Robots for Dummies? The Real History of Science Fiction

Everyone loves Arthur C. Clarke’s wonderful aphorism that “any sufficiently evolved technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s such a good description of how science, and its application—technology—can be so grossly misunderstood and reduced, while simultaneously be awe-inspiring. Hell, Natalie Portman even quoted the line in Thor.

But what about the cousin of science and technology: science fiction? Can we handily attach a pithy, Arthur C. Clarke-style aphorism to SF, too? Well, after viewing the first episode of The Real History of Science Fiction, the new serial documentary from the BBC this weekend, I think we can. But it’s not pretty. Ready? Here it is: Any sufficiently popularized science fiction can be made indistinguishable from bullshit.

Okay, okay. I know I’m in full on Harlan Ellison mode here, and might be perceived to be biting the hand that feeds me. But you know what? Somebody has to be the science fiction gadfly around here! And let’s face it; a documentary with a title this audacious is going to generate some hand wringing. So, before said hand wringing goes supersonic, let’s have some disclaimers.


Everyone featured in this documentary is an awesome, talented, intelligent, vibrant, and very cool individual. Other than the voice-over narration (spoiler alert: pretty much entirely problematic), there’s nothing any one person did wrong, or thought wrong, or said wrong, to make this thing upset me so. In fact, several sound bites from folks like Charlie Jane Anders, Ronald D. Moore, William Gibson and others were positively genius, and taken on their own, outside of the context of this… whatever it was, are truly insightful and exactly what discussions of science fiction should be all about. But overall, the takeaway of this show wasn’t to invite a discussion of a science fiction idea, but instead, to pound into your brain a few specific interpretations of how to feel about fictional robots. In fact, this first episode of The Real History of Science Fiction, is neither “real” nor “history” nor “science fiction.” Let’s discuss.

Each episode of this new BBC series will set out to explore one common aspect of science fiction, which is a totally reasonable way to approach a project like this. For the first installment, they picked “Robots,” which is obviously a great topic, and they made the excellent decision to talk about Frankenstein, which seems appropriate since the creation of life through technology is at the core of what we talk about when we talk about robots. However, very rapidly, the documentary starts to dumb down the discussion by actually just telling the viewer how to feel about the role of robots/artificial intelligence in science fiction.

A wonderful old interview is shown, featuring an un-bearded, young, fun, smiling Isaac Asimov boldly talking about a future in which man and robots become so alike that a sort of “combined culture” will result, which he posits might be “the best after all.” And just when you start to think about if you agree or disagree with that statement, or have a hope to have more sides of it explored, the narration by Mark Gatiss swoops in (I love you Gatiss, but I’m so mad at your voice right now!) and quickly reduces Asimov’s musings into this ridiculous platitude: “All man-made creations carry with them a basic threat: what if they turn against us?” And then cliché after cliché begins to assault the viewer, as they are told, in no uncertain terms, highly specific interpretations of RoboCop, The Terminator, and host of other “cautionary” robot tales.

My problem with this spin isn’t that I think these interpretations are all wrong, nor would I be crazy enough to pretend there aren’t cautionary elements inherent to the fiber of the stories the documentary mentions. However, relying on these kind of observations is a criminal way to focus a discussion about robots in science fiction not just because they unfairly frame entire the discussion in the negative, but, because they’re boring. Anyone who enjoys and knows a lot about science fiction is bound to be aware that these cautionary elements exist, and anyone who is unfamiliar with these stories and/or films will probably be smart enough to spot the prescient nature of narratives about intelligent machines without a voice-over that essentially jumps in every other minute to say “GET IT? NO, REALLY DO YOU GET IT? TECHNOLOGY, BUT AT WHAT COST?

I’m sure that all the folks interviewed throughout this documentary (and probably the forthcoming episodes) said many things which were shortened into sound bites or cut entirely, so again, I’m not really faulting anyone for their commentary because I know it’s all in the editing. Plus, one fantastic ray of reasonable insight appears in the form of Ronald D. Moore’s assertion that he didn’t want there to be too many “easy answers” as to how to feel about the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica—which kind of could have been an interesting way to open up the discussion about robots, rather than framing them as permanent Frankensteins from the outset, limiting the scope of the conversation to its most technophobic elements.

Sure, the documentary takes a robots-as-metaphors break for a second to talk about “nice” robots like Huey, Dewey and Louie from Silent Running and R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars. But what are those the deeper implications of those robots? Honestly? It’s like the documentary just threw them in there for variety and didn’t have one single talking head talk about the metaphysical, political, or emotional implications of friendly/helpful robots. They basically mention the movie A.I. for a second, as a kind of afterthought, just to let you know nice robots exist in science fiction…

Data Star Trek Spot

And to this point, other than the glaring, almost intentional misunderstanding of the work of Isaac Asimov, the documentary also excludes the most Asimov-esque pop cultural representative of robots ever: Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Seriously, how can you presume to do a documentary on the role of robots in science fiction, and not talk about Data, who easily has more combined screentime than ANY OF THE OTHER fictional robot discussed? Look, it’s not like I’m talking about them excluding The Questor Tapes or Chip from Not Quite Human. I’m talking about mother-flippin’ DATA, a pop-culture robot who did more to open up the discussion about what artificial life could be—good and bad—than almost any of his other positronic and cybernetic brethren. (I mean, sure, C-3PO has his roots in a cinematic homage to Metropolis, but even this documentary admits that connection is superficial at best.)

And though this first installment of The Real History of Science Fiction has wonderful moments of nostalgia for those who love all the films and stories discussed (like me!), this documentary misses an opportunity to explore the function of robots in SF as a means of expressing and reflecting a variety of concepts and ideas, rather than just reducing them to basic metaphors with extremely limited, specific aims. Instead, because this documentary seems invested in drawing only the easiest, most hackneyed conclusions, it paradoxically renders its subject—robots—as superficial, clunky, lumbering, and, ultimately, dull.

I’m going to keep watching The Real History of Science Fiction, but I’m calling bullshit here because it isn’t at all living up to its title, at least so far. It’s not real because “real” would imply there’s some kind of truth, but by framing the discourse in negative clichés, that’s not happening. Next, if you leave out any exploration of what Asimov meant in his statements about robots, and also don’t discuss the most obvious descendant of Asimov’s philosophy—Data—I’m not sure how this can be defined as “history.” Finally, there’s no point at which I’m invited, as a viewer, to question, or make up my own mind, or at least be given the tools to avoid “easy answers.” If I can’t think for myself when it comes to what I should think about robots, but instead, am simply told what to think about robots, then this documentary isn’t really taking part in the open-minded, progressive genre that I like to call “science fiction.”

And did I mention they left out Data?


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to and has a favorite Asimov quote, or six.


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