December 11, 2018

Sci-Fi on T.V. & Movies-The Good, the Bad, & the (Alien) Ugly!

Like most of my generation, I was raised on a steady diet of 20th century science fiction.

Over the years, science fiction has experienced a nothing short of a Golden Age. Never before has there been such a wealth of movies and television shows espousing the genre. Heck, we’ve even got our own channel! I remember when even one decent sci-fi movie or television series a year was an event. Of course, real aficionados know that the really good stuff has always resided in books. Even the best movies were only roughly representative of what’s out there, and television is only an ugly step child to fiction. Still, to the vast masses that have never read a sci-fi book (or e-book), television and movies represent the extent of their exposure. Remember, science fiction may codify the mythology of our time. While some folks  turn their noses up at it in favor of “serious” literature, science fiction may well be what future generations study when they want to know what folks thought way back in the 20th century. Y’know, before we were enslaved in the robot wars, and all that.

Obviously, this list isn’t all inclusive; it barely scratches the surface of what’s out there. I’ll also be the first to admit that I can’t, say, quote Star Trek by series, season, episode, and scene, unlike folks who devote themselves to it like a religion. I also didn’t don pointed ears to write this piece. But as a long time consumer and yet to be published author, I do feel I have a pretty good overview of the genre. Trust me, I won’t echo William Shatner in his Saturday Night Live “Get a life…” routine. But I may point out some scientific inaccuracies, as well as places that get things right. That just lends itself to the suspension of disbelief, right? So here we go, Sci-Fi in movies and TV in 60 seconds;

Movies

The Good: Movies that bother to get it right!

2001: A Space Odyssey: Sure, this one makes it to the top of every astronomer’s short list. Space ships are silent. Computers go mad. The entire feel is desolate and lonely. 40 years later, this epic still stands up pretty well. Only the primates at the very beginning look a little like Planet of the Apes meets the GEICO cavemen when viewed today. It’s also the most recognizable epic penned by the late sci-fi giant Arthur C. Clarke, taken from his original short story the Sentinel. Hey, Hollywood, he’s got lots more! The sequel, 2010 didn’t fare so well. It was cool to see Jupiter become a star, though. Readers of the original 2001 book adaptation will recall that the final climax takes place on Saturn’s moon, Iapetus, not in orbit around Jupiter.

Contact: The only Sci-Fi written by the late Carl Sagan, this one makes you think about the possibility of first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Most of the science is firmly grounded; our only few nitpicks are in the opening “receding through the universe scene” were the asteroid belt is depicted as densely packed, and the flashback scene where Jodi Foster is recalling watching a meteor shower with her father using telescopes. While there are telescopic meteors, your best bet is the use of low tech, naked eyes. I know, Hollywood probably wanted a recognizable icon that screamed “astronomy” in the scene. Maybe they were peaking at the Orion Nebula as well. I once saw a science exhibit that got this wrong as well! We won’t name any names… (Meteor Crater Museum in Arizona). Sagan himself admitted the Einstein-Rosen bridge idea was highly speculative; it’s tough as a writer to get around that speed of light thing.

Star Wars: Ok, the science was kind of rough here. The franchise also gets a D- for ignoring such basics as gravity (or lack there-of) in space and sound traveling through a vacuum. I still think it fills that critical void of being the mythology of our time. The aliens bother to look alien like, not just cosmetically altered humans. Plus, people forget how unique the original looked back in 1977. Ah, how jaded we’ve become! I can even forgive Han Solo for using a parsec as a unit of time, instead of distance!

Blade Runner: This one holds the record for the most “Final Cuts” ever released. This was one of the first convincing visions of the future that wasn’t shinny and white.

The Bad: Movies so terrible they’re just fun to watch.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: The original “take me to your leader” flick… chock full o’ Cold War allegory.

Plan 9 from Outer Space: The all time worst… still worth digging up! Watch the movie Ed Wood first to get a feel for what you’re in for. I love the paper plate flying saucers thing. This should be mandatory viewing in film school. There’s a million ways to make a bad movie, but darned few ways to make a good one! Has Mystery Science Theater ever dared show this one?

Armageddon: A movie with almost as much bad science as it has memorable lines. My favorable aptly describes my old job in the military: “the pay’s good, the scenery changes, and I get to blow things up!” The reality is that if an asteroid the “size of Texas” was headed toward Earth tomorrow, there is probably little we could do, except maybe collectively attempt to “duck” as a species. At least it made the topic of Near Earth Objects sexy for one blockbuster summer.

Independence Day: Will Smith kicks E.T.s butt. This one rehashes just about every beaten up alien invasion theme that most Sci-Fi writers wouldn’t dare touch, for fear of the other Sci-Fi writers would laugh and point at them in pubs. I much more enjoyed the poignancy of its sequel, Mars Attacks…

The Ugly: A movie that was just plain bad!

Battle Beyond the Stars: Does anyone remember this one except me? Hot on the heels of the Star Wars craze, Hollywood threw together this disaster of a flick, casting John Boy Walton as a low rent Luke Skywalker. I actually saw this in a theater; it just shows how desperate we were for a Sci-Fi fix back then. Even my eight year old mind could pick out obvious Star Wars plot rip offs, such as the weapon that could destroy a planet (re: Death Star).

Hidden Gem: Check this one out!

Johnny Pneumonic: After reading the cyberpunk classic of the same name, I searched this one out on Netflix. After ten plus years, it still stands up pretty well. Plus it was cool to see Henry Rollins and Ice-T in the same flick. Ah, the gritty-ness! I too remember when a “Gig” was a lot of data! This would dovetail very well with a future apocalyptic, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Gattaca marathon.

On TV:

The Good: At long last, we geeks have our own channel! It’s like the Promised Land, or something. I wonder if Einstein would have bothered to come up with Relativity if he had had the Sci-Fi Channel? Here’s what our Tivo is set for:

Battle Star Galactica: Sure, the 70′s original series is the worst of the worst, but wasn’t everything except M*A*S*H* back then terrible? Hey, it was either that or CHiPs… or a hybrid of the two (!) in the beyond terrible Galactica: 1980 I caught lately. The new series, however, may just justify your cable bill. Really, the writing has been that good! The whole allegory is very post-9/11. And I’d rather fight the Borg than the Cylons any day! Catch-up episodes can be had at Scifi Rewind or Netflix.

Star Trek: Another franchise that gets things terribly wrong, but never the less, serves a critical function of science fiction; it covers modern sensitive ethical dilemmas in a fresh view of metaphor. You could probably teach ethics via Star Trek! In the sum of five series, I’ve seen them cover, to name a few, nuclear war, race relations, homosexuality, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. (Re: the Cardassian occupation of Bajor on Deep Space Nine.)   If they could have dealt with the gravity in space thing (I don’t buy the feasibility of “gravity plating”) and the cosmetically altered human- aliens, the series wouldn’t have looked so hokey. Fun fact: did you know that NBC big wigs feared that the audience for the first series wouldn’t “get it” if they gave Spock pointy ears? How far we’ve come. Also, check out the cool Hubble pics that grace the Astrometrics Lab on Voyager!

Twilight Zone:  A classic. The original, that is. Good Sci-Fi should make you think. Rod Serling did just that, through probably Sci-Fi’s greatest vehicle, the short story. I used to stay up until 11pm to catch this one in glorious black and white.

The Outer Limits: The intro still sends chills down my spine. Again, some very good sci-fi short stories have made their way to the screen on this show. Heck, I even like the new series!

The Bad: And on TV, things can get veeerrry bad!

Space 1999: The open premise was so terrible, even as a kid, I sensed something was wrong; a nuclear war knocks the moon out of orbit; the residents of Moon base Alpha suddenly start having all of these inter-galactic adventures. When was this ever a good idea? It was too bad, because some of the spacecraft designs, like the Eagle, were actually pretty avant-garde. I even managed to catch the mothballed second season, via Canadian TV. Learn more than you ever wanted to at this link!

Buck Rogers: Another baddie that Hollywood decided to revamp in the post Star Wars era. I don’t think that even the Sci-Fi channel has dared show this one.

The Ugly: Shows that give campy a bad name.

Stargate: Forgive me, but I was in the US Air Force… trust me, we don’t have time portals hidden away in a hangar in the desert somewhere!

Hidden Gems: Television you should be watching!

Firefly/ Serenity: I caught Serenity on Netflix… it seemed fresh and new and the characters were engaging, not the usual Star Trek knock-off fare. I’ve since ordered the Firefly series… look for an upcoming review on this space!

The Big Bang Theory: OK, I know it’s a sitcom… but where else are you going to hear the Casimir or Doppler Effect discussed on prime time? CBS has definitely got some actual science consultants in their writers department, not just some guys with a Wiki page open. Watch and see if you can spot that favorite loveable nerd in your life, or maybe yourself…

So there you have it, not an all inclusive list, I know, but a good place to start. Feel free to comment on your favorite worst/best sci-fi, or just chat about the subtle vagaries of episode four of season two of Star Trek; Voyager. If I get enough interest, we may make sci-fi movies and TV shows a normal thing here at Astroguyz. Next week, it’s back to News & Notes of all things astronomical; we’ll also be kicking off our “is Pluto a Planet?” Month for July; with the IAU’s most recent announcement, the time is right. Enjoy!

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  2. [...] “Dr Who” looking BBC television series, and altered extensively for a Hollywood movie. The series also endured as a radio serial.  Beaten to death themes of alien invasion, galactic [...]

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