by Christopher DeFilippis
DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 20
(First Appeared: November, 2000; First Light E-zine, Issue #97)
My worst fear has been realized. I am a Sci-Fi elitist.
Regular readers of my column know I’ve spent a lot of time railing about those who try to put labels on Sci-Fi, or who try to define the genre to suit their own narrow ideas of what it should or shouldn’t be. Elitism is anathema in my book. So how did I become that which I hate most?
The whole thing started a few weeks ago when Randy Dannenfelser—more commonly known as Roo in these here parts, author of monthly Rants—e-mailed me with a simple question: “2001: A Space Odyssey—One of Science Fiction Cinema’s greatest achievements or the most boring SF movie ever made?”
I wrote back without hesitation. Greatness, of course. My reasons are many, but chief among them is that the movie makes no apologies. It’s long. It’s slow moving. It demands a great attention span. It doesn’t pander to the mass market, or try to make the subject matter more appealing through the cunning use of needless explosions.
Instead, it highlighted the things about space that would really be scariest to anyone actually traversing vacuum: coldness, utter silence, and the frailty of human life within it. You always hear the cliché about old sailors respecting the sea; this was the first movie I ever saw that gave space due respect.
And what of the Monolith, you ask? What about all that jazz at the end, with the swirling Technicolor and the little baby space fetus?
Simple, silly. Remember where the movie started, back in the Stone Age? If you watch, you’ll note that it was the Monolith that gave the caveman the idea to smash stuff. In essence, it showed man how to manipulate his environment and conquer Earth.
So when Dave Bowman enters the Monolith a man and emerges as Star Baby on the other side, he is reborn. Once again the Monolith has ushered man onto the next evolutionary step, this time to conquer space. That’s how I interpreted it anyway. Not so hard.
But low and behold, Roo shoots back that he hates the movie and proceeds to call me “one of those Sci-Fi elitists.”
At first, I vehemently denied the charge. Hey, I’m no better at discerning greatness than the next guy. I just know what I like. I rank Red Dwarf and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy right up there with 2001. They’re all great in my opinion.
But I’ve been thinking on it since, and I don’t know who I was trying to convince more: him or me. I’ve come to realize that I am an elitist, if by elitist you mean someone who demands a scrupulous attention to detail and internal continuity in whatever universe I’m currently visiting. Originality helps as well. By that definition, the absurdity of Deep Thought and Slartibartfast can easily co-exist with HAL 9000 and Kubrick’s avant-garde vision. I’ll gladly suspend disbelief on any level so long as you don’t insult my intelligence with inconsistencies.
I don’t know why most viewers are willing to cut movies and television shows such slack in this area. If you’re reading a book and the author doesn’t build a credible universe, or changes the rules of said universe willy-nilly just because it’s convenient for advancing the plot, you would rightly feel cheated and say that the book sucks. But when the same thing happens in a movie, most people just shrug their shoulders and say it’s only a movie.
As for television…
I’m so sick of writing about TV. In fact, I’ve written about it so often that my fingers are cramping of their own accord, desperately trying to stop me before I do it again. But I’m afraid I must. There’s just such a wealth of crap out there that I’m positively compelled to pan it. Don’t worry. Considering that First Light is almost at the end of its run, it will likely be the last time.
I can’t say I was jazzed about any of the shows that premiered this season. Of them all, the two I wanted to check out most were Freaky Links and Gene Roddenberry’s Starship Andromeda.
The advance press for Freaky Links intrigued me because it seemed like it would be a departure from the same old television fare. But trouble struck early. A few weeks before the premiere, the creators pulled out of the project. Not a good sign. To paraphrase one of those who abandoned ship: “They ask for something cutting edge and original, and when we deliver it they water it down and make it exactly like everything else on the air.” Sure enough, the premier episode seemed like The X-Files meets Friday the 13th: The Series. I was entirely underwhelmed. Judging from the ratings, I’m not alone. FOX has already decided to pull the show.
Herc as Kirk didn’t do much better. I liked the look of Andromeda initially; it seemed like an evolution of the production design of the original Star Trek. But the costumes and sets can only go so far. The aliens looked like something out of a bad B-movie, modeled (so far as I was able to tell) on bats, opossums and monkeys. Why do producers think it necessary for every alien race they create to have a corollary to a species found on Earth? And why do they presume that Terrans in the far future will make off-handed references to things found in 20th Century society? At one point, the generic maverick-engineer character mentioned riding on a Harley-Davidson! Not for nothing, but people living even a hundred years from now, much less the far future this show is set in, will find Harley-Davidsons as relevant to their lives as we do Stanley Steamers and airships. It’s just not plausible.
As for Andromeda’s storyline, it seemed like a rehashing of a lot of standard SF fodder. And the little of it I’ve watched since has featured chillingly bad dialog. Aside from that, its biggest problem is that nothing about it particularly stands out. However, I think that may have more to do with me than the show. I’ve about reached my threshold of watching folks sit on the bridge of a starship doing battle with alien nogoodnicks. Save it for the Trek movies, where it’s usually done well.
There are other shows to choose from, of course. Dark Angel is getting good ratings. Hmmm… Hot chick in skimpy clothes cavorting around a cyberpunk future. Can’t imagine why that one is doing well. As for me, I’ll skip James Cameron, thank you very much. He’s one of the worst perpetrators of continuity fraud in Science Fiction. Just watch T2 closely and you’ll see what I mean.
Cameron also started the trend of stupid shoot-em-up action movies masquerading as Sci-Fi. There I go, being elitist again. But answer me this. If you dressed Aaaaaanold or Van Damme in period clothes and dropped them into the countryside of Victorian England, where they proceeded to run around smashing skulls and blowing things up, would you consider it a Merchant Ivory flick? Of course not. So why then do we call it Science Fiction if they do the same thing wearing a space suit on Mars, or traveling through time? It doesn’t make sense.
People have settled, I think, because they’ve come to realize that the 2001s and DS9s are few and far between. But I refuse to lower my standards just for the sake of having something to watch. I might just as well start listening to Top 40 radio, or reading John Grisham books. Fat chance. I’ll never let anyone, television programmers or otherwise, force me into the rankings of lowest common denominator. Faced with such a choice of labels, I’ll take elitist every time.
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A word on MTV’s FEAR, which I praised so lavishly in my last column: I’m withdrawing my endorsement of the show. The second episode sucked. Once again, those MTV programming geniuses completely ruined the show, cutting it down to one hour (far too fast a pace to create the type of mood necessary for a good scare) and replaced the horror of being alone in a terrible dark place with the hokum of performing séances and doing other dumb crap. Don’t waste your time. And if you already have on the basis of my recommendation, I heartily apologize.