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Why I hate Star Trek

I have a confession to make: I hate Star Trek.

Let me clarify: when I was young — I'm dating myself here — I quite liked the original TV series. But when the movie-length trailer for ST:TNG first aired in the UK in the late eighties? It was hate on first sight. And since then, it's also been hate on sight between me and just about every space operatic show on television. ST:Voyager and whatever the space station opera; check. Babylon Five? Ditto. Battlestar Galactica? Didn't even bother turning on the TV. I hate them all.

I finally found out why:

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

Moore then went on to describe how a typical script might read before the science consultants did their thing:

La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."

Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge."

La Forge: "No, Captain. Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."

Picard: "Well, then we're doomed."

"And then Data pops up and says, 'Captain, there is a theory that if you tech the other tech ... '" Moore said. "It's a rhythm and it's a structure, and the words are meaningless. It's not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it."

As you probably guessed, this is not how I write SF — in fact, it's the antithesis of everything I enjoy in an SF novel.

SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist (either because the technology doesn't exist, or there are gaps in our scientific model of the universe, or just because we're short of big meteoroids on a collision course with the Sea of Japan — the situation is improbable but not implausible).

There's an implicit feedback between such a situation and the characters who are floundering around in it, trying to survive. For example: You want to deflect that civilization-killing asteroid? You need to find some way of getting there. It's going to be expensive and difficult, and there's plenty of scope for human drama arising from it. Lo: that's one possible movie in a nutshell. You've got the drama — just add protagonists.

I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.

Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)

I can just about forgive the tendency of these programs to hit the reset switch at the end of every episode, returning the universe to pristine un-played-with shape in time for the next dramatic interlude; even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focusses intently on revolutionary change), I recognize the limits of the TV series as a medium. Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc — but it's frequently pathetic. I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying.

The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

PS: Don't get me started on Doctor Who ...

373 Comments

1:

I like Star Trek, and I share your disappointment about the "tech" thing. I consider Voyager quite boring, too.

Let me say something about Babylon 5. In that show you will not find any "tech", but probably the first time in USA television when someone tried (and succeeded) to tell a story that spans 120 episodes.

Maybe the problem is in the format itself: you have to stay stick with the 44 minutes of USA television, and to chop your stories in acts with a crescendo in each act to make people come back after commercials.

And maybe, to quote JMS, the biggest problem are studio executives.

2:

Luigi: chopping a big story into episodes is, indeed, highly problematic.

I had a taster of this with my Merchant Princes series at Tor. The book I originally handed in, titled "The Family Trade", would have run to around 600 pages if printed. And I was about 15% of the way into the sequel, titled "The Clan Corporate", which I estimated would run to 750-850 pages ... when I was told "we're chopping the first book in two, and by the way, can you deliver the rest of the series in 300-page chunks?"

Ever since, I've been bombarded by reader complaints about how each book ends on a cliff-hanger, they don't make sense as stand-alone novels, and so on. Well, no shit: books 1-6 of that series (#6 is finally due out next March) are actually books 1 and 2. (Book 2 grew from the 800-page estimate to more like 1250 pages largely because of the overheads of turning a continuous story into episodes.)

Now, to that 44-minute episode format, with four acts per story (to fit the advertising schedule): each act is 11 minutes long. In script form, that's 11 pages of 250 words each. That's tiny. In terms of written SF, one of those episodes would be an 11,000 word novelette; but each scene ... it's just about impossible to pack anything in there besides interpersonal dialog and some story development. World-building and the overall story arc obviously have to take a hike, because they're of secondary importance to maintaining the interest of the audience by telling a 44 minute (as opposed to a 5,280 minute) story.

I suspect Bab5 needed to run to 120 episodes, just to get somewhere on the order of 120-240 minutes of world-building into the story line.

3:

Re: Adamn and even plot in BSG.

If I remember correctly, there were 40000 survivors in the colonial fleet.

It is consistent with current views on human evolution, where genetic analysis seems to indicate that there was at one point a population bottleneck 70kYA, with only 10000 survivors, and possibly as low as 2000: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_bottleneck

4:

Niczar: nevertheless, the Adam-and-Eve cliche is so hoary it can claim an old age pension. I mean, it's second only to "$PROTAG wakes up and realizes IT WAS ALL A DREAM!"

If I read a novel and hit that point without some hint that the author knows what they're doing and is trying to subvert the cliche or make a point, I tend to throw the book at the wall (and ignore subsequent works by that author). Obviously if you've just spent 50-100 hours watching a TV series you're more invested in it than if you've spent 2-4 hours reading a book ... even so: I'd be tempted to take a hammer to the TV screen, or send a fresh haddock to the scriptwriters through second-class post.

There is an implicit agreement between author (or scriptwriter) and audience, and it is that the audience trusts the author enough to spend their (to them, valuable) time attending to the author's work. Ending on a cop-out is an abuse of that trust: ever thought "there's 50-100 hours of my life that I will never get back"?

5:

I think part of the problem is that SF is almost a self-selecting minority. An SF novelist can make some fairly broad assumptions about their audience and leave out a big chunk of data dumping that a TV show might otherwise need.

I can generally forgive Star Trek it's willful ignorance of technology. It's the level of stupidity about the culture that annoys me. Or rather lack of culture, the Federation is supposed to be some near-Eudaimonic utopia, so much so that the view never get to see it, because as a place it doesn't make sense.

Comparitively, both BSG and Battlestar at least have an interesting culture. Other than being set in the future, they're not SF, but they don't treat the viewer like a drooling idiot either.

6:

One thing that always amused me about Star Trek:TNG was the way the characters accumulated family members as the series progressed. Even Data, an android(!) ended up with a mother, a father, a brother and a daughter. This obviously confirms the point you're making.

7:

Curse you, Charlie! Linking to TV Tropes in working hours....

8:

You're tarring everything with the same brush: B5 was *about* the human condition, and the science played second fiddle. Their tech was generallky estabilished pretty early in the series, and not subject to the "particle of the week" of Trek -- or at least that's how I remember it, I could be shown to be wrong. Their time travel, for instance, is no less wonky than Ellison's Guardian of Forever. Certainly B5 never did anything as boneheaded as de-evolving the crew into various animal-like forms, then having them _get better_ by the end of the episode (where'd the brain connections come back from?).

It's all nobel prize-winning research in pulitzer prize-winning literature compared to the SF on Syfy channel these days: Eureka and Warehouse 13 are delightful little character shows whose science is _so_ bad (compressed water? C'mon, "Underdog" did it better in the 60's) your average layman ought (sadly, only "ought") to be groaning.

9:

I'll agree with you on the subject of the various Star Treks...

Firefly is well worth it - it was cancelled because the Pointy-Haired Bosses didn't get it. Yes, it could have been set in late-1860s-America, but it was fun :)

Battlestar Galactica apparently has an interesting take on the morality of irregular warfare (I'm working my way through a box set).

One of the Babylon-5 story arcs was basically "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" - an interesting "how-to" of the steps to the creation of a totalitarian regime. Not too shabbily done - education by stealth :)


10:

I agree - but you should give BSG another go. It has hardly any of that "let's use this tech/magic mcguffin" bull that fills most sci-fi.

For instance the second series has the audience empathising with suicide bombers. You understand why they're doing what they're doing, and that's pretty brave for a prime-time US series.

Dumb ending aside (and that was a weak point) it's a series that's really about people, which it why it's good. They use the tech to deal with issues like religion, racial prejudice and personal identity - what sci-fi should be doing IMHO

11:

Funny, I always found Star Trek to be hollow (the Trekkies documentary is great though!) so I stayed away from SciFi for a long time (in all forms; tv, films, books). I was actually only when I started watching BSG (which is extremely story-arc heavy) that I gained interest in the genre - when I ran out of good SciFi shows/movies to watch, I discovered you, Scalzi, Vinge and other great writers (and also rediscovered that reading a book is so more intense than watching tv).

As you point yourself, most creative people that wants to eat has to deal with the hard realities and constraints of business people if they want to get paid for their work. For example, the BSG writers was told by the network that they needed to be more story-arc heavy. So season 3 really sucked. The network realized this and ended up giving them more freedom and the series made a strong comeback in its final season.

12:

Nick@5: personally I agree with those who reckon that the Federation of Blake's 7 and the ST Federation are actually one and the same. There's no way the ST Federation can be as nice as it claims to be - ST is clearly propaganda!

13:
If I read a novel and hit that point without some hint that the author knows what they're doing and is trying to subvert the cliche or make a point,
This is one of the reasons I love Firefly: it has a very high density of beautifully, knowingly subverted clichés.

Fiercely character-driven, though. But in a good way: characters with actual depth and drama that comes from their interactions & conflicting needs, not from fake 'drama' trumped up and crowbar'd in for the purposes of the episode.

14:

Awww, go on - get started on Dr Who ;)

I know what you mean about Star Trek - I don't let it get to me and can rather enjoy an episode as superficial fun but it does explain how I never became a Trekkie.

I do like Dr Who, but I get something completely different from it compared with a good Science Fiction novel (which is also more rewarding).

15:

Charlie, regarding your comment about the sizes of books: how does Peter F Hamilton get away with it? I read The Reality Dysfunction over the summer. 1200 pages! Twelve. Hundred. Pages. And that's just the first volume in a trilogy.

I enjoyed it, but man, it could have done with some editing.

The other two volumes are shorter. I think the second one is only 800 pages. It sits on my shelf, daunting me.

16:

In a broad sense, I agree with you. At the same time, it's nice to have entertaining television that even glances at science fiction.

But, on a deeper, more critical level, modern science fiction in mass media (essentially, non-literary works), is primarily anti-science Luddism.

From ill-conceived cautionary tales to assuming you can write a story about people without making them a product of their world, it all smacks of mis-applied Campbellian criticism. "It's all the same story, anyway."

When people trot out Campbell in an attempt to defend poor storytelling, I want to punch them in the face.

17:

Oh, so you never meant that Aesop:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesop

Btw. the one thing that you can learn from him, is that it doesn't matter how smug you feel after reading a story. If the author was a good observer of the human nature (like Aesop), you'll act just as foolish anyway, because you're human.

And that is why I can't read Aesop's fables (or similar stories) any more. Because it just makes a fool out of people, without telling them how to deal with their own human nature.

For some reason this one was not in *the book* you linked to.

18:

I must agree, although I grew up watching Trek with my mom, the new stuff leaves me feeling a bit cold (I give the old stuff a pass cause I was a kid, so it feels a bit dated now). TNG, was horrible (children on board a deep exploration ship?!?!?!). DS9 I thought might get good with the Dominion war story arc. Alas no such luck. Voyager had potential, but again they screwed it up. Enterprise -- Not!! (Although the eye candy was lovely!) I especially disliked the new movie. Time travel! Again! I mean Kirk, Spock, and McCoy must have the SciFi record for time travel (excluding Dr. Who who drives around IN a time machine.)

In their defense it IS a cash cow, and so I am sure Viacom and Paramount are just milking it. Last time I heard the ST franchise is worth multiple-billions.

Please Charlie write these guys a good script.

19:

On the flip side, this also explains why a lot of sci-fi makes less than compelling reading; because in the rush to imagine humans within the confines of a different society they miss out on the interpersonal relationships.

And someone mentioned Peter F. Hamilton above .. well, if you want fairly cliche ridden example of a deus ex machina to resolve plot.

20:

My daughter is getting interested in Star Wars at age of 8 (kids in her class are acting as the motivators, of course). And I detest it mightily, because *oh Humanity* do I hate Star Wars. A local TV station recently aired episodes 1-3, and I watched it with her ('cause of course she wanted to watch it), and was probably ruining her experience all the time pointing out to her how all of this could've been told as a story with people traveling between islands on ships, religious knights with regular sabers instead of jedis with light ones etc. It's fiction, alright, but nothing, nothing, nothing in it is by any stretch of imagination science fiction. It might've had to dip into the fantasy genre for holographic telecommunication, but that's about the only mystickal point about it, otherwise it could all be set in 17th century.

OTOH, I really liked the reimagined Battlestar Galactica - to me, it was *all* about the exploration of the human condition in a changed setting (including the question of whether you need to be born human in order to mentally be one). Well, the series ending cop-out sucked, but that's the only negative I can bring up.

21:

I always thought Star Trek was supposed to be about exploring Philosophy 101 issues when everything else was taken care of (There's no money, no scarcity, Holodecks for leisure, and you can wish food out of a magic machine in the dining room). Was it particularly deep or enlightening? Not really, but it was entertaining and perhaps just the tiniest bit world expanding for people who might not have ever come within 100 meters of an Intro to philosophy textbook.

I'd describe the bits on the bridge as pillow talk for the people looking for tech-porn. This would be similar to military types barking technical-militaristic sounding nonesense at one another in the actionful portions of any Tom Clancy book or movie you'd care to name.

It can be forgiven because they actually spend most of the episode not doing it.


On a slightly skewed note, I'd be interested to know how you feel about the medical drama House, if you've seen it, since it's pretty much the same thing.

22:

Now i know why i never read the family trade past book 1.

The people who commission tv seem to want limitations, cowboys on spaceships. Even when they get that they dont like that.

23:

I've always loved science fiction novels and decent science fiction movies like "District 9", but science fiction series like Star Trek have left me cold. Thanks Charlie, now I have a better idea why.
I also agree with "t3knomanser" that most science fiction in the mass media is anti-science Luddism

24:

Thanks for the PS: +1 over here, it's so bloody twee IMHO.

25:

Doctor Who was never meant to be true to science, or to time travel theory. It was created to show people, alien and otherwise, in a strange universe with strange things. It's as much science fiction as General Hospital. It is written that way.

Maybe Doctor Who is science fantasy but that seems a stretch. Doctor Who is fantasy, pure and simple. Don't try to put science in something that isn't meant to have it.

26:

Japanese animated sci fi seems to take some more risks than western TV sci fi, like a recent show that had characters trapped in a repeating time loop, so the creators of the series decided to depict this by animating the same events happening 8 episodes in a row, much to the fans consternation and outrage.

They seem to have a better handle on hard sci fi concepts too, I recall a 70s show featuring orbital elevators and refueling by scooping hydrogen out of the atmosphere of Jupiter.

Another show tackled relativistic time dilation, with the teenage heroine returning after a space battle to find her peers were now adults, and the climactic battle of the series taking place at such speeds that the victorious heroes return to earth tens of thousands of years later without knowing if there's going to be anyone there left to meet them.

27:

Nestor @13

With the exception of "the Melancholoy of Haruhi Suzumiya", most of the shows you mention get the science at least partly right, but then get most everything else horribly wrong. The dialogue is generally wooden, and anime has it's own laundry list of cliches that they spend alot more time indulging than subverting.

Probably one of the reasons for the success Melancholy is that they do attempt to subvert cliche from time to time, and the narrator is a sarcastic ass, which is always a plus.

28:

Nestor@26
"Voices of a Distant Star"
Very good anime flick.

Chris@25
Agreed. I just wanted a very long scarf. My mom, who introduced me to the Doctor, thought my scarf fetish was a bit strange. I grew out of it.

29:

Charlie, the answer to why Star Trek was so very successful is simple, “follow the money”. Patrick Stewart was once asked why he compromised his Shakespearian acting talents on Star Trek, his response was something to the effect that he made as much money in one afternoon playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard as he did all year in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I, for one, am glad he took the money, I loved every hokey minute.

Honestly, would you refuse “Star Trek” money?

30:

er... That's supposed to be Nestor @26. Sorry

31:

Martin @ 15
When Reality Dysfunction was first published in North America, the Publisher cut one third of the book out and split the rest into two books. Be glad you have the full version. I had to special order the third book in the series in order for it to make sense.

32:

I agree in general, SF television is pretty bad. And Star Trek isn't even the worst of the genre!

That said, you should give the new Battlestar Galactica a shot. It's very good, except for a few bits that fall flat. The ending is a controversial, but I think it works in the context of the whole series and isn't a cop-out. Granted, I would have done it a bit different. :)

If it has one major sin, it's that it appears to be inspiring networks to dust off old properties (see the new V series this year...). On the plus side, it may be encouraging more gritty settings rather than the nice clean look of Star Trek - the new Stargate series is trying to replicate the look and feel (they will fail, IMO).

33:

"Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast."

At least with TOS, wasn't that the point? Roddenberry was often quoted as having pitched the series as "Wagon Train to the stars". That in and of itself seems to indicate that Gene, at least, was aware that his approach would make the situation irrelevant and was more intent on the personal relationships and morality plays that mark the show.

While I understand the point you are trying to make, there is an undercurrent to the article that I'm not sure I like. Specifically, what about those of us who still thoroughly enjoy the various Trek incarnations but aren't PHB types either? While I recognize the tropes being used, are you implying that it is wrong for me to enjoy it because it isn't original? Whether intended or not, there is an implication in this article that "Trek and its ilk" are not meant for the intelligensia of the SF community and anyone who does enjoy watching it must not be intelligent enough to read or understand "real" SF.

34:

I support the call to give a real chance to the new BSG. It blew my mind more than once. And also support the call to go on about Doctor Who.

In my mind it is exactly the perfect storytelling device for TV - it has just one basic rule that the Doctor will somehow survive (or die and revive), but other people and even the companions sometimes can be expendable. And most episodes in the new series are quite character driven with historic or social lesson embedded in there for the UK kids who are the prime audience for the show.

I view Doctor Who more as a show where historical figures and social concepts are shown to kids in fun and educational way so that children that are interested in them could go and find more on the web site. And the Doctor Who Confidential series is a fantastic insight into TV cinematography.

35:

re 1000+ page SF novels.

Did Peter Hamilton's Night Dawn and Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle series scare the publishers away from large books(900+ pages)? In the US they both ended up being broken into multiple paperbacks. Did they loose money by not having sold consistently across the series lifetime? Or have publishers just gave up and decided print is dead like some other media?

/Curious
//Thanks for FamilyTrade/ClanCorp novel info (March yeah!)

36:

I have a major problem with SF on TV or movies. Mostly it's because it's crap!

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the eye candy, and the 'visceral thrill' of mindless enjoyment involved in tie-fighter dogfights. I've gone to every trek/wars movie within a month or so of opening, and have them on DVD (mindless fun is necessary, sometimes). I have to admit I much preferred 'Dark Star' to Star-trek or -wars! (again - totally dumb, but who can argue with an existential bomb!)

I've always loved SF as a genre - especially short stories and novellas. Shorts require a much more spare approach (duh!) but as a result can be way more engaging and enlightening. There always seemed to me to be a great deal of cross-pollination between SF & horror (Ellison & Charlie are great examples of this).

But I also enjoy more thorough exploration of a story arc. A fully realized universe (such as the Culture, or Charlie's Merchant Princes) can be extremely rewarding when done well. It can also be a total pain in the arse when exploited ('Kzin Wars', anyone?)

I also abhor enforced serialization (and with that I just realized that 15 years stateside has destroyed my ability to discern appropriate spelling for words involving a hard 's'!)

37:

I have to agree with you about Star Drek. The original series was decent (barring most of the third season), but then the stories were pretty archetypal, for the most part. The later series, though? Loathesome. Nothing but deus ex machina, no character development, no interesting stories, nada. It stank on ice.

And while I really liked most of BSG, the ending was so bad that it ruined the rest of the show for me. Knowing the inane lack-of-payoff for four years of development, I'll never go back and rewatch the earlier episodes. The shame was that all the way up to the end it had great promise, great characters, interesting conflicts and hints of a resolution that would be both interesting and complete. Instead, though, Moore dropped everything on the floor and then crapped all over it.

Anybody want a nearly-complete set of BSG DVDs? Yours for the taking.

Babylon 5, on the other hand, you should give a chance. Bearing in mind that it's by no means perfect, some of the episodes are real gems (my favorite of those being "The Coming of Shadows" where Andreas Katsulas gives a performance that must be seen to be believed) and the story itself is, again, archetypal. JMS said as much when he was describing it. Now, I think he made some real mistakes along the way and that it would have been much better had he stuck to his original vision despite studio pressure, but even so it's well worth seeing. (Just skip most of the fifth season, sigh.) Of course, it, too, has no real aliens, just funny-looking people (with a couple of minor exceptions), but then it was never meant to be more than a classical epic in a different setting. At the very least, the payoff does justice to the overall story, which puts it several cuts above anything else out there.

38:

"90% of everything is crap".

That includes TV SF.

39:

TV (and film) "sci-fi" has more problems than just being split into 40 minute segements, the real issue comes from the fact that they can't write assuming that their audience has seen any of the previous episodes.

You can't have truly alien aliens that you come to know and understand, like say some of CJ Cherryh's novels, if the equivilent of every 20 pages you have to effectively restart your description of their psyche and behaviour.

Likewise, starting with the "man-on-the-street"'s level of knowledge about science, you can't use anything as the cornerstone of a plot or motivation that isn't explainable within that minute amount of time available.

So you end up with soap operas in fancy-dress - at best, if it works, you end up with good TV, but you're never going to get good sci-fi.

Kinda funny, since sci-fi is one of those genres that excels in the "short story" format, you'd think that those would convert well to TV, but generally any decent sci-fi short story is so far outside the average TV audience's frame of reference that they simply can't "get it" without it being explained to them, and that works about as well as jokes that you need to explain.

40:

Amusing that I posted the same story on John Scalzi's blog a few weeks ago. More red matter, anyone?

A bigger problem is that Star Trek and their ilk have been seeding memes into our dreams of space for decades now. How many of us have (or recently had) a cell phone that looks like a ST communicator? We think that we should be taking the Enterprise to Mars, and it should take a few minutes to get there (well, maybe a week or two, because of our archaic technology). When NASA (or whoever) discusses how hard it really will be to send someone to the Moon or Mars, it bounces off our Star Trek/Star Wars/etc addled expectations, and we groan about how stupid and expensive the space agencies are.

Still, given how much trouble our culture has had living sustainably on the planet, I could equally argue that Star Trek is simply tapping into our deep-seated alienation from our environment by creating some magic words and actions that make all outside problems go away. All that's left, then, are interpersonal dramas. This is no different than the way most people are trying to deal with real environmental issues such as climate change. Everyone wants a technical fix, even though most scientists are pretty sure that the behavioral fixes (such as conservation) are equally important, and in many cases cheaper. I live in a drought-prone region. How much water could I save if it was socially acceptable to shower once a week, instead of every day? Instead we get more dams and big canals, because everyone wants to as much water as they can think of using. God knows how much damage we would cause if we actually had those Star Trek matter replicators.

41:

I always thought Star Trek was supposed to be about exploring Philosophy 101 issues when everything else was taken care of (There's no money, no scarcity, Holodecks for leisure, and you can wish food out of a magic machine in the dining room). Was it particularly deep or enlightening? Not really, but it was entertaining and perhaps just the tiniest bit world expanding for people who might not have ever come within 100 meters of an Intro to philosophy textbook.

In a lot of ways, the Federation of Star Trek has a great deal in common with the Culture of Iain M Banks' novels, in that they are both essentially socialist post-scarcity societies. The difference is that Banks' novels investigate both the governing mechanisms (AIs who essentially see humans as somewhere between pets, personal projects and parasites), practical realities (planets are space-wasteful, let's build thousand-mile wide orbital wheels!) and the nasty bits around the fringe where the Culture is protected, both from outside aggressors and itself.

Star Trek just uses post-scarcity and a Utopian background as plot devices that neatly sidestep any sort of homegrown drama or character development in favour of episodic shenanigans when dealing with other cultures. The Federation is a giant blank slate that the audience can project their own ideas on to, with the occasional technical doodad thrown in for neatness factor (Tea, Earl Grey, hot from the replicator) or plot convenience (the endless holodeck episodes in TNG that spanned everything from Westerns to Sherlock Bloody Holmes).

Star Trek was my gateway drug - it's amazing how little I can bear to watch of it now, I actually have to sit back and consciously say 'right, disengaging brain' for my semi-annual pilgramage to see how bad the latest Star Trek film is. The last one at least did something semi-new.

42:

Ben> Oh totally, I thought I'd spare Charlie a description of the giant robots doing press ups and other oddities. You'll note I didn't actually name the shows.

Though I did remember one show, Planetes, which is about a group of orbital garbage collectors, which is fairly hard sci-fi and refreshingly free of giant robots and high schoolers. And including things like why astronauts must wear diapers and other such down to earth fare.

Zipang is another mostly cliche free show, though it's only barely sci-fi, being about a moder Aegis cruiser transported through time to WWII by the usual unexplained time storm. Unlike the similarly themed movie "The Final Countdown" they actually get involved and begin changing history

43:

My take on Babylon 5 and the re-imagined BSG:
Babylon 5 was generally good from a distance, but not close-up. Individual scenes and episodes suffered from uneven acting, crappy dialogue, etc., but the show seems much better when one steps back and considers an entire season as a single work-- from that vantage point, you can see how there was a long-term story arc and subtle step-by-step progression of the story to its pre-planned end. In 2009 this doesn't sound like anything that special, but in the mid-1990s, virtually nobody was doing this on television.

There were, of course, some prominent warts-- the aforementioned uneven acting and cheesy dialogue, plus studio meddling (uncertainty about fifth-season renewal) that led to too much being crammed into the back end of the fourth season, then a bunch of filler in the fifth season, plus actor departures that disrupted the original plan.

The new Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, is like a photographic negative of B5's plusses and minuses. On a close-up level, BSG looks pretty good. Better acting; better dialogue, interesting stories (YMMV) on an single-episode or limited-episode-arc basis. But _really_ glaring faults from a bigger-picture perspective. "They have a plan." (Um, so what was it?) And the Adam-and-Eve ending was a stinker. Some of the problems were inherited from the original source material, but some of them were home-grown.

The original Star Trek is (even moreso than Wagon Train in SPAAACE!!!!) Horatio Hornblower in space. To those of you who like that sort of thing, I'd recommend going back to the source and reading C.S. Forester's Hornblower stories. Good fun. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin stories are even better-- and they replace the Star trek [insert tech here] with [insert Napoleonic-era naval tech here], except that after a while you start to appreciate that the naval tech is actually historically accurate, which means that it's consistent from story to story and so it can be used as a means to _add_ to the flavor and enjoyment of the story, rather than serving as thoughtless filler.

44:

Now, to that 44-minute episode format, with four acts per story (to fit the advertising schedule): each act is 11 minutes long. In script form, that's 11 pages of 250 words each. That's tiny. In terms of written SF, one of those episodes would be an 11,000 word novelette; but each scene ... it's just about impossible to pack anything in there besides interpersonal dialog and some story development. World-building and the overall story arc obviously have to take a hike ...

Aren't you overlooking the visual aspect of a TV series? Since TV shows (and movies) are visual media, part of their "worldbuilding" is going to be visual, and that's not something that can be conveyed by word count, or lack thereof. Things like costume design, set design, makeup/prosthetics, spaceship design, things that appear on computer screens, etc., etc., are all aspects of worldbuilding that go into a (decent) SF TV series. Very little of this is going to be reflected in the dialog (or word count) of an individual screenplay.

This, incidentally, is one of the things that made me prefer Babylon 5 over Star Trek -- the creativity and thought that went into the visual design of B5, and how it fit in with (and even told you about) different aspects of the different cultures.

45:

"SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist"

I think that clearly applies to Star Trek, despite the fact that you could rework aspects of it on the Seven Seas. Alien contact, alien cultures, the impact of such magic (in the Clarkian sense) technologies as teleporters, replicators, androids, the Holodeck, the warp drive, etc., and many other aspects of the shows' assumptions don't transfer to a mundane setting and cannot just be dismissed out of hand. Certainly, the stories may not be dealt with at a level of complexity or intelligence that some of us might prefer, but they are, at times, in their own way, attempting to imagine and extrapolate from non-existing conditions.

It seems to me that you're trying to compare apples and oranges. Not all sf is "hard," nor has it ever been, nor should it be (and I say this as one who tends to prefer a harder variety). Many aspects of television sf are disappointing, sure...but so are many aspects of ALL television. I don't think comparing novels to tv is very enlightening. Write us a good tv series and then we'll have a fairer, more meaningful comparison! One can only judge something by how successful it is in doing what it *tries* to do, not in what you wish it did.

And it seems to me that being so rigid in setting your boundaries that you cannot enjoy Doctor Who (on its own terms, warts and all) is a very unfortunate thing.

46:

Any chance of polishing this up for a fanzine appearance? I'm seriously thinking of getting "back on the road" early next year.

47:

I never hated Star Trek nor did I totally hate TNG but anything after that seemed to be just churn for churn's sake.

And BSG too - commercial, sensationalist pap for the "Lost" generation.

Ever wondered why anything by Michael Moorcock has never been on film or TV? (I could be wrong there but f-it, I've said it?) 'cos it's real scifi/fantasy, baby; imaginative, testing, not-cosy and probably not commercially viable according to the templates/formulae.

But thanks for exposing the cookie-cutter, Charlie, it's good to "know your enemy".

48:

Something that might shed some light on various kinds and degrees of badness might be to rank the different Trek series. For example, I'd put DS9 ahead of any of the other newer entries, and Voyager last.

Otoh, I'd far far rather watch Lexx than anything else mentioned so far, and it wasn't exactly tech heavy.

49:

To be (slightly) fair to Ron Moore -- my impression is that the "technobabble" templates in the Star Trek: Next Generation scripting were meant to permit outside writers to tell stories which could involve technically trained people discussing details of advanced (and purely imaginary) technology. Rather than having a writer waste time trying to figure out how the transporter system worked -- and end up saying something that contradicted what last week's episode had said -- they could leave those details blank, to be filled in later by part of the show's permanent staff.

So, part of the goal was to create a somewhat consistent technology, that didn't change from one week to the next based on different writers' interests, competencies, or lack thereof. Another goal was to allow scenes with discussions between (for example) the engineer and the captain that had at least the flavor of technical sophistication and familiarity -- and didn't get sidetracked by "As you know, Captain" attempts to explain how the ship's technology worked.

And there were occasional episodes which did deal with scientific and/or technological issues as part of the story, on a somewhat higher level than just "What are some possible ways to restart the engine?"

50:

@rushmc #45: My core gripe with Star Trek is that they don't grapple with the consequences of the technology they introduce. The replicator is nothing more than a refrigerator with special effects, when in reality, it would be a substantial change in our view of economics. These realities are never touched upon.

51:

PMR@47: There was actually at least one Moorcock film, The Final Programme. It was pretty odd but I found it entertaining.

52:

As a kid I was always really pissed at the way TV and movies would "adapt" rock music for the screen. It's essence would always be destroyed in an attempt to dilute the sound to their own purposes. Ergo, with very few exceptions, the same process of insipidation has happened to SF, which I've been reading since elementary school.
To put this in some context I am to be 65 in a few.

53:

A couple of random comments:

(1) Science scares media executives because they've never encountered any beyond grammar/high school. Literally. I have to work with/around/against too damned many of them. Whether this is a consequence or cause of mathophobia would make an interesting sociology dissertation topic.

Similarly, the scientific method scares them even more, because understanding the scientific method requires understanding both science and cultural imperatives from a non-current culture. The shape of the Western scientific method owes much to the cultural obstacles faced by the Bacons (both Roger and Sir Francis), not to mention those faced by Avicenna, Paracelsus, Darwin, Mendel, and Mendeleev. In turn, that involves criticizing organized religion (in a general sense) when it become theocracy, and doing that in the West isn't kosher unless you're criticizing the Inquisition.

(2) It's fairly apparent to me that Ron Moore either self-censored or was edited in that comment... because "teching the tech" was explicitly not allowed in the BSG writers' room.* Admittedly, too often it involved scientifically unsophisticated writers munging the science; at least, however, they tried.

Unfortunately, there were some more fundamental failures of logistics in BSG that failed precisely because it was TV: They couldn't afford to depict the deteriorating condition of things like clothing, razors/razor blades, cooking utensils, seals and sealants, etc. over time. They were already busting the budget on wardrobe as it was; making new, multiple sets of clothing with consistent wear patterns for succeeding episodes would have been too much. And the less said about how they got those "ancient" Vipers going again in the pilot without replacing all of the seals and testing all of the moving parts, the better.

(3) As far as the "length of books" issue goes, there's a very specific reason that Tor in particular wanted Our Gracious Host to cut down the length of his MP novels: Money. Most printing plants these days have a 35mm limitation on fully-machine-sewn bindings; anything over that requires going to a limited number of plants that charge more for binding because they can routinely handle more than 35mm of printed material. As an exercise for the student, consider the economic implications of an artificial restriction in supplier availability, combined with the dominance of bean-counters over the editorial process (even at Tor). R___ J____ and George R.R. Martin can get away with it because they've both got pre-demonstrated blockbuster seller status. JKR can get away with it for the same reason.

* I do not represent Ron Moore. I do represent two individuals (one with screen time) who were in a position to know.

54:

Dr Who can be good when it stops pretending to be SF (and isn't written by Russell Davies). The horror and fantasy elements can be very strong at times.

A weird, but interesting, SF show from a few years back was Charlie jade. Pretty original, astonishingly so for TV. Still not entirely sure what it was ultimately about.

Mind you - science, science. The tradecraft in Burn Notice is probably rubbish, but its still a fun show.

55:

CEP: Different binding/printing tech in the UK is one pointer to why multi-centimetre doorsteps published here get split into separate volumes when they go to the US. (I wish someone had explained this to me back in 2001 ...)

I'm afraid to say that learing that media execs are scared of tech and of the scientific method is no surprise. (If they weren't, I suspect their collective emergent behaviour wrt. the internet would be radically different -- and a lot smarter.)

56:

My favourite sci-fi programme on TV was Farscape. Although it did suffer the particle-of-the-week syndrome, some technobabble and sometimes lacked good hard science concepts, the characters were very engaging and had proper character development.

Ideally you'd want a consistent properly thought out believable universe with proper sci-fi concepts, engaging characters, the wow-factor, a good script and good acting!

No sci-fi show has hit many of these points. I enjoyed B5, quite liked the TNG when it was (in retrospect there aren't many good episodes), Doctor Who at it's best can be great, but I've never seen anything that can give the satisfaction of a novel.

57:

I can't believe that nobody has mentioned "Dune".

Considered by many to be the single greatest SF novel of all time, nobody has been able to do a proper screen version (not the 1984 movie, not the Sci-Fi channel miniseries - though their "Children of Dune" miniseries was actually pretty good given the budget limitations).

Now that Peter Berg is supposed to star filming yet another version in 2010 what advise would you give him? You all seem to know what you DON'T want in visual SF, so what should Berg avoid doing?

Given Charlie's estimate of 1 page of script per minute of screen time, a proper rendition of Dune would last at least 9 hours. So breaking it up into a movie trilogy like LotR would probably be necessary. But would the executives take that kind of financial risk given the failure rate of previous attempts?

58:

@39: You can't have truly alien aliens that you come to know and understand

I'd suggest Farscape as a counter argument to this. That show suggests it is possible to do it on TV but I doubt you can mainstream it.

With regards to Charlie's original argument, I think he's right about TNG-era onwards Star Trek though it should be noted that that for TOS Gene Roddenberry routinely hired SF writers, such as Harlan Ellison, to write stories and scripts.

Where I disagree is in the idea that tech should be an integral component as I'd view that as eliminating much of the great Soviet-bloc era SF as actually being SF. The tech was merely a mechanism or trope by which the writers could be scathing and critical of the regimes without the censors cottoning on to what was being said. Eastern bloc SF rarely was concerned at any point with the implications of the tech on society but was rather concerned with society itself and the human condition.

I'd also add my voice for watching BSG (at least up until season 3.5). It's the apocryphal tale of the Olympians revenging upon the Titans and casting them down - a story which Charlie himself tells in Accelrando. It's interesting to view the episodes from Lay Down Your Burdens Pt I through to Collaborators (which picked up the nickname Battlestar Iraqtica - it's the only show which actually explored the motivations of suicide bombers and made you sympathetic to them) in this context plus it helps the resolution make more sense if you see it as a reconciliation between those of the Hellenistic faiths and those of the Abrahamic faiths...

59:

Much of Star Trek, even quite a lot of DS9, is pisspoor drama, but that has nothing to do with teching the tech. It's to do with forgetting that drama is about struggle and consequences. Compare these two ways to [tech] the [tech]:


SCOTTY: Captain! Spock's gone into the [tech] chamber to [tech] the [tech]!

KIRK: But if he does that - the [tech] will kill him!

SCOTTY: If he doesn't, the [tech] will [tech] and we'll all be killed!


That's a real drama, with real stakes, whereas:


RIKER: It's no good! I can't [tech] the [tech]!

LAFORGE: Wait a minute! If I [tech] the [tech], that should [tech] the [tech] and then you can [tech] the [tech]!

RIKER: That's done it! Stand by to [tech] the [tech]!


...is just the equivalent of running up and down corridors until the episode comes to an end.

There's nothing wrong with having consultants to bring (hopefully) some consistency to the made-up tech so the writers can get on with the stuff that really matters - provided the writers do in fact give us stuff that really matters.

60:

Thinking about it, there is one TV SF drama series of recent years that I have a soft spot for -- Futurama.

Bonus points if you can tell me why ...

61:

I'm SO with you on this!

Um, this also relates to some extent to the print-vs-media split in SF fandom, I think.

62:

This fellow (admittedly a rabid Star Wars fan) posted an insightful analysis of TNG's Federation as a Communist state, and I've been unable to see anything utopian about it since. Many of his other essays are worth a read, especially his "Brain Bugs" explanation of the differences between Star Trek TOS and TNG.

63:

ScentOfViolets@48

Ahh Lexx... Yes that was an interesting series. Dumb but different.

64:

On the gripping hand, I really appreciate it when genre media piggybacks the tech from another series. When Han Solo says, "We're caught in a tractor beam!" we don't need any sort of rubber science explaining how that can happen, because Star Trek already showed us how that works.

I think when writers get that lazy, it's really a sign that they don't trust the audience.

65:

Nobody mentioned StarGate, admittedly it's not exactly space opera, but it did try to avoid some problems of StarTrek, i.e. no big reset button at the end of each episode, action has consequences, and they don't keep inventing new tech babble to solve their problems, instead there're some creative use of rules/techs established in previous episodes.

66:

Oh please start on Dr. Who I would love to hear it.

67:

@60 -- "Bonus points if you can tell me why ..."

1. Futurama makes fun of every SF and TV cliche.

2. Characters actually remember what happened in previous episodes, and develop with time.

Am I close?

68:

Eschew space opera
Tell the laypersons so
Life on Mars
Was quite good though

69:

I think what TV producers must forget is that science fiction isn't story, it's setting. At the heart, it's just story set in the future rather than the present (standard fare) or past (historical/fantasy).

You still need a good war story, mystery, romance, whatever. The only difference is you have to create the setting from whole cloth -- which gives you unlimited freedom, but at a cost.

That's why shows like the original Star Trek, Firefly, and BSG work -- the first two are basically westerns, and the last is a war story. The sequel series to TOS failed to realize this, so they have no real grounding in good storytelling.

This is true of novels and other media too. "Halting State" is a mystery/thriller that just happens to be set in the future. Change some things around, set it in the 1930s, and it would still be a good story.

70:

One of the best things about DEEP SPACE NINE is that when (TNG veteran producer) Michael Piller left halfway through the third season, the new showrunner Ira Steven Behr banned the use of the 'tech' shorthand to get out of scrapes (although I think they fell back on it a couple of times when scripts ran late). From that point on all the resolutions to the stories had to be generated by the characters or the story. If writers wanted to use science and tech to get out of scrapes they had to come up with it themselves (although they could ring the science advisor if necessary).

What also worked in DS9's favour was the way they took the mickey out of some of the other STAR TREK series' po-faced conceits. One episode (written by Moore) featured a human character trying to explain how the Federation's wholly unbelievable social-economic structure worked with his Ferengi friend constantly saying, "Sorry, what does that mean exactly?" and the human getting flustered because it didn't make any sense. Eventually he summed it up with, "I'm human, I don't have any money," and left it at that.

BABYLON 5 is definitely worth watching, despite a weak first season and somewhat dubious production values, for the very strong acting by the likes of Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik starting in the second season and for its creation of a very thoroughly-explained science fiction setting. We learn more about the five core races in B5 in five seasons than we have about the Federation, Klingons and Romulans in forty-five years. There's also no technobabble, occasional use of realistic science (the B5 station generates a gravity-like effect by rotation) as well as a very thoroughly detailed, pre-planned ongoing story that unfolds logically over the five seasons and comes to a mostly satisfying (but not too neat) conclusion. I guess it helped that Joe Straczynski had the likes of Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold and DC Fontana on his speed dial as well.

It is frankly the blueprint all future serialised SF should have used, but none of of the BSG writers had ever seen it, and you could tell as they made mistake after mistake throughout the second half of that show's run that eventually rendered it into an incoherent gibbering mess. A major plot point turned because the writer was a little overfond of a Bob Dylan song and had been trying to get it into an SF show for years, and finally succeeded with BSG, never mind that it made no sense in the context of the show.

An additional point, one made by Joe Straczynski in an article in FOUNDATION magazine in 1995: cop shows have writers who were actually cops (Ed Burns on THE WIRE is a classic example), or experienced mystery novelists, or at worst maybe TV writers who've done research and spent a few afternoons hanging out with local cops and following their work. Law shows or hospital shows might have the same thing.

SF shows are mostly written by people who are not science fiction writers, who exist in total ignorance of the history of the genre or its achievements and have a basic grasp of science. BABYLON 5 was an exception, as it did have 'proper' SF writers like Gerrold and Fontana working on it. Straczynski himself had published some SF short stories. None of the regular writers on the STAR TREK shows and none on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA had the same qualifications.

What we really need are some 'proper' SF writers to get into the scriptwriting business, but it seems that the prospects for that at the moment are very slim.

71:

Yikes the criticisms I am seeing here (too technobabbly, star trek as communism, etc) absolutely REEK of the kind of looking-down-your-nose elitist crap that has made (and continues to make) science fiction such a sad niche, when it could be so much more. Folks, you need to understand that this is a *television show* designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Considering the level of actual science fiction concepts that made it into the show, I think we should be considering it a success instead of castigating it for being imperfect.

72:

Andrew G: "Halting State" is a mystery/thriller that just happens to be set in the future. Change some things around, set it in the 1930s, and it would still be a good story.

Except for, er, the non-existence of of MMOs in the 1930s, right?

Ilya @67: you nailed it. Futurama understands whereof it speaks at a deep level Yes, it's full of SF clichés -- but they're there for a reason.

PS: All glory to the hypnotoad!

73:

"The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances."

Neo-Battlestar Galactica in fact did. The entire point of the entire story was an examination of what does it mean to be an AI versus human: are their significant differences, or not? How will people -- and AIs -- react when their assumptions about this are challenged? As sub-issues: what does it mean to have thousands of clones of yourself? How does it feel? How would you differ or be similar from each other? How much of personality is biological/programming versus a response to environment and circumstance?

It's good sf, although it limits itself to examining just a few sf questions. But it's inextricably genuine sf. (As well as superb drama.)

74:

"I think what TV producers must forget is that science fiction isn't story, it's setting. At the heart, it's just story set in the future rather than the present (standard fare) or past (historical/fantasy)."

Gosh, this is absolutely ass-backwards. Rabbits-are-smeerps are what define something as not science fiction.

75:

I know at least one Trek author (script and books) who can confirm the ("insert Tech bit here") rules from Next Gen onwards. Watched most of that (Patrick Stewart is almost incapable of a bad act), gave up on DS9 for Babylon 5, gave up on Voyager after the pilot episode when me and a bunch of mates worked out how to resolve the whole problem of "OMG we're halfway across the galaxy and it'll take us 80 years to get home", and gave up on "Enterprise" at the point in the pilot where $J_RANDOM_CREWMEMBER and $HAWT_VULCAN_BABE have to undergo a full-body decontamination process which involves slathering each other all over with what looked suspiciously like Swarfega and... keeping their underclothes on and going nowhere near them with the goop. Neither science nor titillation, and very insulting to the intelligence.

If you can live without having to watch any SF TV, your life will be none the poorer. And I speak as one who has most of Doctor Who on VHS, and the RTD "NuWho", the original Trek, and Moore's rewrite of BSG on DVD. Oh, and Firefly.

76:

I was wondering if anyone was going to mention "Futurama". That show was blessed with several staff writers qualified to be working scientists, and the rest clearly loved and respected both real science and real science fiction. Violations of physical law were done knowingly and with a specific narrative or humorous purpose. (My favorite instance was the house that burned down underwater.) It's worth checking out the DVD commentary tracks for the "Futurama" writers' creative use (and sometimes creative misuse) of actual science.

77:

Incidentally, at risk of being redundant, since I just posted this at Scalzi's entry, but just for the record, Star Trek: TNG writers have been talking publically in interviews about using the word "tech" in the scripts, and using "[tech] the [tech]," and having the blanks filled in later by the science consultant, for over twenty years. This is not news; it's one of the most famous facts about Star Trek:TNG and post-TNG writing (to those who have ever paid attention to ST writing) there is. It's been written about and the subject of jokes and creebs by Trek fans for decades. See any of the Trek Usenet discussions of the early Nineties for tens of thousands of examples.

It's rather weird to see this fact treated as "news," though it's perfectly understandable that it's news to those who have never paid any attention to Star Trek:TNG and post-TNG, writing.

78:

Rob T: if you'd read the comments, you might have spotted mine WRT Futurama.

79:

I was about the right age to like ST:TNG as I would have been about 11 or 12 when it first came out, so I really enjoyed that at first, but in the mid 90's it was getting very tiresome with DS9 and Voyager as well (three near-simultaneous Star Trek series was Trek overload). The issue I had with it was the lack of plot development, the technobabble quick-fixes, and the fact that it was all getting so predictable. Babylon 5 came along at exactly the right time, and I found it tremendously enjoyable - it was radically different to Star Trek and did things Star Trek wouldn't have done in a million years.

B5 had a proper story arc, it's just that it took a long time setting the scene so it's quite hard to detect in the first couple of series. But by the time you get to the third series you can see the consequences of decisions made eaerlier panning out, and events that were only hinted at earlier being revealed. You have to invest a lot of time in it but if you do it's very enjoyable.

Farscape was very good too - it was very off-the-wall and zany. I quite like the Stargate franchise, but there are a few major holes that really spoil it for me (the aliens all mysteriously speak English? And they're all just people with distorted voices or glowing eyes?).

I will say, however, that Firefly is a truly excellent SF series. No technobabble whatsoever, great characters and a vividly-realised world, together with Joss Whedon's distinctive brand of humour. It remains my absolute favourite SF series by a long way.

Arthur C Clarke said in the introduction to The Songs of Distant Earth that he regarded most SF franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek as fantasy rather than SF, and to a certain extent I agree with this viewpoint. Most of the technology is treated in such a way that it might as well be magic, and the aliens might as well be orcs, goblins and trolls (in the case of Star Wars, there is magic if you count The Force). As I've gotten older my tastes in SF have moved towards harder SF and away from things like ST:TNG, and unfortunately that means I'm less keen on the films and TV series that keep coming out since hard SF doesn't generally make it onto the screen.

80:

Battlestar Galactica was five series of epic win. There was no tech reset at the end of every episode, instead the situation of the human race got progressively worse as the series went on. Stuff broke, people broke broke. There was war, politics, sex, drinking, death, mutiny, coup d'etat, religion. The people are flawed people trying to do the right thing in terrible circumstances and sometimes what looks like the right thing also looks like the worst thing to do.

And then there was the epic fail of the ending. It was like the guys writing it just couldn't work out what to do at the end. (At least "The Wire" got the ending right - there is no ending.)

Anyway, I urge you to give BSG a try. Get 'Razor', a sub-thread movie and see what you think.

81:

Steve @7

Second that

82:

"Yikes the criticisms I am seeing here (too technobabbly, star trek as communism, etc) absolutely REEK of the kind of looking-down-your-nose elitist crap that has made (and continues to make) science fiction such a sad niche, when it could be so much more. Folks, you need to understand that this is a *television show* designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Considering the level of actual science fiction concepts that made it into the show, I think we should be considering it a success instead of castigating it for being imperfect."

That sums up my view in very large part! It seems to me that novels generally are SUPPOSED to be about the human condition, which, kinda by definition, includes the growth of individual characters. That's what separates a "flat" character from a complex one. As such, the fact that ST:TNG could have been placed in the Old West, a fact also true of the remarkably wonderful "Firefly," is completely irrelevant.

As a techy myself, arguing that these shows never actually used or developed any actual forward-looking technical approaches, but instead just used "tech" seems ridiculous. Who cares? Are we really decrying these shows because they didn't think up plausible technical devices, but instead focused on character-based story arcs? Really? That was (and is) the point. Isn't literature about characters, not settings, anyway? Isn't classical literature--and no, I don't think ST:TNG is Shakespeare for the masses--timeless because it reflects on societal mores (interpersonal and individual) that are, well, timeless? Wow. And I thought Trekkies had too much time to kill.

On the other hand, and more importantly, I will agree that, unlike "Firefly," ST:TNG (and by extension all the others with the notable exception of DS9) did not legitimately speak to any larger societal issues like "freedom" or "liberty" but instead generally assumed that The Federation's way, which was Socialism, was obviously best for all. In contrast, "Firefly" approached and combined the development of individual characters amid the larger context of how society had put them in the position where they found themselves. That show spoke to an individual liberty paradigm foreign to most of TV. This is why FF was, for me, SO much better than ST:TNG, and probably why the pointy-heads at Fox didn't "get it."

83:

I thought "The 4400" was an intelligently constructed series. It started with the assumption that all those people who had been abducted over the years were returned, unaged, and after some time, they started developing new powers. The series was constructed as a multilayered mystery with a big revelation/change at the end of each season; the following season was spent exploring the implications of it.

The science might have been fiction but the series attempted to explore how people would react to it in an honest way. Also anything discovered was reflected in the situation downstream. I enjoyed right up unto it was canceled after the 4th season.

84:

Deep Space Nine is my favorite Star Trek series because it subverts the hell out of the "Federation is always perfect" trope. Especially in the later seasons. For example: two episodes in the 4th season, Homefront and Paradise Lost. I just rewatched them a few months ago, and if I didn't know that they were from the mid-90s, I'd swear that they were an allegory for the War on Terror.

If you do decide to watch it, you can skip most of the 1st season. Only the first and last episodes of that season are worth it, IMO.

85:

Charlie @ 72: What I mean to say is that as good as the setting was, it wasn't what made the story good.

86:

Gary @ 74: I'm not sure what you're saying. How is SF not a setting? It's a setting that gives you a lot of freedom (I'd say more than Fantasy even), but it's still just a setting.

87:

@60

As if there was one reason to love Futurama.

My friends and I had absolutely zero faith in that show when it launched. It was a Simpsons clone with a premise that couldn't last more than three or four episodes.

I can't think of any pithy way to describe how wrong we were.

88:

It isn't just tv SF. It's all tv. There are certain pat stories they will tell, and it doesn't matter what the setting is, they will slap those stories in and ignore anything creative to be done with the setting. E.g.: the father protects the family from something. The teenage boy gets into some kind of militaristic training and wins the respect if not the approval of his top sergeant equivalent. The teenage girl has an unsuitable romance and has to give it up. The Child character learns something that dismays him about the world but is reassured by his parents that somehow all will be well. The key to the story is never the situational technology; that at most just gets them from one standard situation to the next. Wagon train, interdimensional transport, whatever. Oh, and the villain is the only one with any sense of self-preservation, at least at first.

89:

If you look at the submission rules for most sci-fi book publishers, the rules say that the science must be necessary for the story, or it's not sci-fi, and the science doesn't necessarily have to make sense in the real world, but it MUST be consistent within its own universe. The universe of the story.

90:

There's an article by mathematician Alice Silverberg at http://www.math.uci.edu/~asilverb/bibliography/numb3rland.pdf which suggests that the TV show Numbers (or NUMB3RS) is written in a similar way. The plot is written with "math" placeholders, and then the placeholders are replaced with maths bits.

I only watched an episode or two, and got this impression about the show, so I was interested to find this article after the fact.

91:

Actually, it's not just FUTURAMA but also RED DWARF that explored some interesting SF ideas in an intelligent manner, often far more intelligently in less than half an hour of comedy than a po-faced VOYAGER episode managed in 45 minutes.

92:

i know what you mean about sf exploring the human condition - one of the reasons i'm a fan of yours.

i only ever liked st:tng and i'd recommend one particular episode that deals with it quite nicely. it's set after picard gets taken by borg, rescued, then goes back home.

from the wiki:

"Lying in the pool of mud, Picard finally confronts the humiliation and powerlessness he felt while under the Borg's control." it's an excellent scene.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

93:

joelfinkle@8: Quite.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the 'tech' trick *if* your plot turns on characterization. i.e. if the key of the plot lies in the ways the characters interact with each other, then babbling over the tech (or, better yet, leaving it out) is fine: but if the plot then turns on the very same thing you're making up, you're just insulting the viewer's intelligence and may as well have just filled the whole programme with concentrated babble, because the characterization (if there was any) didn't affect the plot at all. And that's not a story.

Adam@70: that's exactly what I'm talking about, and one of the reasons I can stand DS9 (and Buffy/Angel. The latter in particular shows the advantage of having a small writing stable and strong central control so the characterization stays consistent. Actually the Whedonverse as a whole is proof that if your characterization is good enough you can get away with shoddy worldbuilding and derivative plots).

94:

I'm not a particular fan of Star Trek, for most of the reasons you list, but lets spin at it from a point of view of sheer social and commercial success.

Financially Star trek has done well - multiple TV series, a dozen movies, computer games, board games, cartoons, books, comics, t-shirts. No one disputes that its been a money maker.

Yet Star Trek has had a real world impact larger than any recent science fiction except - maybe - 1984. As one example of many Star Trek featured the first black female character of any stature on American TV. Martin Luther King himself asked the actress to stay in the role because she was so important to the civil rights movement - for a black to be seen in space meant that they were, in some way, on the same voyage as the white folks. Years later an actual Star Trek fan Dr Mae Jemison, the first black woman to work on the space shuttle, can also be seen in a Star Trek Next Generation episode, being the first real astronaut to do so.

That is the real world, real people, real impact - Star Trek isn't talking about a different world, its already help make it. Its hard to think of another TV show that is comparable. In terms of social impact per hour perhaps the British classic Cathy Come Home, perhaps not.

So... Star Trek, where did it all go wrong? Its popular, the cardinal sin, and its simple and basic. Really, having worked in a crappy job all day who wants a science treatise from some ugly OU beardie? I want a pretty girl (or my wife wants a good looking bloke) to rattle out a string of cobblers which sounds vaguely sexual and kinky. Which brings us to the ancient and hoary handed popular v good argument.

Still, lots of good TV programmes don't make it to a second season (Firefly) and Farscape made it to four. Bab 5 hit five seasons, which is impressive. The juggernaut that was Friends made it to ten. Star Trek has 30 seasons.

95:

If that makes you hate Star Trek (and I can see how) I wonder what you must think of the Smurfs.

96:

I'll add my recommendation for BSG as well, Charlie. Give it a try.

I loved it before I saw it, but that's likely due to my insatiable thirst for SF, which makes me watch anything remotely touted as SF. So I readily admit that I go into most shows biased. Given that, throughout and at the end of it I thought BSG was superbly acted, and given what was going on politically here Stateside and associated misadventures in the M.E. during its airing, I judge it as timely commentary in that respect. BSG was all about what it means to be human, how to treat (or mistreat) others, how to grow, and conversely how to devolve. I may be the only person who thought that the Adam & Eve ending worked; even with its sometimes flawed episodes that doesn't detract from my view that BSG is the best SF show I've yet seen.

BTW Charlie: just got "Wireless" & I'm looking forward to reading it once I finish Banks' "Transition."

97:

Cian @54:
Actually, BURN NOTICE is the reverse of what Charlie is in rantmode about here, since the tradecraft is as real as we can get away with on television, and usually as the starting place for an episode concept.

98:

Doowop @57, the movie Dune had excellent hats.

Anybody watching FlashForward? It's from Robert Sawyer's book and I'm giving it at least one more watching.

99:

" I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying."

Also, they did kinda telegraph that from the beginning, what with having a character named Adama.

100:

Isn't the problem deeper? I think the problem is fandom itself. I can't help but think of it as a defective, almost decadent mode of reception.

101:

Michael @96: It's a standing joke in our household that cellphones can do EVERYTHING on BURN NOTICE. (That said, we love the show anyway 8-).)

Marilee @97: I'm watching FLASH FORWARD, and I like it, except for the paradoxical nature of the flash. Which is such a big problem for me that I can't suspend my disbelief to enjoy the show as much as I otherwise would.

102:

And that why I'll just re-watch my Firefly and (more specifically) my Farscape DVDs.

103:

There's one exception that I can think of where the technology itself, and the implications of the technology, actually took its place on the stage. It was not well done, and they missed many obvious ramifications of the situation, but at least there was SOMETHING there.

One of the things that I hated starting with TNG was the implications of the Holodeck technology... that the Holodeck was capable of passing the Turing test at so many levels (the Moriarty and Redblock episodes in particular demonstrated complex and constraint-breaking behavior), to the point that by the time the Voyager story arc with the Doctor started I was convinced that if you took the Federation society at face value it must be based on chattel slavery of the worst kind... that the crew of the Enterprise were routinely creating and killing sentient toys for nothing more than their own amusement. Even if they weren't consciously aware of it (or at least publicly acknowledging it).

In Voyager there were a series of story arcs involving the Holodeck where the technology really seemed to matter. Oh, not the games with "holographic explosives", but the ones involving the holodeck's own minds. When Janeway gave a holodeck kit to the Harogen (don't ask me how to spell it) this put her up there with mystic Nazis sacrificing jews to cthulhu as far as I was concerned. When the holodeck characters rebelled I cheered them on. The majority of that story arc involved a monumental cop-out, of course, but at least there was some kind of recognition of this huge hole in the Federation backstory. It was... not well done... but at least it was real science fiction. The technology actually mattered.

104:

I submit for your consideration The Incredible but True Story of Krieger Waves by Scientific and Technical Advisor for Seasons 3 and 4, Dave Krieger. Have sympathy for the starving grad student, excited to be involved, disillusioned by the reality.

105:

Both Futurama and Rad Dwarf had a lot of parody on science, society, future and interactions. Much dialogue, setting and interaction was a direct (hilarious) commentary on the current state of affairs. The setting of the future makes retrospective commentary much easier and more plausible when taken to extremes. And yes, I love Futurama too.

However, science fiction is not necessarily a commentary on our current society, but a different society. It surely helps to be able to relate to the current state of affairs and can be a (un)natural evolution. The most important feature of a well written story is consistency of both the actors and the setting. Therefore, I agree with the premise that one needs to develop a story not on basis of interpersonal relations, but on the science and society it produces.

106:

The reason that Star Trek was set in space, rather than on the high seas, is largely because it allowed the writers room to write analogically. They could tackle issues such as, say, slavery, in a way that a historical drama could not -- not without treading extremely carefully, anyway.

Besides which, I believe Ron Moore's being overly critical. Episodes might descend into "teching the tech" occasionally, but for most episodes there was one solid piece of science fiction that was carefully considered and its ramifications explored.

(This is TNG I'm referring to. Voyager and DS9, by contrast, were pretty much unredeemable.)

107:

On the one hand, I love the comparison of Ron Moore to Pointy-Haired Boss. So true. He and Brannon Braga couldn't write their way out of wet paper bags, yet they must be giving the Hollyweird execs *something* to keep themselves employed. Look at Flashforward [ugh]. If you're going to give us a premise with a world-wide disaster, for God's sake, don't clean it all up four hours later.

However, I disagree about the idea that the fact that Star Trek could be set in the Napoleonic Wars somehow makes it not science fiction. Tech is tech, science not magic. The basic science doesn't change all that much over the centuries, only the tools used to manipulate a scientific principle to solve your problem.

As someone who used to work in aquaculture and community development in Africa, I can tell you that the only difference between high tech and low tech is that high tech is more complicated than low tech and usually requires more energy. That usually means it breaks down more easily, too (more moving parts). It may offer advantages over the low tech, but unless you have a very strong infrastructure, it's not usually the way to go.

Again, though, the fact that Star Trek uses phasers to achieve the same thing as cannon--to wreck an enemy ship--was never a reason to question whether it was science fiction. The fact that the science didn't always hold up was the problem. Though if you look at some of the medical stuff (like noninvasive scans), that tech did come into use later on. There is some medical stuff on Star Trek that holds up better than House or ER, which are both horrendously inaccurate all the time and use the medicine as a background (often a very distant one) for flaming drama worthy of ill-bred toddlers and a gross lack of professionalism that wouldn't ever be allowed in any halfway competent hospital.

I loved DS9 because I first saw it while I was still in Africa and I thought that the sociological and political aspects of Bajor were both fresh and dead on, more so than pretty much any show before or since (though Farscape took some good cracks at that). Certainly more so than Babylon 5, which was dismissive of all cultures on the show that didn't follow Western values, and which eventually devolved into some weird Lord of the Rings homage where the deus ex machina resolution for the uberplot is one human character telling the Big Boys to pick up their toys and go home. I mean, I loved the part where Sheridan tells Bester his fantasy about nailing his head to the table and setting it on fire, too, but come on. JMS can't write any better than Moore or Braga.

And while we're talking about inaccurate science, I've never understood why Babylon 5 was such a hard-SF fans' darling. JMS railed against sounds in space then promptly had them in every space battle the show ever did. That big, rolling beer barrel of a station? Nice idea for artificial gravity. Too bad they didn't work out the vectors. The apparent gravity should have everyone walking *on* those windows on the outer hull not past them (and why does the bridge have gravity when it's at the center?). If you're going to brag about using "real" science in your sci-fi show, get it right.

BSG suffered from making no attempt whatsoever to show a different culture. These folks may have lived in a different time and have been in an extraordinary situation, but their culture was *exactly* like ours. This was why I was actually thankful for the very end. Yes, it's Adam and Eve, but it's not the usual cryptoCreatonist (and patriarchal) Adam and Eve you get from even alleged hard SF writers. Instead, you've got someone using recent research into paleoanthropological theories about genetic bottlenecks (caused by mass extinctions) for their Adam and Eve. I thought that was pretty clever and while it may not have made a lot of fans very happy, it was more scientific than most of what went before.

108:

Agree. I love Star Trek: The Next Generation, but for the most part it's not at all what I would call science fiction, so I suppose I'm in it primarily for the character drama. It is a nifty setting that provides some interesting plot options not available, for example, in a contemporary or 18th century setting.

That said, a few gems from ST:TNG come to mind that have good (albeit not astoundingly original) science fiction content: try The Measure of a Man, The Inner Light, Yesterday's Enterprise, First Contact, and All Good Things.

109:

Michael@96:
The same Michael Wilson who's Consulting Producer on BURN NOTICE? Excellent to see you here, sir!
Love the show. Having watched it with people who know about such, the tradecraft shown is bloody close to the real thing - and it makes such a difference to the series.
Best of luck for future seasons!

Charlie: I have to add to the B5 love. It's a long investment in time - and a few ropey episodes - but when it's in its stride there's nothing like it. Strong scripts on the nature of humanity and their future in a galaxy of powerful alien races and politically-dubious but legal telepaths at home - and those dealing with this range from combat troops to officers to deck staff to traders to priests.... And when they do do something high-concept and 'sci-fi'-ey, like time travel or a main character brought back from the dead, it Matters and the only do it Once.

And, unlike BSG, the retconning is minimal-to-none and the ending makes sense and actually matters.


110:

Charlie, your complaints about operatic tv/movie scifi applies equally well to other genres in different guises. The "teching the tech" syndrome is just script writing sloppiness. We see it in Medical shows (the patient recovers by some miracle cure) and cop shows (the bad guy just cannot help but leave silly clues or blab his guilt).

OTOH, just how different or realistic can individual characters really be in stopping some existential threat? For example, you could write about a flu pandemic today with some near sf technology to resolve the problem, but just who are the few protagonists who can do anything - certainly not the lone scientist type in the lab, or heroic doctor giving several billion flu shots. Just how different is the reaction to circumstances/problem solving/resolving the problem going to be under different circumstances? The only real difference is the actual problem and the method of its resolution, which does not need more than character sketches.

I would like to reassert my issue that SF has become too concerned with individual people rather than ideas. I think this is an attempt to become more "mainstream" and abide by the rules of mainstream writing, rather than the demands of the science in SciFi. It might be a really good exercise to write stories with no human characters or characters with even recognizably human traits and just focus on the problem and its solution. For example, stopping as asteroid hitting earth does not require our heroic astronauts to daringly face the beast like a knight facing a dragon, but could be done by an emotionless machine for very prosaic reasons. Would that absolutely make the story less interesting? Good story telling should be good story telling and that doesn't mean that it must use the narrative devices of the pre-Christian era mythology.

111:

Charlie, I have to wonder what you think of "Fringe". I think it combines both ways of incorporating tech that you're talking about. On the one hand, there's this overreaching arc relating to multiple universes and how different groups (in both universes) react to their discovery and to communication/travel between them. On the other hand, one of the *effects* of that interaction is an X-files-esque "crazy mad science stuff of the week" thing. But consequences persist across episodes, and stuff uncovered/leveraged in previous episodes is used in later episodes.

(Of course, the real answer, the real hope for the future, is we need an animated TV series based on the Laundry series of novels. So how 'bout it?)

112:

I think what a lot of people seem to be missing as the point, is that most TV sci-fi the "sci-fi" is merely setting, not plot.

This is what generally seperates space opera (usually "fantasy in space") from sci-fi.

Star Trek and the ilk generally write a plot that fits the constraints of TV, and then invent some technology that has the features (no more, no less) needed to fill in the placeholders in the plot.

By contrast, "proper" sci-fi, in the speculative fiction sense, starts with a technology and says "What would happen if this existed?"

Without (hopefully) being too sycophantic, this is what Charles Stross does so well, take several emergent technologies, combine them together, give it a good shake and say "What would people do with this?" and then writes about the interesting applications, especially the crazy inconvenient ones that defy the usual plot pidgeon-holing.

113:

Do NOT under any circumstances accept anyone's recommendation for watching BSG. Ron Moore should be excoriated for creating such absolute crap and I have no idea how anyone could call it "mind blowing".

I will grant the first season started towards something that would be interesting, but the series rapidly devolved when everyone ran out of ideas and it was clear that Ron Moore was in WAY over his head.

If you never watch it, you'll only miss : Whole episodes where nothing happens. Characters that could be used to drive action removed to roles where they do nothing but emote pensively. Plot lines that are half-baked, poorly thought out, and then abandoned mid thought with absolutely no resolution. Characters that are developed begin to act contrary to any and all previously established traits. Vague and poorly articulated messages on spirituality that should insult the intelligence of even the lowest brow.

But hey, if that's your bag, go for it.

114:

I agree with Charlie's general assessment of the ST franchise, but like any ditch, it hides some diamonds from place to place. In fact, I encourage all the ST fans/connaisseurs reading this to use Charlie's own criteria of what makes good SF to cite specific episodes or larger stories from ST that fit them.

The same challenge goes out to the other franchises. Of course, there is such a thing as overusing a once good idea. There are only so many times you can get away with a holodeck that runs amok.

My personal favorite ST show ever is B5, so obviously I must stand up for its honor. And I only need one word to defend it from the leveled accusation: telepaths. Let's examine the evidence. No telepaths, no show; literally half the story involves actively involved telepaths. Technology: telepathy suppressing drugs, genetic manipulation experiments and selective breeding, really sophisticated manipulation of the human mind by telepaths, alien telepathic technologies, etc. Culture and society: privacy, discrimination, telepathic "violence", legislation, "ethnic" tension, oppression and revolution; all presented and explored in great detail.

The story of telepaths is so large it's hard to name a specific episode to illustrate it. And telepathy is just one example. Multiple such threads are interwoven in the complex tapestry of B5. There is a great self-contained story that fit into one episode that explores the tangential topic of how much of an individual is made up of his memories, desires and drives: Passing Through Gethsemane. Watch it and judge for yourself!

115:

OK, so everybody has brought their favourite series. What about Lost? It seems to be written with a plan, starting with a still inexistent technology and exploring conflicts and consequences. It's just that we've started seing characters and the outcome, and we still don't know what [tech] is exactly fueling the game, except vaguely. It's fit perfectly in the series format, and has not needed flashes or lasers that other many series and films have bribed us with.

Oh, and BSG was awful. Not only the end is a complete joke, but the holes the size of a little planet appear since season 2 without shame. "Character development" is not justification for the disaster.

116:

- I thought Sunshine was a great sci-fi movie which couldn't have been set in the 18th century. The 2nd half was bad though with the crazy guy chasing people around stuff.

- I disagree about BSG. I don't think you could have set the final episode in the 18th century. It was a commentary about our relationship to technology.

117:

Umm... BSG ending comes in for a lot of flak, but to dismiss it as Adam-and-Eve misses great swathes of what actually happens. The story uses the trope as the bedrock for several other revelations that I won't go into here, cos I don't want to be spoiler-man...

Completely agree about Star Trek (and props to the comparison between ST's Federation and Blake 7's!). The one thing that always got me was: here are these supposedly intelligent and sensible people who completely fail to acknowledge/realize that they are just like their nemeses the Borg - both are hegemonising swarms - if anything, the Borg are better, as they are more honest about it!

But then, I think the underlying issue here (which has been addressed plenty in the comments) is that SF TV is a different genre to SF Books, and the expectations for one don't carry over to t'other.

And that's my two cents.

118:

I have to agree that Doctor Who isn't science fiction, it's fantasy. As a fantasy it's an exceedingly entertaining chararacter study. It's also occasionally quite witty.

I also don't think the the technobabble really applies to B5 and BSG. These shows might have other problems. Galactica, though an excellent drama, has long-term plot issues. Babylon has terrible acting, sets, and dialogue.

With that said, as a drama, I thought Galactica was probably the best show on television -- never watched the Wire. The end of the episode Revelations, the New Caprica story arc, and the Oath/Blood on Scales bit... is just about the best thing television has ever produced. Right there with Rome.

The ending was a bit of a let-down, but not nearly to the extent that a small minority of people claim. It certainly wasn't the "God Did It" bullocks that some people interpreted it to be.

119:

Then you should REALLY watch Battlestar Galactica. Its ALL about the HUMAN story and dialogue, no technobabble what-so-ever.

It has as much tecnobabble as a "regular" story on modern day earth in the country.

I dont even consider BSG a sci-fi, besides the fact that its in space and had spaceships, it actually has a story and plot and development based on interaction.


It is the antithesis if ST:TNG.
too bad you decided to just descard it based on your ego.

You fail on BSG and SciFi, you are right about ST.

120:

I am reminded of someone who told me that he couldn't watch Stargate SG-1 because he couldn't understand why the gate was merely guarded by soldiers with guns. What he thought it needed was some sort of 'kill field' that would instantly zap intruders.

What he didn't realise was that soldiers with guns look cool and can be grasped as a visual image in an instant. A kill field is always going to look a bit meh, and require regular lashings of clunky exposition to remind new viewers why everyone's so scared of the glowy thing.

The real tragedy was that he wasted precious CPU cycles on these ludicrous trains of thought while failing to notice that his live-in girlfriend of many years was busy shagging her way through the population of Brighton.

Charlie's flaw is a misunderstanding of genre. Star Trek is basically the story of some sailors far from port who confront gods and monsters on their voyages.

You could argue that Star Trek's primary genre is sea-faring adventure and soft science fiction is a secondary genre. A lot of Star Trek episodes owe more to horror than science fiction -- but that's entertainment.

121:

yeah exactly - its space opera! enjoy it, (or not) for what it is. Judge it on its own merits. Are the characters complex? Are their inter-personal dramas engaging? Are the special effects dazzling? Is the action exciting?

I mean, the 'aliens' have prostethic foreheads on their real heads and speak english! Kind of puts them outside the bounds of literary criticism.

122:

AndrewG @86: you are wrong. SF is not a setting -- it's a set of rules.

Let me unpack some classes of genre fiction for you ...

* Historical fiction is fiction about stuff that has happened.

* Mainstream fiction is fiction about stuff that can happen right now.

* SF is fiction about stuff that could happen.

* Fantasy is fiction about stuff that can't happen.

The meta-rule for writing SF is very simple: all you need to know is that the rules you set up for any given work of SF need to be internally consistent. Let's take a random example: faster than light space travel. We don't have reason to believe it's possible, but it hasn't definitively been ruled im-possible yet. You can therefore write a work of SF in which it exists, as long as you keep your ruleset for handling it internally consistent.

Once you pick an impossibility -- let's say, magic -- then whatever you write is by definition inconsistent with the world as we know it (unless you go a step further out, and try to whomp up a plausible SF-nal explanation for your magic system, in which case what you're dealing with is a Clarkian technology-indistinguishable-from-magic).

123:

Sam @ 11:

By contrast, "proper" sci-fi, in the speculative fiction sense, starts with a technology and says "What would happen if this existed?"
I'd expand "technology" to "technology, scientific concept, or change in the way humans interact with their world", where the latter category includes post-apocalypse stories ("we don't have 21st century tech anymore"), psi ("we have different senses to interact with the world", and so on.

There are some other indicators of SF story-telling: the use of inclueing¹ the implicit understanding that the reader's default assumptions about the characters and their environment and culture may be false and/or misleading (Heinlein's "the door dilated" is a classic example).

There is in fact one TV show now being broadcast that does all that. Part of its success may be that it doesn't also have spaceships, so the executives' phobias aren't activated as much as with many other shows. That's "Dollhouse", which has just managed (barely) to start its second season. I don't think I'm revealing any spoilers by saying that the McGuffin of the show is the existence of a technology that allows recording of human personality and memory on computer memory, synthesis of new personalities and memories from pieces of others, and the installation of these new personalities onto other brains. The entire series so far has been about the implications of this technology for ethics, politics, crime, and corporate governance, and the effects it has on the people who developed and use the technology and the people on whom it is used. The scripts don't pull any punches and they don't take any shortcuts with the implications, or with our perception of the characters.

Also, the first season DVD of "Dollhouse" contains an un-aired episode that jumps to 2019 and shows the long-term effects of the use of the technology on society. It uses inclueing very nicely to introduce several new classes of people and the reaction of the viewpoint characters to them, then fills in the definitions of those classes without resorting to lots of infodump. I think it's one of the best TV shows of any category I've seen recently.

1. The writing technique where concepts are introduced without exposition at first, and connected back to concepts the reader knows in the course of the story. For instance, in "Glasshouse", Charlie introduces "gates" very quickly by having the viewpoint character use them, and then later explains the differences between A and T gates, and how they work (which turns out to be vital to the backstory and ultimately to the plot).

124:

Charlie, having observed this thread all day I've gained a suspicion:

Are you doing an experiment on us, trying to see if you can have us set a new record in postings per day on this board? Did you want to spice up the board with some conflict?

This is reminiscent of Scalzis recent postings re ST and SW tech. I can't conceive any thesis on a SF-related board that would garner comments faster considering the added spice of your stature.

I'll go to sleep now and hopefully avoid the flames when the REAL trekkies arrive from their niches in the net.

125:

Doug DeJulio @109: never heard of "Fringe" (or "Burn Notice" for that matter -- I'm a TV illiterate). As far as a Laundry TV series goes, all I can say is, Watch This Space. (There's a big gap between signing an option contract and seeing a show go into production.)

Incidentally, this posting has obviously gotten linked to. Where are the new folks coming in from?

126:

Charlie @125 Re: where all the folks are coming from,

I guess being slahdotted is not what it used to be, since you need to ask...

http://entertainment.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/10/13/204259

127:

Charlie Stross and others in this thread, including Gary Farber, seem to be using a definition of "Proper SF" that excludes, amongst others, many of the great works of Philip K Dick. That is a definition of SF that I find not only wrongheaded, but extremely boring.

128:

I hated the telepaths on B5--hated, hated, *hated* them. The cultural stuff was all very nice, but it was not, imho, particularly well-thought-out. What did work seems to have been ripped off directly from Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue series, after being suitably defeminized, of course.

But more to the point, the telepaths (aside from being, to a woman and man, hands down the most irritating characters on the show) were just dei ex machina used freely right and left any time the writers got themselves into a hole. Need a superhero fix? No problem! Bring in a singin' teep! Whoops, the situation needs TK not telepathy. No problem! They can do that, too! Never mind that this doesn't make a lick of sense, either from a scientific standpoint (what was the scientific basic for Lyta's ability to grab control of other people's brains from thousands of kilometers away, again?) or a folkloric standpoint (TK and telepathy don't seem to be linked in any of the research I've read in psychic phenomena). Nope. It's fun; it's useful; let's use it!

But I will grant that was still 15 grades better than Stargate: Universe saying, "Hey! We need to clean these alien CO2 scrubbers. Let's go get some sand!" then devoting an entire episode to tromping along the beach--sorry, through the desert--looking for a bucket of sand, squabbling all the way. Evolution, please hurry up and deselect these idiots off my TV. Except for Rush. he can stay.

I think a major problem with judging science fiction (and as much as we'd like, this goes for the print stuff, too) is that we all have our favourites and we're willing to give them a free pass on certain things because we liked other things about them. For example, it bothers me just a tad that so many posters here seem to think that technology exists in a vacuum when, in my experience, what tech we use and how we use it are heavily influenced by our culture--on top of our gender, age, economic situation, religious/philosophical beliefs. So, every time I see somebody praise a story for using tech or scientific concepts in an "original" way when it's just one more variation on "How White Guys Do it", I admit that I roll my eyes.

130:

Seems like SF story-telling can be broken into two broad groups in terms of hard SF and soft SF.

Soft SF: The science/tech is secondary and a means to primarily explore conflicts like Man v. Man, Man v. Society (e.g. Bradbury)

Hard SF: The science/tech is essential to the conflict and explores Man v. Nature/Science/Tech with subplots exploring Man v. Man, Man v. Society (e.g. Niven).

Virtually all of TV SF is Soft SF because of a need to keep the stories simplistic and appeal to the lowest common denominator (in terms science knowledge).

131:

130 comments in, and rogue nails it.

There are multiple forms within SF, all of which are capable of greatness, and the one that Charlie wants to define as Good SF is only one of these, and not intrinsically better than any other. TV series generally (though not exclusively) tend towards what rogue calls "soft SF" for obvious reasons, but the quality of the resulting drama depends not on the style of SF, but on whether it is executed well or badly. It's true that a lot of the Star Trek franchise is executed badly, but that is independent of the style of SF that is being employed.

132:

I'm surprised no one has mentioned "Space:Above and Beyond"

I quite liked it but like most goos shows it only lasted a season, but as far as I can remember didn't fall too much in to the "teching the tech" storylines...

133:

I'm Shocked! No one has mentioned ANDROMEDA? Gene Roddenberry is probably still spinning in his grave 8(

134:

Paula @128: Hmm, never heard of Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue series. Actually, JMS (the show's creator and writer) repeatedly stated that his inspiration for the treatment of telepaths came from the works of Alfred Bester, which explains why there was a telepath with that name on the show. :-)

I can't tell you that you are wrong to dislike B5's telepaths. You may have legitimate reasons for that. But many of the ones you listed are not supported by facts, quite the opposite.

If you've read any decent research on psychic phenomena, you'd know that they don't exist. So asking whether TK and TP are related is a rather moot point. On the other hand, if you read any decent research on fundamental physics, you'd know that faster than light (FTL) travel/communication is impossible with equal or even greater certainty. This little factoid doesn't stop countless science fiction shows from using FTL and the fans viewers from enjoying it. I see no reason to look at telepathy differently.

Also, the creative process behind the shows story arc and even individual episodes is very well documented on the internet by JMS himself, the show's creator and writer. Notice the singular writer, as he almost single handedly wrote the entire show. What you'll see by looking into this is that there was very little deus ex machina type writing, with many of the important events and conflict resolutions being planned and set up weeks, months, and even years in advance, including sub-plot denouements involving telepaths.

135:

solitaire @132: Ah, yes. SAAB was a great show.

Although most of it could have been transplanted to any war setting, not even necessarily a futuristic one, it did have some elements that would fit Charlie's good SF criteria.

One was the "in vitro" artificial humans, who were treated as second class citizens. Another was the rebellion of the cyborgs (forgot show's name for them) who learned to gamble (not making this up! :-). Sadly, the show got canceled just as alien first-contact ideas started being explored.

136:

BTW, I /agree with folks recommending a rethink on Babylon 5, if only for 2 reasons:

* Space fighter physics is pretty much correct: 3-dimensional, non-aerodynamic tactics and flight controls
* There is no sound in space (except for the soundtrack, or vibration conduction thru hulls).

I don't think you're going to get much better with televised science fiction short of, say, an eccentric tech billionaire sponsoring a commercial-free long-form series on the internet or sold thru Netflix/iTunes/etc..

ps: What about _Blake's 7_? ;)

137:

No one has mentioned The Twilight Zone. I would guess that Mr Stoss would not list this show as among the SF shows he hates as it seems to take the approach Mr Stoss takes to writing. A Twilight Zone episode envisions a future and a technology and adds a situation intertwined with each and explores one of the many conflicts that can arise in that circumstance. Is it any wonder that many of the original twilight zone episodes seem relevant today even when some of the ST:TOS shows are becoming dated?

The other danger of "teching the tech" is that when the actual tech becomes a reality it will significantly date the work. I recently re-read the Foundation Trilogy and was surprised to find that Asimov spent a lot of time describing a deep space navigation computer which I have today on my laptop in the guise of an astronomy program that can give the view of the night sky from any location within several light years of earth. It was painful to read that passage in Asimov's work. TV SF seems to avoid this somewhat by actually being "Science Fantasy" where the tech will never really come to pass.

But one thing that bothers me about Star Trek in particular is the phaser. If there was a hand-held weapon that would vaporize its victims... I shudder to think what the crime/murder/missing-persons rate would be in such a society.

138:

I've been waiting for mainstream sci-fi to tackle the grey-goo doomsday scenario... because I just know they will make the same default of mistake of completely ignoring how science and technology transform the culture and environment. By the time we reach the technological level for such a scenario to be possible, society would have have long been transformed beyond all recognition by ubiquitious nanotechnology.

139:

Charlie: in regards to SF vs Fantasy, here's a question: is A Fire Upon the Deep F, or SF, in your mind?

(This is just curiosity, not flame-fanning.)

140:

I watched the BSG new version pilot and gave up. I flatly refuse to watch anything where the plot revolves around what I call Predictable Stupidity. You know, a minor misunderstanding blows up because nobody stands up and says anything, or the hero sneaks into a building without watching his back. When the Cylons turned out to be humanoid, I knew the Great Big Cliche Machine would run red hot. We'd have Cylons infiltrating, Cylons who didn't know they were Cylons, Cylons falling in love with humans, yada, yada.

But the human drama that seems to play out in far too much science fiction seems to revolve around puerile sex fantasies and a mishmash of libertarian politics for the techno-elite, authoritarianism (techno-meritocracy) for the unenlightened, and simplistic laissez-faire economics. If you could set ST in the age of sail, you could set a lot of "good" science fiction in the waning days of the old West, where heroic free-range cowboys are battling being hemmed in by barbed wire.

It boils down to "show, don't tell." I don't want 800 pages describing the characters, I want 400 pages of plot that reveals the characters by their actions.

141:

Let me offer an example to illustrate my recent post. David Gerrold's Chtorran invasion is a really original idea, frustratingly unfulfilled. But I skimmed much of the plot to get to the narrative sections that described the effects of the invading ecology on Earth. THAT's what I want to read, not the antics of the immature protagonist who is such a buffoon he should be relegated to permanent latrine detail rather than be entrusted with military missions.

142:

Space: Above and Beyond is a classic example of what Charlie's talking about. The creators wanted to make a series about the Pacific theater of WWII, but the network made them change it to a space setting. As for the original topic, the problem is that contemporary American TV audiences are really only interested in contemporary American characters. Make a "real" science fiction show and they'll change channels.

143:

What is Space Opera good for? Why do people like it? (I like it)

Lets say you take the same story (characters, interpersonal drama, action etc...) and transplant it to different settings - space, western, period costume, ancient rome, etc...

Personally, Id watch and love the space and ancient rome versions, but the EXACT SAME STORY in a period costume setting would turn my stomach!!!

Because the space and ancient settings engage my imagination I suppose. I dig that stuff, and Ill happily watch GOOD character-based dramas in those settings all day long.

Criticising space opera in the way that you have, is like criticising a dog for not being catty enough. I can see your point, but it doesnt apply to star trek and doctor who.

144:

I won't argue about the technobabble, but let's make it clear, there is a solid point to how they did that. Let the writers (English majors) write about the human condition, and let the scientists make sure the science makes sense.

To wit, there is an enormous amount of good human condition exploration in Star Trek. Whether it is Mr. Spock's struggle with logic vs emotion, the inherent conflict of the tri-part soul (Kirk=heart, Bones=body, Spock=brain), or the ongoing exploration of what it means to be sentient life in the person of Mr. Data.

Of course TNG faces the problems you mention, it was written to keep going on -- it's a Space Soap Opera, but it was a good one.

145:

Say what you wanmt about TNG, but Counselor Troi and Dr. Crusher were both incredibly hot.

So was 7 of 9, which means that VOY was a great show too.

146:

I do have to say that DS 9 did tackle many social issues. My favorite being the episode where Cisco engages in a set of morally dubius trades in order to keep ahead of the Dominion.

147:

Kroton@120: "You could argue that Star Trek's primary genre is sea-faring adventure and soft science fiction is a secondary genre. A lot of Star Trek episodes owe more to horror than science fiction -- but that's entertainment."

I would argue that it is not that different from a retelling of Homer's Odyssey.

148:

(This is coming from a guy who just wants to be entertained when I turn on the TV and not having to think about inconsistencies.)

You're right, ST is somewhat inconsistent. I haven't watched much of other SF shows (with the exception of Firefly) or read much of other SF literature, so I'll have to take your word for it. But I like ST for all it's worth. I like ST's special effects and how they have evolved since it's beginning (TOS), the stories are also mostly thought-provoking at times. The character development is adequate.

In 45 minutes of a TV show, it is almost impossible to put in every nuance of a book writer's imagination. It'll be a nightmare to try, and it'll cost more money to do it. Most producers want the least amount of effort for the most profit ... am I stating the obvious? Though you have to admit: if one had unlimited budget, it'd be awesome to have all those details in the screenplay. I'd watch it over and over again to catch them all. But that's just geek ... and most people don't have the time, money or the patience to do that.

Most people who watch TV just want to be entertained. TV is amusement ... a-muse, absence of thought, we don't want to think. Kudos to you for keeping your SF work consistent, but if the author/writer don't end up entertaining the mass audience then they're not going to be popular and/or make money. I suppose some authors/writers have to sleep knowing that they're consistent in their works at the end of the day.

However, people who read do not want to just be amused. They want to be intellectually stimulated. You seems to aim for that audience.

This diary entry feels to me like you're saying "I'm better then they are ... read my books! Do more than just watch SF, read SF!!" ... perhaps we should ... for all it's consistencies and intellectual entertainment value. I'm sure I'll be intellectually entertained, as a book/written story is almost always better than it's screenplay.

149:

Charlie @ 122: Your definition is better than mine -- which is good, since you do this for a living. I suppose few works stick strictly to the guidelines these days though. Things like Steampunk and Alternate History keep popping up.

150:

I've never actually considered Star Trek (or its large collection of spinoffs) to be true SF in the first place; it's Star Trek, and it sits in its own category, good or bad. And despite my choice of handle, there were - and are - some unbelievably bad moments in ST (the "Spock's Brain" episode from the original series comes immediately to mind).

But I'd argue strongly in favour of Babylon 5, which remains one of the best, if not the best, example of science fiction ever to make it to the small screen - although I'd concur with someone in an earlier post who said the most of season 5 could be ignored. I think that had a lot to do with the debate at the time as to whether or not there would be a season 5.

I always found that B5's approach to technology was to make it realistic and use it to set the scene - and then leave it firmly in the background so that the characters, the actors portraying them, and the words they spoke, could do their jobs and carry the show. Technology was the setting for the story, and in some cases the trigger for the story, but it wasn't what the story was about.

151:

British old timers may remember the BBC's original 1960's series "Out of the Unknown". Cheapo sets to be sure, but most were screenplays of good SF stories and were well done. The US equivalent was "Outer Limits" of which some episodes were excellent. After that, I would argue "The Ray Bradbury Theater" did SF&F very well. That I have to go back that far for good SF series is telling.

I tend to side with those on this thread who find BSG and it's ilk boring, with little SF. It really was mostly about setting, rather than ideas. TV SF is rarely more than glitz these days. I will say however, thatI am enjoying the adaptation of Bob Sawyer's "Flash Forward" so far.

152:

Not having watched the new Battlestar Galactica when it originally aired, I recently finished watching the first season. Good acting. Good effects. Some good stories.

I also watched all extras and re-watched all episodes with commentaries, mostly by Mr. Moore.

My mistake.

He is a self-important snob, who can only think of trying to use the words "rag tag" and "gritty" every three sentences, while trying to convince everyone about how lame Star Trek was.

ST and BG can be both be enjoyable in their own ways. But I find it hard to understand how someone could believe that Star Trek (in particular the original series, but a fair portion of the rest) is not among the most story-centric commercial "sci-fi", tech-talk to the contrary notwithstanding.

153:

If science fiction is what /could/ happen, and is supposed to be internally consistent (i.e. no magic or deus ex machina), then yeah, Star Trek isn't science fiction, but why does that make it hate-worthy?

My wife and I just finished watching the entire run of BSG, and while it does have a strong spiritual element (though I'm an atheist, I understand the human neurological desire for spiritual experience), a major theme of the series is how a particular piece of technology (resurrection) drives an entire civilization (the Cylons). *** SPOILERS AHEAD *** When that technology is lost to them, they suddenly have hard choices to make and it radically alters their view of the world and causes a civil war.

Just because BSG ended with a particular cliche (they were the forerunners of us all!) doesn't mean that it was implausible or executed badly... or that it's bad drama, or bad fiction.

154:

@136:

Ironically, in defending B5 you've stumbled over its fatal flaw: it doesn't hang together at different scales. While the small scale kinematics and tactics of B5's space battles are mostly accurate, the medium and large scale physics and tactical issues (orbital mechanics, lack of justification for crewed fighters) are very poorly implemented.

Similarly, non-technical writing elements hold together poorly between scale levels. B5 has some very well done individual scenes and decent arc plots but not much to connect the two scales. As a result, the series was prone to doing stupid stuff like resolving the uberplot in a well executed scene that asks the viewer to believe the arc plot absurdity that moral suasion is an adequate means to persuade two interstellar empires to abandon their respective ways of life.

Where Trek's problem is that the setting is inconsistent, B5's problem is that the individual pearls--of which there are many--of the series don't advance the arc plot without requiring the viewer to suspend disbelief by the neck until it is dead.

155:

@122, 149: Science fiction is something that "could happen" is an interesting problem, because it depends on the good ol' frame of reference. Steampunk/alternate history can be fairly strong science fiction, if one assumes the multiple universes version of cosmology. Conversely, some steampunk is fantasy with gears on, as is some alternative history.

A wonderful yet messy genre-bender is the Lord Darcy series, which is based on an alternate history in which the laws of magic (based apparently on psionics) are discovered and become the basis for society.

Based on what Randall Garrett thought he knew when he wrote the stories (i.e. that psionics wasn't totally improbable), these stories are better science fiction than, say, Star Trek, in that they could have happened if psionics were real, and they followed internally consistent laws.

In any case, not a lot of science fiction authors are trained scientists, and that's one of the problems with the field, in that we have to accept a math-phobic english major's view of science as internally consistent. And we do, especially if they're telling good stories. To me, this doesn't excuse Star Trek, which seems to show contempt for its own rules and makes little attempt to be consistent within one time-line (and I'm definitely not referring to the current reboot with this comment).

156:

Ki @134 (I hope this works because the Reply function won't work for me): Yes, I've heard JMS say many times that he did this and I know about the Bester thing (I've even read The Demolished Man, which is deeply, deeply creepy, not least because the "good guys" are frightening). But the idea of telepath society being separated out from the rest of society in a malignant way and bred to be more telepathic is much more clearly described in Native Tongue. I have to add that I disliked Native Tongue for being incredibly depressing and hostile toward men (I like my feminist SF a bit more subtle than that), but it's still only fair to say that Elgin did it long before JMS and did it much better. She also had a far better scientific theory for telepathy than JMS ever bothered to create.

Moving along to psychic phenomena--do I think there is such a thing as non-visual telepathy? I don't know. What I do know is that there are far more instances of claimed telepathy and TK than there have ever been of FTL, and the stories involving those two phenomena do not tend to be related (if anything, TK, which is usually related to poltergeist activity, seems to be involve self-centered, troubled adolescents who don't have a clue what everyone around them is thinking and don't care, either). It therefore makes perfect sense that, if you are going to try to come up with a realistic (and original) scientific theory of how telepathy works in your story, you are going to go study what's out there, even the cockamamie stuff, to get an idea of what few conventions there are in real life. Otherwise, your story won't have any connection with reality (let alone science) at all.

As for JMS' "theories" of telepathy, he always seesawed back and forth between this passive idea of telepaths sending messages back and forth and some thing where telepaths sent signals to other people's brains that did things to them, or even took physical control over structures of their brains. The latter is not telepathy--it's TK. And those two theories really are not compatible. Fudging this (as everybody from Star Trek to Babylon 5 to God knows who else has done) by claiming that the telepath "enters" another person's mind is mystical babble. What, do they transport their mind as a tiny little person into the other person's brain? Of course not. Scientifically-speaking, it's total nonsense.

I think part of our problem in this discussion is that we say we're talking about SF on TV when we're really talking about space opera. Of course Star Trek, Stargate, BSG, Fringe, and B5 are all going to be science-lite. Space opera has always been high on the adventure and low on the science. But there are shows out there that use science to further the plot all the time. "Lie to Me" on FOX, for example, is simply a Mundane SF show about a corporation that makes a living selling telepathy (more like empathy, really) as a learned skill.

Some here will protest that it's not really "telepathy" because they're "just" reading other people's body language. So what? Telepathy is the ability to tell what someone else is thinking or feeling. It doesn't address how you do it, and the show gives us plenty of science to back up its claims (though I'm sure the science isn't as air-tight as all that. Never is on TV).

Then there are the CSI shows, which use the (largely biological and chemical) sciences that fall under the umbrella of "forensic science" to solve murders. Criminal Minds does the same thing with abnormal psychology (profiling, mainly) and Numbers, again, solves a wider variety of crimes using mathematical principles, which it discusses in detail. Someone also mentioned Burn Notice, which *could* be said to be a show that just uses a lot of gadgets rather than revolving major plot points around scientific principles (doesn't stop me from enjoying it, though).

If you get into the softer sciences, you have Canadian series "Da Vinci's Inquest", which postulates a very-near-future Vancouver that has instituted a redlight district and actually started reforming its police department, or "Intelligence", which postulates a future where CSIS (Canada's version of the CIA) suddenly became a major player on the international espionage scene.

And where do you put History Channel's "Life After Man", which has no human protags at all because it postulates a post-apocalyptic world where every human simply disappeared, leaving our structures behind?

Now, with these shows, it's actually possible (and even desirable) to argue over the science/future scenarios and how they incorporate this stuff into their stories because it's not mere window dressing. But instead, we reclassify all of those shows as "detective" or "spy" shows and ignore them entirely. No wonder our view of science fiction on television is so screwed up.

157:

This just reminds me of why one of my favorite sci-fi films is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The entire film is based on this new technology, and the situations it creates. But there's no technobabble about it, and the story is very heartwarming and touching *because* of the technology. Without it, the story doesn't exist.

Yet there's not a spaceship or alien involved. When I point it out to friends, they often give me a funny look -- "that's not sci fi" -- and I have to explain to them that lightsabers are more magic than science.

158:

I think it's a genre thing - Star Trek is space opera, not SF. Space opera's great if that's what you're after, but it's got more in common with epic fantasy than with real SF.

That said, I do think Firefly manages to do some social SF pondering of the human condition. And some of the Japanese animation really does fall into true SF, for me at least.

159:

Gareth @ 142

"Space: Above and Beyond is a classic example of what Charlie's talking about. The creators wanted to make a series about the Pacific theater of WWII"

Really? I always figured it for a stealth adaptation of Haldeman's Forever War, with all the controversial bits carefully filed off

160:

I like Trek. Of course its formulaic. It was a TV series. All series have to have a formula. Even beloved BSG and Babalon 5 had formulas. They were just different formulas.

Trek is like the junk food of sci fi. Of course its not good for, you, but it tastes good and let's face it - its very satisfying when Kirk humps a green chick and then phasers the crap outta some Klingons. It puts a smile on my face. Even if it doesn't entirely stimulate my intellect.

I enjoy Trek for that reason. Its light, its fun, and it occasionally makes a meaningful point. Not everything has to be deep and profound.

I think some people take Trek too seriously. And that is where things go bad.

161:

Have you looked at Dollhouse? The unbroadcast final episode of season 1 (a) shows that the society has been radically changed by the technology of the previous episodes after a span of a decade, (b) shows that on the way to that change the technology underwent a series of plausible advances that in fact started before the first episode of the show, and (c) follows specifically from the nature of the innovative technology. Unlike Whedon's previous project, Firefly, which was unusually good space opera, this one actually seems to be science fiction.

(Though Firefly is interesting as science-fiction-about-science fiction: It takes the two classic sfnal futures, the Heinleinian frontier society and the Wellsian/Gernsbackian/Asimovian shiny high-tech future, puts them into the same universe, and shows them going for each other's throats. I thought that was pretty clever once I figured it out.)

162:

Charlie, what about Max Headroom?

163:

The only thing I didn't like about Star Trek was that after Gene died, And that idiot Berman took his place as the creative force, Star Trek lost it's cool. What the heck is it with the Ferengi? Star Trek had abolished money on Earth so a Ferengi would just be a laugh to them. But no... Now there's Gold Latinum crap to trade and sell. I could go on about all the ruination of Star Trek but I think this one fact made my point.

RICK BERMAN.... YOU SUCK SH^T THOUGH A DIRTY STRAW!!!

164:

The sad part is that Hollywood is capable of turning out some excellent SF when given a better format to work with, but the Star Trek movies don't even rise to a higher level in the movie format.

As an example, "The Truman Show" is a great exploration of the human condition in a future only slightly off from our own present. And the plot is driven not only by the characters but by the effect that the technology (or more accurately the use the technology is put to) has on them. Compare the future envisioned by this movie back in the 1998 with how "reality television" eventually evolved.

165:

It seems like few TV shows or movies are much concerned with realistically portraying the human condition under whichever circumstances they're set in. Nearly all are fantastical in some way, so why should we expect stories set in space to be any different?

I'm a little bit appalled to hear how Star Trek writers worked, but only because I enjoy good writing and I don't see how it can be done well without paying close attention to language. Fortunately, things seem to be improving; the writers of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica did seem to enjoy playing with language sometimes.

166:

My source for the S:AAB origin was none other than Gharlane of Eddore. You can read it here: http://groups.google.co.nz/group/rec.arts.sf.tv/msg/e7fbf83a9923bf9c?hl=en. On reflection, perhaps he wasn't the most reliable source.

167:

"Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" is the best piece of sci-fi I've seen in a television format, and it hits the nail on the head with regards to your criteria for what makes sci-fi truly great.

168:

@167

I concur. Despite all the silly cyberpunk in it.

BTW, concerning BSG. What I hate on it is, that it's written for idiots (if the writers want something noticed, they'll hammer their point in with no subtlety at all) and it is completely anti-SF in it conclusion. Then there's the religious fruitcakemagery.

169:

I would have to completely disagree with your characterization of Star Trek. In fact I am not sure that you are in a position to make a valid opinion on Star Trek since it seems from what you wrote that you have watched very little of the multiple series that you deride.

Star Trek is rife with examples of situations that are driven by humans dealing with technology unavailable now, but not unimaginable in the future. I think the best example of this is the Borg. Beginning in The Next Generation and continued and expanded in Voyager was the exploration of what being part of such a society would be like, the moral and philosophical implications of being part of a collective mind.

Star Trek has persisted and remained so popular over the years because of its exploration of the human condition. Your claim that the shows are principally about interpersonal relationships is a very poorly supported one. In fact at times some of the series have suffered from the episodes being more about exploring a certain type of situation, morality, or philosophy and giving little screen time to the relationships between the characters.

Although Ron Moore can now be pointed to as someone from the "inside" that now heavily criticizes Star Trek, he has been doing so since the end of Deep Space Nine, and I believe he must have some personal gripe with his treatment as in the speech you cited his description of how a Next Generation script would look is obviously grossly exaggerated. It would be impossible for any writers of a television show to be as divorced from the material as he makes it out to be, and his intent is clearly just to disparage the show in contrast with the direction he took Battlestar Galactica.

In summary, I think your views on Star Trek are based on a handful of episodes you may have seen without the broader context of having seen the series in question. To your benefit, you *are* correct about shows like Battlestar Galactica where the action and show are intentionally about interpersonal relationships and not specific to a science fiction setting. Yet this is most definitely not true of Star Trek.

170:

Paula@107:

"JMS railed against sounds in space then promptly had them in every space battle the show ever did."

The various sounds were, at least for a couple of seasons, explained as being part of the musical track. IIRC, this is borne out by soundtrack CDs which actually contain various swooshes and booms.

"The apparent gravity should have everyone walking *on* those windows on the outer hull not past them"

In an early second season episode, someone on the outermost level does exactly that: they drop down onto the floor to look out through a window into space. I think that's the only time we ever see anyone passing or making use of a window in the last level of the station.

"(and why does the bridge have gravity when it's at the center?)"

Because it isn't actually in the center. It's off-set above the docking port, which is (quite reasonably) in the center.

171:

KAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!

172:

Michael Wilson@97

Interesting that you think Burn Notice's tradecraft is as good as you can get away with on television.

If you want to see tradecraft, I heartily recommend BBC TV's versions of John Le Carre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "Smiley's People". Yes, they're thirty years old, but they're magnificently well made. They treated the audience like adults, and mostly avoided the use of Basil Exposition...

As previous posters have pointed out about ex-cops writing cop shows, etc, it does help when it's an actual spy who wrote the books. As an aside, that's why "Andy McNab" has a nice career going as a gunfight coordinator for Hollywood (he choreographed the stuff in "Heat") - he's been there, done that.

173:

My favourite TV SF was of course Red dwarf (in amongst the comedy there was a real love of the genre, and some genuinely interesting concepts, that the sit com format allowed them to play with).

The sit com is mythic, there is no development, the story exists in an ever present now, whereas ST hade to develop along a soap opera trajectory to fill the many hours it had to produce, whereas RD had 3 hours per series (and still cranked out more plot/concept).

The thing with TV is it does cross genre, so ST managed to do Sherlock Holmes Parody, explorer narratives, WWII stories, etc. Likewise old Doctor Who would occasionally borrow a gothic storyline. But it does so in a static universe (hence their recent need to retcon the whole setting to be able to do anything new with it).

At least DW because it basically eschews a stable cannonical universe can take a hard SF story and run with it (the recent Episode the Doctors Daughter I thought was quite good at bringing some nanotech concepts into popular SF). The Doctor is more Moorcockian, a single transferable eternal hero.

174:

Charlie @125

You do realise that you just caused me to nearly have an accident at work right? Yes yes, I appreciate that there's nothing to see here.

But even that little teaser you just posted had my geek levels go off the scale.

175:

That, and the aliens are just Americans with stuff stuck to their foreheads. They aren't even as alien as, say, Mexicans.

176:

I agree a lot with this (except I don't hate Star Trek, it's still fairly entertaining), but I'm quite surprised to see Babylon 5 in the list since it rarely uses technobabble as a plot device - for the vast majority of episodes plots are resolved by investigation and/or diplomacy.

The subtle, continually developing plot across seasons, lack of a reset button made Babylon 5 a fantastic show, moreso compared to BSG's poorly supported trainwreck of a plot.

177:

Hmm: Stross cracks America again. There's entertainment to be had predicting which posts will strike the Colonial Nerve. Badmouthing Dr Who was clearly a play for the home vote as well. It seems that, unlike the NHS, not all of the Great Institutions are safe in his hands.

So, Charlie, as I understand it, it only counts as real SF if the story is built around a scientific concept, rather than the other way around? If we accept that definition for a moment, it is a form that suits the TV series format rather well. Both "Edge of Darkness" and "First Born" from the 80s, for example. It'll be interesting to see how Edge of Darkness makes the transition to the cinema (out next year, same director - woop woop).

Using the traditional exchange rate of 1 picture = 1,000 words and generously allowing your audience five or six seconds for each picture, I reckon that gives you 450,000 words in a 1 hour show. And you can have dialogue AS WELL!!

So, no excuses: get your pitch in!

OF COURSE there's a market.

178:

OK, I have to take issue with something you say and something that gets repeated ad nauseum. However it loops back to the point of the scree, so that's OK.

"... is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances..."

Bull.

'Fiction' is what happens when you take human characters and put them in particular, usually testing, circumstances. Its the base level of being a writer, or a TV exec, and in no way defines a genre. Its like saying seafood cuisine is all to do with the cooker used. Of course you might use a cooker, and if you put humans in your story you had better be able to write them convincingly. So what? You'll get no brownie points from me, people being people is what I see every day. I'm not really that fussed that you can write it down - so can a soap opera writer, each and every week.

Science Fiction is all about the idea, the difference or development from the world we know - tracing it down to how its created and up again to all the consequences that brings. Painting a different world and showing what's different, not what's the same.

Two examples:

Bob Shaw wrote on "Slow Glass", taking a fairly simple idea and expanding it in a hundred and one different directions that ended up with interesting stories that preceded the CCTV society we now live in. These stories were all about the idea and where it led, human interactions were what happened along the way. As a result it said something interesting about a surveillance society, before it existed, that we are only now coming to terms with.

On the other hand, mobile phones. Just about every SF fiction of the last 60 years has had some instantaneous communications mechanism. Yet nowhere did someone work out most usage would be inane chatter about "if she should buy Campbell's or Baxter's soup, because they have it on offer". Or that people would be sending short text messages on a device with a horrible UI, that they could talk on, and doing so while chatting to friends in person (a habit I hate). Nobody coupled the SF idea of the personal communicator with the stupidity of the human race.

I agree that the problem with much TV SF is its written by people who have no idea of S&T and shouldn't really be let lose in the genre. I agree that 'consequences' are important. I don't agree that "exploration of the human condition" in any way defines the genre - same as I don't think you're a chef if you can successfully turn an oven on.

179:

Phage @167: Yes, the Ghost in the Shell franchise really hits the ball out of the park. But as I probably indicated, I've seen about three episodes of it.

Because? For those of you who're still reading: what this is about is not specifically me ragging on Star Trek, but me explaining why I don't like the effect the medium of TV has on SF narrative (using ST:TNG as an example).

180:

Put another way, the "science" in science fiction can be used in three ways:
- to set up the constraints in which the protagonists operate (2001, Moon)
- to remove constraints which would otherwise make a story difficult to tell ("Waddaya mean, I can't have the chariot race from Ben Hur and a generic western bar room brawl and the run-in from Dam Busters and Samurai fencing and the blackest of black magic and the commando attack from the Heroes of Telemark in the same film sequence?")
- as decoration (Serenity - sorry: haven't seen Firefly)

I think Charlie prefers the first but accepts the others if the SF references are made with wit and respect (which I think lets Serenity off the hook). Sorry about the examples: clearly I need to watch more TV.

181:

> There's no way the ST Federation can be as nice as it claims to be - ST is clearly propaganda!

I'm late to the thread, but this comment way back at #12 stuck with me. I haven't yet seen Blake's 7, so I can't speak to the comparison of Federations, but...

The ST Federation did start showing some darker sides in DS9. Examples: the 'black ops' intelligence organization Section 31, which claims to date back to the Federation's founding, and the revelation that Starfleet is much more of a traditional military organization than earlier portrayed, right down to ground assault troops ("The Siege of AR-558" whose title all-too-cleverly reflects its production code).

Looking at the Section 31 page on Wikipedia (yes, there is one! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_31 ), I learned that this element was yet another that got shoehorned into ST:Enterprise.

182:

I was just thinking how Use of Weapons is clearly written as a TV series with each chapter as a self contained, highly visual story building to a satisfying if harrowing climax.

But it would be a brave exec who took it on, as it would have the exact opposite problem to the one Charlie deprecates in 4. Having lured in a general audience with fast moving fun, ...

BWAHAHAHAHA

(Sorry, but can't spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't read it already.)

183:

Charlie,

It is unreasonable to me to brush Star Trek with the same broad "technology is irrelevant" brush. One of your main assertions is that technology in Star Trek is irrelevant, that the exact same story could happen in the era of wooden ships.

I disagree.

Take for example, time travel plots. All of the Star Trek series are littered with them and I don't think they could take place in the wooden ships era. A good example from the original series is "City on the Edge of Forever." From the next generation I would put forward "Tapestry".

Another example is clones of people. A nice voyager episode centered on this was "Course: Oblivion" - again not something that could happen in the 18th century.

I think that with TV shows, the quality of the scripts vary tremendously. However, I believe the same thing about science fiction books. Probably 3 out of 4 on the bookshelves are underwhelming, yet should I then say that I hate science fiction literature?

- a science fiction addict

184:

@161 Not having seen Firefly/Serenity, I'm really interested to know -- I was under the impression it's a stealth adaptation of Mike Resnick's Birthright universe, for one the setting, and also for example, what I've heard of the psychic girl subplot sounded the same as the Soothsayer/Oracle/Prophet trilogy. How true is that?

185:

Charlie @179

Are you saying that you liked Ghost in the Shell but you haven't seen much of it because it reminds you of what TV formats have done to other shows? Or because it subverts a core belief that good SF can't be done on TV? Or some more cerebral reason?

186:

Deep Space 9 had many episodes without technology being the main plotline. Here are some of my favorites (descriptions from Wikipedia):

1x08 "Dax" - Jadzia Dax is accused of a murder committed by her symbiont in another lifetime.

1x13 "Battle Lines" - The spiritual leader of Bajor, Kai Opaka, travels with Sisko on a trip to the Gamma Quadrant but is stranded with him on a world where the dead are resurrected to fight in an endless war.

1x19 "Duet" - A visiting Cardassian may in fact be a notorious war criminal, and Kira is determined to bring him down. (This is my favorite episode of the 1st season, has a great twist and strong emotions)

2x15 "Paradise" - Commander Sisko and Chief O'Brien are stranded on a planet where the leader of the people rejects technology, even if it means death.

2x20-21 "Maquis" Federation colonists reject a treaty with Cardassia and take matters into their own hands, forming a terrorist group called 'The Maquis'.

2x25 "Tribunal" O'Brien is found guilty and later tried at a tribunal held on Cardassia Prime. (A good view of an alternative "justice" system)

3x03 "The House of Quark" Quark lies about killing a Klingon and is then forced to marry the widow, founding his own 'House of Quark'. (Good comedy episode)

3x13 "Life Support" Bashir's ethics are put to the test as he keeps Vedek Bareil alive long enough to help Kai Winn complete negotiations for a peace treaty with Cardassia. (Looks at the question, how far can a doctor go, to save a life using technology and at what point the saved body will become a soulless vessel)

I think that's enough. Star Trek DS9 is for me by far the best ST series. The created alien cultures (Ferengis, Klingons, Bajorans and the Cardassians) are deeply looked into and it is character-driven. Technology is a part of this world, but is serves his purpose and is rarely used as driving plot line. War, ethics, clash of different cultures, religion are recurring themes.

187:

I think that the parts of Charlie's books I enjoy most are the characters and the storytelling. The fact that Charlie has done a lot of hard work setting up a plausible background largely passes me by when I'm reading.

I do know that the characters and the world they live an is believable, they have motivations and personality.

This is why the Laundry 'series' is my favourite as Bob Howard is easy for me to identify with, he also strikes me as the character most like Charlie himself. The world Bob lives in has no 'magic' just advanced technology that works on a strict set of rules.

Many Star Trek episodes pissed all over the rules in order to tell a substandard story. Conversely there are also a few outstanding episodes.

I've watched and enjoyed all of Star Trek, all of Battlestar Galactica, all of Farscape, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, Terminator Chronicles, and any number of other TV series. But not Babylon 5 which I found tedious and long winded.

It's all down to the characters and the story not the [tech]. Bad writing is what makes TV bad, regardless of wether it's bad scifi, bad comedy, or bad drama.

Formulaic writing, where the script is littered with [mcguffins] is bad writing, the people involved aren't bothering to _try_ and you'll never make good TV without trying.

188:

TwistedByKnaves @185: I'm saying I've liked what I've seen but I've seen very little because I CAN'T SIT STILL IN FRONT OF A TELEVISION. (Sorry 'bout the shouting.)

I find TV in general to be an intensely annoying medium because somebody else has their finger on the speed control. Text or hypermedia, I can adjust the speed to my own cognitive ability, slowing down for hard patches and speeding up to gulp in the easy stuff. TV and cinema, though, I can't control the speed.

I also don't like wasting my time. Sitting through an hour (of which 18 minutes will be intensely annoying advertising) only to get to a plot denouement which I've been expecting for forty minutes because it's stunningly, stupidly obvious is ... well, I've got better things to do, like play with the cat.

To make matters worse, I have damaged retinas -- about 50% of my right eyeball doesn't work, and the fovea of my left eye is held together with the surgical equivalent of duct tape -- so it takes me longer than normal to take in a picture. The 21st century fashion for hyperkinetic, jerky camerawork has left me physically unable to watch many productions. For example, I sat through the first LoTR movie but didn't bother with the other two because I literally couldn't see half the action: it was just a flickering blur. Unfortunately that kind of camerawork is very visually attractive to folks who can see it, so a lot of directors over-use it.

Upshot: I've pretty much given up on the cinema because most modern movies fuck my eyeballs, and I watch maybe 3-4 hours of TV a week -- most of it Mythbusters[*] or documentaries. Fiction dropped out of my TV habit completely about 20 years ago; I just don't watch drama any more (unless it's something on DVD that I've specifically selected).

[*] I like picking holes in their experimental methodologies and trying to second-guess where they're going.

189:

There are still movies out there that don't chop and change so fast and also have unpredictable plots.

Have you tried asking friends for recommendations? Or employing a 'taste tester'?

Part of the trouble for me is that once you've seen enough TV and movies the plots become predictable. After all there's a reason why TV Tropes is such a popular website.

190:

I'd like to hear Charlie's (and other's) views on my own personal Trek theory; that the Ferengi are in fact an anti-semitic caricature. (I'm not being funny with this one, btw).

Also, is it possible that this 'Section 31' was named after Ireland's infamous Section 31 provision which introduced limited political censorship into the state broadcasting service?

Because that would be so cool.

191:

Dr X: I don't know what the Ferengi are, other than $STAR_TREK_ALIENS. Never seen an episode of TNG, DS9, or Voyager. (Never watched Buffy, either -- got 15 minutes into the first episode and gave up due to a burning irrational hatred for the protagonist.)

192:

My favourite SciFi show was B5.
Admittedly the dialogue, some acting, some sets, and the direction was of very uneven quality the story was gripping and it was very satisfying to see little details in series 3 which was completely dependent on a row of little things which had happened throughout series one and two. Little things I had mostly ignored as being throwaway things.
It just seemed that the story was very tightly interwoven with little substories which turned out to be much more important than they first appeared.
The acting however..
The captain (and a few others) were atrociously bad actors, it took a bit of getting used to, then I could ignore that. Quite a few mediocre actors, and a few good ones. The actor portraying Londo overdid the character a bit (that "transylvanian" accent..) but made up for it by keeping the character and portraying that awful person in a sympathetic way, as well as the amazing interaction with G'Kar (Andreas Katsulis) which turned out as one of the stars of the show.

The realistic portrayal of physics (mostly) was also welcome, as were the three dimensionally planned battles.
If you look at StarTrek or most other sci-fi shows you may notice that battles are done pretty much as a sea battle or at the most an airplane battle, which doesn't make sense because airplanes have to manage energy, with height constituting potential energy. That makes any height change in an aircraft into a big change in energy states. Space battle doesn't suffer from this, and B5 is the only show I've seen which actually uses this.

There's also a computer game which lets you fight in a B5 fighter, uses newtonian physics and is brilliantly well done (and free). It's called B5: IFH and is available for PC and Mac.
It's quite complex, and optimally requires a joystick, preferably with a twistgrip and a hat controller (even with all that you will still need the keyboard). Some players like using the mouse..

Now, when I saw BSG it floored me and I acquired a new favorite. It does use quite a few clichés and all that, but I just feel that the characterizations, character development, exploring of social issues, technical details, and production values completely overshadow all that.
I started really caring about the characters and started empathizing with them.
The Sci-fi setting was used to explore what it is to be human. The war setting was used to look at breakdowns in humanity. The political settings were used to explore the depth of human emotion, ambition and so forth.
But there ARE plot holes. There are big issues. I just don't feel that they detract from the story that much.
And the ending.. Not perfect. Could have been worse. I thought that it was handled pretty well, although I agree with some of the criticisms. I still think it was a necessary ending.

Burn notice... hell yeah. Fun, not too serious, but seems like most of the science stuff (ballistics, chemistry and electronics mostly) is decently researched. I've seen them do quite a few things that I know are possible. Sometimes spiced a little up visually, but it is TV..

193:

and don't lets get started on Torchwood *runs and hides*
The show, the bastard child of rtd's DR WHO demonstates how episodic TV fails to cope with one big_idea and several little ones. (a man who has diffculties staying dead, has a long past and is from the future, and an institution with a bottomless purse that claims to understand!? the alien tech that falls on its lap regularly (universal translator anyone!)) It tried for consistency, either SF or F and then run and hid (read self distructed) when continuing in the same vein got difficult/ expensive/ tiresome. (maybe the potential plot developments if there were going to be anymore were to big - exisitng story arcs bringing characters to a given place)
It could be interesting to work with the premise - wtf do you do with 5 million years of milling about, when you know your've got 5 million years (and it hurts) - but instead we are stuck with the doomed love afair.
But then light entertainment is light entertainment, with the buget and a time slot as constraints

194:

The reasons I dislike StarTrek are similar to what many above have stated on the techtech and all that.

But mostly because of lack of internal logic and.. I just don't care about the characters. The characters are so amazingly one dimensional, the interactions are just sad and whole cultures/races reduced to a single description, much like StarWars desert planet, Ice planet and forest moon.

BSG, Firefly, B5 and all those work because you start to care what happens to characters, not because of tech. Even Buffy. Like all of Whedons creations, Buffy starts off with a ridiculous premise and silly stories. It works because the characters work and develop through the series. Substitute that with Angel, Firefly or Dollhouse.

One final thing about B5. One of the characters makes me want to claw out my eyes and ears everytime she comes into a scene. Too bad Delenn is the female lead.. The character was awful and the actress fit the character too well.
Even with all this awfulness in B5 it was still worth watching.

195:

Charlie @191:
Never seen an episode of TNG, DS9, or Voyager.

Wait -- your entire rant (parts of which I might agree with) is based on your assumptions about TV shows you've never even seen?

(I mean, I would actually have agreed with you about much of TNG, DS9, and Voyager, because some of what you said is true about those particular series -- the tendency to hit the reset switch, for example, and a laziness with respect to world-building. I would have strenuously objected in the case of B5, since most of what you objected to simply isn't true of that show. This had me thinking that you had only ever seen a few episodes of B5 -- perhaps from the first season, which was more traditionally episodic.)

But, really, it seems like you're passing judgment on all post-1980s televised SF based almost entirely on your memories of pre-1980s shows. (And on a single recent speech from a single TV producer, who perhaps wants to disparage his earlier work so everyone can see how he's "matured" as an artist.) Which does not make for a convincing argument.

196:

1) You've apparently completely misunderstood Babylon 5 (as have some commenters). Babylon 5 has a wonderfully complex arc that is all about the human condition - with issues of technology being a part of that, but in no way the only part. And that is a good thing. (Those who complain about inaccuracies or "unrealistic" aspects of the technology seem to have forgotten about artistic license - which is often a necessary aspect of fiction.)

2) So what if Star Trek is not always about technology? Yes, ST has a great many flaws, and many episodes are badly written - but there are many great episodes that are deep and complex and moving and the technology still isn't realistic or important, except in that it is generally shown to have improved the world. Is there some holy law that says all science fiction must be about technology? Or, to dispense with this idea of genre, must every story that is set in space or the future conform to your notions of what defines "science fiction"? Can't it just be storytelling, an exploration of the human condition? Does it have to specifically engage technology to be truthful?

197:

Peter, my entire rant is about TV as a medium for space opera. Because it doesn't work.

Specific instances are irrelevant. The medium is fundamentally broken. See next blog entry for further details.

Jonas: I haven't misunderstood Babylon 5 -- I've never bothered watching it. Five alien races with well-defined human cultures? FAIL! First ask yourself how many human cultures there are. Then get back to me. Hint: the answer is currently measured in the thousands, with many more thousands that are extinct. Second hint: there is no single dominant human culture today. If you think there is, you're simply not sufficiently well-travelled to have learned any better. The rest of the world is not populated by Americans who speak a different language: they're different.

Homogeneous alien cultures, like your prototypical "small farming planet", are a classic sign of world-building FAIL in SF. It's a FAIL so glaringly huge that there isn't really any point wasting 80-100 hours watching the series, because it's broken by design.

Jesus H. Christ on a Crutch, why do you think I was linking to TV Tropes and the Turkey City Lexicon?

198:

Mr. Stross, that has always bothered me as well. The ship's engineer figures out a workaround using tools that look like rejected prototypes from the Craftsman idea lab and boosts the efficiency of the warp drive by 30%. If I was the captain, I would want that all the time -- and maybe drop in on Starfleet Engineering with weapon targeting systems active for a little conversation about why they sent me out in a POS FTL ship with a powerplant that two paperclips and a stick of gum can get an extra 30% from. How under-spec is this thing, really, and do the Romulans run their shops this way?

That and who does QA on away missions, and how long would they have their job if the phasers and communicators died every time they need them? At what point do Kirk/Picard/Whoever just go -- "I want you to make me a weapon that works under any circumstances, in vacuum, zero-G, etc." and they hand him a .45 Colt? Why do you send not just the captain but half the command team to a dangerous environment? How do aliens know to shoot at the people wearing red?

I get the "it's not SF" criticism, at least, it's not techie-SF. But it is a good way to examine the human condition with modern context suspended, and compared to how the rest of TV is doing, there seem to be no fewer gods-in-machines in dramatic programs these days than there are in ostensibly-SF shows.

199:

The human condition? Why worry about that. TV shows and novels, scifi or otherwise, are entertainment. They aren't supposed to solve the world's problems just make us forget our own for a short period of time.

I believe you need to take one large step off your high horse and relax a bit.

200:

The world was given true science fiction in the form of "2001: A Space Odyssey".

The average viewer was bored, didn't get it, and for most, the point of the story was completely lost. In addition, the biggest complaint about the movie is all the time it takes on slow-moving not-really-action in space (and it's quiet, except for breathing!). Proper science fiction film, meet fickle entertainment-oriented audience.

Remember that we are talking about entertainment for the masses, and the masses prefer boobs, guns, car chases, and dramatic endings. Start sticking those pieces on a sci-fi story and you end up with Star Trek, Star Wars, et al.

Newsflash: TV and movies exist to entertain and make money. As long as the viewing audience eats up sci-fantasy and eschews sci-fiction this state of existence will continue.

I suggest enjoying the parts of it you can, don't overthink it too much, and get your sci-fi fix from books. Consider that even the formidable JMS didn't always get his way in trying to tell the Bab5 story....

201:

>197:
"Homogeneous alien cultures, like your prototypical "small farming planet", are a classic sign of world-building FAIL in SF. So glaringly huge that there isn't really any point wasting 80-100 hours watching the series, because it's broken before the beginning."

Why? I imagine that had the communication and transportation methods been better during the time of the Roman or Chinese empires, this world might have headed into a mono culture. This world had, and still has, a number of cultures because for long periods groups of humans were out of contact with one another and/or lack the means to bring competing cultures to heel. Imagine Roman legions with muskets and cannons as opposed to swords and catapults. Especially given that the logic of Roman Imperialism called for constant expansion. Many planets might have started out as homogeneous.

But you're probably right, in that technology like the "replicator"(i.e., endless supply) would pretty much remove limits on how you organized your society. It might be that no two planets in the "Federation" were alike.Even were there mono cultures, the logic of space travel and no resource worries would shatter these cultures into fragments. Wanna be a "heretic"? Find your own planet and do your thing. Even in a monoculture there are always slight variations.

202:

Nestor @26 and cod3fr3ak: I think Nestor was referring to "Aim for the Top! Gunbuster." (1989-90) It's a pre-bankruptcy Gainax show series (done before Evangelion helped dig them out) which was a lot of fun. "Voices of a Distant Star" (an anime made by what William Gibson would call a "Garage Kubrick" on his home computer with Photoshop and some 3D CG software I can't remember the name of) does similar stuff, showing the time dilation through text messages sent back-and-forth between two friends, a girl who has gone to be a pilot in the war, and a boy who stayed behind.

203:

I'm watching Flash Forward as well, but I'm not totally convinced - every person in the whole world blacks out for 137 seconds, gets a vision of themselves in 6 months time, and the world carries on more or less as normal? There's no apparent big social breakdown, no mass outbreaks of religious mania, no mass nervous breakdowns? Everyone who wasn't killed gets back to their normal lives and even the crashed cars and planes and collapsed buildings get cleared within days?
However I'm interested in seeing how they explain the blackouts - ever optimistic, I'm hoping that it will involve real science and not "tech". I'm also interested in see how they deal with the time paradox (why aren't they holding up messages to their past selves in any of these visions? Is believing in the reality of these visions actually making people take action to make the visions come true?)
Although the serties is supposed to be based on the Sawyer novel, you only have to read the Wikipedia synopsis to see that the TV plot is already diverging considerably from the book. Sawyer, is of course delighted (I think they have promised him some writing duties on future episodes, as well as handing him ooodles of dosh), but it's not a lot like his book.
I do hope that Hollywood leaves Charlie's stories along. There may be some good novel-to-film adaptations, but I can't think of any. And if you want to see just how far Hollywood can mangle a perfectly decent novel, read the synopsis of the 1990 Jane Fonda vehicle "Stanley & Iris", then compare it with the original novel - Pat Barker's "Union Street".
Nic Cage as Bob Howard, anyone?

204:

Good essay, I enjoyed it. And, not that it matters, agreed with most of the points you made.

205:

I agree with most of what you say.

However, you are dead wrong about Babylon 5.

You are truly missing out if you fail to put the time into that exceptional series. After TOS Star Trek was soulless (with some respect due DS9). Babylon 5 is absolutely not.

You should give it a try. The first season is a little rough, because it is setting up a story. By season 3 you will retract this comment.

206:

B5 does contain a revolutionary change, but I’m afraid I cannot reveal it without spoiling the fun. Doh!

207:

It's a space trek basically about technical advances in human development. Why are you surprised?

Go watch a drama.

208:

i recently found farscape and watched through 4 seasons straight id love to hear your opinion on that show i only liked the original star treks so after reading about the "tech with the tech" i know why i never got into the newer stuff

thanks for the post and i dont know if your on twitter but id love to talk scifi im @cartercole

209:

"Jonas: I haven't misunderstood Babylon 5 -- I've never bothered watching it. Five alien races with well-defined human cultures? FAIL!"

Condemning a series that has diversity of culture as one of its main themes for not showing diversity - FAIL. Watch first, complain later.


"Second hint: there is no single dominant human culture today."

Babylon 5, season one: "The Parliament of Dreams"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGYCMXfBrPc
The scene is only a couple of minutes long, so please watch it before you continue going on about Babylon 5.


"If you think there is, you're simply not sufficiently well-travelled to have learned any better. The rest of the world is not populated by Americans who speak a different language: they're different"

As a trilingual Greek/German person, I don't really think the world is populated by Americans.

210:

"One thing that always amused me about Star Trek:TNG was the way the characters accumulated family members as the series progressed. Even Data, an android(!) ended up with a mother, a father, a brother and a daughter. This obviously confirms the point you're making."

Data was the most appealingly human character in the show. The rest of the characters were superhuman robots.

This would have been brilliant irony had it been deliberate. Since it wasn't, it was incredibly lame.

211:

Charlie @197: Regarding B5 and homogeneous alien cultures: The show actually addressed this very point. The aliens aren't homogeneous, but there are dominant cultures. The Narn have many different religions, and a republican form of government that seems as dysfunctional as yours or mine. The Minbari have various factions, even among their castes, that have different aims.

Most notably, in the episode "The Parliament of Dreams," the Earth Alliance holds a "cultural festival" inviting the ambassadors to share aspects of the "dominant religious beliefs" on their worlds. The Earth commander is at a loss as to how to present Earth for much of the episode. He finally sets up a receiving line with dozens of representatives of Earth religions, mainstream and fringe, making the point that we don't *have* a "dominant religion."

Plus... though Earth may have a great many cultures... if you went to a reception for U.N. ambassadors, how much cultural variety would you see, from the standpoint of an alien race? B5 is more of a political thriller than a military or societal one, and it's told from Earth's point of view. The Earth Alliance definitely has its factions; it's not "one big happy world." Far from it, really. But knowing politicians, I'm sure they wouldn't let anyone *else* know that, if they could...

Of all the TV SF I've watched, B5 by far is the closest to a novel. It's well thought out, it has relatively few plot holes... and it has one feature that too many serial dramas lack.

JMS took the time to figure out where he was going from day one.

Trek, BSG, etc. all suffer from what I call "now what? syndrome." The writers wing it, and paint themselves into a corner 45 minutes at a time, and eventually the show ends unsatisfactorily.

If more TV writers -- sci-fi or not -- took the time to say "this is where I'm GOING with this story" before they ever set fingers to keyboard writing the pilot, TV would be far more watchable.

212:

I hate the new ST because the yeomen are too damn skinny. And that's supposed to be Captain Kirk? Nichelle Nichols or Grace Lee Whitney would have had him shuffling his feet and blushing like a schoolboy.

And watching ST for the writing is like watching MSNBC for the politics.

213:

Charlie--

Cannot fault you for hating most of Star Trek, although there were some fine single episodes. I particularly disliked the single-habitat-per-planet crap, usually of happy, clean and healthy subsistence-level gatherers. The humanoid aliens that differed only in facial ridges or skin color were ludicrous as well.

But you seem to have developed a prejudicial theory that you refuse to even test. Worse, you are using this self-imposed ignorance as an argument to further your belief. No way to refute that, of course.

Babylon 5 is more interesting but dates itself now. A much better Star Trek, much better aliens, better written and thought out. But fairly predictable.

As for BSG, well, I'll just state it: Galactica is not Star Trek. No aliens for one thing. Nor is it predictable. Nowhere would Star Trek have the Good Guys using suicide bombers, for example.

Oh, you'll probably hate it for the god-thing, but even then the Colonist's religion is eventually shown to be a sham and hoax, while their created Cylons have the better answer -- which they proceed to use as justification for war, as usual.

214:

I personally thought the first three seasons of TNG were terribly hokey. But toward the end of their run I thought the writing got quite good. Several episodes had gloriously complicated storylines and unexpected twists. There was a definite, undeniable difference in the writing from the early episodes to the later ones. In the beginning, TNG was almost a children's show. But not at the end.

215:

"And since then, it's also been hate on sight between me and just about every space operatic show on television."

Even though you have never seen an episode.

"the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances"

How would you know? To determine that, you would need to watch multiple episodes -- and watch them carefully.

216:

Okay, I stopped reading the comments about halfway through (gotta hit the reset button on a life now) but having read here how BSG ended the series (I stopped watching early on), I just have one question:

Did the last episode involve a chocolate covered manhole cover in any way?

217:

Probably Instapundit. That's where I came from anyway.

218:

@217 That was in reply to 125.

219:

My problem with all these shows, is the inevitability of three scenarios that take up a whole episode that to me connote complete laziness on the part of writers because they've formed the bread and butter of television since its inception; 1) a court scene, where one of the characters is dragged in front of a some kind tribunal and viewers are treated to Perry Mason all over again, and 2) a theater episode where the characters are on stage performing some kind of show, because that's what writers and actors do, they write and act so why not have an episode about writing and acting? 3) a hospital episode, because what would television be without that?

Lazy.

As for Doctor Who, what would a Doctor Who episode be without a chase scene on foot up and down and throughout the entire set? Odd, you can go anywhere throughout the universe at any point in time and you so often end up on Earth.

Lazy.

220:

The article reflects much of my problems with the episodic TV format in general and in SF realms in particular: lack of continuity.

The effects of science and technology are cumulative, not single episode important, and yet the technology is used to make some plots work out and other technology just isn't explained. In ST a 'replicator' precisely positions atoms to form something from a template. That takes energy, lots of energy because you are also getting the chemical state of molecules and valences of atoms in their proper state for each item. Just moving atoms from a storehouse into place, holding them, forming the chemical and structural systems together and then moving on to other pieces while the previous are held static is a massive use of energy. Saying it comes from 'anti-matter' begs the question of getting the anti-matter as that also takes energy to get, save for the parts you harvest 'free' from stellar output which just takes natural fusion energy to form.... so either you expend energy to get that or you use energy to generate anti-matter. These do not end up with idyllic societies nor cost-free systems.

Then there is the square-cube problem of getting rid of excess heat in starships... because a 100% energy generation by mutual annihilation still leaves turning that energy into a useful form and, by thermodynamics, you won't get 100% out. In ST:TOS Nomad moved the Enterprise to 57% efficiency and nearly destroyed the energy system of the ship as it isn't made to run at those levels for any period of time. Yet that starship's output of energy was tiny compared to the later, larger vessels that showed up and no matter which way you cut those energy systems you get a lot of waste heat. You need a way to get rid of that so everyone doesn't cook in the ship.

I've tried my hand at writing in the ST mode (after all the series) to try and patch things up, incorporate physics, utilize some of the more modern outlooks of time (not as a stream but as frame based systems), explain some of the retrograde aspects of the program (like computer technology), plus explore just what went on with Earth, plus bring economics back in as utopian without explaining basis is not SF which requires a grounding in the science (what there is of it) and then looking at the ramifications that go on when you change something. You can still tell 'human interest stories' in doing that, but they start to look more like Larry Niven's 'Known Space' stories where you examine the societal impact of technology (ex. teleporters and stasis fields to name two). Plus when you take a look at the plot devices that were discarded, never to be seen again, and ask 'if they were so revolutionary how come they didn't change anything?' Which brings the point of continuity back: don't introduce it if it isn't going to stick around. Even being an awful writer I have a lot of fun writing the stuff...but then I am writing for the audience of one, not millions, because I have had it with episodic television programs.

221:

Oh, honestly, Charlie--you really couldn't tell?

222:

Charlie, you comment seems confused, but I get your point about not involving tech as an essential element of the story.

You are confused because you hates 'space operatic' shows for the above point. but space opera doesn't necessarily involve tech to advance story...in fact, most space opera *does not.* That's because it's opera, it's drama--in space. Your comment is 'genre confused.' If you hat space opera, that's fine. But it's not fair to criticize space opera for what it is not.

In fact, I would love to hear from you what TV series has in fact met your particular definition of 'good' quote-unquote space opera.

223:

Instapundit linked to this to answer one of your questions.

Its unfortunate your eye difficulties. There are some really good shows like 'Burn Notice', and some decent shows like 'Fringe'. There is a viewpoint developing over here that TV is better than Hollywood.

I'm pretty sure its not the same thing, but I dislike the modern 'we're saving money on the light bill' camera work which makes it a bit hard for me to watch some shows.

I enjoy the TV show 'Castle' which has an awareness of tropes, and makes fun of them. It does that, and in the same bit the thing that a lot of authors do which is to make fun of the competition. Like that, I think I've read articles by Holly Lisle and Michael Moorcock which were basically their versions of this article you've just written. I take this type of thing with a teaspoon of salt.

Its kind of like that old rock and roll classic..."Give me that old time rock and roll". Its advertising and badmouthing the competition.

That said, extrapolation, looking to the social effects, and all that you describe is very difficult. I've done a little bit of it, and its one of the harder tricks a writer can do. That is a skill few SF writers can do well.

David Drake talked about how his experience in Vietnam enabled him to write SF that was not about 'soldiers are evil', or 'soldiers are superheroes', but more realistic. In so doing, he implicitly makes the claim that his form of SF War story is better than other SF war stories. But I don't recall him saying that other SF war stories aren't SF war stories. The one time I was able to talk to Mr. Drake, he struck me as a gentleman in the old sense. I could wish more SF writers followed that example.

Anyways, I've beaten this camel until its humps are dimples.

224:

86: "How is SF not a setting? It's a setting that gives you a lot of freedom (I'd say more than Fantasy even), but it's still just a setting."

How is the scientific method not a setting? Answer: it isn't. You're completely confused as to what science fiction is: it's an approach, not a setting. Sf can and does take place in any and every kind of setting.

You may be confusing "stories set in space" and "stories set in the future" with "science fiction," but stories with either setting frequently are not science fiction, and much science fiction takes place in neither setting.

225:

Charlie, because of your serious visual impairment it seems probable and understandable that you would find much modern TV more or less unwatchable. Including such acknowleged (non-SF) classics as The Wire, Generation Kill and other recent examples. That does not necessarily mean it is bad. Other posters have a valid pointre your original point-of-depatrtue on SF on TV, if you haven't watched any of a show, how can you criticise it?

That said, most modern sci-fi on TV bores me. been there, seen that, read the book. Would rather read the book. Several recent shows (Lost, I'm talking about you) seem more interested in setting up a premise that can be draaaaagged out over a loooong tiiiime than in a narrative arc - where's the resolution? I usually will give a highly rate show a couple of eps to convince me it is worth sticking with, few manage it.

The "aliens look like us and speak english" though, is partly about what is possible with special effects/makeup, partly about what the "viewer" will accept, and partly about how we make a drama. John Scalzi's novel "Agent to the Stars" has an alien protagonist who looks like a ball of mucus and communicates by smell - that would be difficult to translate to TV/film I think. I can't imagine a TV series featuring such characters as major players. Scalzi has an almost completely opposite take to yours, and his viewpoint has much to recommend it.

The majority here seem to agree that B5 is good. and maybe BSG. I have seen some of the former but not the latter. You could at least get a couple of DVD box sets and give them a try.

Story arc writing is not that new, but mostly started in crime fiction (Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets &c). Film seems to work better for SF (someone mentioned Eternal Sunshine, there are others). Maybe its the lack of ad-breaks.

226:

This is a great post, and a great discussion. I think it's really ironic that, IMO, up until District 9 was released I've thought GalaxyQuest (yes, the comedy) was one of the better science fiction movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time...

The biggest turn-off in a lot of sci-fi, especially in ST, is not so much that there's hand-waving about the technology, but that it's entirely inconsistent. It's not so much that it doesn't make "sense" in the scientific sense, as the author of post #220 talks about, but that it just isn't applied consistently throughout the story. Anyone who has ever served on a military warship of any sort knows that there isn't a single big switch on the bridge of a ship that can only be in a "weapons" position or an "engine" position - which is, apparently, how the Enterprise was designed...

It's ok to even have "magic" ala The Force in Star Wars, as long as it's applied consistently throughout the story - I can believe someone could master some sort of sixth sense to augment their ability to fight, etc. but then look at something like Dune, where they fire a weapon by making a humming sound - wtf?!? Why wouldn't you just have a sound generator built into the weapon in the first place and turn a dial selecting what type of blast was going to shoot out of it?

Another great example is Stargate - the scene where the transporter comes down and sucks the guys head off of his body... when's the last time you stuck your arm in the door of an elevator and it chopped it off?!?

The technology in sci-fi doesn't have to make sense according to our contemporary understanding of physics, etc., but it should at least be consistent - ST is the worst offender because not only is the technology ridiculous, it's also applied inconsistently throughout the story. You'd think that the 100th time you had to go manually turn valves to route the power from the shields to the engine you'd just call the guys at Honeywell and have them add that bit of logic to the expert system. Of course, it's even funnier because it's not an expert system, it's a massively advanced AI system that runs the ship and even it can't figure out that it should close the "engine" valve and open the "shield" valve...

That's what was great about GalaxyQuest and District 9. In both cases you had this insanely advanced alien race that was just in an akward situation. The funniest thing about GalaxyQuest was imagining the poor bastards applying all of their advanced technical talent to figure out how to power a ship using a giant rotating sphere of beryllium. That's what made it so funny because it illustrated the total lack of real sci-fi in the Star Trek series - the irony being that GalaxyQuest was actually more of a real sci-fi movie than most of the Star Trek ones.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about the Borg! An advanced species that assimilates all of the technology in the universe to improve its condition - the result? Beings that walk around with big loops of rubber hose hanging out of their heads - how do those guys even move around in their house without snagging those on a doorknob and pulling half of their brains straight out of their heads?

227:

88: "It isn't just tv SF. It's all tv. There are certain pat stories they will tell, and it doesn't matter what the setting is, they will slap those stories in and ignore anything creative to be done with the setting."

This explains, say, _The Wire_, or _Deadwood_.

Only not at all.

127, Iain: "Charlie Stross and others in this thread, including Gary Farber, seem to be using a definition of 'Proper SF' that excludes, amongst others, many of the great works of Philip K Dick."

How so?

I'm busy today (and the next couple of days), so don't remotely have the time to address a lot of the issues in this and Charlie's subsequent post/comment thread (and would be better off doing a post at my own blog when I find time, anyway), but a couple of general points:

a) many people, when discussing movie/tv sf, and sometimes when discussing written sf, confuse "science" and "technobabble."

b) many people, when discussing movie/tv sf, and sometimes when discussing written sf, confuse "good science fiction" and "good storytelling/drama."

These are each different things.

But technobabble is merely talk that sounds like it's about science, and isn't.

And a story can be well done in its science fiction aspects, but badly told as a story/drama, and a story can be a fine story with sf trappings and not at all be science fiction.

As regards the latter, read James Blish's The Issue At Hand.

"They look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps, that makes it science fiction." The Issue at Hand, James Blish (writing as William Atheling Jr.) Advent Publishers ISBN-10: 0911682171. (O/P, unfortunately, but available used.) Which is to say: this isn't true.

I also recommend the Turkey City lexicon.

Galaxy magazine used to run an ad: "You'll never see it in Galaxy!" It consisted of a paragraph from a western with all the nouns changed to "sciencefictional" sounding words. It defined what science fiction isn't. Thinking that setting is what science fiction is is to completely not understand what science fiction is.

But whether a story is sf or not has nothing to do with whether it's good science fiction and a good story or not.

228:

About that Ron Moore quote: I was at that event, and it's important to understand that he offered that anecdote as an example of something he HATED about working on "Trek". People seem to be taking this as an approach he was ADVOCATING, which is not the case.

229:

"Actually, JMS (the show's creator and writer) repeatedly stated that his inspiration for the treatment of telepaths came from the works of Alfred Bester, which explains why there was a telepath with that name on the show. :-)"

But he stole the Psi Corp directly from Andre Norton.

B5 had many virtues, but its primary problem as sf was that it was an assemblage of famous sf and fantasy tropes without a single original sf idea of its own. They would seem like fresh sf ideas if all you knew about sf was that which had been seen before on tv and in movies, but if you were familiar with written sf, it was all immensely-trodden ground.

Some nice stories, though, and excellent characterizations, and much else to praise, if we set that lack of sf originality aside.

230:

Harlan Ellison's "A boy and his dog" is caught in your net, but I like it. I think the point is whether the story is any good or not, not whether it's strictly based on technology. I've found approximately zero good stories about my wonderful pocketable stapler but have seen lots about people, even dorky ones using primitive technology.

All that said, I'm not above suspending gag reflexes if the right buttons are pushed. I just about went nuts during that Star Trek movie featuring the Borg queen. Blotchy? Yeah. Tubes coming out of here head? Right. Insanely sexy? Ohmygod.

I don't remember much of anything else from that movie though, and I'd not trade one "2001" for a whole basket full of similar ones.

Unless they featured more Borg Babes. (Might be just me though.)

231:

127, Iain: Incidentally, Iain, I don't use a "definition" of sf; per Chip Delany, I prefer to merely describe it. I had my fill of definition wars some thirty-five years or so ago.

However, what (blurry) distinction there is between "hard sf" and "soft sf" is a matter of where the focus of the fiction lies, rather than whether it is or isn't science fiction at all.

(I can describe what I think is and isn't sf without offering an encompassing definition of what it is and isn't, and where some non-existent precise border lies.)

Charlie, 179: "...me explaining why I don't like the effect the medium of TV has on SF narrative (using ST:TNG as an example)."

This is something I've written about quite a few times, actually, but nowhere quickly pointable to: it's all been in past Usenet comments, or someone's blog comments, or if it's on my own blog, after more than 8000 posts, I couldn't find it quickly; I'll have to remedy this with a fresh post in the not distant future.

But, yes, I fully agree that the medium and business model (and that of movies) greatly limits what can be done compared to what can be done with text.

Charlie, 197: "Five alien races with well-defined human cultures? FAIL!"

This, I'm afraid, is mildly wrong. The Vorlon weren't remotely human, and had no defined "culture" at all; they were simply inexplicable aliens who were eventually revealed to rever "order." That's pretty much it.

The Centauri were humans with funny hair styles who were vaguely recapitulating the Roman Republic/Empire in space.

The Minbari were a caste society, with religions, worker, and warrior castes. Pretty much human with vague trappings of The Other, but it was largely hand-waving.

The Narn were humans in humanoid lizardy costumes, and jointly played the role of Spartacus to the Centauri.

Then there were a bunch of barely-defined alien races that made up the "League of Non-Aligned Worlds," and then there were a variety of even less-defined aliens who were either guest aliens of the week, or wandering around: Soul-Hunters, Streibs, etc. Plus some non-human aliens like the parasitic Vendrizi, who had no culture, but were merely plot devices.

I could run through the list of others (Gaim, Pak'ma'ra, Drazi, Dilgar, etc.), but you're not wrong to suggest that, as I've already stated, Straczynski created no original aliens, and you're also correct that the major races, with the exceptions of the Vorlons (and the Shadows) were dressed up humans, but on the other hand, it would be unfair to describe either the Vorlons or Shadows as human cultures of any sort, rather than simply largely as plot devices, rather than cultures of any sort. A small quibble.

226: "The biggest turn-off in a lot of sci-fi, especially in ST, is not so much that there's hand-waving about the technology, but that it's entirely inconsistent."

And thus the old distinction between "sci-fi" and "sf," but I really shouldn't mention that lost war.

232:

Russ: The set of good Star Trek movies consists of those of even number: 2, 4, 6, Galaxy Quest, and 11. An explanation would be in excess of my math skills; I just accept this weird branch of number theory as it is.

233:

201: "Why? I imagine that had the communication and transportation methods been better during the time of the Roman or Chinese empires, this world might have headed into a mono culture."

If you think the Roman or "Chinese" empires had monolithic cultures, respectfully, you know absolutely nothing about either.

180: "Put another way, the 'science' in science fiction can be used in three ways:
- to set up the constraints in which the protagonists operate (2001, Moon)
- to remove constraints which would otherwise make a story difficult to tell ("Waddaya mean, I can't have the chariot race from Ben Hur and a generic western bar room brawl and the run-in from Dam Busters and Samurai fencing and the blackest of black magic and the commando attack from the Heroes of Telemark in the same film sequence?")
- as decoration (Serenity - sorry: haven't seen Firefly)"

Partially right, wrong, and wrong.

Loosely speaking, if a story doesn't have some kind of "what if" aspect that can't be removed from the story without significantly changing the story, and if the story isn't in some way possible in our multiverse, it isn't science fiction.

Your latter two "ways" aren't science fiction at all. The second of the three is either fantasy, or could be sf, but need not be, and the third of the three defines what science fiction isn't.

On your first way: science fiction is necessarily constrained (or it's fantasy), but constraint isn't enough to make something science fiction: it needs something speculative and instrinsic to the story.

230: "I think the point is whether the story is any good or not, not whether it's strictly based on technology."

You're confusing "hard sf" and "sf." Lots of sf is based around the soft sciences, or non-technological speculation. Time travel, alternative worlds, sociological sf, socially-extrapolative sf, and so on and so forth are all perfectly well science fiction, but need have no technology involved whatever.

Also, science isn't technology and technology isn't science. Engineering and science aren't the same things, either.

234:

Star Trek as a franchise drives me nuts due to the "reset switch". It's not so much that "we solved this problem using this bit of technobabble" as much as none of the characters remember it a month later so they have to come up with a completely different solution to a solved problem.

B5 had the major benefit of being consistently written from the beginning. JMS had the outline completed before they began, so he knew in advance where everything was headed. this is especially apparent in the 3rd season where he essentially wrote every single episode. For a TV series B5 took foreshadowing to an entirely different realm, little things that appeared to be throwaway items turned out to be very important. It also mostly stuck with good physics. Earthforce ships have rotating sections to provide spin-gravity. Space battles are truly 3-D.

BSG started out very strong, and it was clear that they had some top notch consultants on board with regard to science and military operations. The New Vipers have manuevering thrusters. They use ammo, not lasers. Things break and stay broken. There is a survivor count. Usually this number goes down. Sometimes it goes down a lot. They got some of the military slang slightly wrong, e.g. Knuckledraggers are the guys who load your weapons load outs not general aircraft maintainers, but it's mostly right or close enough.

The big problem with BSG is simply that Ron Moore couldn't write himself out of a wet paper sack. As a director he understands setting and atmosphere and what it takes to get a scene to really work, but as a writer he misses the big picture and constantly writes himself into a corner. He didn't know where the series was headed which is why he had to come up with handwaving excuses as to why there was no "model #7" cylon. The last three episodes is one giant dues ex machina because Moore had no idea how to end the series. (he did the same thing with DS9)

Firefly was canceled after a double handful of episodes so it never had the chance to be internally inconsistent. Whedon also has the knack for playing the English language like a fine fiddle which makes the dialog far richer than should be expected for any TV show.

I wonder if Charlie has seen the new show "Castle". It's not science fiction, but it's rather well done, even if the premise is a bit far fetched. Possibly I'm biases as a Nathan Fillion fan..

235:

I reckon is is sometimes useful to consider tech in SF as being a sort of character.

No writer worth their salt would put "[character] the [character]" in a script. In serial TV there may be some form of collaboration over the handling of the regular characters, but "[tech] the [tech]" doesn't even come close.

But if tech is functioning as a character, you don't have the shorthand of TV drame--call it a set of cliches, if you wish--to set up the character. And, since we're talking the shortest of short stories, in terms of the space for depicting character, we've got a problem here. If you know the regular characters, maybe you can give most of the time to the tech, so something such as Star Trek might be a better opportunity.

But, way back, being able to take the time to explore this particular character was why I wrote B7 fanfics.

236:

"B5 had many virtues, but its primary problem as sf was that it was an assemblage of famous sf and fantasy tropes without a single original sf idea of its own. They would seem like fresh sf ideas if all you knew about sf was that which had been seen before on tv and in movies, but if you were familiar with written sf, it was all immensely-trodden ground.

Some nice stories, though, and excellent characterizations, and much else to praise, if we set that lack of sf originality aside."

If you look at it in an entirely abstract way, you could see it as a collection of "tropes" - but surely the whole point of art is in specificity? Thinking in entirely abstract terms, you could accuse Shakespeare of being entirely derivative; but on closer inspection, you would find too much that is unique to support that accusation. The same goes for Babylon 5: many of the themes and concepts that appear in it have appeared elsewhere, but what Babylon 5 does with them is unique.

If all that counted was sheer invention, we would have to accuse more than half of science fiction of ripping off Olaf Stapledon, anyway.

237:

Serenity is sf, by the way -- though, again, not original sf, save by way of characters and trivial detail -- by virtue of the fact that the story couldn't exist other than in a solar system with a large number of habitable (terraformed) moons, the existence of terraforming technology, the creation of an engineered substance that made most humans pacific, but a small percentage wildly violent, and the technology to engineer psychic powers in at least some humans.

None of these are remotely original sf ideas, and neither is any remotely original use made of any of these ideas, just as none of the sf ideas in B5 are original nor are any of the ideas used originally, just as almost any and all tv/movie sf neither has original sf ideas nor makes use of any, but these are sf elements that can't be removed from the story.

To stress again, though: how science fictional a story is, and how good a story is, are two entirely different things. There are a variety of good movies that are science fictional even if the science fictional aspect of them isn't what makes them particularly good.

Neither, I should say, since I mention originality, is originality any kind of marker of a good story or a bad story, or whether something is good or bad science fiction, nor to what degree a story is or isn't science fictional.

238:

It's a problem with average person idiocy.

Genuine science fiction can very quickly go over the heads of many people. Genuinely strong, powerful tv shows like The Wire are fundamentally unsympathic to a white audience. I mean, why do you think Firefly or Avatar The Movie didn't have any asians?

As a result, you cannot reasonably expect a show to have logical and unmagical "tech" to drive human nature to another place and expect to have decent ratings. As it is, Dollhouse is pretty much the only genuingely sci-fi sci-fi show showing right now. And it has apocalyptic ratings, even as Fox pointy-hairs push to have more sexy-wrong-sexy elements in the show (for the fratboys that like the skeevy). It also had the most slow start and worldbuilding that *any* show has ever had--took 'till ep6 to start breathing. On top of that, it's freakin' apparent through reading TWOP that much of the audience doesn't truly understand the applications of the tech and how this is a driving force of the Dollhouse (or why the "madam" is so interested in drawing out Echo's dysfunctions).

Now, let's get to the obvious...
BSG is crap, utter crap, and one of the reason it is, is because it has a fundamental cowardice of technology for fear of alienating idiot america. Gods we know cannot be gods for we will not be insects. Oooh! Is that the hidden Grand Inquisitor Cylon? Forbidding ships that can ftl travel from having proper teleporters or even earbud intercoms? At first I thought this show was about neobarbs finding their roots.

Next, Ghost in the Shell SAC is largely the best out of a *very* few genuinely science fiction shows. It is also notoriously tedious as Dollhouse is. However, it's truly worth watching, especially 2nd Gig (If you have a basic familiarity with Japanese history). That franchise is largely finished as well because it's super-expensive to make, it doesn't defer to japanese xenophobia (and has little fan-service or undermining of powerful women), and it requires at least a 12th grade education to fully understand what's going on. So it's kind of skated by on the relationship to the popular movies, which are more dense and Matrix-like pseudo-intellectuallism.

Lastly, in the anime vein, if you want to see all of the aspects that tv audience demands engender into the media, do this:
Read the PlanetES manga to the end...
Then watch the anime. It's supposed to be pretty good, but it's quite stripped down in meaning from the manga.

239:

"Star Trek as a franchise drives me nuts due to the 'reset switch'. It's not so much that 'we solved this problem using this bit of technobabble' as much as none of the characters remember it a month later so they have to come up with a completely different solution to a solved problem."

Except for the last five seasons of Deep Space 9, and the entire Enterprise series.

Jonas, 235: "The same goes for Babylon 5: many of the themes and concepts that appear in it have appeared elsewhere, but what Babylon 5 does with them is unique."

Yes, I agree; I didn't say I disliked Babylon 5; in general, I like most of it, and some of it very much. JMS strength was in characterization, and he did do a good job of putting together a space opera on tv. I could write at considerably greater length as to what I liked about B5. Two words in particular: Londo and G'Kar.

That doesn't mean I can't criticize aspects of it, though, nor that what I personally enjoyed or didn't enjoy about it is necessarily relevant to how good or bad it was at being science fiction.

As I said: whether something is a good story, and whether something is good science fiction, are two different things.

"...but what Babylon 5 does with them is unique."

On the other hand, what bothered me about B5 is that it was so completely, in all of its tropes, swipes from SF/Fantasy's Greatest Hits. The assemblage of parts from Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Andre Norton, Alfred Bester, Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, etc., etc., was positively Frankensteinian in its use of adhesive tape, in my opinion. The derivativeness was, IMO, beyond excessive. JMS was a superb synthesist for tv, but the stress here has to be placed on for tv.

Iain Banks makes a good comparison, but one could list hundreds of writers of sf who have been endlessly more creative in the sf aspects of their sf, or even their space opera.

240:

@194:

[Delenn] was awful and the actress fit the character too well.

No doubt the character was badly utilized and got progressively lobotomized as the series wore on, but what do you mean by the actress fitting the character 'too well'? Actor-character convergence is usually considered a good thing.

@197:

Jonas: I haven't misunderstood Babylon 5 -- I've never bothered watching it.

Prejudgment FAIL! There are a lot of reasons to criticize B5 on merits but it doesn't suffer from the Trek [tech] the [tech] because [tech] disease. B5 was a political action thriller set in a standard space opera tech context and driven by the joint what-ifs of human telepathy and meddling alien races. That's about as close to your definition of SF as TV gets.

241:

Gary @233, hello again and thanks for the industry definitions of "Science Fiction". My point was more about possible legitimate uses of science (and I use the term loosely) in fiction than in what qualifies a work into a particular pigeonhole.

So I'll try again:

"Put another way, "speculative science" in fiction can be used in three ways:
- to set up the constraints in which the protagonists operate (2001, Moon)
- to remove constraints which would otherwise make a story difficult to tell ("Waddaya mean, I can't have the chariot race from Ben Hur and a generic western bar room brawl and the run-in from Dam Busters and Samurai fencing and the blackest of black magic and the commando attack from the Heroes of Telemark in the same film sequence?")
- as decoration (Serenity - sorry: haven't seen Firefly)"

If the constraints aren't key to the plot in some way, I class them as decoration.

So in your definitions, the first would be science fiction, the second fantasy, and the third just fiction? Actually, I know you are busy right now and the answer isn't important. Unless you truly believe that the label you give something is key to whether you like it.

But I THINK that Charlie is looking for TV that will require a sustained investment of concentration from the viewer, and will reward that investment with a meaty payoff. Further, he is comfortable with science and technology and would like to see interesting scientific ideas developed, working through the less obvious impacts. So, whilst all three categories above could conceivably meet the first criterion, only the first category can meet both.

Seems fair.

He then goes on to say that the way TV is set up is inimical to good science fiction (which changed to Space Opera somewhere along the line, conveniently annihilating my counter examples ("Edge of Darkness" etc). This seems unlikely to me, but I haven't read the detail in the next post yet.

242:

Charlie @188.

Errm, makes it kind of hard to argue the evidence, doesn't it?

If this all means that you haven't seen Moon yet, you might have a treat in store.

243:

Doowop @145, Troi was on the first ep of Three Rivers, under her real name of course, and I didn't recognize her until the third time she was on the screen. Remember her from ST.

Val @203, Yes, it's quite different from the book. I remember what Brin said about Postman -- as long as he gets a lot of money, he doesn't care what they do to the story.

244:

Stross paraphrasing my essay on Star Wars?

Hey, I'm a longtime io9 reader. I wrote a popular essay on the development of the Star Wars films back in 1999 called Star Wars Origins (http://www.moongadget.com/origins); over 1.1 million unique visitors. Since then I've been expanding it into a comprehensive book with big new theories on how science fiction and other myth is constructed and what it actually does inside our psyche to improve our lives - hopefully out in bookstores in about 2 years. Anyway, Stross writes:

"You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech - make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail - without changing the scripts significantly."

...it seems like he might be riffing off what I wrote in 1999:

"For example, several episodes of Star Trek; The Next Generation could have taken place aboard a battleship of the British Navy during the early 1800s without changing anything in the script but a few proper nouns."

from: http://www.moongadget.com/origins/faq.html

...I'm cool with the remix of my idea, though I wouldn't mind a citation to my original article.

Thanks!,
Kristen Brennan
kristen74078@gmail.com

245:

"On the other hand, what bothered me about B5 is that it was so completely, in all of its tropes, swipes from SF/Fantasy's Greatest Hits. The assemblage of parts from Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Andre Norton, Alfred Bester, Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, etc., etc., was positively Frankensteinian in its use of adhesive tape, in my opinion. The derivativeness was, IMO, beyond excessive. JMS was a superb synthesist for tv, but the stress here has to be placed on for tv."

Again, I feel that in many of these cases it's a matter of *similar* themes and concepts rather than directly taking parts from something. There are some obviously intentional nods, especially to The Lord of the Rings, but I don't feel that there is half as much that is directly "taken" from other writers as you say. I do think there were a couple of cases, especially early on, where mistakes were made in making references too obvious, but all in all I feel that the series doesn't really steal all that much. It has much in common, but that's not entirely the same.

An example is the post-apocalyptic monastery in "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars." Yes, there is a similarity to "A Canticle for Leibowitz," but I don't think this is a case of B5 stealing stuff. Just because two stories have similarities does not mean they are the same, and the essence and emphasis of the scenes in Deconstruction is quite different.

The same goes for much of B5: given the type of scenario it envisages, there are bound to be similarities to other science fiction. But its philosophical (and dramaturgical) essence is quite unique, and I think the tone of bittersweet hope that pervades the story is a magnificent achievement.

(As I said, if it was all about ideas, in terms of pure invention of concepts, then everyone is continually ripping off Olaf Stapledon. Because if we start thinking in terms of "who used that concept first," Stapledon usually got there first.)

All of the above doesn't mean that Babylon 5 is without its flaws, and perhaps this is a case of nitpicking. The main point is that it's absurd to throw B5 in the same hat with a whole lot of profoundly different shows on the basis of flaws (such as no continuity, or a monolithic depiction of cultures) which it definitely doesn't have. Especially without ever having seen it.

246:

As an example of the kind of abstract thinking that often leads people to see "stealing" where there is none: I read several reviews of Iain Banks's Consider Phlebas that said that his concept of Orbitals was just a Ringworld-ripoff, that he was obviously reusing concepts from Larry Niven, and so on. But Olaf Stapledon was writing about ringworlds and similar constructions (and in fact inspired Freeman Dyson) in Star Maker thirty-three years before Ringworld. Does this mean that any of these novels are lacking originality? No, because what they do with the concept is profoundly different.

Similarily, Babylon 5 uses imagery from The Lord of the Rings (and in a couple of cases too strongly, perhaps), but the essence (and conclusion) of the story is as different from LOTR as it can possibly be.

247:

TwistedByKnaves @240: actually, you're making a fundamental mistake.

I'm not looking for good space opera on TV. (I'm not even sure it's possible.) I'm just venting because I finally realized why I hate the stuff that's out there right now.

I am not a potential candidate to your cult. You're in the position of a Mormon missionary looking at Richard Dawkins and thinking, "hey, he's a lapsed Protestant -- do you suppose we're in with a chance?"

248:

Kristen, (a) I haven't read your article, and (b) you were hardly first; I remember a talk Gwynneth Jones gave at the ICA in the mid-eighties in which she deconstructed Star Trek (the first series, then -- this was before TNG) as being functionally equivalent to a US nuclear powered submarine stooging around various Pacific islands during a not terribly hot patch of the cold war.

249:

"I'm just venting because I finally realized why I hate the stuff that's out there right now."
...none of which you have seen.

"I am not a potential candidate to your cult. You're in the position of a Mormon missionary looking at Richard Dawkins and thinking, "hey, he's a lapsed Protestant -- do you suppose we're in with a chance?""
So claiming that a certain medium has potential for good storytelling, and that successful use of this medium has been achieved for storytelling purposes, equals being in a cult?
We're not asking you to blindly believe in something. We're not asking you to take a leap of faith. We're asking you to have the decency to actually watch something before condemning it as nonsense.

How do you feel about people who say that your books are crap without ever having read a single page of them?

250:

Jonas, I've seen enough to know it's not for me.

And to get into any of these series works requires investing tens or hundreds of hours in them.

I'm not surprised you're defensive -- if I'd invested hundreds of hours of my time on an activity, I'd be prickly about perceived criticism. Even though I'm not; I'm just saying, (a) I don't like it, and (b) I've finally realised, after 30-odd years, why I don't like it.

251:

"I'm not surprised you're defensive -- if I'd invested hundreds of hours of my time on an activity, I'd be prickly about perceived criticism. Even though I'm not; I'm just saying, (a) I don't like it, and (b) I've finally realised, after 30-odd years, why I don't like it."

But your stated reasons make no sense. It's simply not rational to put Babylon 5 in the same box as Star Trek; and the points you made about monolithic cultures in Babylon 5 are plainly wrong. So perhaps you really haven't seen enough to be able to judge it on that basis.

If you simply dislike it for aesthetic reasons, that's a completely different issue.

Also: I've invested plenty of my time and money in activities that turned out to be meaningless or dumb. Please don't pretend that my intellectual defense of a work of art has something to do with "fan loyalty" or anything of the sort.

252:

Yet another weighing-in on BSG: I have mixed feelings. Without a doubt one of the best sf series of recent years, but not perfect by any stretch.

It makes some pretty decent attempts at continuity, my favourite being the ever more battle-damaged looking Galactica in the external shots. That and the number of survivors counting steadily down as things progress. Characters do change over the course of events, most of the dead characters (and ships) stay dead, and there are some interesting twists and turns.

The characterisation is... well, pretty good for the most part, though there's a bit of 'drama because we haven't had any for a while' which doesn't advance things too much.

Where it succeeds most I think is in being prepared to be a little bit less black-and-white on moral issues. It isn't quite as Brechtian here as it wants to be, but even so has some fun examination of stuff. The abovementioned suicide-bomber subplot being one such, but there's good stuff in there about the legitimacy of law & govt in a situation of a few thousand people out in deep space, as well as some military vs civilian authority questions and a bit of labour-relations. More than once, decisions are taken with the knowledge they will lead to thousands of deaths.

But is it tech, or [tech]? The whole spacecraft element essentially is there for a sense of gothic isolation, and as a vehicle for our heroes to flee in, so I suppose that could equally have been mighty galleons. The main way in which technology has affected humanity in the show is probably in having created the Cylons to start with. Some lip-service is payed to the idea that AIs are illegal now-a-days, but this element doesn't feature heavily. Where more exploration may be found is in Cylon society, with Cylons being effectively immortal, from factions which form along lines of model number, and emotionally a bit strange in general.

Also, when it does do technobabble, it at least tends to tie in a bit more believably, eg: the Galactica surviving the devastating first round of Cylon attacks because their computer system is too ancient to be vulnerable to network attack, the ship having been scheduled for mothballing at the start of the series. (The fact that the fighter ships are behind velvet ropes when the attack begins was just a sterling touch).

The quality drops pretty sharply a few episodes into season 3, IMHO, and the mind-games with Head-6 recur a bit too often, but I don't regret the time I spent with the first 2 season at all.

Some of it might be a bit hard on the eyeballs if you're not into shaky-cam. (Although the technique of rendering their outdoor spacey stuff using a virtual shakey-cam works rather well, I think.)

253:

I only remember seeing the pilot when it began, but I just rediscovered a canceled US legal drama set in 2030, Century City. I don't remember if they pull out made up laws or precedents to solve the cases, but a lot of interesting ethical questions came up about cloning, networked minds, etc. I can guess why this show didn't succeed; it was techy and mostly about civil cases instead of criminal bêtes noires of the week. It might interest you Charles.

http://www.hulu.com/century-city

254:

There's not much re: B5, BSG, and all those other shows that I can say which others haven't already gotten to, but I'd like to recommend Star Trek: Deep Space 9's season 6 episode "In the Pale Moonlight." I was thinking about it just the other day - it is one of the best examples of Star Trek actually doing a story right that I can think of. It's not perfect, but it has drama, intrigue, and a lot of character development, and I think the tech is very much utilized in a way that makes it move with the story, not as a replacement for it.

255:

Paula Stiles --

You misrepresent B5's facts to make your case. You say: And while we're talking about inaccurate science, I've never understood why Babylon 5 was such a hard-SF fans' darling. JMS railed against sounds in space then promptly had them in every space battle the show ever did. That big, rolling beer barrel of a station? Nice idea for artificial gravity. Too bad they didn't work out the vectors. The apparent gravity should have everyone walking *on* those windows on the outer hull not past them (and why does the bridge have gravity when it's at the center?). If you're going to brag about using "real" science in your sci-fi show, get it right.

1) It was always stated by jms that the sound was audible within the atmosphere bubble created by an exploding ship that contained atmosphere. Any number of scientists agreed that this would happen. For longer shots, he generally went to percussion in the music.

2) Your statement about the station and gravity is 100% false. The windows you menion are along the sides not the bottom of the station, that's absolutely solid. As you go down levels, per the gravity line created by rotation, you have ports at one end of the station that ARE correctly positioned for where the person would be standing.

And finally, the "bridge" (actually the command and control center, a station like this doesn't have a "bridge") is NOT located in the center of the station. There are two main C&C areas (one main, one alternate) located about two-thirds up the side of the station, so they WOULD have gravity of about 1/3rd to 1/2 normal gravity. The center of the station is the zero-gravity docking bay, which is CLEARLY ESTABLISHED as having no gravity because it IS in the middle of the rotating station.

Not only did they NOT get it wrong, they went to great lengths to get it RIGHT and explain WHY it was right.

If you want to make a case for something, fine, but there's no reason to literally make stuff up, especially when it can be so easily disproven by just looking at the design of the station.

256:

Great comment thread.

Since we're all science-y and stuff, the fact is that Douglas Adams nailed the human condition years ago - we decide what we like first, then invent reasons for it later. Coke is great - it's tangy, not the other way around. That doesn't mean that the analysis is wrong, just that in judging art, our post-experience analysis will strangely always support our original inclination. Here are some of my likes, dislikes, and the invented reasoning involved.

TOS was good, I grew up on reruns in the '70s. Atrocious acting, moral lessons applied with a sledgehammer, but it was smart without being cerebral. Good old hippie fare. TNG left me cold. When Roddenberry passed and they decided to do the "tech is evil" run, I went from uninterested to avoidance. "Ooh look how edgy we are! We realized that most viewers use Windows and it crashes, let's play on technofear!"

I didn't do B5 until long after it went off, then the wife got me into it. Watched it all on crappy low-res downloads, then rented the DVDs and watched it again. Fantastic stuff, a real story arc like I'd never seen done on TV. Pay attention because the throwaway plot points aren't really throwaway. Boo hoo, it didn't invent the wheel. Wow, they used english too. I suppose they should have invented a language for the actors so that it wouldn't be so derivative of ancient anglo-saxon. Get over yourselves.

BSG V2 I loved. In the way that you love a friend who pisses you off regularly, but then comes through so spectacularly sometimes that it completely makes up for the bad stuff. Lee Adama was poorly acted. Very hard on a show when such a central character is unbelievable. The religion aspects were handled just right, the grittiness level was right, the complexity of both societies developed beautifully. On the other hand, I can't believe we're 250+ comments in and no-one has mentioned the story-killing, embarrassing, completely pointless Starbuck-Lee-Dee-Sam love quadrangle that ate up a seasons worth of screen time. Since we're talking about using the cliches ironically, what the frak?

Voyager. Paris must die. Harry Kim did die but it didn't count - I hate that. Most of the characters were completely banal. The worst part is that Jeri Ryan absolutely owned the 7 of 9 role, providing the best acting of the show, but you can't say that because she was so visually stunning that it's assumed that the wrong head is talking. As cover, I will say that Tricia Helfer as Six on BSG V2 had some good moments in season 1 but was otherwise average in the role. Looked awfully good in red though.

Enterprise I liked but they made the classic mistake of doing time travel. And they wasted a whole season on it. If they'd spent that season doing 3 episode mini-series like they did for the final season it might have lasted longer.

Red Dwarf I like but I never thought of as sf. I have them all including Smeg Ups on VHS. Gotta get them on DVD, that's just insult comedy at the highest level.

Dr Who is not sf. It's just Dr. Who. And I'll probably be reamed for it, but I never cared for it until the new series. Wife has loved all of them old and new.

Firefly was great. Indescribable to the uninitiated, but great.

DS9 I didn't watch. Unlike our host I won't comment on something I didn't see. Bad form.

257:

242:

[...] ...it seems like he might be riffing off what I wrote in 1999:

"For example, several episodes of Star Trek; The Next Generation could have taken place aboard a battleship of the British Navy during the early 1800s without changing anything in the script but a few proper nouns."
Gene Roddenberry's network pitch used the words "space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower".

That's setting aside that the British Navy of the 19th century had no "battleships": the term you're looking for is "ship of the line." "Battleships" evolved out of the dreadnought concept put forward by Admiral Sir John ("Jackie") Fisher in 1904. Battleships are armored, not made of wood, have engines, not sails, and guns, not cannons.

One might also point out that the film Star Trek: Generations, which premiered in 1994, introduces the TNG crew with a scene of them on the holodeck, holding a promotion ceremony for Worf on the deck of a British sail-propelled sloop of the 18th or early 19th century.

One might also point out that the director (and uncredited co-writer ) of Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan gave innumerable interviews in 1982 and afterwards noting how he put Star Trek into a naval setting and that:

[...] In his audio commentary for the Director's Edition of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, director Nicholas Meyer spoke of his inability to relate to Star Trek until he "suddenly began to think of it as the adventures of Horatio Hornblower in outer space. Once I got that, I said, okay, this about the Navy... this is about gunboat-diplomacy". He revisited that interpretation in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In the script for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the antique ship's wheel seen in the USS Enterprise-A's observation lounge is compared to one Hornblower might have steered.
Moreover, Captain Picard kept a model of such a ship in his ready room.

"Stross paraphrasing my essay on Star Wars?"

In the sense that he's paraphrased Gene Roddenberry's incredibly famous network pitch, and the Next Generation tv show and the Star Trek movies, and the writers and directors of both, and what millions of people have observed, and what something on the order of literally a hundred thousand people have put in writing, long before 1999, you could say that.

258:

249: "We're asking you to have the decency to actually watch something before condemning it as nonsense."

Who, exactly, is "we"? And in what sentence did Charlie write of "nonsense"?

251: "It's simply not rational to put Babylon 5 in the same box as Star Trek"

Depends entirely on the size of the box.

"and the points you made about monolithic cultures in Babylon 5 are plainly wrong."

Not so much. The Vorlons don't even have any described cultures.

The Minbari have one culture made of three castes, and Mindbari from their multitude of colony planets are identical in culture to the single culture of the home planet.

The Narn have a single culture, with mention made of several religions, although if you could describe how those who revere the Book of G'Quan differ significantly from those who revere the Book of G'Kar, and how those differences compare to the differences between, say, Catholicism and Shinto, I'd be edified.

The Centauri: single culture.

The Shadows: no culture; all we know is that they like "chaos."

Two of these aren't cultures: they're funny hats. The other three are monolithic cultures that one would be hard put to use more than a few hundred words describing.

If you can, say, describe three cultures of each of the Narn, Minbar (not castes!; cultures), and the Centauri that differ as much from each other as, say, Han culture does from Easter Island culture, or Basque culture does from Mayan culture, or Inuit culture does from Zulu culture, I'd also find that edifying.

Or, say, compare the depth of three different cultures of Centauri, Minbari, and Narn, to the depths and distinctions of culture described in, oh, C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe, or the depths and distinctions of culture found in Le Guin's Hainish cycle, or in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, or in Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind, or even on Ringworld. Would you really argue that someone could write tens of thousands of words describing the different cultures of Narn, or Minbar, or the Centauri empire, based solely on what JMS put on screen?

Could you give me some pointers to some such writings about the various cultures of the Shadows, or the Vorlons, please? Or pointers to someone's several thousands of words outlining, oh, ten -- no, five -- even three -- such distinctly different Narn or Minbari or Centauri cultures? Thanks, if so. (Note that this is a trivial exercise as regards, say, Middle Earth, or the Hainish Cycle, or Cherryh, or Smith.)

Cripes, I've got a deadline tomorrow for something I need to finish writing. Two things, actually. Must. Resist. Being. Sucked. In.

259:

gave up on "Enterprise" at the point in the pilot where $J_RANDOM_CREWMEMBER and $HAWT_VULCAN_BABE have to undergo a full-body decontamination process

I gave up on 'Enterprise' when they introduced that #$%&^*( 'time war'. It made no sense in the context of that particular series, and it seemed to be the 'SF for the studio exec' gimmick, because it also didn't fit with either TOS or TNG - and if you're trying to be the precursor-in-sequence to those, you need to not f*ck with their 'history' setting. (Which is also why I didn't run off to see the movie reboot this summer. I noticed it sank pretty quickly.)

I never got into Voyager, had serious problems with TNG, and Eureka is ... interesting, although their science is definitely Out There somewhere. Stargate was just silly, IMO.

260:

"Two of these aren't cultures: they're funny hats."

The Vorlons, in fact, literally are just a costume (encounter suits) with variant funny "heads," and "energy" inside, shown as swirly light.

The Shadows are just CGI.

The entire "culture" of each consists of favoring "order" and "chaos."

If these aren't monolithic "cultures," such as they're "cultures" at all, and not just single-word descriptions, I don't what would constitute a monolithic culture.

But while the Narn, Centauri, and particularly the Minbari have somewhat more depth to them (it doesn't take a lot to have more depth than a one-word description), if someone can point to a B5 episode where a Minbari culture that doesn't have three castes (soldier, worker, religious) was described, or an episode that described different Centauri cultures, or an episode that described several Narn cultures, I'd be curious to know the names of those episodes.

The point of the scene from Parliament of Dreams that was pointed to, and linked to, above, by the way, was that Earth was different from these other cultures in that Earth had different religions and cultures (as well as atheism).

B5 can be praised for a variety of things, but depth and variety of different cultures within non-Earth cultures is not one of them.

261:

258: "Which is also why I didn't run off to see the movie reboot this summer. I noticed it sank pretty quickly."

In the sense that it has grossed $257,704,099 in the USA alone as of 27 September 2009 and reportedly $384,953,671 worldwide as of a few weeks ago, and the sense that it's the highest grossing Star Trek film ever made, yes, you could say that it "sank."

I do agree that the whole "Temporal Cold War" idea of the first three seasons of Enterprise, though understandable as an attempt not to be frozen in amber, was dreadfully handled, overall, and just a bad idea.

255: "When Roddenberry passed and they decided to do the 'tech is evil' run"

Um, what?

262:

@259:
>B5 can be praised for a variety of things, but depth and variety of different cultures within non-Earth cultures is not one of them.

Nope. Nor should there have been any attempt to show them because they were immaterial to the story that was being told. If it didn't further the arc or enhance a character, it wasn't there.

Regarding 'hating' shows one has never seen, I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Harlan Ellison that you're not entitled to your opinion, you're entitled to your *informed* opinion.

263:

A minor bit of B5 trivia for everybody but Charlie (his mind's made up and all that) - JMS was told BY the powers that be that season 4 WAS going to be the very last season he got. The last episode of season 5 was filmed with the intent of making it the last of season 4, and the end of the story, until Joe was told they'd changed their mind at the very last minute, giving him time to do "Deconstruction of Falling Stars" instead to end season 4. So if there's anything in season 5 you dislike intensely (cough - telepaths - cough) you can just skip to the last ep after 4. (I do recommend Deconstruction because parts are hilarious and I do rather like the ending.)

264:

Hating on a format (be it space opera or comedic horror/SF spy thrillers) is absurd. Now, if you just didn't like what you saw in the ads or didn't have time and navigated your TV dial away (or off), that's cool. But if you ignored shows with depth and character like Babylon 5 or (for all its warts) Battlestar Galactica because they were space opera, then I suppose you got what you deserved. Firefly explored the nature of a post-China/USA exploration of space in ways that gave every indication that Whedon had spent years exploring the topic before committing it to paper. B5 was the first media outside of books that I'm aware of that showed space-based fighters utilizing three degrees of rotation during combat, and while it was primarily about the nature of religion (funny thing for an atheist to write about), the hard science in the show was unmistakable. BSG was one of the few shows to ever explore realistically what decompression does to a human body and had some remarkably cogent things to say about the relationship between machines and humanity.

You missed that because you didn't like TNG. Well, there it is. You're welcome to have done so, and clearly you ended up writing decent books without watching Automan, so I suppose it worked for you ;)

265:

Hey. Recently found your novels. Good Stuff. got here via io9.com

I really laugh at the people trying to sell you their favourite series. I also laugh at any indication that Babylon 5 was good.

Realistically, i agree that tv is a terrible medium for quality scifi. And i say this loving star trek, Battlestar and dollhouse.

What it is, is a gateway drug. As a young lad i picked up "Red Mars" and almost barfed, but i could watch 6 hours of star trek without straining my mind, and i still get a small amount of background interest.

Now i am much older, i devour novels in droves. But i only know of the genre, due to my early influences, including television.

My 2 cents.

266:

"Hating on a format (be it space opera or comedic horror/SF spy thrillers)"

Those aren't formats; they're subgenres.

"Firefly explored the nature of a post-China/USA exploration of space in ways that gave every indication that Whedon had spent years exploring the topic before committing it to paper."

I love Firefly, but please explain to me what you learned about the nature of post-China/USA exploration of space, other than that a completely non-Asian cast swears in Chinese, and there are some Asian extras and some signage with ideograms. In what ways did American culture and Chinese culture affect each other, resulting in a culture different from our own? How did the cultures of the rest of Earth come into play in this future? How did moving to a multitude of terraformed worlds/moons change that culture? How did the culture change from world to world?

If you can explain any of this, I'd be interested.

Then read Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, and tell me which one you felt further explored a future where China was important, if you would be so kind. Many thanks if you can do this.

"B5 was the first media"

B5 isn't a medium, let alone a media.

"B5 was the first media outside of books that I'm aware of that showed space-based fighters utilizing three degrees of rotation during combat"

Yes, that's right, B5 was all the way up to 1922 and Skylark of Space in its sf tech. Very impressive.

"the hard science in the show was unmistakable"

Such as?

"BSG was one of the few shows to ever explore realistically what decompression does to a human body"

That's not science: that's realism. If a movie shows a person tripping and falling to the ground, because, hey, gravity: that isn't science, either. Realistically depicting events isn't doing something science fictional.

Using Newton's laws of motion shows an astonishing grasp of the science of 1687. Woohoo.

And "showing" isn't "exploring."

Essentially this is an argument that almost all tv and movie sf is so completely awful that it can't get even the simplest elements right, but if one can just Newton's Three Laws of Motion right, or not botch an elementary thing like not having someone's eyeballs explode in a vacuum, we should all applaud as they'd they've just proven string theory.

This is the "It's almost brain-dead, so if it shows it can add 2+2 and get 4 as a result, it's a miracle!" school of criticism.

You're not helping the case that tv sf is not really really handicapped at being science fiction compared to an averagely decent sf short story.

And I like a fair amount of tv sf or ostensible-sf, and watch quite a bit compared to Charlie: I've seen every episode of every Star Trek, of B5, of BSG, of all the Stargates, and quite a bit more.

But people are making very very sad cases here, and defenses of the virtues of tv sf that are just embarrassing. As well as defensive.

(I think it's fair to say that Charlie was a little sloppy in some of his generalizations, but that's the worst of what he did.)

267:

Charlie @247,

No, YOU are making a fundamental mistake. I am not trying to sell you anything.

I haven't seen more than a couple of episodes of any of the Star Trek franchise since the original series, for very much the same reasons as you. But I don't hate it. I just file under "Nothing interesting happening here: move on." Your reaction is much stronger and I am trying to understand it.

What I AM trying to do is understand your issue with decorative technobabble. Granted it isn't what you call science fiction, but it doesn't pretend to be. Costume drama isn't science fiction either: do you hate that too?

Or do you feel deep down there's an implied message that this stuff IS the real science fiction, or at least, the only science fiction that matters? Or do you believe that it is fraudulently holding itself out to be SF and promising a reward that it never delivers? (And I am not taking a position on whether there is actually any real SF in the stuff I haven't seen.)

I guess you might have taken my plug for Moon as an attempt to sell you something. Well, maybe. It seems to me to avoid the issues you find problematic (no battles, no explosions, no crowd scenes, very little bouncy camera work).

So I would see it more as a fellow unbeliever pointing out another fascinating aspect of a rich and Godless creation. It isn't TV, doesn't really belong in this discussion. Just thought you might like it.

But life is short and I'm sure you have many other ways to entertain yourself.

268:

Gary@237, Serenity seems to me to be a more or less boilerplate Western from just after the American Civil War (come on, highly organised bad guys in dark blue, a rag bag of good guys in browns and greys...) transposed to a well realised high tech setting with all of the goodies you mention.

It works because Joss Whedon understands deeply and cares deeply about the conventions and the Operative is one of the great flawed villains of cinema. And because the psychic can kick a man behind her in the head, around a pole.

So SF in your terms, possibly, but not the sort of concept driven story that Charlie is talking about. He might like it anyway for it's intelligence, wit and understanding of the conventions. Though I suspect he would also find it difficult to watch.

(One of my very favourite films. Along with Moon. Did I mentions Moon? :o) )

269:

Charlie,

I absolutely agree with you. The only Star Trek series I liked was the original series from the 60's, because there they managed to at least address some philosophical issues on the human condition in an interesting and sometimes even funny way. In all the other, later re-instantiations I lost interest very quickly due to the reasons you describe.

The only SF movies/ series I could honestly and personally recommend for knowledgeable people who haven't switched off their own thinking yet, would be:
Akira, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell (here also the series), most of the stories of Philip K. Dick made into movies, even though most of the movies themselves lack cinematic qualities, Paprika, Metoroporisu and some more which I don't remember right now

270:

TwistedByKnaves: isn't "Moon" that movie that uses the He3 canard as a major plot point? And clones who somehow magically inherit the personality of their predecessor?

See also the "using us as batteries" fuck-up in "The Matrix". (Now, if they'd not bottled out on their readers' intelligence and done it properly, i.e. "the Matrix is software using our brains as computers" -- which is what I think the original concept was heading for -- it'd have worked.)

Christian Wilk: Akira, check. Blade Runner, check. Ghost in the Shell -- yes, also Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, Stand Alone Complex, and most other stuff by Mamoru Oshii (including especially Avalon). The Dick movies ... I stayed away from the post-Blade Runner ones (I like my Dick neat). Hmm. Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer also worked, I think ...

271:

But that's the problem of most SF TV series - they're not SF. They just replay old scenarios with a different staffage. Plus occasional twist on the story, using series-specific props. It'd be very naive to expect coherent and innovative story from ST or SG-1 or... well, any SF TV series.

Because of that, I love ST:TNG. Why? I was a kid when it was screened, and I just managed to gather enough sentiment for it.

272:

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE

It's morning here. I'm about to get on a train with no wifi and crap phone service and go visit elderly relatives for a couple of days. Your chances of getting me to rise to the bait are thereby diminished.

When I get back I have a bunch more blog postings queued up. They include:

* I hate (c)rap music

* Michael Jackson: dead white guy?

* Capitalism sucks: Communism will save us

and

* Yes, your ass looks fat in that. (And you need to shower more often.)

273:

WARNING: Babylon 5 spoilers

"Not so much. The Vorlons don't even have any described cultures."

The whole point of the Vorlons is that they are mysterious - because that's how they present themselves. They are hyperadvanced compared to humanity, and for all we know their ideas of culture are quite foreign to ours, just like their technology is incomprehensible. But we are specifically shown that there are great differences of opinion between the Vorlons: witness the two Koshs.

"The Minbari have one culture made of three castes, and Mindbari from their multitude of colony planets are identical in culture to the single culture of the home planet."

They are also subdivided further into clans, which are quite different from each other, and often at odds with one another. And it's not like this worldwide system has always been in place: it is the specific result of Valen's actions in unifying the clans under the Grey Council. It's a world government, and one that is deeply steeped in theocracy, but that doesn't mean that it's entirely monolithic, or has always been so.

"The Narn have a single culture, with mention made of several religions, although if you could describe how those who revere the Book of G'Quan differ significantly from those who revere the Book of G'Kar, and how those differences compare to the differences between, say, Catholicism and Shinto, I'd be edified."

No, but the series does go out of its way to mention that not every Narn believes the same as every other Narn. This is important.
Perhaps to a Narn there wouldn't be such obvious differences between Catholicism and Shinto, either. It's all humans worshipping their strange gods.

"The Centauri: single culture."

Well, we are shown regional variations in accent, which are not just the result of the actors dicking around. But the Centauri are an ancient and extremely imperialistic empire: a point is made of the fact that they wiped out a competing sentient species on their planet. So the uniformity of culture we see isn't really very surprising.

"The Shadows: no culture; all we know is that they like "chaos.""
No *known* culture (other than a fear of the Vorlons and tongue-twisting names) does not imply *no* culture.

"Two of these aren't cultures: they're funny hats."

That's completely unfair to what the story is about and what these species' position in the story is. They are hyperadvanced races that have degenerated to fighting over philosophical points (and quite hypocritically at that). I think it's wonderful that in Kosh, we get to see that we still have a lot in common with them, but they are also *meant* to be quite mysterious. They keep themselves apart.

"The other three are monolithic cultures that one would be hard put to use more than a few hundred words describing.

If you can, say, describe three cultures of each of the Narn, Minbar (not castes!; cultures), and the Centauri that differ as much from each other as, say, Han culture does from Easter Island culture, or Basque culture does from Mayan culture, or Inuit culture does from Zulu culture, I'd also find that edifying. "

I think you're thinking in the wrong terms. Television - much of art, in fact - doesn't always work by showing you an exact representation of things. It works by implication. To me, Babylon 5 does at no point imply that cultures are monolithic: there are grave differences between various aspects of Minbari society, the Narns have various belief systems, and even the Vorlons seem to disagree with each other over quite a few things. When G'Kar talks about the different religious beliefs of the Narns, that is telling the audience that the Narns aren't monolithic, that there are important differences. The series doesn't have to devote forty minutes to a discussion of what these Narns believe and what those do - that's not relevant to the story.

And another thought: almost all the characters we meet are ambassadors or politicians or soldiers. If an alien encountered a human ambassador from Brazil, a human ambassador from the United States, and one from China... would they seem so different to him? There are great differences between us humans, but to overemphasize them is also quite dangerous.

And yes, humanity is shown to be the most diverse of all the species - but since when is that a bad thing? This is storytelling, and in the language of storytelling this is showing us the importance and beauty of diversity. Babylon 5 has long and beautiful speeches about this very subject: it embraces differences, diversity and hybridity. This is also the point of showing the profound differences between the various cultures that are encountered: we may not get to delve into the depths of each of them (and frankly, the story mostly just doesn't go there; spare me the forced long expository bits of so many sci-fi novels), but we see that there are many ways of looking at the universe, and that this is mostly a good thing. Furthermore, these various cultures are never just representative of one aspect of humanity, as they sometimes are in Star Trek.

In the end, it comes down to art being different from reality. Babylon 5 as a work of art is all about diversity and differences in thought: sometimes this is demonstrated within one group, sometimes in terms of all the groups.

274:

Aw, that's a shame, you're missing out on a lot of fun. Still, if you know what you like and you know what you don't like - makes sense to keep away from what you don't like. I do the same.

For me, the pleasure of technobabble is the simple pleasure of wordplay. The genius in this regard is Robert Holmes, writer and script editor on Doctor Who. Oh, and Douglas Adams, of course.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has a lot of fun in an early episode where they give the engineer a virus which turns all his dialogue into gibberish... of course, it's a joke, because his dialogue is mostly like that anyway.

275:

Marylee @ 243

"I remember what Brin said about Postman -- as long as he gets a lot of money, he doesn't care what they do to the story."

I'm going to assume you haven't actually read what Brin has written about the postman

http://davidbrin.com/postmanmovie.htm (Brin's site appears to be down as I write this but I distinctly remember his stance being a lot more nuanced than "I got me some $$$!")

276:

@39: Kinda funny, since sci-fi is one of those genres that excels in the "short story" format, you'd think that those would convert well to TV, but generally any decent sci-fi short story is so far outside the average TV audience's frame of reference that they simply can't "get it" without it being explained to them, and that works about as well as jokes that you need to explain.

I think the absolute worst violence Hollywood ever to science fiction involves short story "Amanda and the Alien" ("Starship Troopers" is a close second IMO). Original story by Robert Silverberg is a very clever inverse of usual "shapeshifting space monster escapes from captivity" trope. The alien who eats people and takes their appearance is a naive bumbler, while the 17-year old California girl is the REAL monster -- a totally amoral hedonist. (Among other things, she feeds her cheating boyfriend to the alien.) After she tires of her plaything, Amanda turns it in to the government -- presenting herself as a narrowly escaped victim, of course. The story ends as Amanda watches TV announcer gush about her "outwitting the most dangerous life form in the universe", and comments "Yeah, right. I know one which is a lot more dangerous!"

In the movie the alien is the same bumbling fool, but Amanda is its heroic protector who eventually delivers it back to its ship just ahead of EVIL government agents. The movie ends with Amanda on a talk show doing a "love, tolerance, and understanding" speech. Blecch.

277:

By dating yourself, I guess we're supposed to assume that you saw TOS in first run, starting in 1966? So 43 years later, it takes Ron Moore to point out to you what you disliked about Star Trek? What, you couldn't figure it out for 43 years? Also, I can see hating something after watching a good percentage of the episodes, but after only a trailer? Do you have a PhD in prejudging?

@2 Charles Stoss: "I suspect Bab5 needed to run to 120 episodes, just to get somewhere on the order of 120-240 minutes of world-building into the story line."

@197
Charles Stoss: “Jonas: I haven't misunderstood Babylon 5 -- I've never bothered watching it. Five alien races with well-defined human cultures? FAIL!”

Charles Stoss, FAIL! Maybe you should actually watch "Babylon 5" before you criticize it. At least then, you might have the slightest chance of knowing what you're talking about.

278:

Just a poke back at the all the Bab5 fanbois:

Babylon 5 _is_ bad, it's just as bad as Star Trek TNG and suffered from exactly the same problems.

Even though Charlie hasn't watched an episode he's noted the basic fail of B5 and it's ilk:

There's only a couple of minutes in an hour long episode in which to attempt forward any 'plot arc'

I did watch B5 and I remeber how dreadfully poor the episodes were where _absolutely nothing at all happened_ while you waited for the 2 minutes of plot arc buried somewhere in it.

The fact that B5 had a few moments of plot arc each episode and Star Tek didn't doesn't make B5 the best scifi ever.

TLDR: B5=ST:TNG=FAIL

279:

@148
“This diary entry feels to me like you're saying "I'm better then they are ... read my books!”

Kayanlau, you just hit the nail on the head.

280:

273: Jonas, I appreciate that you love B5, and that's fine; I'm not in any way trying to argue you out of that, or say you shouldn't; I'm fond of it, myself.

But what you've written hasn't answered a single question I've asked, or responded to a single request, or refuted a single point; what you did instead is support my points (and Charlie's) in terms that sound attractive to you, or that at least provide excuses, or, failing that, point elsewhere.

No offense intended whatever, but shorter Jonas: okay, the Shadows and Vorlons have no subcultures shown, or even any culture, but that's intentional!

The Minbari have no described subcultures, but they have clans, "which are quite different from each other" in ways I can't describe, because JMS never showed, but told, and I believe it must be so!

JMS didn't even provide support for the notion that there are any different Centauri cultures, but some actors have slightly different accents! And there's a reason they're monolithic!

The Narn... oh, look over there!

And in sum: "Television - much of art, in fact - doesn't always work by showing you an exact representation of things. It works by implication."

In other words, JMS doesn't show non-monolithic alien cultures, but I believe they exist anyway, except where there's a perfectly sound reason for them not to! They exist in my imagination!

And, finally "that's not relevant to the story."

None of this refutes the only point under debate here: that B5's five main races consisted of two sets of funny hats, and three monolithic cultures. And all the other alien races on B5 are even less described and equally monolithic.

It's fine that you're fine with that, but it doesn't change the case that this is what the tv show presents.

And it doesn't change the fact that a good sf novel, or series of novels will give you a hundred times more information on an alien race and culture and subcultures than 120+ hours of tv will.

Closing observation: good narrative art doesn't tell: it shows.

None of which changes that Babylon 5 deserves lots of praise for what it did accomplish, or that it was a landmark in tv space opera, or that there's much entertainment and enjoyment to be found in it if it's the sort of thing you like.

(And, in fact, it is among the sort of things that I like, myself.)

If it's your favorite tv show of all time, or immensely important to you, that's great. That you want to share your pleasure with others: that's great.

More power to you, and don't get devoured by a Pak'ma'ra, have your soul taken by a Soul Hunter (unless you're into bottles), manipulated by a Shadow, wiped out by someone from Thirdspace, infected by a Drakh, or too intimate with a Vendrizi.

Now, you crazy kids: get the hell out of our galaxy!

Okay, just kidding on that last one.

281:

@277 Robin: "There's only a couple of minutes in an hour long episode in which to attempt forward any 'plot arc'

I did watch B5 and I remeber how dreadfully poor the episodes were where _absolutely nothing at all happened_ while you waited for the 2 minutes of plot arc buried somewhere in it."

I don't know how anybody could have watched all of "Babylon 5" and manage to say that. I really don't. Were you watching with divided attention while you were doing something else?

282:

"But what you've written hasn't answered a single question I've asked, or responded to a single request, or refuted a single point; what you did instead is support my points (and Charlie's) in terms that sound attractive to you, or that at least provide excuses, or, failing that, point elsewhere."

I fear we shall have to agree to disagree; I think what I said makes quite a bit of sense. Am I perhaps more sensitive to how diversity is portrayed because my studies have focused on postcolonialism? Maybe. I'm certainly not the only one who thinks that Babylon 5 portrays cultures as (mostly, or not entirely) non-monolithic, and celebrates diversity. If you feel that it doesn't, that's OK... but again, please don't tell me that I'm finding excuses for something because I'm a fan. My opinions are based on my analysis of the series and on my understanding of art.

It is true, of course, that a novel will give you more information on cultures and subcultures than a TV series ever will. In many cases even too much. But that's a matter of different storytelling mechanisms and a different emphasis.

I also have to say that, as I mentioned above, I find a too-strong emphasis on notions of clearly separated cultures and subcultures to actually be rather disturbing, and in many ways not very truthful. The fact that B5 chooses to concentrate more on what we have in common (while still celebrating difference) is something I quite admire.

283:

It's interesting to contrast large-budget effects-driven SF with something like "Primer", made with a minuscule budget with no effects to speak of. Perhaps the equation of shiny, expensive effects with good speculative storytelling is an overripe meme.

As for Trek itself, I don't think it's invariably a terrible show, but it is nearly always terrible SF. The canonical rant is still Justin B. Rye's Trek Mega-rant. The shabby world-building can be excused; the kneejerk Luddism cannot.

phage mentioned it, but I second the recommendation of "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex". There are clunky, boring infodumps... but they're all clunky, boring infodumps about politics and history; the worldbuilding is all done by implication. It's clunky and overly didactic at times, but it's worlds better than any network SF we have, at least on this side of the Pacific.

[#70] Adam Whitehead: What we really need are some 'proper' SF writers to get into the scriptwriting business, but it seems that the prospects for that at the moment are very slim.

I recall Straczynski complaining that he got a lot of flak from the SF community for working in TV rather than in written form, partly as criticism over the vastly disproportionate compensation per word TV writers get as opposed to book writers... and to be fair, if someone else was getting paid orders of magnitude more to produce a smaller body of work that would barely pass as decent SF if it wasn't on TV, I'd be a bit resentful as well.

But is the sour-grapes problem even really the root cause of hacky SF writing on TV? Do SF writers, as a group, have the constitution to deal with constant executive meddling, to have their works reduced to lowest-common-denominator pap (as quantified here), even if they did consider it a respectable profession? JMS executive-produced all of and wrote most of "Babylon 5", which is something of a herculean effort. It's not something you could expect to happen with any frequency. One might think that the SciFi channel would bankroll low-budget miniseries or adaptations of hard SF, but they appear to have elected to go with pro wrestling instead.

[#120] Kroton: Charlie's flaw is a misunderstanding of genre. Star Trek is basically the story of some sailors far from port who confront gods and monsters on their voyages.

Fine, but don't call it SF. Some of us like SF, and the stagnation caused by the ubiquity of, as Rye put it, "hot and cold running Roddenberry" meant that for most people, Trek was SF.

284:

Speaking of terrible SF, I'd highly recommend Fred Clarke's epic critique of "Left Behind"; in this instance, the authors are writing SF (mass disappearances! mind control!), but steadfastly refuse to believe that they are. The worldbuilding is unbelievably shoddy, because the authors have a plot that they've outlined, and it simply doesn't include any worldbuilding; therefore, there is none. It's weirdly grotesque. (The posts entitled "A New Car" and "A Billion Samanthas" are particularly good examples.) In a setting which cries out for investigations of how the world would be changed in the wake of such an event, the authors go out of their way to avoid it.

I'm aware that "Left Behind" isn't usually considered SF, but I think that's primarily because it doesn't take itself that way; the concept is perfectly SFnal, but the execution is not.

285:

You have dismissed many good shows out-of-hand.

Lexx is terrific, did you give that a go? Hilarious and vicious satire that mixed camp, sci-fi, horror.

The mini and first 2 seasons of new Battlestar were terrific, you should also give them a try. Stop watching after that because it goes right into the toilet by season 4.

Babylon 5 is good also. As is Farscape.

These shows, and many others, actually feature the type of stories that explore the human condition you say you prefer and are not heavy in the technobabble of Star Trek Next Generation (that show was indeed an abomination).

Even RDM's teen-angst Roswell is pretty good.

The original Star Trek had wonderful writers and hence it is still terrific and relevant today.

286:
[#227] Gary Farber: Galaxy magazine used to run an ad: "You'll never see it in Galaxy!" It consisted of a paragraph from a western with all the nouns changed to "sciencefictional" sounding words.

The ad copy is on Wikipedia, and the body of the text reads:

Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand. "Get back from those controls, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last space trip."

Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhang of rim-rock... and at that point a tall, lean wrangler stepped out from behind a high boulder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand. "Rear back and dismount, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts."

I'm told that this trope has actually been referred by the name "Bat Durston", but I can't verify that personally.

[#243] Marilee J. Layman: I remember what Brin said about Postman -- as long as he gets a lot of money, he doesn't care what they do to the story.

But Brin didn't say that; he said that he was pleased that the basic optimism of his book showed through, and that he didn't really mind the changes that had been made. I don't know how much of this was Brin being overjoyed by his work being adapted at all, but he did say he'd have been very, very disappointed if they'd changed the moral of the story.

287:

Charlie: Serious question, but do you watch (let alone enjoy) any television at all?

288:

Nestor @275, if you can't remember how to spell names, please copy & paste. I hadn't read that before; I'd heard him say something quite similar to what I quoted in a party at a Worldcon. I think the one in Baltimore in 1998.

grendelkhan @286, see above.

289:

I have to admit to agreeing with a lot of points made here.
nBSG dropped the ball at the end, oh why didn't it end with them meeting us in the present?
B5s space battles were great , and you gotta love the no magic shields bit,
but startrek,, my main peeve with that show was a simple one. Everyone knows everyone elses job.
'captain, the [tech} has overloaded the {tech tech]'
'ahh, geordie why dont you discombobulate the geegaw?'
why would the captain

ghost in the shell is excellent
the matrix could have ended well- but didn't,after film 2 my idea would have been Neo doing some basic reading of science and working out that the whole duracell idea was bobbins, at that point he would have seen the word 'exit' superimposed on his vision.
the reason he has 'magical powers' even in the grim real world is that its ALL emulation, he is the captain of a slower-than-light arkship, the population of the matrix are sleeping colonists the matrix is a fabrication to keep them sane. the grim world is for the officers etc
...and instead it turned into magic pixie shite

290:

Charlie - Okay, thanks for clarifying. Since 1999 I've had constant trouble with print magazines and newspapers cut-and-pasting whole sections of that essay and publishing it as their original work. Your sentence has so many similarities to mine, it leapt out at me. I appreciate now that we were just making parallel critiques. Feel free to keep or delete my original post, as suits you. Best, Kristen B.

291:

I have a complementary explanation to Stross's for why Treknobabble is disappointing: it just isn't very dramatic.

A Treknobabble episode appears (from the point of view of a screenwriter like Ron Moore) to possess a dramatic structure (threat—despair—action—hope—victory) but it falls flat because the viewer's only clue as to the severity of the threat and the heroism or skill involved in the action is what the characters have to say about it.

Generally the television show doesn't have the budget to do much more than showing the characters sitting in chairs typing at computers, and although the actors try their best, it's hard to make this dramatic. The show doesn't have the time to bring us up to speed on the nature of the threat and the magnitude of the heroes' resources, because each episode effectively starts form a blank slate and introduces only enough background to make the episode's plot hang together, not enough to build a world of which we could come to systematically understand the challenges.

So when a character says something like, "we could try to use our warp engines to generate an inverse resonance wave. If we match the exact frequency and amplitude of the soliton, we'd be able to neutralize it", how hard is that? Maybe it's the equivalent of, "if we tune our television to the exact frequency of BBC2, we'd be able to watch Newsnight".

292:

Frank@37

If your serious about the offer of nearly complete set of BSG DVD's I'll take you up on that. I haven't seen all the eps yet myself.

e-mail me at trebor1415 at hotmail.com if you're serious and want my address.

Rob

293:

282: "I think what I said makes quite a bit of sense."

I didn't say it didn't make sense. It wasn't responsive to what I wrote.

I asked you: "If you can, say, describe three cultures of each of the Narn, Minbar (not castes!; cultures) and the Centauri that differ as much from each other as, say, Han culture does from Easter Island culture, or Basque culture does from Mayan culture, or Inuit culture does from Zulu culture, I'd also find that edifying."

You didn't respond.

I asked you to "...say, compare the depth of three different cultures of Centauri, Minbari, and Narn, to the depths and distinctions of culture described in, oh, C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe, or the depths and distinctions of culture found in Le Guin's Hainish cycle, or in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, or in Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind, or even on Ringworld."

You didn't respond.

I asked you: "Would you really argue that someone could write tens of thousands of words describing the different cultures of Narn, or Minbar, or the Centauri empire, based solely on what JMS put on screen?"

You didn't respond.

I asked you: "Could you give me some pointers to some such writings about the various cultures of the Shadows, or the Vorlons, please? Or pointers to someone's several thousands of words outlining, oh, ten -- no, five -- even three -- such distinctly different Narn or Minbari or Centauri cultures? Thanks, if so. (Note that this is a trivial exercise as regards, say, Middle Earth, or the Hainish Cycle, or Cherryh, or Smith.)"

You didn't respond.

What you wrote made sense. It simply didn't answer any of my questions, or fulfill any of my requests.

You assert that "Babylon 5 portrays cultures as (mostly, or not entirely) non-monolithic," but, in fact, can describe no such multifarious cultures of any of the nonhuman races of B5, but instead assert that television "works by implication."

Which is nice, but: you can't describe any multifarious cultures of the Narn, Minbari, Shadows, etc., because JMS never described any. Which was all that was asserted.

What Charlie wrote, #197:

[...] Jonas: I haven't misunderstood Babylon 5 -- I've never bothered watching it. Five alien races with well-defined human cultures? FAIL! First ask yourself how many human cultures there are. Then get back to me. Hint: the answer is currently measured in the thousands, with many more thousands that are extinct. Second hint: there is no single dominant human culture today. If you think there is, you're simply not sufficiently well-travelled to have learned any better. The rest of the world is not populated by Americans who speak a different language: they're different.
Homogeneous alien cultures, like your prototypical "small farming planet", are a classic sign of world-building FAIL in SF. It's a FAIL so glaringly huge that there isn't really any point wasting 80-100 hours watching the series, because it's broken by design.
You go on to write that B5 "...celebrates diversity. If you feel that it doesn't, that's OK."

I didn't opine on what B5 "celebrates" or not. I pointed out, in support of Charlie's point, that B5 shows no alien races with a multitude of internal differing cultures. If you'd like to refute that claim, you're free to do so by pointing to the episodes that refute it.

"My opinions are based on my analysis of the series and on my understanding of art."

That's nice, but if you'd like to point to episodes that describe various cultures of Narn, Minbar, the Shadows, the Centauri, the Gaim, the Drakh, etc., let alone describe them in the depth that compares to the examples I gave of good text sf/fantasy, such as Cherryh, Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, Le Guin, etc., please do name the episodes.

"It is true, of course, that a novel will give you more information on cultures and subcultures than a TV series ever will."

Then I don't know what you're arguing with.

What Charlie said in his 197 comment is something that you'll hear at any sf workship conducted by sf professionals if you hand in a story that, absent an extremely compelling reason organic to the story, has a Planet Of One Culture.

Now, I don't agree with his absolutist declaration "that there isn't really any point wasting 80-100 hours watching the series, because it's broken by design," because that's a claim that isn't remotely true for everyone: it's only true for people who are looking only for the same things Charlie is looking for. I'm perfectly happy to have different standards for what entertains me on tv and what I'll judge to be good text science fiction.

But I do recognize that I'm applying entirely different standards.

What standards you, or anyone, want to apply to what you enjoy, or look for in entertainment, or fiction, or literature, is entirely up to you, of course, as is how consistent or inconsistent you wish to be. I'm perfectly happy to apply different standards in different contexts, myself, and neither would I ever insist that anyone else has to use my own standards.

But if I'm describing what's commonly considered to be a standard of good sf by most professional sf editors and writers, as to what is apt to be sold for print publication to most sf genre markets, and what's apt to wind up winning awards, or what's apt to be anthologized, or mentioned as among the better stories of the year, or what's simply going to be commonly considered to meet a minimal standard of quality, or what's going to be bounced at an sf workshop (such as the Clarion workshops, for example), then I'm simply describing the objective reality of a commonly held standard of the professional sf print marketplace and critical arena.

Regardless of how you feel about it.

Let's just go back to "[i]t is true, of course, that a novel will give you more information on cultures and subcultures than a TV series ever will."

A good sf short story will, in all likelihood, too.

But, as it happens, the medium of print, and the visual media, do, in fact, function differently, and have different constraints, and it's okay to look to each to do different things.

283: "JMS executive-produced all of and wrote most of 'Babylon 5', which is something of a herculean effort."

Indeed. Because the results of writing are so much more clearly discernable, even in script-writing, than the results of producing, I've always felt that the successes (and failures) of JMS-the-writer unfairly overshadowed the truly awesome accomplishments of JMS-the-producer. (The same is, I think, true of Ronald D. Moore.)

294:

286: Thanks muchly for that reminder about Wikipedia, Marilee! Indeed, the text of the Bat Durston ad is here, among many other places.

295:

285: "You have dismissed many good shows out-of-hand."

Remarkably, people dismiss all sorts of things out of hand when it comes to their personal preferences.

296:

I have to agree with what many have already mentioned; How can your opinion be valid after admitting to never having watched some of the shows? A theater critic offering a review of a play he didn't see?!? WTF? Here are my informed opinions on some of the Shows mentioned:

ST:TOS Loved it! Even with all it's many now obvious flaws, it became the touchstone against which all following SciFi TV was judged, most stories were written by actual SciFi writers although sometimes morally preachy it was a valid commentary against and a reflection of many of it's times. (It was also the first TV show to be resurrected due to the efforts of it's fanbase.)
Fav Episodes: Arena, Balance of terror, Devil in the dark.

ST:TNG UGH! Most of the first season was a blatant ripoff and remake of TOS. Sad, since I had such high hopes for it. Later it finally found it's own path but by then I was disgusted with what Berman had done to the franchise. Soap Opera writing with Soap Opera stories set in space and let's not forget the need to grab the teen demographic with Wesley saving the Enterprise D every other episode (Die!Wesley,Die!) {Please note that this is NOT my opinion of Wil Wheaton who I admire, just Berman's destruction of the series}

SeaQuest:DSV Wasted talent and a bad case of Die!Wesley,Die!

ST:DS9 Mixed Feelings on this one, some things done well Ferengi were amusing, Shapeshifter security, Dominion War. Others not so well, Bajoran new-agey mysticism Cardassian cardboard cutout bad guys. Overall I preferred

Babylon 5 Physics based on reality, not magical forcefields and artificial gravity. Some shows were weaker than others, some acting could have been a little better but all in all some of the best and most quotable dialog I've ever encountered. Londo's observation on humans and communities, G'Kars retort on opressed peoples and the need for freedom. Ignore the fragmentation that was season 5 and this show stands above any of the ST universe. As for comments some have made regarding monocultures, I think it is too soon to tell whether any planet(s) that reaches the stage of interstellar flight will be capable of sustaining the luxury of being multicultured.

Firefly/Serenity Enjoyed it, but uncertain as to the realities of it's interstellar economics. I Don't know if chartering a ship to fly a callgirl halfway across the galaxy is a viable economical model ;-)

Farscape Loved it, even though I recognized it was mostly "D&D in space". True, No explanation for the anomalies of physics but enjoyed the fact it didn't take itself that seriously. Started losing interest the closer John came to getting home, and missed the photo-orgasmic blue plant lady ;-)

Lexx Another BioMechanical ship similar to Farscape in many ways but campier.

SAAB Great show killed before it could reach it's potential, introducing AI's to the concept of "chance" Brilliant

Sliders Liked this for the first few seasons, the problem was their attempts to return "Home" Home is where you are, like H's cat once you observe you've changed the parameters

Finally there are many I've no Doubt missed, don't be a smeghead about it, it's all opinion anyway no one has any more validity than anyone elses and what the hell is up with SciFi or SfyFy as they'd rather be called. How queer, why would you throw away a brand with such recognition to switch to something that looks like a bad venereal disease?!? Is their marketing director the same guy that came up with "new" coke?

297:

Speaking of Robert Silverberg, and world-building, here's Silverberg.

298:

Comment after comment here just reinforces Charlie's point, as I understand it, which is not that any or all TV SF is crap, but that there are inherent limitations that will always hobble it as a story telling (let alone SF story telling) medium. How many times here has someone said something along the lines of "Of course, seasons 1-3 were wobbly but then the story really hit its stride ..."

Now, what would be an editor's reaction to an author producing a MS and cheerfully admitting "Of course, the first half sucks but the story really gets going on page 200?" Or "most of the characters are great but a couple stink?"

And yet this is accepted without comment as part of the natural process of producing a show. Of course, if you can avoid or at least minimise the suckitude then that's good, but hey, that's how TV works. It's inherent in the medium, and remains so, whether you're talking about the 60s or 70s or any other decade.

Written SF will always be better. The FX budget is unlimited, the story takes exactly as long as it needs to take and characters never have to be shoehorned in because their contract says so. This is not to say you can't enjoy it. This is not to say there can't be good shows. But it will never beat the written form, and that is what Charlie chooses to concentrate on.

Knoman @ 295: "Even with all it's many now obvious flaws, it became the touchstone against which all following SciFi TV was judged"

I think you've also proved Charlie's point.

299:

@ 296: "Now, what would be an editor's reaction to an author producing a MS and cheerfully admitting "Of course, the first half sucks but the story really gets going on page 200?" Or "most of the characters are great but a couple stink?"

If you're Steven Erikson, you apparently get a ten-year, £600,000 advance ;-) I enjoy his MALAZAN serious a fair bit, but GARDENS OF THE MOON is a confused mess for its first half (albeit a somewhat enjoyable mess) and most of its characters are bland and uninteresting until the second half of the novel. There's probably a few hundred other examples in modern SF&F publishing.

@ 283: "I recall Straczynski complaining that he got a lot of flak from the SF community for working in TV rather than in written form, partly as criticism over the vastly disproportionate compensation per word TV writers get as opposed to book writers..."

Actually, he was getting this ribbing from the extremely well-known, quite well-off (this was in the 1990s) Larry Niven of all people, which kind of took the shine off the criticism. It also ignored the fact that JMS was only making a decent wage off the show because he was the showrunner and executive producer as well as the head writer. As a simple staff writer, the financial restitution would have been far more modest, probably considerably less than what Niven got paid for the later, unnecessary RINGWORLD sequels.

@235: "But while the Narn, Centauri, and particularly the Minbari have somewhat more depth to them (it doesn't take a lot to have more depth than a one-word description), if someone can point to a B5 episode where a Minbari culture that doesn't have three castes (soldier, worker, religious) was described, or an episode that described different Centauri cultures, or an episode that described several Narn cultures, I'd be curious to know the names of those episodes."

These elements were not germane to the TV series itself, apart from the acknowledgement that the Minbari were once a species of many cultures at war with one another who were unified by the Great War against the Shadows and then religiously unified by Valen, or the Centauri were once many countries and ethnic groups who unified over a long period. There was some in-depth information over these internal divisions within JMS' backstory notes for the series which were made available for various sources, most notably the roleplaying game which went into the history of the Minbari, Centauri and Narns in some considerable depth the TV show simply could not match as it didn't have the time and 99% of the audience wouldn't care about it.

234: "The last three episodes is one giant dues ex machina because Moore had no idea how to end the series. (he did the same thing with DS9)"

Moore was not in charge of DS9, a mistake a lot of people keep making. He was only just one of several producers working under Ira Steven Behr. In addition, DS9 didn't really have a DEM ending either. The ending is fairly naturalistic and lines up pretty well with the premise as laid down in the pilot episode seven years earlier. The Federation and its allies beat the Dominion the hard way, through a two-year-long war that kills billions and finally the Dominion gives up in a negotiated surrender after previously vowing to fight to the death (shades of the Pacific War).

229: "B5 had many virtues, but its primary problem as sf was that it was an assemblage of famous sf and fantasy tropes without a single original sf idea of its own. They would seem like fresh sf ideas if all you knew about sf was that which had been seen before on tv and in movies, but if you were familiar with written sf, it was all immensely-trodden ground."

This is one of the points behind the show. JMS never pretended otherwise. He even said that all on-screen SF is 15-20 years behind developments in written SF, and he did not exclude BABYLON 5 from that comparison. He even had an episode that was (initially subconsciously, but later deliberately) a major riff on A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, and kept telling people in interviews about it so they knew it was a homage rather than a rip-off.

136: "While the small scale kinematics and tactics of B5's space battles are mostly accurate, the medium and large scale physics and tactical issues (orbital mechanics, lack of justification for crewed fighters) are very poorly implemented."

One very under-explored element of the show is that the development of AIs by all the major races was abandoned at one point or another, apart from the Vorlons (who used organicaly-grown AI systems to control their ships). Without decent AI, advanced automated fighters (like the combat wasps from Peter Hamilton's NIGHT'S DAWN books) are not possible, so pilots are needed. The reason for the abandoning of AI is not given in the show, although I think there was a hint in one episode (CEREMONIES OF LIGHT AND DARK) that they were simply very annoying.

@107 - "And while we're talking about inaccurate science, I've never understood why Babylon 5 was such a hard-SF fans' darling. JMS railed against sounds in space then promptly had them in every space battle the show ever did. That big, rolling beer barrel of a station? Nice idea for artificial gravity. Too bad they didn't work out the vectors. The apparent gravity should have everyone walking *on* those windows on the outer hull not past them (and why does the bridge have gravity when it's at the center?)."

The studio told him to put the sounds in space in. They rationalised it that the computers in the fighters generated audio information based on external sensor inputs to help the pilots react to outside events. Dubious? Yes. But at least they had a go at it. Also, B5 has no big external windows apart from the CIC and the three observation decks, which are all oriented correctly, so I’m not sure what you’re talking about there. The one time they had a character find an exterior inspection window, it was built into the floor and people had to step over it, which is correct. As for the CIC, it's 1/3 down the hull of the station from the axis and has a big sign outside which says "WARNING: LOW GRAVITY AREA." Note the Season 2 finale also makes major and correct use of the apparent low-gravity field at the station’s spin axis for dramatic effect.

300:

If you work in an IT department, you'll hear conversations like this almost every day. Especially from the network guys in the server farm.

La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."

Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech!"

La Forge: "No, Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."

Picard: "Well, then reboot the server. Or we're doomed."

301:

For the sake of not delaying, since Charlie is traveling, and comments with links get held for his approval, I'm putting the two links I'd otherwise put here into a following comment.

"As a simple staff writer, the financial restitution would have been far more modest, probably considerably less than what Niven got paid for the later, unnecessary RINGWORLD sequels."

WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA 2008 THEATRICAL AND TELEVISION BASIC AGREEMENT SCHEDULE OF MINIMUMS:

[...] TELEVISION COMPENSATION
NETWORK PRIME TIME (ABC, CBS, FBC and NBC)
Length of Program: 60 minutes or less
Effective Effective Effective
2/13/08 - 5/2/09- 5/2/10-
Applicable minimums 5/1/09 5/1/10 5/1/11
STORY+ $ 12,668 $ 13,048 $ 13,439
TELEPLAY 20,886 21,513 22,158
Installments:
+ First Draft: 90% of minimum or 60% of Agreed Compensation, whichever is greater
Final Draft: Balance of Agreed Compensation
STORY & TELEPLAY 31,748 32,700 33,681
Installments:
+ Story: 30% of Agreed Compensation
First Draft Teleplay: The difference between the Story Installment and 90% of minimum, or 40%
of Agreed Compensation, whichever is greater
Final Draft Teleplay: Balance of Agreed Compensation
Length
Average science fiction novel advances, per Tobias Bucknell in 2005:
[...] The range is from $0-$40,000 for an advance on a first novel.
The median advance is $5000.
The median figure is a better indicator of what most people consider ‘typical.’ Mathematical average for first time advances was $6424.
[...]
Hardcover vs Trade Paperback or Mass Market for Multiple Novelist
Hardcover advances had a median of $15,000
Paperback advances had a median of $10,000
Summary:
The typical advance for a first novel is $5000. The typical advance for later novels, after a typical number of 5-7 years and 5-7 books is $12,500. Having an agent at any point increases your advance. There is some slight correlation between number of books and number of years spent writing as represented in the 5-12.5 thousand dollar advance shift of an average of 5-7 years.
I don't know what advances Larry got for his later Ringworld books. Let's, for simplicity's sake, imagine he got $200,000 each for The Ringworld Throne and Ringworld's Children, and that he earned out his advances, but hasn't made grossly more on royalties.

In 2008, the WGA minimum payment for a delivering both a story and teleplay for prime-time 60 minute drama was 64,238.

Now, on the one hand, the WGA figures for the mid-Nineties, when JMS was writing B5 were lower, and I'm not going to check exactly how much. On the other hand, whether JMS was paying his freelance writers Guild minimum, or something higher, is also something I don't know. Neither do I know, offhand, and won't investigate, whether, as a syndicated show, B5 paid the the primetime rate, or something lower.

But, for simplicity's sake, let's assume he was paying slightly higher than minimum, to the tune of what today's minimum WGA rate is, and let's acknowedge that these are highly rough, and unreliable, guestimates on both sides of the aisle.

But what we come out with is that if you wrote three tv stories and teleplays for B5, and sold one story besides, we guesstimate that you'd make more than we're guesstimating Larry Niven would have made with his hypothetical $200,000 single Ringworld book, and if you'd sold six stories-and-teleplays and one story to B5 "as a simple staff writer," you'd make more than we're guessimating Larry Niven would have made with his two hypothetical advances.

This is all extremely rough, but I think it's fair to say that a regular "simple staff writer" on a tv series makes more per tv season than a very famous science fiction author does, and isn't remotely paid "far more modest[ly]" than a well-known, award-winning, sf/fantasy novelist unless said novelist is, say, a William Gibson. Or a Roger Zelazny, at the peak of their career, signing a five book contract for a best-selling series like the Amber series. Or a Robert Jordan. In other words, unless you're one of a handful of best-seller-list authors.

302:

WGA Contract link.

Tobias Buckell novel advance survey report. My apologies to Tobias for typoing his name as "Bucknell"!

303:

"... the TV show simply could not match as it didn't have the time and 99% of the audience wouldn't care about it."

Which was Charlie's point.

304:

Oh, oops, I glitched my figures above: the $64,238 figure was for a 120 minutes or less (but more than 90 minutes) program. The figure for a 60 minute program was $31,748.

So make that six tv stories and teleplays for B5, and sold one story besides for the equivalent of a $200,000 one book advance, and twelve tv stories and teleplays for B5, and sold one story besides.

Which would probably work out to what someone on staff as a tv writer, working at Guild minimum, would make as being the equivalent of a $200,000 novel advance.

But very few sf writers get $200,000 novel advances. As I also mentioned above, the median for a paperback advance is ~$10k and ~$15k for a hardcover.

On the other hand, I can't see this as any reason to give tv writers a hard time: it's just a shame that the book business doesn't pay remotely as well.

Unfortunately, there's no practical option for book writers to unionize.

305:

Charlie,

I'm not sure I agree with your point about homogeneous cultures in B5. We occupy a transitional point in human history, one that would have occurred long ago in the case of the older, more advanced cultures that are central to Babylon 5, cultures that have long had space travel and contact with alien races, a factor that could well lead to political unification where none existed before. But beyond that, the tendency here on earth appears to me to be one of progressive political and cultural integration, facilitated by improvements in transportation and communications. Within nations, tribal identities have been progressively effaced, their languages and practices wiped out. The world now has a nascent supranational organization, the United Nations, where one had never existed before the first world war. Europe is moving grudgingly towards voluntary unification. Not to mention that people in China wear business suits, people in Africa listen to rap, the same multinational corporations and soul-destroying chain stores operate in Tokyo that operate in New York.

All of this suggests to me that earth is becoming increasingly monocultural, and that barring a cultural paradigm shift akin to the start of the Middle Ages we'll continue to do so into the future. And I think JMS adopted that view. For example, his earth is essentially unified, as is Star Trek's, with a single president heading an organization called Earthgov. Yet he has taken the trouble to portray earth as still a relatively diverse place compared to these older cultures.

The real error I think would be to portray a planet that like us has only recently mastered high speed travel and global communications as culturally monolithic. Which happens often enough in TV sci fi, but not, if I remember correctly, on Babylon 5 . . .

306:

Gary @294, that wasn't me with Wikipedia, it was grendelkhan.

307:

Adam @299,

I don't seem to recall anywhere in WWII where the wormhole aliens ate an entire Japanese invasion fleet. Maybe I missed it? Moor wrote the entire Dominion War arc, which generally was really good, but if the "godlike aliens living in the wormhole" who destroy an entire invasion fleet isn't Dues Ex Machina I certainly don't know what is.

308:

"I don't seem to recall anywhere in WWII where the wormhole aliens ate an entire Japanese invasion fleet. Maybe I missed it? Moor wrote the entire Dominion War arc, which generally was really good, but if the 'godlike aliens living in the wormhole' who destroy an entire invasion fleet isn't Dues Ex Machina I certainly don't know what is."

That's not at all how DS9 ended. You're confusing an episode from several seasons earlier with the end, which took years to work up to; there wasn't any kind of deus ex machina to ending the Dominion War in any way; as noted above, billions died on both sides.

grendelkhan, Marilee: sorry for my misreading/misstatement.

309:

I wonder if the main problem with SF on TV is the limited number of producers?

Now, you may look at American TV and say "300 channels! How can you call that limited?" but the reality is that the majority of Americans still only have the broadcast main channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW - previously UPN & WB). In comparison the viewing audience of HBO/Showtime/SciFi is minimal.

So only 5 primary channels, and they're fighting for audience.

(I'll ignore the UK because their SciFi output is minimal, even though they've done the best ever in the past. I'll ignore other countries because their impact is minimal, even though Charlie Jade was from South Africa).

What we see is an extremely small and competitive market. Lowest common denominator, survival of the fittest^Wmost popular. Compare that to the SciFi written market; yes the market may be small compared to the overall book-purchasing base, but every SciFi book sold doesn't prevent a romance book being sold.

OK, sure, the episode advert breaking format of the medium impacts story telling methodology, but I don't believe that, itself, is insurmountable. I think it's the restricted distribution that's the real problem.

Why does BSG stand out so much? It really wasn't that good... but in comparison to the rest, it was.

Direct-to-video (DVD/Blu-Ray) is the hope for good visual SciFi (whether it's space opera or hard SciFi or anything else on the spectrum); this is the closest to the book market we've got.

310:

"...but the reality is that the majority of Americans still only have the broadcast main channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW - previously UPN & WB)."

Well, that isn't true. 58% of American households had cable as of 2006; more do now.

311:

Cable figure link.

312:

"More do now": slightly correction; cable subscribers have been dropping in recent years, thanks to to the growth of satellite competition, and internet competition (and probably DVD competition): "cable penetration of homes passed peaked at 65.5% in 1998."

But the idea that most Americans haven't had cable tv in the past ten years is just nuts.

313:

[#294] Gary Farber: I find it glorious that the phrase you Googled was "Jets blasting, Bat Durston came". It may be one of the most adorable sentences I've ever read.

314:

Adam@299, you make many points that are worth discussing, but I'm only going to address one, as it happens to be something I've been thinking about:

"Without decent AI, advanced automated fighters (like the combat wasps from Peter Hamilton's NIGHT'S DAWN books) are not possible, so pilots are needed."

While the lack of decent AI prevents the use of self-guided fighters, there's another option for non-crewed fighters that isn't explained at all, by my memory: remotely-controlled drones. With a drone, each fighter has a pilot, but the pilots aren't with the fighters; they're back in a control room.

Granted that this removes some of the tension from space battles - taking the destruction of a ship from loss of life to a visit to the Radio Shack Planet - (sorry, Charlie, I couldn't resist) - but from a worldbuilding standpoint, in a universe with FTL communication and fly-by-wire fighters, it hardly makes sense NOT to use remotes.

315:

"There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain."

- G'Kar in Babylon 5: "Z'ha'dum"


"So much has been lost, so much forgotten. So much pain, so much blood. And for what, I wonder. The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast terrible inbetween."

- Centauri Emperor in Babylon 5: "The Coming of Shadows"


"Words have meaning and names have power. The universe began with a word, you know. But which came first: the word or the thought behind the word? You cannot create language without thought .. and you cannot conceive a thought without language. So which created the other and, thus, created the universe?"

"You cannot turn away from death simply because you're afraid of what might happen without you. That's not enough! You're not embracing life. You're fleeing death. And so you're caught in between, unable to go forward or backward. Your friends need what you can be when you are no longer afraid, when you know who you are and why you are and what you want, when you are no longer looking for reasons to live, but can simply be."

"You must let go. Surrender yourself to death. The death of flesh, the death of fear. Step into the abyss, and let go."

- Lorien in Babylon 5: "Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?"


"Should we just pull back, forget the whole thing as a bad idea and take care of our own problems at home?

No. We have to stay here, and there's a simple reason why: ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics and you'll get ten different answers. But there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on: whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu and Einstein and Morobuto and Buddy Holly and Aristophenes. And all of this .. all of this was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars."

- Sinclair in Babylon 5: "Infection"


"It was an early Earth president, Abraham Lincoln, who best described our situation: 'The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor, to the last generation. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, our last best hope for Earth.'"

- Sheridan in Babylon 5: "Points of Departure"


"I will tell you a great secret, perhaps the greatest of all time: the molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out."

"We are all born as molecules in the hearts of a billion stars. Molecules that do not understand politics or policies or differences. Over a billion years, we foolish molecules forget who we are and where we came from. In desperate acts of ego, we give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps, and pretend that our light is better than everyone else's."

- Delenn in Babylon 5: "A Distant Star", "And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder"

316:

loganprometheus: what is this, a cherry-picking session for emotional rhetoric?

Hint: out of context, it doesn't work. You remember the context; I don't.

317:

Charlie @270,

OK, maybe you wouldn't (/didn't?). Shame.

I don't know enough about the He3 science and was prepared to accept it. It could have been Smarties without affecting the plot.

As for clones magically inheriting the same personality as their predecessor did, maybe. Or maybe not. We don't really know. What is important is that it felt that way to them. Given that they came preloaded with the same experience, I see no problem with this.

I thought the bit which would rile you, if any, was the escape method, justified by those magic four words [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER]. Seemed like a stretch to me.

I'm slowly beginning to get your point, though. For you, an error in the science (whether honest or reckless) invalidates the film in the same way it invalidates a bridge. However witty, intelligent, beautiful and wise it may be.

Fair enough.

318:

"I didn't opine on what B5 "celebrates" or not. I pointed out, in support of Charlie's point, that B5 shows no alien races with a multitude of internal differing cultures. If you'd like to refute that claim, you're free to do so by pointing to the episodes that refute it."

OK, I've tried to respond on two levels, and I don't think we're getting anywhere. I've said that on the one hand, showing HUGE distinctions in individuals due to culture is probably unrealistic (see my example of multiple Earth ambassadors) and on the other, art in most forms works by implication rather than exposition. Yes, a lot of sci-fi novels will cover page after page with exposition about this group or that group. Babylon 5 does not, but it does show that cultures aren't monolithic - there are differences in political outlook, religion, tradition, and so on. Suggesting that there is variety and hybridity is the exact opposite of a monolithic and unchanging depiction of culture.

"That's nice, but if you'd like to point to episodes that describe various cultures of Narn, Minbar, the Shadows, the Centauri, the Gaim, the Drakh, etc., let alone describe them in the depth that compares to the examples I gave of good text sf/fantasy, such as Cherryh, Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, Le Guin, etc., please do name the episodes."

So it's the amount of background material rather than the artistic depiction of the nature of culture that matters? So if you're reading a book about people from India, it matters more to you that you get pages and pages of exposition about various Indian "cultural groups" rather than a good story that reminds us that not all Indian people think the same way?

Furthermore: an overly strong obsession with "subcultures" or "cultures" can be a very bad thing. The whole point about culture is that it's fluid, that it's hard to define: if we group people too strongly according to "culture" we end up with a mess of clichés. And every "culture" or "subculture" can be broken down into further components, because such groups are *never* homogenous. (This is a major theme of modern postcolonial theory.)

Babylon 5 clearly points out the variety that exists within each species. As such, I would argue that its "cultures" cannot be considered to be monolithic.

"Then I don't know what you're arguing with."

I'm arguing that it's not the amount of background material presented that defines the truthfulness of a work of art.

319:

Charlie,

Bugger, I've just realised that I posted a spoiler. Can you please remove the previous post or mark it appropriately?

Thanks.

320:

TwistedByKnaves: spoiler sorted without deleting whole comment.

No, it's not that the science has to be accurate: it's that it doesn't contradict what we know to be true without providing some sort of plausible explanation. Clones aren't science fiction these days -- heard of the Roslyn Institute? (Actually they never were science fiction: odds are you know a few, you just call them "homozygous [identical] twins".) And we know from observing them that the memory thing isn't true -- not without some extra plausible mechanism.

(As for the lunar He3 canard, you might find the discussion (here) illuminating. Points to film director for at least wanting something that might provide a plausible motivation for a moon base: +3. Points to technical consultants for not sanity-checking the plausible motive: -3. I could come up with some alternative suggestions, but right now I'm grappling with a railway route planner and some major service disruption due to a fatality on the line between me and home ...)

321:

"I'm slowly beginning to get your point, though. For you, an error in the science (whether honest or reckless) invalidates the film in the same way it invalidates a bridge. However witty, intelligent, beautiful and wise it may be."

So we also have to throw out Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke... and about half of science fiction or more?

What about artistic license? Books and films are not reality, after all. Reality also doesn't have cuts, or camera angles, or music.

322:

We don't have to throw anything out.

Charlie is saying that he does. Or something close to that, I think.

I may not feel the same way, but I can allow him his own position.

Grudgingly! :o)

323:

My 14 year old points out that this "tech the tech" approach looks exactly like his science homework, much of which consists of filling in the blanks in statements about various concepts and processes.

We are clearly training a generation of script consultants.

324:

"loganprometheus: what is this, a cherry-picking session for emotional rhetoric?

Hint: out of context, it doesn't work. You remember the context; I don't."


No, I don't think it really needs a context. The point is that you say you hate Star Trek, B5, BSG etc. all for the same reason: that the writers do not care about "the human condition", they're all about just "teching the tech". You are incorrect. Star Trek has plenty of those "tech" episodes for sure, but even they once in a while managed to do a good sci-fi tale. BSG occasionally had poignant things to say about the human condition.

But B5 in particular stands out; the whole point of the show was to do a SF tale that "is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist", which you say is SF at its best. Those quotes I listed are not random, when taken together they present the core philosophy of the story.

There are some bad B5 episodes, as there are some bad SF books, no doubt. But there are plenty more good episodes, which lived up to the potential of the show. When seen as a whole, it can clearly be seen the makers of B5 wanted to achieve something more with their little SF show than just "teching the tech" every week.

So when I see someone dismissing all of Star Trek, BSG and B5 as identical, simply because they are all "TV sci-fi", I'm astounded. Especially when that person admits he hasn't even seen most of the shows he's talking about.

It's a bit like someone saying he doesn't like oranges, because he once had an apple and it wasn't a good one, and orange is a fruit as well so it can't be good either, right?

325:

318: "I'm arguing that it's not the amount of background material presented that defines the truthfulness of a work of art."

Which is fine, but you've hared off onto general assertions about art, as well as what you like/love about _Babylon 5_, which has nothing to do with the criticisms Charlie made, or the point I supported him on.

324: "When seen as a whole, it can clearly be seen the makers of B5 wanted to achieve something more with their little SF show than just 'teching the tech' every week."

I agree with that.

326:

"I haven't misunderstood Babylon 5 -- I've never bothered watching it. Five alien races with well-defined human cultures? FAIL!"

That is exactly the same sort of error in logic that someone would be guilty of if they wrote "I've never read any of Charlie Stross' fiction. But all of his work is nothing more than a bad Edward Bulwer-Lytton pastiche! FAIL!"

327:

Jones @321: I'm quite happy to give a free pass to artistic license.

However, what I mostly see isn't artistic license; it's old-fashioned ignorance of the kind that you might expect from a committee effort where everything has to be dumbed-down enough for the dumbest member of the committee to sign off on it.

Loganprometheus: you see the human condition in those quotes -- I don't; I see cheap rhetorical tricks and push-button emotional manipulation of a rather crude variety.

328:

I've read and watched SF since my teens (a long time ago.) I've seen most SF series minus Firefly and BSG.

There are plenty of flaws in aired sci-fi. If the writers tell a decent story, I'll give them more of a pass than if they bore me.

One of the problems I've always found, especially regarding TV or movies, is that aliens aren't allowed to be alien. They're humans that look different. They might seem fully human with their own customs, or they might represent one facet of a human personality (greed in the case of the Ferengi.)

In Star Trek: Why couldn't Vulcans just have *no* emotion at all instead of having lots of it and just sternly suppressing it? Wouldn't it have been interesting to see how a truly non-emotional race deals with one who is? Or why weren't Ferengi allowed to keep their own flawed society instead of moving more towards a Federation-approved version? As repugnant as some of their ideas on how to live were, it worked for them. When they starting becoming more like everyone else, that which made them interesting became boring.

I would find it more appealing to read about aliens who were alien, not human-like. Sci-fi's appeal to me is in two areas: aliens who are alien and futuristic gizmos/inventions.

Although, as much as I liked the idea of a holodeck or replicator, I could never "buy" that they truly worked.

I did like how B5 wasn't as "perfect" as DS9. No hidden blighted areas of desperate people on DS9 who were too poor to live somewhere decent on the station, and too poor to buy passage to somewhere else. It was more realistic.

329:

Two things. Firstly, anybody who attempts to watch "network" commercial TV, as broadcast, is getting what they deserve. It's not just you who can't bear it, Charlie. The advertising, and the way the pacing is built around it, destroys the format. Watch the BBC or DVDs only. For what real TV can do, watch "The Wire". As far as I know, nobody has done anything like that for SF TV for a long while, and even the best SF TV (probably BSG, of these space-opera series; Heroes is also good) doesn't come close.
Secondly, about [tech] the [tech], here's what I wrote on my blog a while ago, after watching Serenity and all of Firefly over the course of a week. Much the same criticisms apply to pretty much all space-opera TV:

Pros:
  • - fun characters;
  • - snappy script, sometimes very funny and/or insightful;
  • - some interesting new takes on old stories;
  • - shiny shiny effects. See the shiny. Lick the shiny;
  • - (Serenity) lovely lovely lighting and camera work, (maybe a bit too much glow filter);
  • - hot cast. Where do I sign up to crew this ship? Man.
Cons [ETA: these are, for me, outweighed by the pros, but still]:
  • - absolutely no sense of scale whatsoever, drives me completely nuts; slightly better in Serenity than Firefly but still. A planet is considerably larger than a village. It's even larger than the drive down to Starbucks. It's likely to have more than a few dozen people living on it, more than one marketplace, more than one port, more than one sleazy bar. Oddly enough, a solar system is very much larger than a planet, and a galaxy is way way bigger than a solar system. To get around one of these places in any reasonable timescale requires you to be going rather a lot quicker than, say, a jet plane. Stupid stupid writers with their crappy liberal-arts degrees and their teeny tiny imaginations.
  • - also, space does in fact have three dimensions, and is near-as-damnit completely empty. When travelling from A to B, you are considerably more likely to win the interplanetary lottery, even though it's rigged by the Federation, than you are to accidentally bump into something, or somebody. Especially if it's somebody or something you are trying to avoid. These writers failed arithmetic as well as physics.
  • - no effort to rationalize the different technology levels. Spaceships versus horses. This can be done in several different and interesting ways, none of which have, I think, ever been done on TV or in the movies. They're just not trying.
  • - some very very stupid plots. Off the top of my head: Someone is smuggling fancy-pants organs from A to B inside his body. At B, his own organs will be put back in. So how exactly are his own organs being transported from A to B? At least the plot of Serenity was better.
  • - In short: if you wanted to make Little House on the Prairie, make goddamn Little House on the Prairie. If you're going to bother making SF, please put in a little bit of effort and make some actual SF. And hire at least one writer who can count past 10 without taking off his or her shoes.

330:

Charlie @320, on clones, I think we may have seen the film differently. Re: "Hello, Dolly", please don't bring the Rosicrucians into this: they deserve a post of their own.

;o)

On He3, thanks for the link. It seems like the science is sound but the technology an economics (also important in building a coherent world) are suspect.

I would be inclined to give more slack in these second order areas, though. The post you quoted was grounded in the best available experience, (earth bound mining). But it specifically leaves open the possibility of game changing technological advances, especially given the different conditions on the moon. (Low gravity MUST make it an order of magnitude easier to mine. Even if it doesn't help you break up the rock, it will be dramatically easier to move.) And of course the mining strategy in the film is based on an impeccable source (Command and Conquer).

In the worst case, this is more a question of weak technical sanity checking than pointy haired dumbing down.

Glad you made it back!

331:

Chris Anthony, #314, the Air Force is going to train more drone pilots than airplane pilots.

TwistedByKnaves #317, people who've had their pets cloned have found that they have very different personalities from their originals, and lots of us know twins (and other multiple births) who don't have the same personality.

332:

So, Charlie... ASSUMING YOUR EYES WERE FIXED SO THAT YOU COULD WATCH TV LIKE THE REST OF US, and assuming you had the time to spare, which of the shows described in this thread sounds the most interesting?

Hypothetically, since you won't be able to watch it because of your retinal and foveal damage.

333:

"... no effort to rationalize the different technology levels. Spaceships versus horses."

You don't have to agree with or like the rationalization, but in fact it was very much rationalized: the idea was that when you're dumping a bunch of essentially poor people on a planet, and you don't have money to invest in high-tech, and there's no infrastructure for the maintenance of high-tech, let alone reproduction of it, you use tech such as livestock.

Per se there's nothing irrational about that. See also Heinlein's Tunnel In The Sky.

Also, if you think folks in the Firefly setting were traveling between stars, you weren't paying enough attention; it's all set in a single solar system with a large number of planets and a very large set of terraformed moons.

334:

Low gravity MUST make it an order of magnitude easier to mine
No. Apply Diax's Rake. Even if we had a Magic Low-Gravity Device that could lower the gravity field of some small area of the Earth to 1/6 g, mining companies wouldn't use it (rather: they would take a couple of decades to work out how to use it).

Absolutely everything we know about mining, everything, has been discovered over many thousands of years, by millions of miners and mine engineers, and every single one of them working in one gravity and (at least) one atmosphere. There's a huge amount of mining knowledge and culture which does not and will not ever apply on the moon. Just for starters, three things which are deeply ingrained in the design culture of mines and mining equipment and machinery:

(a) It is insanely heavy. We cannot lift it to the moon. No, you can't just make it out of aluminium instead.

(b) It is built to run under 1g and 1+ atmospheres. It won't work on the moon. All the bearings will seize up. Stuff won't drain away. Dust will crap things up. The mined material won't behave in the way it's designed for.

(c) It is designed and operated under the assumption that various kinds of consumable are consumable. For instance: air, oxygen, oil, grease, diesel, water, electricity, rubber, sheet steel, explosives, cutting bits. On the moon, hardly anything is going to be consumable.

The only way we're going to get any industrial-scale process working anywhere but the surface of the Earth is by trying and failing and trying and failing, over and over again. And that is going to be very difficult, very time-consuming, and very, very expensive.

335:

Also, if you think folks in the Firefly setting were traveling between stars, you weren't paying enough attention; it's all set in a single solar system with a large number of planets and a very large set of terraformed moons.
Firefly left this deliberately vague. Serenity clarified it, but I think did so in a way which contradicted quite a bit of what was said in Firefly. And Whedon has said "science questions make me cry", so really this is [tech] the [tech] territory again.

336:

"say, compare the depth of three different cultures of Centauri, Minbari, and Narn, to the depths and distinctions of culture described in, oh, C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe, or the depths and distinctions of culture found [...] in Tolkien's Middle-Earth [...] or even on Ringworld."

I'm not familiar with the other works (hence elliding them out of the quoted) but unless I'm missing something in Cherryh, Tolkien or Niven, the depths and distinctions are found either within the human race, or between non-human species.

Looking at Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe (as listed on her website), the only sentient non-humans that spring to mind are the Hisa of Pell's Star and the Caliban of Gehenna during the Company War era, the Mri, Regul and Elee (possibly the Dus) of the Mri Wars, the Iduve, Kallia and Amaut of Hunter of Worlds, and the Nemet of Brothers of Earth. (I haven't read Serpent's Reach, so can't comment on any aliens there)

Of those species, the Hisa only present one culture. The Caliban present one native culture, and a subsequent hybrid culture through their cultural symbiosis with humans. The Mri have three castes, but only one culture - even the Mri back on homeworld have the same language and culture after tens, maybe hundreds of millenia. The Regul present one culture. The Elee in their single city present one culture. The Dus present no culture. The Iduve present one culture, the Kallia and Amaut each present one native culture and another culture when living among Iduve. The Nemet present two native cultures (maybe four if you count the more cosmopolitan cultures in Nephane as distinct from their parent cultures).

That's one alien species with more than one native culture and a scant handful of more-or-less hybrid cultures from interaction with other sentient species (including humans) - not even enough to meet the "three different cultures of each of three different non-human species" challenge issued against Babylon 5.

If you want to expand the scope of "Alliance-Union", Port Eternity's aliens barely appear. Voyager In Night, the assorted aliens don't present any obvious culture. The Chanur series: the Kif present a single culture, the Mahendo'sat present a single culture, the Stsho present a single culture, the methane breathers (Tc'a, Chi and Knnn) present no comprehensible culture, and the Hani, debatably, either a single culture in transition, or two cultures. Wave Without A Shore's Ahnit present a single historical native culture and accept a role in the shared Ahnit-Human culture.


In Middle Earth, the Valar, the Ents, the Dwarves, the Shire Hobbits, the Orcs, and the Goblins each have a single culture. The Bree Hobbits have a shared culture with the local Men, the Istari tend to fit in with local culture. Only Elves and Men show multiple cultures - and the Elves much less so.


On Ringworld, the Kzinti are as homeworld Kzinti were before the Puppeteers interfered, and the various hominids are, for the most part, different species - there are some examples of cultural variation within a species (mostly among the City-Builder people - arguably the most human natives) but the Night People, as one of the few ring-spanning species, maintain a unified culture...


Don't get me wrong. Cherryh's the author that's most impressed me with her ability to portray convincingly alien aliens while still making them consistent and comprehensible, but she tends to only present and explore a single culture of a given alien species - the culture that comes into contact with the central characters.

337:

@ 270: "See also the "using us as batteries" fuck-up in "The Matrix". (Now, if they'd not bottled out on their readers' intelligence and done it properly, i.e. "the Matrix is software using our brains as computers" -- which is what I think the original concept was heading for -- it'd have worked.)"

They did retcon their way out of that a bit in the rest of the Trilogy - Morpheus only knows about the "using as batteries" bit because that's what the history in the Zion mainframe (helpfully provided by the machines after demolishing Zion Mk 4) says.

It's still not as cool an explanation as "using human brains as auxilliary processors" would be (though that raises the question of why the Matrix is needed if the brains can be occupied running code...)

My pet theory for why the Matrix is that the machines decided that imprisoning the humans was a more... humane way of neutralising the threat they posed to the machines than outright genocide...

338:

@327:

B5's scripts make very, very effective use of cheap rhetorical tricks and crude push-button emotional manipulation. The fact that you've got Fivers after your scalp because of your opinions on a franchise that ended a decade ago is ample evidence of how effectively the series used cheap tricks to build an intensely loyal fan base.

Rhetorical tricks are to B5 what [tech] is to Star Trek.

339:

@337:

If that is the case in your opinion, then how about you share with us some of your more expensive rhetorical tricks here to show the difference between the two?

BTW, you also seem to completely miss the point about what Charlie is being called on. He didn't criticize B5 for using "rhetorical tricks" in his original post, he claimed he hates it as much as Star Trek for using "tech the tech" scripting. Although he then admitted he hadn't even seen it.

340:

Nick @333

Not having read Anathem, I was not familiar with this rake and was therefore unable to apply it.

Doesn't apply here anyway.

I see your point as a "yes, but" rather than a "no". The end point may indeed be easier, but getting to it will be incredibly hard.

Well, yes but you're raising the bar. I think that applies to most of science fiction written before 1990, when the double exponential effects of technological evolution became clear and it became possible to consider a route from now to then.

With the runaway technology we are seeing now, it is bold to say that a way cannot be found.

341:

the runaway technology we are seeing now
What runaway technology? "It's 2009; where's my flying car?"

342:

Danny @331: I'm interested in seeing what they do with the remake of "The Prisoner" (although I have a twitchy reflexive suspicion that they need burning at the stake RIGHT NOW for transplanting it away from Portmeirion).

But I generally find 2-D short duration space travel between planets at what appears to be aircraft speed blows my suspension of disbelief in about 0.025 seconds (see also @329, or "Saturn's Children" for my take on space travel).

loganprometheus: you're still missing the point. I haven't seen Bab5, I don't hate it, I'm just utterly uninterested in watching it because even the brief summaries in places like Wikipedia make it clear that the authors haven't managed to pull themselves out of the 1950s in terms of their science fiction; the world-building suffers from a number of problems that, if I ran into them in a book, would make me throw it at the wall and go read something else instead. This is pretty clearly because, like ST:TNG and spin-offs, it was created and produced via a common process -- the studio system of television content manufacture -- which appears to be structurally unable to do science fiction properly.

You're the one who keeps moving the goal posts, and who is mistaking ideological rhetoric for insight into the human condition. Now piss off.

343:

loganprometheus@315 is making one of your points for you, CS. The characters he quotes are a Narn, a Centauri, a First One, two humans and a Minbari. But the quotes themselves are all interchangeable sophomoric philosophical wibbling, about as varied as the rubber foreheads.

344:

@338:

Read #240.

345:

"Which is fine, but you've hared off onto general assertions about art, as well as what you like/love about _Babylon 5_, which has nothing to do with the criticisms Charlie made, or the point I supported him on."

I first explained my understanding of how art works, and then explained how Babylon 5 works under these parameters, to respond to the criticism of monolithic cultures. It has *everything* to do with the criticisms Charlie made. What else do you want?

"This is pretty clearly because, like ST:TNG and spin-offs, it was created and produced via a common process -- the studio system of television content manufacture -- which appears to be structurally unable to do science fiction properly."

That's pretty much incorrect when it comes to Babylon 5, so once again you have no idea what you're talking about. It's your right to dislike it, but get your facts straight before you talk, because otherwise it becomes obvious that you see what you want to see. I dislike "art by committee" as much as anyone, but Babylon 5 is not that. It was conceived and for the most part written by a single person with no studio influence at all after the beginning of the second season, and not much influence before that. The structural issues you see with much of TV - which in some cases are quite real - do not apply here.

"loganprometheus@315 is making one of your points for you, CS. The characters he quotes are a Narn, a Centauri, a First One, two humans and a Minbari. But the quotes themselves are all interchangeable sophomoric philosophical wibbling, about as varied as the rubber foreheads."

Ah, so they must all have their culture-specific clichés so that you can indulge in your fantasies of cultural exoticism. (And you probably hate Carl Sagan and his sophomoric philosophical wibbling, don't you?)


It's ironic, by the way, how so many people here get off on bashing the science of Babylon 5 (and other shows), when the people at NASA were such huge fans.

346:

"However, what I mostly see isn't artistic license; it's old-fashioned ignorance of the kind that you might expect from a committee effort where everything has to be dumbed-down enough for the dumbest member of the committee to sign off on it."

The only thing you see is what you WANT to see, because you're prejudging shows that you have never seen. Are some of those things true of Star Trek? Yes, sometimes, but that doesn't mean there aren't good parts to it, too. Are they true of Babylon 5? Not even remotely, because the show was written and produced in a completely different way, by people who aren't even remotely ignorant. But to you, since it's TV, it *must* be art by committee, created by people with no real interest in science or science fiction.

Hell, why are we even arguing? You haven't seen *any* of this, and half your accusations make no rational sense because you simply don't know what you're talking about. You just make these grand sweeping judgements based on your prejudices.

And the one thing you haven't answered: how would you feel if someone said your books were nonsense without ever having read them? How would you feel if someone came along and said that your books must be shit because they appeared in multiple parts, and obviously all you want is to make money? Would that seem rational to you?

347:

Ah, so they must all have their culture-specific clichés so that you can indulge in your fantasies of cultural exoticism.
No, but I'd have more time for them if they were actually alien in any way.
And you probably hate Carl Sagan and his sophomoric philosophical wibbling, don't you?
What? Non-sequitur. From the little I recall of Sagan's philosophical wibbling, it was sometimes somewhat half-baked, but he would never have denied that he was speaking from his American cultural heritage, or suggested that aliens were likely to share it.

348:

"No, but I'd have more time for them if they were actually alien in any way."

Why? Is the creation of alien figures the point of art?

"From the little I recall of Sagan's philosophical wibbling, it was sometimes somewhat half-baked, but he would never have denied that he was speaking from his American cultural heritage, or suggested that aliens were likely to share it."

Actually, having read rather a lot of it, I'm pretty certain that he would say that he was speaking from the cultural heritage of humanity, and that this view of the universe might well be one shared by other sentient beings. And why not? They live in the same universe we do, and for all our differences, we might have a lot in common. Is that not a valid view of things? (I'm not saying it's the ONLY valid view.)

349:

Because the cultural heritage of humanity is not a single indivisible thing. It's not "this view", it's "these views", and aliens are very likely to be far more different from us than we are from each other.

350:

Charlie, the reason why you're getting called on your criticisms of B5 is that, by stating that you never watched it, you have admitted that all your criticisms of the series are ignorant ones.

351:

"Because the cultural heritage of humanity is not a single indivisible thing. It's not "this view", it's "these views", and aliens are very likely to be far more different from us than we are from each other."

No, it's not a single thing: it's multi-faceted. But it's also not a clearly divisible thing that can be categorized according to nation or cultural group.

And anyway, how does that prevent the possibility that certain thoughts about the nature of life and the universe will be common to all advanced sentient societies? As alien as we humans have always been to each other, we've always also had quite a lot of common ground; we even have common ground with other species on our planet. So why not with others who have developed complex societies? We are all sentient beings.

352:

Prodigal,

It seems to me that the problem here is that B5 really isn't a show you can judge by its parts, or its summary in Wikipedia. You have to sit down, watch the episodes in order all the way into the second season before you begin to see the richness of the thing, that it's a big tip-of-the-iceberg world-building science fiction novel made up of elements that in isolation would seem nothing more than the usual empty TV fair -- latex alien of the week, space battles, what have you.

The problem with B5 has always been to get people to give it a chance, because if they see just a few episodes they invariably complain about bad dialogue or wooden acting and wander off.

As it happens, I think most of Charlie's objections are true. They just don't describe the whole. You can get a pretty good feel for TOS or Battlestar Galactica or Futurama by watching an episode or two. Not so Babylon 5, because it's painted on a broader canvas, layer by layer, bit by bit. The show is fairly unique that way, I don't think I've ever seen another like it on television. And I have yet to find a devotee of hard science fiction who didn't end up loving the series once he was convinced to give it a shot. I don't know of course how everybody will react, but so far, it's been 100%.

353:

What Babylon 5?

Something on the Hypnogourd?

Don't have one of those.

355:

Nick @340

The technology's there, but maybe the economics weren't thought through... (sounds familiar...) http://jalopnik.com/306528/pal+v-flying-car-nearing-production-were-totally-serious-no-really

But I fear you are teasing me now.

356:

I highly recommend the Hypnotoad HTML.

357:

355
I see what you mean - or at least part of it.

I fear that Jonas doesn't see what you're getting at. Living in LA, I can say that while people may be alike, how they reason from point A to point C varies.

358:

>Babylon 5, because it's painted on a broader canvas, layer by layer, bit by bit

and we all know how much fun it is to watch paint dry.

I did watch B5 and it's no better than Star Trek or any other scifi tv. What it does have is a legion of vociferous fans with little sense of propertion who react very poorly when their favourite show is mentioned in a bad light.

For those who subscribe to the fallacy that you have to understand something to be able to appreciate it properly I'll refer you to the Courtier's Reply (again):

http://rationalwiki.com/wiki/Courtier's_reply

To quote (emphasis mine): 'it is a form of intellectual _bullying_ that questions a person's right to rebut an argument due to the rebutter's supposed lack of experience with the subject in question'

Trying to bully an author on his own blog doesn't make you look like a serious debater.

359:

TwistedByKnaves, the flying car thing was a joke, and in fact various approximations have been available for a long while. But the question "what runaway technology?" was genuine. You said "With the runaway technology we are seeing now, it is bold to say that a way cannot be found." I quite seriously ask: What is the runaway technology you are seeing now, that is in any way relevant to the problem of lunar He3 mining? Except for better automation, there has been essentially no technological progress in launch, in vacuum operations, in materials processing, or in fusion, for forty years.

We are certainly much less lunar-capable right now that we were 40 years ago. It is nearly 50 years since JFK said "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." If Obama said a similar thing today (with the same 9-year timescale), the only way to achieve it would be to re-do Apollo, and it's very likely that the attempt would fail.

Yes, there have been dramatic improvements, exponential for some decades, in the technology of data processing and (latterly) storage and transmission. I have watched this closely for 30+ years - since inhaling SF as a child and playing with the Commodore PET my mother brought home from school for the holidays - and made my living out of it for 20. I've enjoyed and benefited from the gradual spread of this technology, and some of the minor revolutions it has caused (for instance, in retail, in audio, in TV (!)). But (a) Moore's Law isn't a law of nature, and even in nature every exponential curve is the middle part of a sigmoid, and (b) the effects this technology has on lunar He3 mining are strictly second-order.

I'm a big fan of Accelerando, but it's not actually happening in the real world.

I'm not saying "a way cannot be found". I'm saying that I have no reason to believe that it's affordable, and in any case we wouldn't know what to do with loads of He3, and even if we did then the moon would be a lousy place to get it. In other words, a way will not be found. If the public in the US or the EU or China or India were truly convinced that their survival depended on lunar He3, then of course it would be done. But if you can't even convince people like me then it's never going to happen.

360:

@Robin

"Courtier's Reply" is a meager rebuttal (coined by a blogger... somehow I don't think it will compare to Schopenhauer's notes on Eristic Dialogue) to the more wide-spread "You're talking out of your ***".

If you don't have a functional grasp of an issue you are giving your opinion on, you are not entitled to give your opinion on it. By functional that means having the minimum of knowledge to support your argument. This does not mean in-depth knowledge of the entire subject matter. So if I want to say, "There is an episode of Star Trek with a crazy alien in it", all I have to do is have watched one episode (or obtained this knowledge from a credible source). If I want to say "Most episodes of Star Trek have technobabble", then I might have watched most episodes or obtained that knowledge in another way.

I do not have to be a cardiologist to say that you will die if your heart stops working. Minimum knowledge. I do have to a be a cardiologist to say that another's thesis on causes of heart attacks is wrong (unless he declares they are caused by spaghetti monsters).

If Stross says that B5 and BSG are awful because they are driven by technobabble that is as insulting as somebody saying that Stross writes puerile stories about lobster men from space stealing human women for reproductive purposes because that person once read a pulp story. Tarring with a brush.

And you do not have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of these series, but have to just watch one episode (well apart from a few in B5), to know that

I find it highly ironic that the author of Glasshouse makes these sorts of generalisations.

361:

@Dust

It's my opiniuon that Charlie _does_ have a functional grasp of the issue and is more then skilled enough and experienced enough in scifi in general to make an incisive and interesting point about scifi TV.

You really don't need to see many episodes of ST/B5/BSG/et al to know that they are, in many ways, as alike as peas in a pod.

The technobabble that all these series employ to a greater or leser extent is a flavouring thrown into the mix in an attempt to give the programs a scifi flavour. It works only as far as someone is willing to suspend disbelief.

Just like 'banana flavour' is not banana, scifi TV is not scifi books. You only need to take a few sips of a banana flavour product to know that anything else that is banana flavoured will be either be to your taste or not.

Every one of the hundreds of posts repudiating Charlie's sense of taste as being wrong has been written by banana flavour addicts. Addicts do not have a sense of proportion, their arguments are weak and tasteless.

362:

As someone possibly more dated as you, Charlie, allow me a few comments on your post.

Apologies for the lengthy comment. If you feel the need, please feel free to edit for length. I will be posting on the subject in more detail on my own blog as well.

I met you and had a bit of a chat at the small con in Copenhagen a few months ago, so I was aware of your dislike of space opera. I am, however, a bit surprised at the strength of that dislike.

I, for one actually like space opera. That you do not is not a problem, we just have to agree to disagree on that.

Since you base the main part of your reasoning about the ST:TNG pilot and the of the Trek derivates, I will start there. You saw some of it and hated it. Then you continue :

- "Babylon Five? Ditto. Battlestar Galactica? Didn't even bother turning on the TV. I HATE THEM ALL." (my emphasis)

I see your main complaints as the following (here limited to ST, BSG abd B5, since you imply that they all have exactly the same flaws) :

- "Technobabble". Agreed, my least favourite aspect of Star Trek. ([tech] the [tech], how awful). I think we can agree that it is most often used as Deus ex Machina in Star Trek.

- "...hit the reset switch at the end of every episode"

- "Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc but it's frequently pathetic"

All too true for the majority of Star Trek episodes, even though there are some gems where the technobabble is hardly present and not a part of "the resolution". Example : "The Inner light" where we get the story of how humans dealt with the situation of a dying ecosphere of their planet (even if they did not survive, they were at least able to tell the story).

I find that none of the above points are true for B5 or BSG, though BSG's arc seems to have been on hold for a season or two.

Babylon 5 has a planned 5 year overarcing story (with a number of sub-arcs), with excursions into the distant past and distant future, this can hardly be seen as "a token gesture", even if the last two years had to be compressed into one season, making it truly a 4 year arc due to studio decisions. Not ideal, but the arc was, in general, completed. What came after, when the studio revised its decision is a bit of an afterthought, and filling in some blanks in the original story. Actually, B5 has the structure of a novel, it has just been presented in the audiovisual format.

The BSG ending twist is certainly not very original, it literally has the taste of Deus ex Machina.

- "The biggest weakness of the *entire genre* is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances."

How can you make such a sweeping generalisation if you have not seen them ? In conjunction with the above statement of "hate them all" I fell that it would be akin to saying "20 years ago I met this [insert *ethnic identity* of choice]. He pissed me off to no end, so now I hate all [*ethnic identity*], - after all they are all the same". I think we all know what this sounds like, and I doubt that was your intention.

Finally, here comes the biggest surprise for me :
- "....modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!"
WHAT !? You can not be serious ! ... If this is not a massively sweeping generalisation, I do not know what is. I am glad not every TV viewer in the world sees that statement. Are you psychic (and did not tell us), since you seem to know what all of the TV audience wants ? ;)

I should, however thank you, Charlie, since your post here has given me some input to an article comparing B5 and ST, you know, what ihas in common and what not.

I have a few more things to say, but it is already a long comment, so that will have to wait.


363:

after a blog-post by Peter Watts (the optimism guy) I recently started watching the "children of earth" Torchwood-miniseries (so far not regretting it) and have realized a parallel between it, Babylon 5 AND (here it comes, Charlie) your own Iron Sunrise:

Torchwood is in many ways completely stupid, Babylon 5 is Space Opera with sometimes not ideal world-building and Iron Sunrise has, at least according to yourself, serious flaws in the design of the Universe, but the point why I love them is that they are hard (in the sense of hard sf) about politics.
In the case of Iron Sunrise it's the story about the Re:Mastered that fascinates me most, in the case of B5 it's also the "how to move a society towards totalitarian rule" question and in CoE it's the pure brutal face of Realpolitik. Because you watch it and you just KNOW that, yep, that's about how it would go down. (no, I haven't seen the ending yet and Peter Watts said that that was completely fucked up, but the bits leading up to there are _really_ good).

364:

Robin,

I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Babylon 5, and for that matter of the original Star Trek, which brought silver-aged sci fi to the multitude. A dramatic series isn't a novel or even a short story; they can't be judged by the same criteria. But the original Trek, and Babylon 5, were I thought almost unique in that they did bring some of the intelligence of literary science fiction to the screen. That makes them very different from the typical action-adventure series, or BEM sci fi show. They had ideas.

Of greater significance, I don't think it can fairly be said that I tried to bully Charlie, whose works I've long admired and enjoyed and with whom I've exchanged the occasional friendly Internet word over the years. I simply said that I suspect (though of course can't know) that he would enjoy Babylon 5 if he gave it a chance, and earlier, disagreed partially with his point over world building (I recognize the flaw of which he speaks but I don't think B5 is guilty of it for reasons that I mentioned). Really, what I'd say to him if he were standing here is hey, you should try it, I think you'll like it. Every devotee of serious sci fi I know has.

The main objection of the B5 fans BTW was that he'd criticized the show without having seen it.

365:

I would disagree about technology changing behavior to a degree. The human animal has remained astonishingly static for thousands of years. Archeologists have found graffiti on ancient Roman walls that could have been taken from a bathroom stall in a modern bar. Our words and tools may change but the human animal and its behavior remain surprisingly consistent. As such, it shouldn't be too surprising to see people from one century responding to a situation the same way as those from another. As much as we try to delude ourselves into thinking that we have evolved beyond primitiveness and that we are rational, reasoning creatures, one look at how people handle modern crises shows that we still act and react the same way as our ancestors.

We can object to lazy writing styles but we can't object to 24th century humans acting much the same as 21st century humans. Until we do actually evolve, the only constant in our universe is us.

366:

Robin,

Wanted to add that in saying these shows are "peas in a pod" you are from my perspective seriously misjudging them. Do the likes of Harlan Ellison write technobabble? If you don't see the difference between a show like TOS and a show like Voyager, you are, in my opinion, missing the point, because there's no way you could do a Ron Moore fill in the blanks on most of TOS. It just wouldn't work. Ditto Babylon 5. What happens for example in City on the Edge of Forever is a direct consequence of the Butterfly Effect and the Grandfather Paradox. The story can't work without those premises. And when Sinclair goes back in time on B5, ditto. This isn't just a matter of inventing a particle-of-the-week to get the characters out of a bind, it's a matter of beginning with a science fictional premise and seeing what effect it has on the characters -- pretty much what, if I understand it correctly, Charlie was talking about above.

367:

Josh @364 and 366 :

May I point out what Charlie said in the original post : that he enjoyed the original series.

Otherwise I agree, I, too do suspect that Charlie would like B5, but his problem with extended periods of TV viewing may make that a non-starter. We will probably never know for sure.

368:

Dust @360

"Lobster Men from space..."

OK, so you've read Accelerando and you are familiar with Charlie's plot lines. What was your point?

:o)

369:

Nick @359

"...Except for better automation, there has been essentially no technological progress in launch, in vacuum operations, in materials processing, or in fusion, for forty years..." I'm not in a position to judge this, (though BT seems to think that progress is being made on a number of fronts. http://www.btplc.com/Innovation/News/timeline/index.htm Haven't seen this here for a while. Very unsound on He3!).

However, it is difficult to see how any space opera could survive your analysis.

370:

"I fear that Jonas doesn't see what you're getting at. Living in LA, I can say that while people may be alike, how they reason from point A to point C varies."

And Babylon 5 does not have that? I thought that was the whole point of my argument. It is repeatedly shown that people of the same species do not necessarily think alike.

(I've lived in Greece and in Germany, and observed people of radically different cultures from quite a few different perspectives, especially since I'm trilingual. There are great differences, but in the end most people have more in common than they think. I have always noticed the same in my studies of postcolonial literature, and in the many people from different countries that I've met. Maybe that's why I like Olaf Stapledon so much - even as he portrays species that are vastly different from each other biologically and culturally, he makes a point of the fact that their aspirations and hopes have a lot more in common than they think.)

371:

Don't post here much (hmm, maybe don't post here at all but do read the updates) but this whole Firefly-love thing just gets to me. Fortunately I don't have to spend the time writing out pros and cons because Nick Barnes @329 and others have done it quite nicely above.

I've read science/weird fiction since childhood but don't really like most SciFi tv shows/movies. I pretty much just avoid them - mainly for the reasons Charles has stated in his post except I never actually spent the time figuring out why I liked one and not another. Lazy, I suppose.

I like/d the current BSG probably only because has been a way to tune out in a moderately entertaining manner and it is a remake of my first SciFi series. Nostalgia, even though the two series are nothing alike.

But Firefly, yeesh, I watched all of them on DVD and only towards the very end of the series and in the movie did any of it remotely come together. And I have a high tolerance for crap. All this talk of witty repartee - there were a lot of quips that fell really flat. I often only liked the those spoken by the boy-with-a-girl's-name character. You could never tell if you were supposed to like or hate him. We all know that characters are not cut and dry but this character never really settled more to one side or another.

Maybe it's all just personal taste, why we like one over another, even in the same general genre.

372:

@Nif, 370

I have been watching Firefly myself recently, and I had a similar thought : Take away the space ship and it is a western, right down to the "barfight of the week" .

The Serenity film did make the whole thing make some sense, so I guess it just did not get into the plot fast enough before the show was canceled.

Indeed, I think it is a matter of taste, what kind of special treats we want from our stories.

373:

[ Shutting down comments on this thread because the link spammers are moving in ]

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