When I was a little kid, my father enjoyed altering the famous Star Trek preamble “Space…the final frontier,” to “Space…the stuff between Ryan’s ears.” We’ll never know the illness that causes so many fathers to be sooooo hilarious all the time, and my Dad was no exception. But just like “space” meant different things to my Dad and me, it also means a lot of things to a lot of different people: a Final Frontier, a place where No One Can Hear You Scream, and also lots and lots of gas.
The latest installment of the BBC’s documentary series The Real History of Science Fiction decided to talk about space, and was about as successful as my Dad’s bad jokes, meaning the show was mostly dumb, bloated, and occasionally, a little bit charming.
Last week, when I reviewed “Robots,” I made great pains to point out that I don’t think any single person involved in this documentary series did anything wrong, and that in fact, the people interviewed are all brilliant and wonderful and I’d like to cook each of them a cheese quesadilla. You’d have to be a real pompous fool to claim Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson are “wrong” about science fiction, but I think it’s important to remember that they didn’t write this documentary. I’m willing to put money on the idea that at least one of the people involved with this thing groaned when they saw the final cut, if they decided to watch it all.
There’s something really paternal about The Real History of Science Fiction, making me feel as though the documentary series itself is simply trying to appease, rather than inform. I keep feeling as though just because this is a major organization (the BBC) creating a documentary on such a “zany” concept, that I’m supposed to act like a little kid and just be happy and eat my treat. Oh look! They got Kim Stanley Robinson! They said something about Asimov again! I guess I have to be happy now. And if this documentary was my Dad being confused as to which Star Trek action figure I don’t already have, it would be forgivable, because with loved ones, it’s the thought that counts.
But you can’t defend a documentary on the grounds that “it’s the thought that counts,” particularly when the documentary is rampantly thoughtless. Any moments of legitimacy or interesting reflection are immediately suppressed by uninteresting claptrap. The best example: after a great bit of synopsis on why Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is so revelatory, the documentary immediately starts talking about how Avatar also features a made-up planet. If you were making a documentary on a major cable news channel on, say, the history of music, you wouldn’t show a clip of John Lennon talking about how he wrote “Imagine” and then cut to a clip of Justin Beiber. Actually, the juxtaposition of Le Guin with Avatar may be worse than that, I’m going to amend it: having Avatar follow Ursula Le Guin talking is like trying to convince a six-year-old that there’s a direct connection between Mozart and the McDonald’s “I’m Loving It” song: it’s hard to know if it’s more insulting or more intellectually untrue.
The Left Hand of Darkness has nothing to do with Avatar, other than both take place in space, which, guess what, could also include everything. Gee, How I Met Your Mother seems to take place in an alternate dimension of Earth, which is a planet in space, so why don’t we show a clip from that right after we talk about Dune? Make sense to me, guys.
Now, I know sub-genre taxonomy and the definition of science fiction is sort of at the heart of where all these debates come from, but reducing The Left Hand of Darkness down to something that could be compared to Avatar wasn’t a choice the documentary made because it wanted to explore the question of how could both of these works occupy the same genre, it positioned these two things next to each other because its approach to the subject matter is unsophisticated. I really love Star Wars, but if you’re going to do a whole section of the “real” history of science fiction and not talk about Data from Star Trek in your “robots” section, then you can probably exclude Star Wars when you talk about “space.”
In no way does Star Wars take a realistic, or even novel approach to space travel. There’s nothing about the use of science fiction concepts relating to outer space in Star Wars that aren’t derivative of other works of SF, or downright unscientific. If you’ve only got 43 minutes or whatever, and you really want to talk only about movies and TV shows, why not talk about a few other ones that at least tried to deal with space realistically? Babylon 5, perhaps?
Even when this installment does reference real science and NASA, it does so glibly and vaguely. We’re told by various talking heads that Kubrick consulted “real scientists” on 2001. Who? Can we interview them? NASA worked with Nichelle Nichols on recruiting astronauts. Can we see some of them? Can we hear from someone who worked at NASA who did that? With all this talk about space travel and not one single mention or interview with a real astronaut in the discussion of fictional representations of space travel, I felt like I was watching the 2014 Oscars all over again.
Here’s a totally unfair idea: Nick Sagan—son of Carl Sagan—wrote for Star Trek, why not interview him? The writers featured on The Real History of Science Fiction are infinitely more interesting than the actors, so a science fiction-pop writer with scientific pedigree might be a great addition. There a billion Star Wars documentaries and special features in which Anthony Daniels can charmingly describe his time on set with Mark Hamill, but I’m not sure I need it here. Would it have killed the documentary to stick one scientist or science advisor into the discussion outer space? I understand these things are hard, but when Nathan Fillion is cracking wise about Star Trek, it feels like this documentary is somebody else’s idea of science fiction, rather than real attempt to inform, educate and explore.
Being interested in science fiction is always associated with a stigma, and I really feel as though The Real History of Science Fiction isn’t doing anyone any favors in getting rid of the stereotypes that cause these stigmas. Instead, it’s acting like someone’s half-informed parents: cool enough to reference the right things, but so thoroughly clueless as to not understand what any of it really means.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.