Posted 18 January 2003 - 02:49 PM
Many of us here were drawn to Andromeda because it was a rarity in television, a science fiction show that actually took the “science” part seriously. The abandonment of that science literacy and intelligence is part of the general deterioration of the show. To help get this new Sci & Tech discussion board going, I thought I’d do an overview of SFTV shows that have managed or bothered to achieve some degree of scientific literacy. I won’t cover movies, since I’m not as familiar with them.
Tom Corbett, Space Cadet: This 1950-55 kids’ show, loosely based on Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novel Space Cadet, was perhaps the first SFTV show to make an effort at plausible science, hiring famous rocket scientist Willy Ley as a consultant. Of course, like all science consultants, Ley had to try to balance good science with the writers’ desire for exciting stories, and the show’s realism was no doubt heavily limited by its budget.
Star Trek in all its forms: Gene Roddenberry believed that SF should be handled no differently than any other period piece, and that SF producers should make the same effort to portray the future authentically as the producer of a Western or a WWII drama should make to represent the past authentically. He consulted with many researchers, engineers and think tanks to try to meet this goal. Of course he had to make concessions for dramatic and budgetary reasons (whooshing spaceships, duplicate Earths), and he and his writers, being laypersons rather than scientists, didn’t always get the details right. Still, TOS was better grounded in science than most shows, and did much to inspire its viewers to learn about science. (I owe my lifelong fascination with space to TOS.)
In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Roddenberry strove to do even better. His consultants included NASA’s Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer, Isaac Asimov, and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart (as a spacewalking consultant). The film had some fanciful elements, but helped to advance Trek science. Dr. Puttkamer’s technical notes included a warp drive explanation which anticipated the theoretical work of Dr. Miguel Alcubierre some 14 years later.
Subsequent TOS movies abandoned any effort at credible science. Wrath of Khan production designer Joseph R. Jennings speaks on the TWOK Director’s Edition DVD about pushing for scientifically credible approaches and being overruled by director Nicholas Meyer -- although Jennings insists that Meyer’s choice to place drama over science proved correct, given the success of the film.
With TNG, Roddenberry tried to bring good science back, and with the help of advisors such as Rick Sternbach, Michael Okuda and writer/physicist Naren Shankar achieved this goal as well as any SFTV show ever did before Andromeda, though there were still some fanciful elements left over from past Treks. After Roddenberry’s death, the effort put into scientific credibility in Trek began to diminish, as more and more fanciful concepts and imaginary particles worked their way in. DS9, focussing more on political and character stories, didn’t do too much to advance this trend, and in my opinion managed to handle the science fairly well (for instance, in the episode “One Little Ship,” they acknowledged the practical problems of shrinking people, really listening to science advisor Andre Bormanis instead of ignoring his suggestions). But VOY, in search of fresh adventure concepts, pretty much wandered into pure space fantasy. ENT is avoiding VOY’s extreme flights of fancy, but isn’t making much effort at scientific literacy.
Probe: A very short-lived show from the ‘80s, co-created by Isaac Asimov. Parker Stevenson played antisocial genius Austin James, who got dragged into using his scientific knowhow to solve various crimes and crises. Not too memorable, not entirely rigorous in the science, but one of the few shows ever to try.
SeaQuest DSV: In its first season, an unusually science-literate show (aside from the psychic stuff and the ghost story and alien story at the end of the season). And it highlighted a key problem with science literacy in SFTV -- namely, that the general public doesn’t understand what SF is. In the first season of SeaQuest, the producers said, “We’re not doing science fiction, we’re doing plausible extrapolations from known science, technology and sociology” -- which is a pretty good definition of what SF is! Then the new, second-season producers said, “Okay, now we’re going to start doing science fiction,” and they completely abandoned any attempt at credibility or intelligence.
Sliders: In its first season, an unusually science-literate show (sense a pattern?). Creator Tracy Torme demonstrated awareness of the real name for wormholes (Einstein-Rosen bridges) and the Everett “Many-Worlds” model of quantum physics (which can be loosely interpreted to permit the existence of parallel timelines), and various other scientific principles as well. Also, the stories focussed more on alternate histories than more far-out sci-fi concepts. This changed in the second season, when more fanciful concepts worked their way in; and the awful third season was written by people whose idea of science fiction was ripping off old monster movies. The final two seasons on the SciFi Channel were an improvement, moderately science-literate though still with a lot of stretches. An interesting example was a late fourth-season episode where Quinn and Maggie somehow had their minds transferred to an imaginary dimension where time flowed much faster (a fanciful concept), while their bodies rapidly aged in a much more medically credible way than the usual instant wrinkles and white hair (organ failures, jaundice, more internal effects than external).
Stargate SG-1: About a TNG level of science. Sometimes it’s pretty strong on science literacy (it’s the only show I know of other than GRA to use gravitational time dilation as a plot point), but it has its share of real groaners too, along with a full complement of SFTV cliches, and of course it’s based on a hash of scientifically ludicrous, pop-superstition concepts like ancient astronauts and Roswell greys. But it’s built a nicely consistent galactic political/historical framework out of those goofy premises, making it easier to suspend disbelief.
Andromeda: In its original conception, the most scientifically literate SFTV show ever. It gave us a whole new paradigm of SFTV world-building, abandoning decades-old cliches like tractor beams and ray guns and force-fields in favor of cutting-edge concepts like nanotech and string theory. Not only believable, but fresh and different, something we hadn’t seen a hundred times before. The limitations of credible science (like the lack of faster-than-light communication) created new obstacles which challenged the writers to find fresh approaches. (The irony was, many viewers were so used to seeing the bad-science conventions of other shows that they found GRA’s good science implausible.) It tried to move away from bumpy-headed-human aliens to more creative and credible species, though budget limitations would sabotage this attempt. It told us stories that really made us think about the concepts behind the show, that stimulated the richest, liveliest science discussions I’ve ever had online.
Once Robert Wolfe was pushed out, though, we began getting scientifically lame episodes like “Belly of the Beast” and the final version of “Dance of the Mayflies.” In the third season the show’s rules have been forgotten and the usual SF cliches have taken over. Science and technology are merely surface trappings and story conveniences with no depth to them.
The Invisible Man (SciFi): Like SG-1, an implausible premise handled in a plausible way. No other invisibility-themed show or movie has addressed the scientific problems and ramifications of invisibility in such detail. Though it didn’t help much when the second-season premiere brought Bigfoot into it....
Firefly: In general not a science-literate show at all -- it even gets confused about the difference between a solar system and a galaxy -- but it deserves honorable mention for pioneering space shots without sound effects. This is something TOS couldn’t do (though they tried) because the FX shots were relatively crude and needed sound to “sell” them, but Firefly has shown us it can work. Hopefully this will start a new trend.
Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica: The original BG was pure space fantasy without a trace of scientific literacy. But Moore’s comments about his reinvention of the series bode well for the science-literate viewer. Judging from them, his philosophy is the same as Roddenberry’s -- that SF should be told just as believably and authentically as any other kind of story. He sounds determined to avoid the cliches and bad science of the past. But there’s no telling if this show will make it beyond the initial miniseries, or if it does, how long it will be able to maintain that standard of credibility. History shows that series which start out trying for credibility are rarely able to maintain it.
I think the problem is that there are very few SFTV producers out there who are knowledgeable or concerned about science. And producers have a way of coming and going. If a show starts out under the guidance of science-savvy producers, a change in producers will probably cause that approach to be abandoned.
So the question is, who out there among TV producers today is concerned with scientific credibility, and/or knowledgeable enough to achieve it? Let’s see, those I can be sure of:
Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Zack Stentz & Ashley Edward Miller
Ronald D. Moore
Other TNG/DS9 producers might be on the list -- Michael Piller, Ira Behr, Rene Echevarria, Hans Beimler -- but I’m not sure. I suppose I could count SeaQuest’s Rockne S. O’Bannon and David Kemper, since they’ve proven they’re capable of it; but they’re also responsible for Farscape, which is a brilliant show but has no trace of science literacy. (Ironically physicist Shankar was on its staff for a time.)
But I guess they should go on the list, yes. Even the most science-conscious producers have usually done fantasy as well. Heck, look how many former TNG, DS9 and GRA producers are now on Dead Zone and Twilight Zone.
Maybe SG-1's Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner (also an Invisible Man vet) could go on the list as well. And Tracy Torme.
Of course, as Farscape and the Zones prove, the ability to do science-savvy shows doesn’t guarantee that a producer will do one. And they also prove, of course, that fantasy is just as valid and potentially good a genre as hard SF. But hard SF has so rarely been done on TV, and when it’s been tried it’s rarely endured. I’m hopeful that the producers listed above will manage to bring us more science-literate SFTV in the years ahead, and give us good stuff to talk about on BBS’s like this one.
"You don't use science to show that you're right, you use science to become right." -- xkcd
"The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas." -- "H. G. Wells," Time After Time
-- My homepage and blog
Facebook Author Page