Dec 1 2009 5:16pm

Why the best sci-fi TV and movies don’t *feel* like sci-fi

Last week, I suggested that sci-f/fantasy readers and authors could benefit from reading genres other than SFF. I contended that the quality of SFF stories can improve from exposure to mainstream genres, reduce the barrier of entry for newcomers to SFF, and create an even larger community of fans.

Today, I’d like to illustrate this by geeking out on some movies and TV shows that inject high doses of SFF elements into their stories, yet proved to be completely accessible to mainstream audiences. Some of these stories aren’t usually classified as sci-fi by norms, which is awfully cool: it shows us that SFF need not alienate audiences with a high barrier of entry, and that the surly “us vs. the world” underdog/junkyard dog attitude a vocal few SFF audiences and authors have need not exist.

I’ll then follow up with why I think these SFF-in-sheep’s-clothing stories are so successful, and what we fans (and writers) can learn from them.

  • Back to the Future: A time-traveling DeLorean. Often found in the comedy section.

  • Groundhog Day: A loop in the space-time continuum. Comedy.

  • Somewhere In Time: Accessible time travel. Drama.

  • The Truman Show: Super surveillance, for a society of one. Comedy/drama.

  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?: Toons in the real world. Comedy.

  • The Road Warrior: Post apocalypse. Far more often considered action than SF.

  • E.T.: Often considered a “family” movie, but sci-fi all the way.

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife: SF packaged as romance.

  • Jurassic Park: Cloned dinosaurs. Nearly always found in the action section.

  • The Abyss: Aliens in the ocean. Typically associated with action.

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Mindwipe technology. Found in comedy/drama.

  • Galaxy Quest: Funny SF movie. Found in comedy.

  • Cocoon: Biological rejuvenation thanks to alien pods. Drama.

  • King Kong: Giant ape terrorizes Manhattan. Action.

  • Iron Man, Batman Begins, X-Men, Superman: Most often found in action.

  • Contact: Sagan’s SF masterpiece, often found in drama.

  • Quantum Leap: Time-jumping. Often classified as comedy/drama.

  • Third Rock from the Sun: Brilliant show about incognito aliens. Comedy.

  • The Six Million Dollar Man: They rebuilt him. They had the technology. Action.

  • The Boys from Brazil: Hitler clones. Drama.

  • Short Circuit: Sentient robot. Comedy.

  • Ghost: Victim’s soul sticks around to solve his own murder. Drama.

  • The Matrix: We all live in a computer simulation. Action.

  • Innerspace: Submarine inside a dude’s bloodstream. Comedy.

  • Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Time travel. Comedy.

  • Gremlins: Muppets gone bad. Comedy.

  • Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The title says it all. Comedy/family.

  • Deja Vu: Space-time paradoxes. Drama.

  • Sliding Doors: Parallel universes. Drama.

I’m certain there are dozens more (which you can share in this post’s comments). So why were these movies and TV shows so successful at attracting non-SFF fans—especially when the beating heart of each of these stories is a skyscraper-sized SFF conceit? Nearly all of them take place in present day, which helps: the storytellers don’t have to send much time building a brand-new world.

But I believe it’s far more than that. Examine wildly successful properties that are known as SFF, yet attract millions of mainstream viewers—Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Alien and Aliens and The X-Files. These stories sport the same successful characteristics as the list above.

Yet they rarely let the SFF elements eclipse the story or characters. They give enough information about those fantastical elements to deliver understanding and relevance for the audience, but not so much as to alienate them. They focus on characters. Their protagonists—even if they were born on other planets—are immediately grokable thanks to their very “human” behaviors and characteristics. Audiences want to emotionally identify with characters, and whenever possible, the world in which they occupy.

I believe these are the most successful traits of great SFF (and stories, period): nigh-universal appeal. To be clear: I’m not criticizing fans or writers who love to deep geek in their fiction—one of my favorite novels, Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In the Sky, is hyper-granular in its worldbuilding and geekery. There is absolutely a place for this content, and a thriving subculture exists that will support it.

But I do believe that these movies and TV shows (and more—sound off in the comments!) can provide priceless inspiration for SFF storytellers, and opportunities to grow our community well past the SFF section of our book- and video stores. If storytellers and evangelistic SFF fans can accomplish that, then we all win.

J.C. Hutchins is the author of the sci-fi thriller novel 7th Son: Descent. Originally released as free serialized audiobooks, his 7th Son trilogy is the most popular podcast novel series in history. J.C.’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Jonah Feldman
1. relogical
Science fiction can be used as either a genre, or a setting, or both. It can take on elements of plot, style, or setting from other sources.
2. noting
Vice Versa
Freaky Friday (two versions)
3. Salad Is Slaughter
Peggy Sue Got Married - Time Travel
Brian Cavanaugh
4. jagahanas
Transformers (any and all!) -- Alien robots!
5. Booklegger451
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court
Doug Browne
6. dejaffa
The TV Shows Medium and Ghost Whisperer: in both cases, a woman sees ghosts, and must deal with her real, normal life while dealing with them. It's packaged as "Chick TV" -- Medium is even seen on Lifetime.
Tim May
7. ngogam
I think a list of SF films which don't also fall into some other category would be shorter.
8. KristanHoffman.com
Wow, that list is one of the most effective illustrations of your point that I have ever seen. I agreed with you before I read it, but now I'm like truly amazed at just how prevalent good SF is -- and upset that it doesn't get credit!

Anyway, thanks for great examples. :)
9. Likenion[HarryMarkov]
Don't forget the Stepford Wives, which completely had me thinking it was good SF masked as comedy drama.

I think that this has to do with why the genre in its purest form, where the bar to excess is extremely hard, especially sci-fi and fantasy, begins to blur and so many hybrids step forward as genres, where the story and characters and the unique blend of elements bring a larger audience than the distilled form.
10. Bookshelves of Doom
Happy Accidents. Romantic comedy/drama with time travel.
Lannis .
11. Lannis
Wow... not only is SF in TV and movies classified as other genres, and so easily accessible to the general viewing audience that it's accepted by them--half of the movies on the list didn't register with me as SF until you mentioned them! Now I'm just disgusted with myself! :\

One of my favourite shows right now is (bear with me here, it's Canadian--but good! I swear it's good!) Being Erica. About a 30-something woman who gets to go back in time and review and rewrite her regrets through time traveling therapy... now, if that's not SF...

Great post! Thanks!
Phillip Nunemacher
12. philn
In keeping with the Cuthulumas theme, let's add to the list all those 'B' rated horror movies based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Also, remember that the Ghostbuster comedies used some of his mythos.
13. Jelsel
like you posted, it's about the characters.

I've been reading leigh butlers reread (of course) and she made some sense when she said that;
one can write the greatest battlescene ever written if people don't/can't care about the characters, it will still suck, for all the technical details you put in.

personally half busy doing a reread of the Honor Harrington series. The technology aspect is quite thorough, which i like, but the real thing which attracts the readers is the various relations between people and how they react to eachother (in a totally different setting then the world we live in)
14. Foxessa
Because sf/f are part of pop culture, thus the majority of people now living are well acquainted with the vocabulary and grammar and tropes that are sf/f. They are everyday references, not something fringe.
Meagan Brorman
15. nutmeag
I think if Firefly had been seen by more people, it would be thought of as less SF/geek and more drama. It was certainly more about the characters and the story than about cowboys in space.
16. guenievre
The Time Traveller's Wife is obviously sci-fi, yet falls much more solidly in the "Drama" category because the focus is not on the "how" but on the **effects** of time travel.
Patrick Berry
17. patberry
Science fiction has gone mainstream and infiltrated every other genre. Movies and TV shows with SF elements aren't pigeonholed as SF anymore, because there's no point in doing so.

In the late '60s and early '70s, some TV shows would start with a boastful announcement that they were IN COLOR! Nobody does that anymore, because all TV is in color now, and it's not worth bragging about. In the early '90s, shows often had overlays indicating that they had stereo sound. And commercials often prominently displayed the URL of the company's Web site, because having one was a big deal. Today we just assume that those things are true. They're the norm.

That's where science fiction is now. It's normal, and not worth calling attention to.
18. Lee.ld
Most of the movies referenced are not really SFF, but only use it as a conceit. They are not SFF. They are "watered down" SFF.
19. Sean Roberts
To a large extent I agree with patberry's comments but take it one step further.

Most modern movies or television shows are cross genre in that they can fit into multiple categories but is not actually promoted as any specific genre.

I am guessing this is deliberate so that different viewers can watch it as whatever genre they prefer. Lets take a film like Rush Hour some will say it's a Comedy, others an Action Movie and it could also be considered a buddy film.

In the same way that many of the movies/shows listed in the article are considered Sci-Fi, just check them out at imdb.com, its just that they also fall into other categories.

When I first saw Lost my immediate reaction was its a sci-fi program, it was being promoted as Genre driven, but the truth is, it is science fiction.

Just because it is not touted or advertised as Sci-Fi does not mean it isn't.
20. KC34
My friends and I will play a game called, "Watch the pop culture TV Show and identify themes, elements, and conceits Science Fiction got bored with 20 years ago."

It used to be a drinking game until it got too expensive to buy all the needed alcohol.
21. DJ Tahoe
I think "The Venture Brothers" on should get honorable mention; super spies, supervillains, super scientists... Parallel dimensions, necromancers (and their Goth daughters), Various pop culture references... Star Wars references, David Bowie references galore..!
All those reasons above are why it's a great SF/F show, "disguised" as comedy/ TV/ animation.
22. plaiditude
I'd also add "Firefly" which was a sci/fi western - very interesting mix. Many people loved this short-lived TV series who generally would never watch sci/fi. It was all about the characters. Too bad it got axed by the network before it could truly take off.
23. Yersinia
I know of a few that people watch and don't realize how much SFF is in it:

The Lake House - often considered drama/romance
Twilight - Vampires! drama/romance/teen
TMNT - talking ninja turtles - family
Jackie Chan's the Myth - action
Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon - action --people can't fly through trees!
Shrek - family -- talking donkeys, ogres, fairy godmothers. screams fantasy to me.

This was just glancing at my cd case...I could probably find more. I do agree that people find it easier to handle SFF if it's in this world during this time. People don't want to imagine more than what they have to and piecing together a world plus a time that is not similar to the now backs people away from the whole genre
Odette Mohammed
24. odettem
@ Lannis

I love Being Erica. It's a really good show and I like that we learn more about Dr. Tom and see how being Erica's therapist also changes him.
25. AusMO
2 words...
Knight. Rider.
Neal Asher
27. nealasher
I would say that SF conceits are penetrating the mainstream because they're also penetrating everyday life. People use Star Trek communicators, video phones, and carry around small discrete items of technology only seen in SF books thirty years ago. Lasers are firing up too, only a short while ago Boeing was burning UAVs out of the sky with one.

Biggest barrier between SF and mainstream are those two words 'science fiction' and people's (often misguided) preconceptions of what they mean. Hence in Britain we have a show called 'Paradox' now, in which police are investigating crimes yet to be committed, and the star of the show is declaiming, "It's not science fiction!"
28. Nicholas Waller
How about A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, USA), the Powell & Pressburger film from 1946. It's apparently a story taking place both on war-torn earth (in colour) and in some kind of fantasy bureaucratic heaven full of cheerful - but dead - service personnel (in black and white, though the film explicitly states that that "exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.")

Furthermore, there is real neurological science behind the brain problem the David Niven character was suffering (and which he has an operation for in parallel with his heavenly court case), as detailed in Friedman, A Matter of Life and Death: The Brain Revealed by the Mind of Michael Powell.

Other Powell & Pressburger movies - like I Know Where I'm Going!, A Canterbury Tale, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus - also have a hint of the weird and other-worldly about them.
29. Echinacea
There is no such thing as mainstream; it is all SF, most of it alternative history.

Even Dickens and Austen wrote alternative history - or do you think Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet were real people?
30. etagaes
There are limits, however, to "good" sf mixed with other genres. Looking at recent series, viewership of many of them has gone down significantly as a series diverts from its initial set of genres (or from the set of genres of a family of series). Take, for example, Buffy - starting out as a teen / sf / horror combination, the series quickly went down hill when it went in for the heavy romance focus. Further, the recent Stargate Universe has consistently gotten mediocre reviews for its complete departure from its standard action-adventure / sf / military focus to a teen / romance focus.
31. SteveC
I'm amazed that only one commenter so far has mentioned Lost. It would seem to be the outstanding contemporary example of the point.

32. Kara Noir
I don't write a lot of SF myself, mainly because I find the world building to turn my head in so many directions that I stick to what I know and I find a way to smudge the lines.

For more SF, people should try Anime. Japanese Animation. It's not American Cartoons, it has character development and plot and it's worth the time if you take the time to get into it.

Fullmetal Alchemist is SF/F. It's about two brothers who use Alchemy to bring back their dead mother, but it doesn' work out. Edward loses an arm and a leg and his younger brother Alphonse is trapped in a suit of armor. The story of their journey to find the Philosopher's Stone in order to get past the rule of "Equivilant Exchange" of Alchemy is a good story. It's based of Manga, and the first aime has a different plot than FMA: Brotherhood, which goes by the Manga better.

Manga = comic, but you read it backwards.

All I am saying is that it's not only American tv series or movies that have these elements. Anime is known for it's SF/F elements. Even Saiyuki, another anime and can mean "Journey to the West" or "Journey to the Extreme" may be based off of the oriinal Chinese novel, but its sf/fantasy enough for me - as in there is some technology such as running water and credit cards. Not everything in sf has to be flying space ship. I count a dragon turning into a car as sf. *lol*

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