action comedies don’t (positively, that is).

Sci-Fi BookThe brain’s a wonderful thing. I like to think. I’m quite good at it even if I say so myself. So this is why it pains me when I see something I like – science fiction – lobotomised in the name of entertainment. In the last six months I’ve noticed I’ve become far more critical of the films and shows that I would ordinarily love; perhaps this ties in with the completion of the Battlestar Galactica series and the termination (pun alert) of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, both of which were great examples of science fiction done well with attention to detail and engrossing storylines.

Characters are important; when a character does something in a book, TV show, or movie I like to know why they’ve acted the way they did. When it doesn’t make sense – when it’s out of character – the role is spoiled. In a similar manner, where science fiction is involved, events and actions are important not just as to why they’ve occurred, but also how they’ve taken place. This is not to say there can’t be suspension of disbelief; a little suspension is great as it tickles the wonderment ganglion in the cerebral cortex. I don’t worry, for instance, about high energy radiation problems of warp generation or the puzzling inconsistencies in artificial gravity. I do, however, get irked when aliens try to take over a planet which is toxic to them: Martians and Signs Things, I’m looking at you here.

Star Trek
J. J. Abrams brought a fresh, new look to the cinema screens with Star Trek and overall I really liked it. Visually: lovely. Some nice touches and nods to the series. But…

  • Romulans threatened by a supernova in another solar system? Possibly a little dangerous depending on proximity. However, not world-exploding dangerous. Also: not very fast, relatively-speaking; certainly not for a warp-capable race with incredibly well-armed mining vessels. No evacuations? Just blame the people trying to help? Weak plot and bad science all over this.
  • One drop of red matter can destroy a planet; all the rest of the red matter together takes about as long to grudgingly eat up a mining vessel. Was it past its use-by date?
  • Explosions in space do not push things away; they’d need an atmosphere to do that. As a means to escape the gravitational pull of a black hole… it’s crap.
  • Future Spock gets to watch Vulcan being destroyed in the sky from another planet? Not Vulcan’s moon, no; this was definitely a planet somewhere after some warp travel from the recently-destroyed Vulcan to the Federation fleet. So we’re talking a long way from Vulcan. Yet still able to see it in the sky. That’s some nice and glossed-over (okay, yes, totally omitted) gravitational lensing going on there.
  • Future Spock and Kirk are on an ice world. With dangerous carnivores. Large ones. Really, really large ones. Let’s ignore that Spock marooned Kirk on this incredibly dangerous place and consider how these carnivores survive. What the hell is the food chain like there? Implausible, at best.

The Day Of The Triffids
The BBC recently remade this story and annoyed the living crap out of me. The novel isn’t perfect (consider its age) but here’s a hint: fix the flaws when remaking; don’t pile more on top to hide them!

  • There is no right to bear arms in the United Kingdom. We do not have gun stores. You cannot simply buy a gun without a legitimate reason very easily. Farmers do have shotguns. Some of the upper classes do enjoy to hunt. Criminals do have some weapons. Most of our police do not have guns. Most of our population has probably never seen a loaded weapon in real life. So… when happening upon a small village in the middle of the countryside there is a possibility that the two girls may have a shotgun or two between them. A rifle I might buy too. But machine guns? How? Where? Why? And how again? And they left with our hero still clutching their guns… and how much ammo again? Where? How? What?
  • Disregarding everything that had happened previously and, in the last ten minutes, explaining a flashback and using a tribal mask to persuade the triffids to allow humans to pass through their hungry midst? What. The. Hell? I know it can be annoying to suddenly realise "I’ve no idea how to finish this story" but implementing a nonsensical mystical element that had no relevance to anything suffered through prior is insulting. Shower scene and dream seemed a little old hat perhaps?
  • Triffids are hungry, hungry plants. Just like hippos. And the world is full of warm, tasty, blind food. And they’re still plants, of course. Not sentient. So, why would a group of hungry plants lay an ambush inside a dark warehouse when all their blind, warm, tasty food in the plant-friendly sunshine is anywhere but there? Is there anybody who thinks that makes any sense?

Doctor Who: The End Of Time
I like Doctor Who. I’ve had a long chat with End Of Time writer Russell T. Davies before. It’s a science fiction show with occasional flashes of brilliance and inventive writing. And then a complete car crash of a story comes along.

  • Earth’s got beefed-up defences these days, hasn’t it? Aliens had better watch out! A Timelord in charge of a craft he’s never been in before (I guess) made a bit of a mockery of them in that utterly pointless chase/fight sequence. What the hell was that about? There’s no Disney tie-in to a game is there? There’s no ride at a theme park is there? Who was that for? What did it solve?
  • I don’t care who you are: if you fall a long way from a fast-moving craft and smash through a roof to land on a stone floor… you… will… die. If that sort of thing doesn’t worry you then little things like radiation certainly won’t unless you’re past caring anymore. Russell.
  • We see The Doctor get angry at Wilf. We see The Doctor get upset at his pending regeneration (just like all his previous incarnations… oh no, I’m thinking of Buddhists). We see The Doctor do all the things he said could never be done by going back in time and saving former partners or making their lives better. In short: we see someone completely different. All in the name of making hormonal men and women sob a little and forget about all the shite that had happened before. Thanks.
  • It turns out that Martha married Mickey. How do I know this? Because they took time out to tell one another what you imagine they probably already knew while in the middle of a battle. Like you would.
  • If I had a Gauntlet Of Making Things Disappear Or Turn Back To What They Were Before In Case Someone Had Just Turned Them Into Something Else Or Something (available in all good Gallifrey stockists) then I’d use it when threatened. Maybe that’s just me.
  • Building up a big Return Of The Time Lords with talk of an idea through time multipled by billions of cloned Time Lord personalities and a showdown in London and history unravelling and so much more! … that is foiled by shooting a diamond? Couldn’t a cleaner have come in and unplugged it instead for comedic effect?
  • Keeping quiet on a spaceship so you can’t be detected from Earth? Really? Surely, even the Torchwood Giant Ear Trumpet can’t hear people speaking through a vacuum. Surely.

Lazy writing, all of it. I could go on but I can’t be bothered.

So, finally, movie producers, television show developers, writers of science fiction: can I ask a favour? Can you run your stories past me first so I can explain what’s wrong with them and fix them before public consumption? Don’t make 2010 a record year for head-shaking and tutting. Thanks.

Author: Mark

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  1. Sci-Fi was, at a point, my favorite genre …. and I’m not sure what happened; I think you hit on it with the "liberties" the authors tend to take with the science part.

    The only "new" SF I seem to like is William Gibson: it’s smarmy, dark and gritty. But I’m SO detatched as an SF reader, I wouldn’t have any idea if there are any other good writers currently putting out the pulp.

    If the current permutation of Battlestar Galactica is all we get, then SF is dead to me,

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  2. You know what? I take it back.

    -Despite the flaws, I LOVED the Abrams take on the Star Trek series. Star Trek was getting stodgy and trite, and badly in need of re-invention.

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  3. You want good sci-fi writing? Alastair Reynolds is your friend.

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  4. Ha! I’m with you all the way. I think the book of the Day of the Triffids was far better than the bbc’s silly remake.
    Let’s escape from a city, strewn with debris and bodies, Vehicles are free for the taking. What would be the best vehicle to use. Did you answer A: a Smart Car?
    In the village, where our hero meets the two children, where there are probably, for instance… land-rovers… lets take a Citroen 2CV. Sigh.
    In the book, Bill, our Triffid expert, as his first stop, loads up with Triffid-guns, which shoot sharp discs, and are effective, in the adaptation, we shoot them with any old gun. In the book, Bill is big on face shields and eye protection, here, it rarely seems to occur to anyone that a face-shield, say a motorbike helmet with a visor, would save their life.
    Our child with stirling machine gun seems to have no problem in shooting straight with it, whereas in real life, they notoriously stitch their way in an up-and-right arc. And of course, as you point out, she seems to have infinite ammo.
    I snarled constantly. not least at Eddie (hide in the toilet surrounded with lifejackets and you’ll survive a jumbo crashing into london) Izzard.

    The Survivors was somewhat better, but full of similar stupidity.

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  5. I agree completely. My personal most-hated of those you mention would have to be Doctor Who which seems to have spiralled up the wormhole of Russell T. Davies’ butt far and away from the original. Plus I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before Russell manages to ‘gay’ up the doctor with pointlessly irrelevant self-titillating material normally reserved for Torch-"Barrowman gives Russell"-Wood.

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  6. Great article Mark, but will you forgive me for being ever-so-slightly pedantic? Yes, explosions in space can push things away. When something explodes, the material contained within the exploding something is thrust outwards with the force of the explosion. True, there is no atmosphere in which a concussive shockwave can propagate, but the mass of the exploding object can still exert a force on objects within the surrounding space – although the energy of the exploded material dissipates relative to the inverse square of distance from the explosion, so you’d have to be quite close to get pushed away.

    Regarding the "dumbing down" of sci-fi in general – it’s merely describing the same curve that applies to the intellectual complexity of most entertainment media these days. In my ill-informed opinion, most of what is termed sci-fi on TV these days is character drama or action adventure. I also think that it has always been the case that sci-fi has had to sacrifice some of its "correctness" for the sake of a story (or an audience). Take Stargate SG1 – there was a glaring plot inconsistency in the first episode which (to the best of my knowledge) was never rectified or explained : the attacking Goa’uld left the SGC through an INBOUND wormhole. As that particular attack was the premise for the whole series, you can see why it became my biggest sci-fi bugbear, and that was what, 11? 12 years ago?

    Still, as you say, there have been some real stinkers just lately.

    Grazor, you’ll be pleased to learn that the end of David Tennant’s Doctor also marks the end of Russell T’s stint at the controls.

    Say what you like about how he has "reinvented" the doctor, he knows how to put an intriguing, captivating and emotionally intense show together, and he’s introduced an entire generation of children to the hero of my childhood. I can’t wait to see what Steven Moffat (writer of the bestest-ever who ep: Blink) does with the job.

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  7. Are you aware of a novel or short story about TV or film makers in the future who travel back in time to film legendary historical events e.g. Spanish armada, Roman conquests, only to find the scale of these events is much smaller than advertised? As a result, they need to adds props to the background to make them bigger and more exciting so viewers in the future won’t be disappointed. I was told is was a story by J.G.Ballard, but I can’t find it. Any ideas?

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