Wed
Apr 17 2013 9:00am

Earth is OVER! Why Pop Sci-Fi Needs to Ditch Terra Firma

The bicycle guy character from Portlandia exemplifies the bizarre compulsion that some overly snobbish people have in regards to defining what is and is not hip. So when too many people or the wrong people are doing a thing, soon that thing is OVER. And while I hate to be labeled a hipster snob, I think there’s one thing sci-fi movies and television need to stop doing; and that’s having everything be all about Earth. Listen up everyone: having Earth be a big deal in your sci-fi movie or TV show is sooo OVER.

In the original Star Trek TV show, the Enterprise very rarely rolls up to Earth. In fact, in the classic show, Kirk & co. NEVER visit an Earth that is contemporary to the 23rd century, only visiting past-versions of Earth via time travel. In The Next Generation, the Enterprise comes home a little more often, but then only for super-special occasions (picking up Data’s severed head, fighting the Borg, etc.) For the most part, all incarnations of Star Trek TV shows take place in deep space, exploring crazy interesting sci-fi concepts without having to constantly be worried about the familiar. In fact, it’s in the unfamiliar that the wonder and magic of good Star Trek works. And yet, in all the Trek films, save for one (Insurrection) Earth is depicted and somehow involved, usually in a big way.

The reasons for this are probably because we’re told a big blockbuster movie must connect with a mainstream audience, and a mainstream audience has to have things they relate to. Seeing as we’re all from Earth (Well, most of us. Our production manager is half-meteor.) having Earth in a movie is probably a good move to make from a conservative point of view. But you know what? Screw playing it safe! I would argue visual sci-fi (not books!) has gotten so preoccupied with being accessible that truly imaginative sci-fi for the screen isn’t being made.

All the impending big deal sci-fi films this summer not only have Earth in them, but also seem to rely almost exclusively on what Earth is all about. After Earth, Oblivion, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc. seem to be specifically set on Earth. Now, I’m sort of optimistic for both After Earth and Oblivion, if only because they don’t take place in an established franchise. But something called Star Trek should contain some Star Trekking. (I mean, the current tagline for the movie is “Earth Will Fall,” not something like “Space Travel is Neat and Awe-Inspiring”) Further, upcoming sci-fi TV shows across the network spectrum are all totally Earth-centric. From Ron Moore’s Helix, to Stephen King’s Under the Dome, to SyFy’s upcoming Defiance, to Revolution, everything, everything, everything is about Earth and usually on Earth.

What mainstream sci-fi TV or film hasn’t been all about Earth you ask? Well, Babylon 5 wasn’t, Deep Space Nine wasn’t, and despite the fact that Battlestar Galactica was about looking for Earth, not ONE of the characters are actually Earthlings! The same is true of Star Wars. These are TV shows and films populated exclusively by aliens! And spoiler alert: Star Wars and Battlestar Galatica are awesome. Yes, yes, everything is probably an allegory for the human condition we Earthlings are all familiar with, but the creativity required to do a show/movie not about Earth and not set on Earth is truly admirable.

And though Doctor Who frequently shows up an Earth, it is nice that the setting of the show is nowhere specific, allowing it to be anywhere. Like, Doctor Who, Firefly also had this advantage, having the setting really be on a spaceship, not a planet. Firefly also went out of its way to state that Earth is all used up and too far away to actually get back to, eliminating it as a setting in the show.

Farscape is probably the greatest example of pushing the boundaries of what an audience will put up with: the cast is mostly aliens (some Muppets!) and the show is set on weirdo alive spaceship in a distant galaxy. My point with all of this is, it wasn’t too long ago in the cultural memory that we had good sci-fi TV (rarely films) that didn’t take place on Earth. In a sense, it’s as though no risks are being taken in film or sci-fi TV and anymore, and the symptom is an over-abundance of Earth.

This isn’t to say TV and film sci-fi that is all about Earth can’t be good, just that it seems a little played out right now. If one is overly concerned with science fiction having a duty to speculate on contemporary issues (which I’m not sure it does) more creative analogs might be found if we think beyond near-future science fiction, and instead, do some films or TV shows that really test the limits of what an audience can imagine. The announcement that Niven’s Ringworld will become a miniseries on the SyFy channel is certainly a positive step in this direction, as are the numerous other space-oriented SyFy shows in development. But in terms of sci-fi films, it seems like deep-space interstellar non-Earth stories are seemingly nowhere on the space horizon. And even with some of the in-development spaceship-heavy TV shows, I have a hard time believing that the "fate of Earth hanging in the balance” trope won’t somehow get wrapped up in at least a few of the premises.

We could blame everything from the war on terror to the end of the space shuttle program for an overabundance of Earth in film/TV science fiction, but I mostly think it’s just laziness brought on by a policy of viewer appeasement. Movies and TV taking place on Earth are things studios and networks think people want. I’ve written a lot about the homogenization of geek culture and the eerie similarities between contemporary blockbuster films. But this seems to be the one common denominator in science fiction right now: Earth.

Let’s have sci-fi on our screens get bonkers again. Let’s see some crazy absurd aliens again. Let’s truly explore some strange new planets and boldly have entertainment that is literally out-of-this-world.

EARTH IS OVER!


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

21 comments
Derek Broughton
1. auspex
Good that you mentioned Doctor Who - the low point of the original series was with Doctor #3, who was exiled to Earth for most of his incarnation. We got time travel, but no space travel.
Christopher Bennett
2. ChristopherLBennett
To offer an alternative view: Maybe the reason our pop-culture SF is so fixated on Earth is because culture as a whole is becoming more aware of Earth as not merely a place we happen to keep our stuff but a thing that we're responsible for and whose well-being is endangered. I mean, sure, in the past we were afraid of being wiped out by nuclear war, but that was more a concern for ourselves and our political-social groupings, and such Cold War concerns could easily be transposed to a story about space empires clashing with starships and planet-killing doomsday weapons. But now our existential concerns are more about Earth itself, its environment failing and taking us with it. Sure, sure, the biosphere is just a thin film on the surface of the Earth, and it has recovered from multiple mass extinctions before, so it still is more about us than about the planet per se, but the perception it creates is more Earth-focused.

Not that I'm saying I prefer such a focus personally. Heck, very little of the published fiction I've written has had anything to do with Earth, and I'm a firm believer that we can't save the Earth's environment without moving humanity into space big time. I'm just trying to find a more optimistic explanation for why our fiction is so Earth-focused these days. Maybe it's not a failure of imagination so much as a sign of increased awareness of our responsibility for our homeworld.

Although it's probably more likely that it's just the current media fad. But I always like to look for the optimistic view.

@1: Personally I liked the Third Doctor era; the low point was the later Fourth Doctor era when the writing got really bad and the stories really campy. And there was space travel in the Third Doctor era, in "Colony in Space," "The Curse of Peladon," "The Mutants," and most of his last two seasons after his exile was ended. Not to mention a bit of non-TARDIS-related, short-range space travel in "The Ambassadors of Death."
Chris Nelly
3. Aeryl
At this rate JJ Abrams will find a way to bring Star Wars back into this galaxy.
Dave Thompson
4. DKT
I'm all about the Boldly Going, but please, SF TV writers...just write good SF shows. That's all I ask.
Fredrik Coulter
5. fcoulter
Star Trek hanging out on Earth is like Aubrey & Maturin hanging out in their home port.
Lsana
7. Lsana
I disagree for the most part. Not all sci-fi is interstellar exploration. Don't get me wrong, I like Star Trek and B5 and even Battlestar Galactica to a certain extent, but not all sci-fi is that, nor should it be. And the sci-fi that isn't interstellar exploration almost always (and should almost always) take place on Earth.

Where I will agree with you is in the Star Trek movies. I understand why they do it: in a Star Trek movie, something "bigger" than that of a standard episode should be at stake, and it seems that almost always, the "big" thing at stake is the fate of Earth. I count 2 TOS movies, 2 Next Gen, and now 2 Abrams movies have all had that plot. Enough. Find some other reason for us to care.
Paul Lewandowski
8. Snowkestrel
I'm going to play the cynic here. I think the reason that so much contemporary large- and small-screen sci-fi is set on Earth is money.

You can build a spaceship interior, theoretically a one-time expense, but unless you think out the set really well, you're going to want to expand it if the show continues. Not to mention other space ships. That all costs money, but it's not even the biggest cost to consider.

There are spaceship exteriors, too. Whether you use CGI or a model, that’s expensive stuff. Add to it the consideration that you can find fan films on YouTube that look fantastic even though they're homemade, and the pressure is on to do bigger and better for a professional production, and that costs big bucks.

And what of 'planet-side' exteriors? Gone are the days when you could film in a quarry or out at the Vasquez Rocks and call it an alien world. Let's not even mention soundstages like old Star trek, where they used a colored backdrop for an alien sky, and a large matte painting to represent the landscape. No one believes perfectly flat surfaced trails and caves and such, either. Even something like Star trek: the Next Generation's 'Planet-Hell' interior set is of very limited use.

What's all that mean? Basically, the same mantra as real estate: location, location, location. If you set it on earth, you can film it on earth. Need a ruin? Use an old warehouse- there are tons of 'em. Wilderness? Sure- go right ahead! It's not like you need to spend the money to convert all the plants to blue with yellow leopard spots. It's Earth! Need to furnish an interior? You can use props and furniture from a hundred other productions that your studio has done, that are all in the props department storage, just waiting to be cleaned up, or have the artificial dust added on.

And even if it's supposed to be 'terraformed' or post-apocalyptic, you can still get away with most of what you filmed being unchanged from the modern earth, and save your money for the few things that you DO need to change.

tl;dr - Sci-fi sets and settings are more expensive than filming on location, with little to no CGI, and props that the studio already owns.
Lsana
9. Gilbetron
Is it the coincidence that the following was also posted today? From J. Michael Straczynski:

"The problem is that the networks still don’t take SF seriously, or even
feel threatened by it. I’ve had executives say that a space-show doesn’t
work because people don’t care about what happens to characters in
space, it has to be on earth or nobody’ll be interested..."
(http://www.blastr.com/2013-4-16/straczynski-says-biggest-problem-sci-fi-tv-networks)

Interesting!
Lsana
10. Alright Then
I think it comes down to the lazy, literal thinking of many so-called "creatives" in Hollywood. They can't (or won't) see science fiction is always not about aliens and their strange far-off planets, even when the bumpy foreheads are center stage; it's about us and our planet, our viewpoint, even when humans aren't in it!

So it's a failure to understand how to use those metaphorical settings and characters, and a lack of faith in audiences to understand them. Why go to the trouble of going out and creating something different when you can just stay home?
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
@8: "You can build a spaceship interior, theoretically a one-time expense, but unless you think out the set really well, you're going to want to expand it if the show continues. Not to mention other space ships. That all costs money, but it's not even the biggest cost to consider."

True, but that's equally true of standing sets representing an Earthbound facility. Building the offworld sets for Stargate Atlantis or the starship sets for Stargate Universe probably wasn't that much more costly than building the Earthbound Stargate Command for SG-1.

And location shooting can be awfully expensive too, since you have to truck all the equipment and personnel and supplies out to the location and back every day. The reason Deep Space Nine ended up being a space-station show was because their original plan of setting it on the surface of Bajor would've been too expensive due to the regular location work. So it's not true that sets are costlier than location filming.

"Gone are the days when you could film in a quarry or out at the Vasquez Rocks and call it an alien world."

Since when? The Stargate franchise ran for a dozen years and most of its alien planets looked like the woods outside Vancouver. As did most of the planets visited in Battlestar Galactica.

@10: Ahh, but do we really want network execs to figure out that space shows are really commentaries on us and our planet? After all, their ignorance of that fact is how so many SF shows over the decades have been able to get away with social commentary that would've been censored in another genre. The execs dismissed it as irrelevant fluff and so let a lot of subversive stuff get past the radar.
Paul Lewandowski
12. Snowkestrel
@11 - sci-fi standing sets are generally more expensive due to custom lighting and the fact that even the basic furniture and walls are completely custom, whereas an earth-bound set can be built from supplies in stock at Home Depot, and furnished from stuff already owned bythe studio prop dept.

I say that location shooting for an earthbound scene is less expensive mostly due to the removal of the need to use CGI to camoflage the Earth-ness. You are right about Stargate SG-1 though. Thing is, reading viewer reaction to it (and my own personal opinion), the fact that it all looked like Pac-NW was a frequent complaint.

You make good points, but I still think that space and alien planet sci-fi is more expensive than earth-based sci-fi.
Christopher Bennett
13. ChristopherLBennett
@12: On the average, perhaps, but it depends on the show. There are certainly Earth-based shows that have plenty of CGI, like Warehouse 13 (for the Warehouse itself and the effects of the various artifacts) and Grimm (for the Wesen transformations). And there are things other than special effects and sets that can make a show expensive. Back in the '70s and '80s, The Incredible Hulk was one of the most expensive shows of its time because of the big stunt/destruction sequences twice per episode (practical effects are special effects too), and because they were shot almost entirely on location without any standing sets to return to week after week. (The network even tried to convince the producer to give Bill Bixby an RV to drive around the country in so they'd have at least one standing set. He refused.)
Lsana
14. Alright Then
#11

Actually I'd prefer execs didn't fully understand science fiction. As you point out, it has provided some great subversive stuff over the years. Some degree of ignorance is probably needed in order to have those who "get it" push back and create better works of art. But I would like the suits to understand at the very least, as Mr. Britt pointed out, that Earth isn't the center of the universe. Hello, Copernicus!

As for your earlier comment about Earth awareness perhaps being the cause of this, I think that's a valid point. We are more connected and more aware, particularly those in the arts and media, of how precious our blue marble is---as we should be. Though at the same time my mind keeps going back to "Silent Running," a space film that's very much about Earth awareness and less-than-subtle in delivering its message. But if memory serves, the planet itself is never shown.
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
I guess the attempt to revive interest in Star Trek Enterprise with the Xindu arc, with The Fate of the Earth At Stake, was just a little bit too much ahead of the trend...
Christopher Bennett
16. ChristopherLBennett
@15: Ahead of the trend? No, Star Trek was putting the fate of Earth in the balance as early as the very first motion picture in 1979, and then again in the fourth movie in 1986, the eighth in 1996, and the tenth in 2002, a year before the Xindi arc on ENT. Not to mention TNG putting Earth in danger in "The Best of Both Worlds" in 1990.
Lsana
17. Gerry__Quinn
I think setting SF on Earth requires more thought and imagination. A future Earth needs to be somewhat believable, whereas an alien planet can operae on wacky philosophies of government and ill-thought out ecology. Also, why does my return key not work in comments lately?
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
Good point, Christopher, that Enterprise arc was far from the only time the fate of the Earth was at stake in the Star Trek universe. The Xindi arc just felt a bit forced at times, like they were trying too hard or something to attract viewers at that point.
And Gerry, I don't know about your premise--some of the views of Earth I have seen in the new Tom Cruise and Will Smith movies don't seem too believeable to me! ;-)
Lsana
19. Brian Stanley
Yeah. Not looking good for seeing The Pride of Chanur any time soon. "Ahhh...looky at the puny, lost human; can we keep it? Now, let's have lots of arguments and sneaky secrets and hardly ever blow stuff up."
Lsana
20. alreadymadwithearth
What about Andromeda?
They rarely ever visited Earth, and when they did, it was this post apocalyptic slave world. Which got blown up at the end of the series with everybody but one character noting it had no strategic value.

Captcha is really mushy today. Earlier it was Sweet Valentine.
Now it's flowers.
Lsana
21. PlanetsAreOver
The real next step is to get away from planets altogether. Why live at the bottom of a gravity well, protected by a thin layer of atmosphere, held in place very inefficiently by a huge mass which can't be moved as and when required? If/when we finally get space based, we will hopefully remain there where energy, resources and space :) are plentiful. I can't find the book (if anyone knows the name please post it) about a generation ship that leaves Earth to avoid a global war. Several hundred years later Earth pulls itself out of the ashes and finds the generation ship made it to another star system where they built a whole civilization living in generation ships.
Lsana
22. batmanfairy
Doctor Who is great in the aspect of the fact that they don't stay on Earth too long but you need to remember how much the Doctor loves humans and how he can charge up some part of the TARDIS at the rift in Cardiff so he does have a reason to return.

Farscape is a great show that I'm still in the process of watching!

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