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.)
To be clear, by Westworld Franich means season three, although I would argue season two also had issues (see posts: Yeah, But! and Final Reflections).
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!
August 8th, 2020 at 8:10 am
Speaking of Picard, I just saw read about a rumor going around…
WARNING! SPOILERS for Picard!
There’s a rumor going around that Patrick Stewart isn’t happy about returning for season two of Picard. It’s because he isn’t happy about how the first season ended.
As Franich writes, “it is my spoilery duty to inform you that Picard ends its first season by bringing the main character back from the dead as a rebooted android, all wounds healed, powered up for decades of new adventures.”
Stewart apparently isn’t happy about being a “golem” — it’s not what he signed up for.
I lack that lust to see my old heroes return to the screen in aged form. I never found the idea of Picard attractive — quite the opposite. (Similar to my reaction to the rebooted Murphy Brown.) So I never got on board with Picard and, as I mentioned in the post, nothing I’ve heard about it since compels me. (More like, “Yep, that’s what I thought.”)
It is just a rumor. Maybe Stewart is eager to get back to playing, well,… another Data, I guess.
Far better to just watch Solar Opposites — an animation.
(The WP Reader, buggy bit of work that it is, didn’t expand the window when the DETAILS section is opened, so I’m adding this bit of text here to see if that gives it a clue.)
August 8th, 2020 at 8:19 am
As long as it’s Sci-Fi Saturday,…
I’ve read a couple of articles now about George R.R. Martin hosting the Hugo awards.
They hired a 71-year-old white man — the guy who wrote the apparently very rapey Game of Thrones books (word is that if you thought the TV show was bad, the books are worse; I thought the TV show, the two seasons I watched, was pretty bad in that regard).
What did they think was going to happen? How is it possible an old white male SF writer isn’t going to talk about the history of SF? How is it possible to think he’ll get unfamiliar names correct (without someone going and coaching him)?
This is just another example of Stupid Human Tricks — both in using Martin and in the reactions to him. Bunch of idiots all around.
I have zero sympathy for any of it, but that’s a post for another day.
(Full disclosure: I’ve never read the books and only the first two seasons of the show before I tapped out. I will say that every snippet of the GoT books I’ve seen made my skin crawl. I not only never understood the attraction; I found it repellent. Kinda like Breaking Bad in that regard.)
August 8th, 2020 at 1:43 pm
I read that article, although I don’t remember much about it, except that I was underwhelmed. (And despite having an ad-blocker, I’m not inclined to go look at it again.)
I actually enjoyed Devs a great deal, although I won’t paint it as plausible. It’s more interesting for its philosophical explorations.
My biggest issue with Picard wasn’t the darker tone, although the contrast the show tried to make between Picard’s idealism and everyone else’s pessimism, became irritating, to the extent that Picard often looked old and foolish, even getting some people killed due to how he handled things. My broader issue was that the show took too long to get moving, raised a lot of issues, both with the Federation and a major new threat, then wrapped them all up far too quickly.
More broadly, one thing I find interesting is darker times usually call for lighter fiction, and prosperous times for dark edgy fiction. (Compare the movies of the 30s with those of the late 40s.) I suspect a lot of the dark edgy stuff we’ve been seeing reflects the world as of a few years ago, rather than the one today. We’ll probably see fiction lighten up once Hollywood can catch up.
I find the whole GRRM controversy childish and vicious nonsense.
August 9th, 2020 at 8:23 am
“My broader issue was that the show took too long to get moving, raised a lot of issues, both with the Federation and a major new threat, then wrapped them all up far too quickly.”
Just plain old lazy writing? Add to that how most pop SF doesn’t really break new ground. Lots of recycled cliches and tropes. At this point there’s a whole language of science fiction ideas storytellers can assume their audience is read in on. (Gleick made that point in his book. Modern audiences know all about grandfather and information paradoxes in time travel.)
“We’ll probably see fiction lighten up once Hollywood can catch up.”
Stuff does go in cycles. I do wonder (and worry) about the overall arc, though. I’ve long pondered a project trying to explore the word and concept vocabulary of fiction, especially science fiction, over time. I have a gut sense media has simplified over time, but I need to see data to trust my gut.
The concept part is the challenge; word scans are easy. It would also be a challenge, but it would be interesting to track mood over time and compare it to events at that time. A map of literary gestalt over time. Wonder what it would reveal!
August 9th, 2020 at 10:18 am
Lazy writing or maybe just too many chefs in the kitchen. Like you said, a show developed around one actor is not a good foundation. While it moved the story forward a bit, it was still pretty oriented toward the older stuff.
On the overall arc, I’m not sure. Some of the Steinbeck, Hemingway, and other older stuff I recall being pretty bleak in outlook, although that bleakness was toned down in any move adaptations of the time. In the decades since the production code disappeared, it might just be that media is getting closer to the literature material.
That study would be interesting. I think about when Star Wars came out in the 70s. At the time, it felt like such a breath of fresh air, but it was because the early 70s had a lot of bleak stuff (Godfather, etc). But by the late 70s, economic conditions weren’t great, and I wonder if people were more inclined to just crave escapism.
August 9th, 2020 at 11:03 am
I got to thinking about how I might have pitched a new Picard Trek series. I like the notion of him as the crusty old captain of a cargo freighter. Retired from Starfleet, but he just had to get back in space. Or if that’s too Firefly, how about a research vessel — continuing to explore brave new worlds (but with a budget). Or captain of a diplomatic mission that gets caught in an alien whatever. Or maybe he’s a captain-for-hire…
I think Stewart might have liked something smaller and contained, but pop SF just has to have a grand scale. Part of what made Firefly attractive was the small scale — it was really just about them. Much easier to identify with than a threat to all humanity.
Imagine the creative possibilities if they’d done a not-Trek SF show with Stewart. Let him be someone else completely. If it’s the actor people loved so much, why not let him create a new character? How much is the rebooted Picard really the same Picard of TNG? The idea has struck me wrong from the first moment I heard Stewart was coming back as Picard.
Imagine if CBS had done a completely new SF show rather than rebooting Trek. Hard to say how much the name alone pulls in, but maybe if they’d focused on doing a really good (new) SF show they might have created a new legend. Or a new flop — it’s true that most new efforts fail.
Good point that our changing standards affects the tone of our stories. Media stuff up to the 70s was fairly sanitized. Movies, TV, and comics, all have points where they began to be far more explicit and unrestricted. That would certainly affect any analysis.
I’m not sure how to even quantify mood or tone in a story. It seems very subjective, which would require a lot of reading or watching. I do wonder if the bleak stuff you mentioned — Nineteen Eighty Four or Brave New World sprang to mind — stands out as exceptions.
Overall, I do agree with Franich about the unhappiness exuded from so many modern shows (not just SF). I’ve commented about that sort of thing a lot here. I don’t think Franich really even got close to the why, but I did find it interesting he feels the awfulness. He’s not alone; those shows have plenty of both fans and critics.
August 9th, 2020 at 1:12 pm
Picard ends up being a kind of Firefly like show, although not nearly as hard scrabble as that series. And when it starts, although the background includes galaxy wide issues, it could have been relatively small and personal. But you’re right, the writers and producers couldn’t resist turning it into a galaxy wide threat.
The older Picard is definitely tangled up with his old role on TNG. And that role probably does make it effectively impossible for small personal stories. This is the great Picard. We can’t have him involved in cheap smuggling gigs.
I think “mood” or “tone” are the right word. We have to remember that the original Star Wars universe is a pretty dystopian one. But the 1977 movie didn’t feel in any way dystopian.
That distinction is important. Because utopias tend to be boring. To make them interesting, people either have to leave the utopia (traditional Star Trek), the utopia has to be a false one (Logan’s Run), or the entire world of the utopia has to be under threat (newer Trek).
A dystopia (such as Firefly’s) provides a lot more fodder for personal stories. But a story set in a dystopia doesn’t have to to have a noirish feel. Really, most people in problematic societies aren’t miserable all the time. Humans have the ability to adjust their expectations and find day to day joy in just about any setting. Fiction can, and should, reflect that.
August 9th, 2020 at 3:39 pm
I quite agree and have said so here often!
I don’t know that I’ve seen Star Wars as dystopian exactly but I know what you mean. I find both (true, hardcore) dystopia stories just as boring as utopia stories. It’s the spectrum in between where I think the good stuff is. The Star Wars universe is on that spectrum to me. In contrast, that Terminator movie that took place in the future was a true dystopia and not very interesting to me (or a lot of people apparently).
Heh, Logan’s Run. Found the DVD in the cheap bin many years ago. I used to have a big crush on Jenny Agutter. I actually met her (very briefly) once. I was doing sound tech for a cable access talk show she was a guest on.
”We can’t have him involved in cheap smuggling gigs.”
Oh, I dunno, that could be kind of an interesting contrast. Maybe he finally did something that was too much for Starfleet. Or even that it was right but “inconvenient” somehow. So he’s been shelved ‘for the good of the fleet.’ 🙂
August 9th, 2020 at 3:41 pm
(He was forced to offend a powerful political figure so Starfleet had no choice but to “fire” him.)
August 9th, 2020 at 4:28 pm
I guess for Star Wars to have been a true dystopia, there wouldn’t have been a rebellion, or it would have been shown to be just as corrupt as the Empire. But if you pay attention to the personal circumstances of most of the people in that universe (at least after the prequels), they’re in mostly hand to mouth situations. (Rogue One is the only movie where you kind of feel it.)
I loved Logan’s Run! I can definitely understand the crush on Agutter.
In the series, Picard actually has made himself persona non grata with Starfleet for pretty “inconvenient” reasons. He initially goes to them for help is dismissed with disdain. It forces him to go private.
August 9th, 2020 at 7:56 pm
I know what you’re saying about Star Wars. I see that world as being roughly on par with our own (which some might call dystopic I suppose). Many in this world also live hand to mouth. Those far, far away long, long ago folks still had robots and machines — even pod races, and there were apparently large cities and a massive government infrastructure. I never got a dystopic buzz from it, I guess. (Not like, say, Brazil.)
Did you ever see Agutter in Equus? (Filmed the year after Logan’s Run.) That was kind of a big deal for a lot of us young male fans.
That’s funny about Picard. I really haven’t paid any attention to it. Seems like they used a lot of ideas that were the obvious ones that pop into mind. Very much first-level storytelling. Pity.
August 9th, 2020 at 9:09 pm
Yeah, but the Star Wars universe doesn’t really show any middle class anywhere. The vast majority of people appear to be dirt poor, with a few isolated centers of wealth, with what appear to be endless wars.
I don’t remember ever seeing Agutter in anything else besides Logan’s Run. I probably did and just didn’t recognize her.
Picard had potential. The second season, assuming it happens, still might.
August 9th, 2020 at 11:15 pm
I think what it is for me is that I see Star Wars as a fairy tale, and I just don’t think of fairy tales as dystopic (despite that the characters are often poor and have wretched lives). FWIW, I think there must be a middle class in the SW universe — all the techs and workers who keep things running. The cities we’ve seen are huge. The movies just don’t bother showing us that stuff.
Equus was famous for its nude scenes.
August 10th, 2020 at 7:24 am
I just assumed all that stuff was built by droids.
You know, the very brief nude glimpses in LR may have been the first ones I ever saw. (I was 9 when it came out.)
August 10th, 2020 at 8:25 am
Speaking of media standards, those 70s movies — nudity was obligatory! I was in high school, so it was… interesting.
Droids. Ha! 🙂
August 9th, 2020 at 3:50 pm
((And things with Beverly didn’t work out in a big way, so he’s really cranky. 😀 ))
August 9th, 2020 at 4:42 pm
She actually isn’t in the series, or even mentioned.
August 9th, 2020 at 7:42 pm
I’ve gotten the impression there are some revisionist aspects to the show. At some point I had the impression Gates McFadden had died, but she’s still around. I would definitely have tried to include her, even if just in a few scenes as Picard’s very pissed off ex-wife. (She was another major screen crush of mine.)
August 9th, 2020 at 12:15 am
Star Trek Discovery was hard to get into, but I am looking forward to when it gets going again. Where they left off puts them in good stead to make the show their own rather than trying to clumsily shoehorn it into the existing timeline as the first couple of seasons tried to do. Jumping 1,000 years into the future will get the series clear of some of the issues it had in the first two seasons.
Picard was just an utter let down of disjointed story telling where the first season finale looked set to take us into the cliche of a “Magnificent Seven in Space” trope. The only semi-compelling character was Captain Rios, who was an interesting study in PTSD; particularly how he was using the ship’s holographic technology to cope with it.
Not that long ago, I saw a video on Youtube that talked about what was wrong with the new Star Trek serials. Their bottom line was that classic Star Trek made the viewer think while new Star Trek tells the viewer what to think. To me, they couldn’t have hit the nail more squarely on the head if they’d tried with that analysis. Both Discovery and Picard are a lot more preachy and overtly moralizing than any Star Trek series before them ever was.
August 9th, 2020 at 8:35 am
I was already a die-hard science fiction fan when Star Trek first appeared on TV, so it has been part of my life a long time. (I’ve written a lot of posts about Star Trek.) Somewhere after the 50-year mark, because it had changed so much from Roddenberry’s vision, I decided I’d had enough Trek. I hated where Abrams took it, and I see the new stuff as something that just bears the label, not the spirit.
I agree. That YouTube quote really nails a big part of the problem.
There is also, as Mike mentions, that the writing on Picard may not have been that good. That show always suffered from being based, not just on a character, but on the actor playing that character. That’s not a great foundation for a series.
And these SF shows need to have Stunning Major Events. They can’t be small, so it becomes all about spectacle. Heaven forbid Picard ended up as captain of a small cargo ship who happens to get involved in some small mystery action adventures. That’s not big enough. All of humanity, or perhaps the entire galaxy or universe, needs to be threatened!