The Stigma Against SciFi TV

The Stigma Against SciFi TV
I can’t keep quiet anymore. I’m jumping on the bandwagon. I’ve shelved my regularly planned article for this space, because I have something important to say. “Battlestar Galactica” is a fantastic show, and no one’s watching. People, get over your ridiculous stereotypes of scifi TV and embrace what this genre has to offer.

Good TV is good TV because it has interesting and possibly flawed characters, compelling storylines and good writing--and there’s as much good scifi TV as there is of good any other kind of TV. Scifi TV’s reputation for bad acting and bad one-liners is undeserved--sure, there’s bad scifi TV, just like there’s bad TV in general. But it’s wrong that scifi TV in general isn’t taken more seriously. It’s a crime that “Battlestar Galactica” has won a Peabody Award but has not even been nominated for an Emmy (outside of the special effects category). What other show on TV is even trying to reflect the grim realities of war and occupation in places like, say, Iraq? You know, that place that’s in the news every day? Scifi TV can be important as well as dramatic.

Not to keep beating a dead horse—I mean, there are tons of media outlets that have harped on the injustice of “BSG” being cut out of the awards and the ratings. But it isn’t just this one show that gets short shrift—this is just the latest incident. Scifi has a long tradition of taking issues and twisting them around to make us think about who and what we are, and where we’re going. At its best, science fiction television has always held up a mirror to our society. This genre can use new settings, gadgets and worldviews to break down cultural and religious barriers in a way that allows us to truly explore human nature without causing riots in the street.

David Eick, one of “Battlestar Galactica”’s producers, said in an interview with us last fall that “Battlestar Galactica” very much follows this model: “It wasn’t so much coming up with a new idea as going back to an old one, which is, ‘let’s use science fiction as a prism, or as a smokescreen, as it was invented to be, to discuss and investigate the issues of the day….That’s where we go generally when it comes to storytelling, informing in a rather effortless and non-proscribed or contrived way, informing these stories with a certain socio-political tilt.”

Let’s look at one episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” from 1992, “The Outcast.” In it, the Enterprise encounters a culture called the J’naii where all the beings are androgenous, and those people who express a preference for one gender over another get reprogrammed. Riker falls in love with one named Soren, but she eventually undergoes psychotectic therapy to remove her feelings for him. Kind of makes you think, right? About homophobia, and cultural mores, and other weighty topics.

In 1983, the miniseries “V” told a stories about aliens coming to Earth and pretending to be friendly, while incarcerating scientists and others who were a threat. They created Visitor Youth programs to indoctrinate children; they rounded up untold numbers of people and made them disappear; they presented a beaming (human-looking) face to the world. Sound a little like Nazi Germany to you?

In the late ‘80s we also had “Alien Nation,” which showed the troubles of two races co-existing side by side after aliens had been placed in quarantine for years. Using this formula the show was able to explore the ramifications of racism and prejudice.

And I could list hundreds of similar examples from scifi shows all over the spectrum. “Babylon 5”? How about the complex and antagonistic relationship between races, as viewed through the prism of a U.N.-like space station? “Xena: Warrior Princess,” which seemed campy but pioneered a female-female buddy relationship without shying from questions of homosexuality? “Earth 2,” which looked at the strangeness of a new planet with different lifeforms and how we as humans deal with the unknown?

People who love scifi TV know this about their shows—that regular people don’t bother to understand them because they think a race of cyborg beings called Cylons sounds silly—sillier than the unbelievably crazy soap opera antics that happen on a show like “Desperate Housewives,” apparently. Spaceships and robots can’t be taken seriously, despite their being a natural outgrowth of our very human and very innovative imaginations.

Eick noted, “I think that our title…our network, and in a more general way our genre is always going to limit the exposure of the show. Certainly it remains a challenge to us to blow those limitations off. There are people I know who love shows like ‘24’ and ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘The Shield’ and ‘The Sopranos’ who I think, just in a purely tonal or thematic context would also love this show. But the likelihood that they’re going to try it is reduced because of the title, and I think that extends to things like the Emmys.”

But here’s the rub—many of us scifi TV viewers like being outside what’s considered the mainstream. It’s like we know something the rest of the world doesn’t. We have a best-kept secret, and it means our lives are rewarded with great television while the rest of the world slogs on with things like “Deal or No Deal” and “Top Big Brother Survivor Idol’s Apprentice.” Said Eick about “Battlestar Galactica,” “A lot of the initial enthusiasm for the show came from a place where people were saying, ‘You wouldn’t believe it. It’s called ‘Battlestar Galactica’ but it’s really this, or it’s really that. So you needed that initial context, you needed that starting point to cut against. You needed something to…subvert, in order for it to get the attention that it did.”

“Battlestar Galactica” is about nothing if not subversion: showing that humans can be more inhuman sometimes than machines, flipping the script by turning the good guys into suicide bombers and allowing us to sympathize with insurgents, even giving machines religion. Ultimately, it’s the fact that “Battlestar Galactica” has succeeded in being subversive that makes it such a fantastic show. So I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on the American TV audience. Still, I would love to see a world in which scifi TV was taken more seriously. It deserves it, and I hate to see excellent shows get shafted because of an ignorant public.

Despite what you've heard, scifi TV is (and always has been) all about what it means to be human. And that's why it's worthwhile.

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