Synchronicity pops up a lot in my life. Between working on drafts about my disappointment with a science fiction series, I took a break to read my news feed and saw an article asking why so many popular SF TV series are so awful. The article made a number of points that resonated a lot with me.
The article calls out Westworld (season three), Star Trek: Picard, and Devs, as examples of awful science fiction television, which seems to match what I’ve read. By which I mean, just about everything I’ve heard, both negative and positive, doesn’t incline me towards these shows (I might check out Devs at some point).
Unfortunately, I don’t think the author answered the question.
I’m a little conflicted. The Entertainment Weekly website is a bit on the ad-bloated side for my taste, and they’ve done something to disable Reader View in the browser. I don’t really want to share a link to such a site.
But it’s impolite to talk about an article without linking to it, so against my inclinations, it’s Why are all these science-fiction shows so awful? by Darren Franich. (I suppose under the circumstances I’m being ungracious, but I really hate website ad bloat. It’s too much like spam, which I loath. Media sites tend to be major offenders.)
Picard and Devs only have one season so far.
Franich touches on the new Brave New World series (which he calls “goofy dystopian riff”) as well as the rebooted The Twilight Zone. He also mentions Black Mirror and how Jimmi Simpson is almost a mascot for the author’s thesis due to having appeared in a key Black Mirror episode, an episode of The Twilight Zone, and he was central in the first two seasons of Westworld.
We’ll both point out that these shows all have fans, and no one is faulting production quality. The question involves the nature and content of the storytelling.
I think Franich makes some good points.
One of the first is:
All these shows look okay — decent-sized budgets, solid casts, theme-y dialogue — and they exude a uniform unhappiness.
Exactly so. I’ve been saying this for a while.
Our storytelling has become negative and cynical. That’s especially ironic with Picard (and also with ST: Discovery) — Star Trek was originally founded on Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic view of the future.
I think our media both reflects and influences us, so this trend disturbs me.
But Franich sees something more than just the unhappiness:
What intrigues me is the common plot thread between all these divergent series: godlike technology run amok.
AI has become the new villain in popular SF.
Well, not really new. Skynet in the Terminator series surely qualifies as an AI villain, and we can go all the way back to The Forbin Project (1970).
Or, for that matter, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus to make the theme obvious). It’s perhaps the first true story of technology going awry — in particular, of it going awry far beyond the expectations of its creator.
But we do have quite a crop in recent SF television. Westworld season three has a world-controlling AI, and the series in general is about problems with AI — explicitly about technology going awry far beyond the expectations of its creator.
Devs features a powerful AI that sees across space and time. The debut season of Picard ends with “genocidal time-traveling megamachines” (Franich points out that last year Discovery had issues with an all-powerful security system).
I recently started watching The Feed (on Amazon Prime), and it, too, features modern technology as the villain. (It remains to be seen if the Bad Guys are evolved AI, which is my suspicion, or just human hackers.)
There is, perhaps, some sense to this. We’re running out of stereotypical human groups to paint as villains. One result is shows like The Expanse, where almost everyone is a villain to one degree or other (plus alien technology is going awry because of some of them).
An easy alternative is evil computers. Or at least ones going awry.
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”
Franich finds some irony in how these stories demonize the technology but exonerate the people who created it. (Even Jules-Pierre Mao in The Expanse has some rational, albeit psychopathic, motivation behind his actions. In The Feed, the people behind the technology have good hearts and intentions. So far.)
He cites techno-clown Elon Musk (the “techo-clown” is on me, by the way), who railed against covid-19 stay-at-home orders and whose workers in his reopened plant in California started testing positive. Kind of a moral statement, that.
He points out that Musk is a big science fiction fan, as is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon (dot com). Yet treatment of Amazon employees likewise raises questions about how Bezos sets his moral compass.
But in contrast:
Serrac and Forrest are both villains — arguably, in Forest’s case — but it’s telling how they both linger mournfully over sorrowful backstories and frequent declarations of global importance. I worry that the TV writers seem asphyxiated by their own good taste, as if it would be uncouth to let these characters be motivated by money.
Unlike the real-life purveyors of systems that seek to be as all-knowing and all-powerful as the science fiction counterparts. (I think we’ve all been surprised a time or three by how well an Algorithm seems to know us.)
On the flip side, Jules-Pierre Mao definitely has money in mind. While it turned out to not be my cuppa, I give the writers of The Expanse credit for dodging the bullets Franich identifies. (The show is mentioned only in that Bezos saved it, so it’s apparently not on his list of bad SF TV.)
I’ve complained plenty about the change in Star Trek (the seeds of that change go way back). Franich points out much the same thing:
For 54 years, Star Trek has been a franchise about the soaring awesomeness of technology: spaceships, transporters, a voice-activated computer, a phone in your pocket! Both CBS All Access shows bend over backward to build trendy device anxiety into the spacefaring canon.
This on top of a general turn towards darker cynical stories. Is it any wonder they “exude a uniform unhappiness.”
Yet Franich never seems to tap into the exact source of the unhappiness.
He segues into notions of “digital heaven” — from the literal version in the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” (or Amazon’s Upload) to the far darker use of VR slaves in the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister” — in which DNA of people allows the creation of VR copies.
That leads him into a consideration of the often sexist behavior of fans and the tendency towards what amounts to religious commitment to favorites. That leads him back quickly to Musk and Bezos:
It’s possible to support the lofty ideals of high-tech innovation while questioning whether those ideals have become corporate propaganda covering up old-fashioned worst-practices inequality. And it’s possible to doubt that someone who speaks eloquently about space travel really has the best interests of humanity at heart when their business puts literal humans at risk.
I don’t disagree. At all. This is a consequence of science fiction becoming popular. That, by definition, means all types of people like it. Being an SF fan is no guarantee of behavior.
Above all, I think, it’s worth wondering if science fiction as a reaction to our modern age increasingly looks like the source of the problem, not a solution. These shows offer an easy escape for everyone watching — the computers have gone mad! — while here, in the real world, old-fashioned malicious human error is tallying six-digit fatalities from sea to shining sea.
True enough, but what does that have to do with bad SF TV? I think we may have wandered away from the point, there!
I agree there is a gap between our visions of the future and their reality. The Expanse may turn out quite correct when it comes to human behavior. Maybe we don’t grow up in 300 years.
The thing is, I think if we don’t grow up, then we don’t go out into space. I think our success exploring space is directly tied to our maturing as a species. The project requires massive social will and long-term commitment.
I don’t blame the state of SF TV on rich science fiction fans with commercial empires, but it’s possible the world created by those empires (along with Facebook and Twitter and etc) has created a less happy world which is then reflected in all our stories, not just the science fiction ones.
I think, too, that we’re in an orgy of post-modern deconstruction. We’ve gone from being horrified by Nixon to taking P45 as the new normal. In roughly the same time span, the idealism of Star Trek has given way to a darker more cynical versions.
Franich ends by pointing out that, despite the dark tone of live-action shows, the tone of science fiction animation is much more positive. He mentions Rick and Morty, for instance. I quite agree. Even the darker stuff has a lighter more optimistic tone.
Stay animated, my friends!