The Real History of Science Fiction

In April 2014, BBC America aired a four-part series titled The Real History of Science Fiction. Naturally, I was really excited. Getting to look at science fiction over time? Yes, please! As I watched it, I was loving it, but there were a few little things that were bugging me. Seeing it again has reminded me of those things.

Each episode has a ‘title’, but it is never used during the episodes which was a good idea. Instead they used descriptions of the “four corners of science fiction” to describe each episode. Robots: “…the mysteries of artificial life: where technology and humanity collide.” Space: “Space exploration: journeys into the unknown.” Invasion: “The ultimate threat of alien invasion.” Time: “Time travel: a world of infinite possibilities.”

To me it was a good idea because you can’t really divide science fiction into the four categories they created. Many things either don’t fit into just one category or they don’t really fit in any of the categories. Let me give a few examples.

  • When talking about “the mysteries of artificial life”, they discuss The Matrix. It definitely has its place in science fiction history, but I’m not sure how well it fits into that category. Also, Metropolis, “the first science fiction film” is only mentioned in relation to Star Wars. How can you barely mention the first science fiction film after getting to Star Wars?
  • When they get to space exploration, it’s a bit frustrating that they talk more about Star Wars than Star Trek. Then they decide that Avatar belongs here. Granted a part of science fiction history, but space exploration? Kinda.
  • “The ultimate threat of alien invasion” doesn’t leave much wiggle room, does it? Yet they include Godzilla, Jurassic Park, and aliens coming in peace (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, Men in Black, and District 9). How are these alien invasion? “Extra-Terrestrial Life” would have been a better description for the episode. But that still wouldn’t completely explain why they include The X-Files. It’s definitely a part of the history of science fiction, but alien invasion? Really?
  • Time travel. Time travel. If you’re going to talk about traveling in time, why would you include movies that are set in the future? Expanding on Metropolis would have been much better in the first episode instead of this one.

Honestly, if they had just ordered things chronologically, it would have worked so much better. That way 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars and Doctor Who wouldn’t be spread across episodes. Avatar and District 9 would have felt more a part of things, not wedged in. And you would have seen the impact that Forbidden Planet, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars had on science fiction.

But there is one thing that really, really bugs me. The first episode discusses “where technology and humanity collide”. They look at how “science was attempting to make machines more human” and “How would machines deal with a program that deals with emotion?” yet they completely ignore the one character in science fiction that looks at all of that: Data. Data was programed to work toward becoming more human. He was programed to study humans and learn how to be human. Eventually he decides he has reached a point where he cannot learn any more without installing the emotions chip his creator gave him.

Despite all of that, it really is a great series. It has me thinking in whole new ways about science fiction. It will probably inspire a few more blog posts, but in a more general way. It is definitely a series worth watching. I just think it would have been better arranged a little differently.

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