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Sci Fi Week: When Outer Space meets the Props Budget

José Barbosa shines a harsh space torch on sci-fi’s dirty little secret: it mostly looks terrible. Then tells us why we shouldn’t care. //

If we can start by being honest, I think it’s important to acknowledge that really, no one should like science fiction TV shows. Much like KFC, the basic idea appeals, but once the deed is done there’s a deep sense of disappointment and shame. I remember lapping up episodes of the original Star Trek when I was a child. The adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and that drunk guy in engineering were thrilling cocaine fixes for the imagination.

However I can still recall exactly when I noticed that something didn’t add up. In one scene Kirk has to feed the ship’s computer little slabs of data, space USB sticks in other words, so it can whip up a no doubt massive computation. Something wasn’t right about it, so I pulled up right in front of the TV to get a closer look and I made a monumental discovery.

Those high end data slabs from the future appeared to be nothing more than painted bits of wood, probably MDF offcuts! The shock I registered was enough to lift the veil of childhood from my eyes like a roman blind jerked awkwardly to the roof.

Afterwards I couldn’t stop seeing this stuff: Romulans were just swarthy guys with eyebrow extensions, Klingons were bigger swarthy guys with bigger eyebrow extensions. The extraterrestrial Alfa 177 canine was a Pekingese spraypainted orange with a paper mache horn and glittery antenna glued to the pup’s skull.

This has been the perennial feature of TV sci-fi: the inescapable cheapness of production. TV is an expensive medium. (TVNZ once paid John Hawkesby $5,000,000 to stay out of the studio – imagine the cost if he got inside!) Adding spaceships, monsters, robots and people running around on alien planets is a recipe for a budget stretched so tight you could probably rent it out as a trampoline.

Here at the business end of the South Pacific, the sci-fi we’ve gobbled up on the small screen has mainly been from the two great western influences on our culture: the United Kingdom and The United States. TV sci-fi from both countries has struggled with the limitations of budget, but each region has a different approach to the genre which contributes to how successful they are at believably building their worlds on screen.

There will always be – at least until technology enables us to project our 80k resolution dreams into the heads of other people – a cringe factor when watching TV sci-fi. It doesn’t necessarily detract from one’s enjoyment of the story, but it’s kind of always just there. For example, I simply can not watch the original Star Wars films without mentally noting that all the rank insignias worn by Rebel officers were made by gluing lozenges onto bits of cardboard. There they are running around trying to prevent the complete subjugation of the universe at the hands of the Empire and no one’s told them they’ve got sugary medicinal lollies stuck to them (they’re probably quite handy if you need to clear that throat before inspection, though).

According to general consensus British TV appears to have a tradition of producing science fiction so chillingly bleak there’s a genuine fear the entire population of the British Isles might one day simply walk into the ocean.

In the ‘60s the BBC produced a film called The War Game which depicted the aftermath of a nuclear strike on the UK.The thing was a stark black and white nightmare from start to finish: society collapses, police undertake mass mercy killings, survivors have constant mental breakdowns, scientists and politicians are exposed as gibbering toadies and on it goes until the post-war notion of British resilience is left on the floor after being given a good kicking to the guts. It so was dark the higher ups at the BBC refused to broadcast it. It was only allowed to be shown to the public in the ‘80s when harder drugs such as heroin were more readily available.

Even the universally loved family fun fare of Doctor Who is built on underlying misery. From the beginning the daleks have been stand ins for the Nazis, a race of aliens whose brains were jammed into killing machines and had their emotions wiped. When the series returned in 2005 after a 16 year hiatus, the new Doctor, as played by Christopher Eccleston, turned out to be a barely coping war veteran who had destroyed two races of people, including his own.

Most importantly, however, Doctor Who wasn’t a military based show. By that I mean the series doesn’t revolve around a organisation, around a group of people who’ve signed up to a greater ideal. The Doctor was always a lone mad fella zipping around the universe, picking up companions here and there so he could tell them (and us) what was going on.

In fact, The Doctor kind of hated soldiers. When the Jon Pertwee version was exiled to earth for budget reasons in the ‘70s, he was paired with a military outfit called UNIT. Generally the stories would include The Doctor berating UNIT and their stiff upper lip commander Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart for running around on some moors and shooting stuntmen in convincing rubber suits. The Brigadier would bristle and turn to the Doctor and say “Now look here Doctor…” and then an alarm or an explosion would go off and they’d run off after the plot.

That tradition of mad, yet ultimately desolate TV sci-fi continues today. The ITV show Primeval exists mainly as a way for the British public to fulfil their need to watch monsters eating people. Even the resolutely hip Misfits revolves around a drab community center on the banks of the perennially brown water of the Thames.

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American science fiction on TV appears to come from a more optimistic place. It’s generally military based and it’s uniformed protagonists tend to have the universe’s best interests at heart. The long running Stargate series had Richard Dean Anderson lead a squad of attractive people through a portal to new worlds every week. These were worlds almost always covered in welcoming pine forests and populated by humans, but generally speaking the gung-ho optimism of the team and RDA’s gleaming dimples won through whatever the usually human-looking baddie alien had in store for them. This isn’t to say the series was always one note or simplistic, but the series’ heroes were soldiers and their superiors who fought always on the side of good.

Even the continual emotional grind of Battlestar Galactica, the most British-like of American sci-fi, had at its core essentially hopeful and upright characters in authority positions. President Laura Roslin and Commander William Adama would stray into moral grey areas, lose hope, order people to their deaths, but they were ultimately good sorts leading the ragtag remnants of humanity to their new home. And hopefully to a place where some arsehole hasn’t clipped off the corners off all their first editions.

America has always just assumed its rightful place is in space, and that its organisations, military or otherwise, that will get you there. Such confidence accounts for the proliferation of huge casts in American sci-fi TV: if one goes we all go. The military or institutional setting also has the advantage of being cheaper TV. If you can base your series around a spaceship or spaceport or space condo you suddenly have standing sets that only need to be built once.

Star Trek, Stargate and Battlestar Galactica all have hours of episodes seemingly set in the same stretch of corridor. Funnily enough they tend to be the best episodes; the season one opener of Battlestar is a tense and gripping game of cat and mouse as the fleet is attacked every half hour by their enemies the Cylons.

By comparison the Brits tend to make sci-fi TV that’s wilder and just more bananas: mad bastard visiting crazy alien worlds in a blue box? Dinosaurs travel through time and eat everyone they see? This all takes a lot more money to manifest on our screens than a cast of spandexed people throwing themselves around a set to simulate a laser war in space.

The end result is, to my eyes, that the US series tend to look better. There are exceptions, of course. No one ever left the space station that was at the heart of the beloved Babylon 5. Yet, that show has not aged well since the mid-’90s – and probably looked shabby even then. The ideas may be grand but the sets are basically assemblages of perspex and purple paint that struggle to meet even the standards of early era What Now.

Although I’ve singled out differences between regions, sci-fi TV always looks a bit rough. It never stacks up: Buffy in the otherwise awesome final episode of her show might be jumping from rooftop to rooftop, but it’s really obvious those rooftops are two meters high and the footage is sped up they way they speed up Steven Segal in his films so he looks like a killing machine and not a wheezy old guy. As suggested at the outset, we really shouldn’t be as into sci-fi TV as we are. Ultimately the visuals never seem to meet us on the mountaintops that the concepts of our favourite shows take us to.

Yet we love sci-fi TV. We watch and rewatch the shows on different cycles of DVD and Blu-Ray editions; we debate storylines on forums and sometimes even in person; and we hound actors at conventions and write long blatherings online about minor aspects of our favourite shows.

It matters not one jot that the spaceship looks like it’s the result of a half hour shop at Bunnings – what we really go to sci-fi for are the ideas it lets loose in the brain. The author William Gibson, who’s perhaps most famous for conjuring up the concept of cyberspace (depending on your view he’s either the prophet of the modern world or the one to blame), probably put it best by describing sci-fi as a liberating genre. “It made me realise,” he said, “that I wasn’t as totally isolated in perceiving the world as being monstrous and crazy.”

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