Sunday, 22 August 2010

Why do the spacemen always have guns?

Lazy day today, mainly spent watching old episodes of Babylon 5 with a friend. FX seem to be running the series on permanent loop, which can be disorienting. Last time I saw any of it, I caught a snatch of an episode from the disappointing last season. This time, we were lucky enough to come across a bunch of eps from the end of Season 4, the whole 'liberation-of-Earth' thing, which was much more enjoyable, even if I did find myself trying to remember whether or not this occurs before or after the defeat of the Shadows, but it set me thinking about an odd thing about sci-fi TV shows. Specifically, why are so many about the millitary?

Think about it. There are a few exceptions - Firefly, Dr Who, etc - but most sci-fi TV shows tend to concentrate on the adventures of some millitary or quasi-millitary organisation. Star Trek is obviously the big boy among this bunch, and an interesting exampe in that the Federation try very hard to come off as a kind of intergalactic peace corps but, essentially, they're a great big space-navy: uniforms, heavily-armed warships, culture of obeying-the-captain (which becomes vital to the plot in First Contact) - they can go on about the Klingons being a weird warrior-race but they aren't fooling anyone: the Federation are at least as heavily-millitarised as the funny-forehead brigade, maybe even more so: the Federation are all about the discipline, whereas whenever the Klingons appear they always seem to be more like crazy space pirates (with a healthy interest in BDSM if what little we ever see of Klingon mating rituals is anything to go by). At least the Klingons know how to have fun.

There are very few civilians in the Star Trek shows...Deep Space Nine has a few but, with the exception of Quark the barman and Garrack the tailor, they tend to stay in the background (and the extent to which Garrack is actually a civilian is debatable... he's technically retired from espionage but...) Voyager pulled an interesting variation by making terrorists as well as boy scouts part of the crew, but non-state-actors are a far cry from your run-of-the-mill civvie.

Babylon 5 does have civilians, and indeed many of the main characters fluctuate between employment in the armed services, politics and more shady lines of work; but the main thrust of the plot is a massive Manichaean war between good and evil, fought with starships and PPGs.

Perhaps the most successful sci-fi series of recent times, the Battlestar Galactica remake, does  manage to strike a good balance between civillian and millitary affairs, largely because that balance - the way you manage to keep all the elements of a civil society going in conditions of near-total war - is one of the main drivers of the series in terms of plot.

The point is that all three of these series, to whatever degree they balance millitary and civilian elements, feature a large millitary component - and that is even more bizarre when you consider that, generally, in most non-sci-fi shows that concentrate on millitary themes don't succeed. Most mainstream TV-shows tend to be either comedies, soaps, or police procedurals: all genres which, with a few exceptions, tend not to work in a sci-fi context on TV. It actually annoys me that there has never been a properly successful TV sci-fi crime series (don't talk to me about fucking BUGS), perhaps because two of my favourite sci-fi films are Blade Runner and Strange Days - two films which, while they take place in a futuristic sci-fi context, are basically films noir.

I'm not really sure if there's a massive point to this, except to say that...well, why? Why is it that we can have a variety of sci-fi concepts on the big screen, but most small screen sci-fi tends to be millitary space opera? Why does it mostly have to involve spaceships, for god's sake? There isn't a single spaceship in Strange Days and it's still - despite being set in a 1999-era world which has virtual reality which runs off fucking minidiscs - one of the best sci-fi flicks I've ever seen. But TV sci-fi needs to have spaceships, space navies, intergalactic wars...even Doctor Who very often degenerates into Big Spaceship War storylines. Why can't we have a sci-fi detective series? Why can't we have a sci-fi soap? I'd watch a sci-fi soap. The elements of most of the sci-fi TV shows I've enjoyed are the soapy ones: Ivanova's lesbian relationship in B5; the odd-couple friendships between G'Kar and Londo in that series, and Odo and Quark in DS9; the general organic sense of a community growing, living, adjusting, finding its way.

Let's face it, Quark's bar and the Zocolo are basically the Queen Vic: why can't we have a sci-fi show that does away with all the COSMIC WAR bollocks and just deals with normal people, in the future, getting on with things, getting into situations and getting out of them? You can still have futuristic technology; you can still have aliens; hell, you can still have spaceships - 'The Ballad of Halo Jones', one of the soapiest (and best) sci-fi comics of all time, set it's entire second series on a spaceship - except that said ship was a cruise liner, not a warship - so a whole range of issues regarding class, race, age, love, and the human/robot thing (a major sci-fi theme) - could be explored without anyone having to point a raygun at someone else for the very future of humanity.

Well, of course, Alan Moore could get away with that in Halo Jones - that was a comic. No-one's gonna commit to watching one hour of teevee sci-fi a week unless there are space battles, explosions, a massive conspiracy and threats to the very future of reality itself every fucking week. Right?

Well, I don't know. I mean, I would. And I don't think I'm that atypical. So in all the hours and all the channels available...why isn't that niche being filled?

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