My favorite joke to make while sitting through trailers preceding an independent drama is to turn to whoever has come with me to the theater and quietly whisper, “I think this is the new X-Men movie” in reference to a trailer for something like Win Win or Beginners. But the deeper accusation being made by this joke is a simple one: could there be a film or television science fiction drama that has relatively low character stakes that doesn’t involve epic plot structures? The evidence seems to point to one answer. Yes on television, no in cinema.
Tirelessly, people like George Lucas like to talk about the power of myth and how the structure of classic myths is burned into the brains of collective of art-consuming humanity. While the hero’s journey structure serves well something like Harry Potter or Star Wars, not every good piece of drama needs to depict the young hero besting some kind hardship and come into there own in the end to defeat their evil/fallen adversary. And before I make this next statement, I’d like our wonderful readership to remember two things: 1. I love Star Wars. 2. The film Free Enterprise backs me up on this. Ready? Here it is.
The reason why Annie Hall deserved to beat Star Wars for best picture in 1977 is because Annie Hall was better written than Star Wars.
Now before everyone freaks out, let’s think of this an opportunity to discuss what works and what doesn’t in these two films in terms of big themes that everybody connects with. Everybody connects with relationship stories, because everybody has relationships. Both movies have relationship stories. Everybody also connects to being an outsider. Both movies have that, too. In the overall arc of the classic Star Wars films, Darth Vader is redeemed, just barely, at the end of the story. In Annie Hall, Annie slowly becomes distant from Alvy, and eventually moves to Los Angeles and changes to the point where he can’t be in a relationship with her. In short, she turns to the dark side. At the end of Annie Hall however, Alvy recalls all the great stuff about his relationship with Annie, and this redeems her for the audience. Just like Anakin Skywalker, appearing to Luke at the end of Jedi. So Annie Hall and Star Wars are the same? Well not really, because the stakes of Star Wars aren’t just about whether or not Luke is going to make a new friend in Han or if Leia is going to figure out which one of them she likes. The stakes are about planets blowing up and people getting their freedom back. Also it takes three movies for some of the character stuff to get sussed out. Brevity? Soul? Wit?
Now the themes of Star Wars are great, but they’re not really themes I can relate to. I know what it’s like to have an ex-girlfriend call me at two in the morning to help her kill a cockroach; I don’t know what it’s like to swing across a chasm on a rope. Okay, okay. So I’m comparing apples and space oranges. Why bother? One is escapism, and the other is kitchen-sink pseudo realism. Just leave it alone, right? Well, here’s what I’m saying: there could be a science fiction version of Annie Hall. We could have quieter, low stakes SFF films.
Arguably, that’s what the The Time Traveler’s Wife is, though I think that movie probably wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been a book first. And the reason that’s relevant is because a low-stakes human drama that just happens to be science fiction exists all over the place in print. Our most recent short story from Charlie Jane Anders is a great example! As are many of the books I highlight in my Genre in the Mainstream column. Point is, it’s possible. (Just look at the submission guidelines for something like Asimov’s. They’re looking for stories about PEOPLE.)
Anyway, we could argue movies like Kate and Leopold or 13 Going on 30 count, but those are bad movies. Most good science fiction or fantasy films have big huge stakes. It’s rarely ONLY about a family or a couple; at a certain point the entire world gets involved. But consider the possibility of that not happening. What if something with a similar premise to the X-Men movies was only about the X-Men doing regular stuff, having relationships, falling in love, having problems with their parents. Would this movie be good? Maybe. What was it really like for Xavier as a teenager? Or even as a young man? I can completely see a great drama that deals with the very real life application of telepathy. And no, it wouldn’t have to be What Women Want. It could be good, complicated, nuanced.
On television it occasionally happens. Take Alien Nation. Now, here’s a show about aliens living regular lives, raising their family and dealing with all sorts of stuff aliens would really deal with like prejudice and holding down a job. Sure, like a lot of high concept TV shows, this one also had to be a cop show, but still, pretty original stuff when you think about most SFF on television. Caprica tried on this front, too. In fact, I’d argue the pilot episode did a pretty damn good job of it to. But the problem with Caprica is that it was a prequel to Battlestar Galactica meaning we know it’s ALSO about a big explosion, and not just about these people. What if Caprica hadn’t been a prequel to BSG? I think it might have lost some of its baggage and need to reference the big epic stuff that was to come later. As a stand-alone show, people might have taken it more seriously, and they probably wouldn’t have needed to put Zoe in the big clunky 70’s Cylon body.
Quantum Leap is another great example here. By having Sam “set right what once was wrong” the scope is all over the place. In very few instances is Sam there to stop a ticking bomb, or even a murder. Usually it’s a small human injustice that needs correcting. The science fiction premise of inhabiting another person’s body is what makes the drama unique, but it doesn’t over power it. In fact, Quantum Leap, despite some of its occasionally heavy-handed social messages, is one of the best-written science fiction shows of all time. Why not a Quantum Leap movie? It kind of happened with Source Code and as our own Danny Bowes pointed out (and I agree after seeing it months later) Source Code was pretty good! But could it have been done without the stuff blowing up and the terrorist stuff? Probably not that particular script, but it was closer to being a human drama that just happened to be science fiction than something like Inception or The Matrix. Not surprisingly a science fiction character drama/comedy was recently done quite well by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris.
So if I get my way, the next big SFF movie will be about a robot bartender who falls in love with an alien and all the quirky problems they encounter. It wouldn’t have to be a comedy, though parts of it could be funny. Even Star Trek: Voyager pulled this off a few times. In the episode “Someone to Watch Over Me” Seven of Nine takes dating lessons from the Holographic Doctor. It’s a pretty sweet episode that illustrates all the problems people have with the world of romance and it does it through a great science fiction concept. In support of their possible romance Tom Paris quips, “A hologram and Borg? Stranger things have happened.” And if screenwriters employ a little imagination and some faith in the audience, strange things like that could happen. Not everything needs to be about the end of the world.
Like the tagline for the first Trek film said: “The human adventure is just beginning.”
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.