Review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction.
Broadcast on BBC2 at 21:45, Saturday 22nd November 2014. The series continues for a further three weeks.
[This is a review of a preview screening held at the National Film Theatre on 12th November. It consisted of the first episode, “Space” along with some excerpts of the three other episodes, themed on “Invasion”, “Robots” and “Time”. There was also a Q and A with Dominic Sandbrook and the programme’s producers.]
The first thing to note, at least for the purposes of this blog, is that Tomorrow’s Worlds is not entirely Dominic’s work. The series was commissioned by BBC America and was originally made without a commentary. It consisted of a series of clips from films and TV science fiction with snippets of interviews with the directors, writers, production staff and actors responsible for them. For the BBC2 version, it was felt it needed another dimension. Thus Dominic was bought in to create some context for the clips and references to written work.
The programme’s popularist leanings are there from the start, which are supplied by George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). Despite its undoubted popularity, this is a poor point from which to begin. The original Star Wars film is part of a genre of science fiction, the space opera, once described as a “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].” Whether this is true of all space operas, it is certainly true of Star Wars (this view being supported by many of those associated with the film interviewed in the programme). It is notable for being entirely without subtext or allegorical content, which I would argue is vital for successful science fiction, a point that I will return to.
Also notable is the near total lack of any science in Star Wars. Indeed, many of the elements (empires, princesses, smugglers, Jedi knights, the mysticism of the force) are much more the elements of a medieval romance than science fiction. All the trappings of space could be stripped out and the whole thing could be done on horseback and in armour with minimal changes to the script.
Through this, Dominic sets out on his own tired old nag, that the seventies were a miserable time of crisis. Thus the world was ready for a little escapism in the form of Star Wars. There was certainly a return to the family adventure film in the late 1970s, in which Star Wars was central. Here Steven Spielberg is also a key player, who was moving away from adult shockers such as Jaws (1975), through the portentous but ultimately vacuous Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), before alighting on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), like Star Wars, a homage to 1930s Saturday morning boys adventure cinema. It was also written by George Lucas.
It is certainly the case that Star Wars opened up the market of science fiction on film and particularly on US television which since the premature end of Star Trek (cancelled twice in the 1960s, with only three series being made), had been in the doldrums. First came space opera/space cowboy series, Battlestar Galatica (mark 1, 1978-1979) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), but neither was noted for its quality or lasting impact. The most important opening that Star Wars created was the funding for the film versions of Star Trek, starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
None of this should distract from the main point that since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) most science fiction films had been either a sub-genre of horror film, or more high-brow dystopian vision of a world gone wrong. It is notable that the Russian film Solaris (1972), viewed by many as a film as important as 2001, is not mentioned, but most of the 1970s dystopia is forgettable. It was this dystopian vision that was to continue as the main current in science fiction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly through Ridley Scott’s two science fiction masterpieces Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1981). Although both are given an adequate airing here, how dark dystopia fits with Dominic’s one-note the-seventies-were-miserable-so-we-needed-escapism refrain is altogether uncertain.
In British TV science fiction had retained its scheduling place on our screens, albeit mainly as a section of children’s television or at best family viewing. Apart from Dr. Who (mark 1, 1963-1989), there was a variety of ITC series particularly the live action Space 1999 (1975-1977), and the Thames Television children’s series The Tomorrow People (1973-1979). These kept the genre alive on TV screens in a way that it was not in the USA.
Starting with Star Wars might make sense in terms of creating a popular hook for viewers, but it does not help in creating, as the title promises, a history of SF and the viewer is given no underlying narrative about why the concept of space persists. There are some fantastic hints at this, particularly that the original TV Star Trek theme tune lifts it opening fanfare from the theme of the sea-adventure film Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951). As Tomorrow’s Worlds rightly points out, science fiction’s flights into space are analogues of stories about sea journeys into the unknown, but the question of why put a story in space (or similarly an unknown ocean) is never addressed. With the lower quality space operas (such as Star Wars) the answer may well be that this is ornamentation. But science fiction really works when it uses shifts in space (or for that matter, time) to create enough distance to be critical about our current earthly concerns.
To be fair, this is addressed to a limited degree in the programme’s discussion of the reboot of Battlestar Galatica (mark 2, 2003-2009) which dealt with both the impact of 9/11 (although on a civilisation destroying scale) and some of the issues of militarism and the war in Iraq, but too few of these strands are pulled together. What is not developed in any way in Tomorrow’s Worlds is that by placing a story in space some critical distance is created, a sense of otherness and unreality. It is through this that our reality can be recreated in microcosm, or criticised by comparing it with something better.
Now, no-one is going to make an Open University programme about science fiction for Saturday night viewing on BBC2 (that is, after all, what BBC4 is for), but somewhere pretty early in any history of SF some reference needs to be made to Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516). Of course, Utopia is not science fiction since it has no element of science in it. Science fiction remains a product of the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the literary importance of spatial distance in satire, social criticism and literary endeavour goes back at least another 2,300 years to Homer’s Odyssey. The point about Utopia is the way that it puns (in Greek, naturally, this is 1516) on Οὐτοπία (not-place) and its homophone Εὐτοπία (good-place). The trip to far-away Utopia was, in reality, vehicle criticism (or at least discussion) of the state of 1516 England and Europe. Such fantasy journeys continued in other pre-cursors to science fiction, most notably in English through Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
Here Dominic is again right to suggest that original TV Star Trek (1966-1969) both uses its distance in space and time from the 1960s reality to present a utopian future, at least some of the peoples of earth united, including a black women (but note, although Uhura’s is derived form the Swahili word for freedom, she is still answering the phone in a short skirt). Dominic’s reading of Star Trek is, however, rather odd. He over-emphasises that this is a Western in the sky. It is certainly true that the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, pitched his series to TV executive as a space bound version of Wagon Train (the long running US Western TV series, 1957-1962), but then he would do that since Westerns, unlike science fiction, were a well established TV genre.
Dominic is hopelessly one-sided to suggest that the Enterprise’s mission was analogous to the imperial civilising one of the nineteenth century Royal Navy, more to do with gunship diplomacy than interaction with new species as equals. The politics of the original Star Trek series are complicated, and Dominic is right to point out that this is a military naval vessel (although his observations are not new, it is a ship of Starfleet, is flown from its bridge, it is armed with torpedoes and cannons etc.), and it clearly does draw on Horatio Hornblower. Underlying attitudes to the Cold War are also less than Utopian. There was no Russian or Chinese crew member in the first series. Sulu was cast as a generic Asian, and he was only resolved as of Japanese descent later. Only when George Takei, who played Sulu, was unavailable for much of the second season, was a Russian character, Chekov, introduced in his place. Moreover, the series recreates the Cold War in space with Klingons (short, swarthy, knocking back their bloodwine, which looks rather like Vodka) playing the role of Russians with other bits of random orientalism thrown in. Klingons were considerably softened in Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) onwards. Indeed, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) the end of the Cold War is played out in allegory with the Klingons clearly in the Soviet role.
Despite the Cold War tension that ran through the original TV series, the accusation of gun boat diplomacy is unfair. For sure, the series often used violent conflict as the easiest way of resolving dramatic tension (in sharp contrast to a painfully diplomatic approach in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)). However Gene Roddenberry, thought of the series as both a morality tale and a commentary on American society. This was something that he thought that he could not have done in a more head-on approach, he sought to depict “a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network” Thus, at the heart of Star Trek is a need to create the no-place to talk about this-place.
This is not a minor theme in science fiction, beyond the trashy pop science fiction, such social commentary is the norm. Thus many science fictions writers are, at least in part, interested in looking at our current world not just through the dual lenses of utopia (presenting a better place) and dystopia (presenting an exaggerated version of what is wrong with the current world). This means that many science fiction writers are on the left. Dominic will, one assumes, have more to say about HG Wells in the episodes on invasion and time. The point here is that for Wells, science fiction was a way of dealing with political and moral questions, although he was also keenly interested in the possibility of scientific progress (not least in his eugenics ideas, which today sit uneasily with his socialism). War of the Worlds can be read as a critique of colonialism (although some on the right might read it as an example of social Darwinism, this is contradicted by the way in which invaders are presented as morally inferior to humanity); The Sleeper Awakes has a society of 2100 where a form of state-capitalism has lead to a huge gulf opening up between rich and poor; and The Invisible Man an investigation of the removal of social restraint leading to a collapse of the individual’s moral integrity. Such social and political thought runs through science fiction, particularly its more literary and serious side. In modern science fiction it might still be a little left-field to set your books in a socialist future, as Iain M. Banks does with his future society, The Culture, still less to have jokes about Gramsci as Kim Stanley Robison does, but even some of the later Star Trek films suggested a different social system with a lack of familiarity with the concept of money and the view that killing animals to eat was barbarous.
Not all science fiction dresses to the left. Doris Lessing, who believed “science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time” used her Canopus series to examine her move from communism to Sufism. Right wing science fiction is less common since the new wave of the 1970s, although much US science fiction prior to this was on the right. Thus EE “Doc” Smith’s trashy Lensman Series (originally published in book form between 1948-1953, although serialised from 1934) has the very dodgy premise that all species have their Übermensch who can be perfected by selective breeding. It is no surprise that Robert Heinlein was a fan of Smith’s work, and his own science fiction is right-wing and individualist. He wrote Starship Troopers (1959), which was loosely the basis for Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 fascistic film of the same name. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is the story of an Anarcho-capitalist revolution on the Moon, a kind of Lunar Tea Party. Dominic implies that John Wyndham is part of this group (this in the episode on invasion, the work in question being The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)). Dominic’s close reading is that the book, which features unearthly children born to human mothers after alien impregnation, is inspired by a fear of a generation gap and rebellious teenagers. This is an unconvincing reading. These are polite if controlling young people, serene in their otherness. The most obvious interpretation is that they are, as they are described, an alien invasion. There is little overt politics in Wyndham’s books, although they are suffused with the necessary leadership role that educated middle-class men must lead weaker people (children, women, the working class) when society is threatened by a variety of exogenous forces (bio-engineered killer plants in Day of the Triffids (1952), aquatic invaders in The Kraken Wakes (1953) and radioactive spiders in Web (published posthumously in 1979)). Although the horror that the reader is invited to share in The Day of the Triffids as the plants knock down the Victorian villas of Finchley may be in line with Wyndham’s reputation as “the Trollope of science fiction” some of his other work, particularly the post-apocalyptic The Chrysalids (1955) suggest that there was a little more to him than that.
What Tomorrow’s World is thus missing is an understanding of science fiction as a genre that, beyond space opera, Star Wars and comic books, has an affinity with the examination of society and politics. It is genre that is explicitly chosen by a writer for its ability to study these themes. Thus, the programme gets Kim Stanley Robinson entirely wrong in presenting his Mars series as being about the terraforming of Mars. Now, of course this is central to the story, but this is not what the underlying theme of his books are. Rather, terraforming is a vehicle for exploring the politics of class and ecology – the themes are broadly Green and socialist. As such it is typical of science fiction.
Worst of all, this sidelining of science fiction’s intent is in its presentation of Ursula Le Guin. It is excellent that Ursula Le Guin receives some exposure, she is a deplorably under-rated science fiction writer although I would also highlight her book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1972). Nonetheless, it is her Left Hand of Darkness (1969) that is highlighted here for its presentation of a species which only assumes a biological sex briefly for the purposes of breeding, and is otherwise neuter. This, Dominic suggests, was a reaction to the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1960s (although he is a well known proponent of the idea that the 1960s did not really exist and in Britain the real icon of the period was not the Beatles but Dads Army, although here he is clearly suggesting that there was a shift in attitudes at that time). This strikes me as an over-simplification, science fiction is a genre that demands that people question the everyday, and the best science fiction writer ask questions about how society is organised not just what impact technology will have. Indeed, even the parochial John Wyndham had asexual aliens in Chocky, published a year before The Left Hand of Darkness. Here, Dominic seems to suggest that SF is vox populi, reacting to current social movement but not part of the more general literary, cultural and political struggle to shape them. It is a patronising and condescending attitude to the genre.
Indeed, science fiction has been playing with ideas of sex and gender for a very long time, perhaps for 1,800 years before Le Guin wrote her book. Lucian of Samosata’s True History (written in the second century A.D.) tells of the people of the moon who “are not begotten of women, but of mankind: for they have no other marriage other than of males; the name of women is utterly unknown among them: until they accomplish the age of five and twenty years, they are given in marriage to others; from that time forwards they take others in marriage to themselves … as soon as an infant is conceived the leg begins to swell, and afterwards when the time of birth is come, they give it lance and take it out dead; then they lay it abroad with open mouth towards the wind, and it takes life.”
Although such writing is not common, there are other examples. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (published as a serial from 1909) features a society of women who reproduce asexually; Theodore Sturgeon has given us Venus Plus X (1960) where a sleeper awakes in a future society of hermaphrodites; and Robert Heinlein’s intriguing story All you zombies… (1959) where a young man who turns out to be intersex is tricked into travelling back in time where he has sex with his previously female self, and is him/herself the product of the union thus being both his own mother and father. While it is certainly true that The Left Hand of Darkness marked the beginning of a surge in science fiction’s exploration of gender that included feminist and gay themes, it was by no means the start.
This is part of a much bigger problem with the series, that the ideas of utopia and dystopia are absent from the series. This came up in the discussion at the NFT screening, and the producer and Dominic explained that they did not wish to make a political history of science fiction. It would appear that in this context utopia and dystopia had no role. This is very strange, since if science fiction means anything more than space opera, the political nature of possible futures, other worlds, parallel realities and altered states is central. Even the most mainstream of Hollywood science fiction has this. The later films in the Alien, Terminator and even Star Wars series all develop the theme that the malignant force in the world is corporate power. In RoboCop the cyborg police officer is the property of OmniCorp who are attempting to profit from the redevelopment and gentrification of Detroit by clearing out the poor and breaking the power of the unionised and striking police force. RoboCop’s rediscovery of his humanity is also a rediscovery of working class solidarity. (It is a reasonable criticism that RoboCop is “fascism for liberals”, combining a liberal message with A Clockwork Orange dose of ultraviolence.)
There is another issue brought up in this first episode, the historical contextualisation of the radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (1978-2005). I think that Dominic struggles here, in the NFT discussion he admitted that he wanted to put in the BBC series Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) in the series rather that Hitchhiker’s. While I have a soft spot for Blake’s 7 (there is something sexy in the androgynous amoral interplay of Servalan and Avon), the Crossroads wobbly sets and the litany of all-knowing deus ex machina supercomputers makes it, in Clive James’ words, “classically awful”. (This is, of course, unfair. Blake’s 7 pursued a number of themes of political rebellion, moral ambiguity and its long term arc in story and character were ahead of the game.)
The point here is that the casual comment in the discussion that the original 1978 Radio 4 series of Hitchhikers went out at 10:30 in the evening, so it would have been possible to flick over at the end and have heard John Peel blowing the cobwebs out of music as Hitchhiker’s was out doing to science fiction. I am not sure that this is true in anyway. Dr. Who already was quite un-cobwebbed, and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) had already shown that SF could be darkly humorous. I guess that the meaning of this is that Hitchhiker’s had, in some sense, a punk mentality. Just as with the 1960s, this is very odd coming from Dominic, who thinks that the whole punk thing is over-estimated in its cultural importance, rather that it had little social significance and its impact has been exaggerated and romanticised by subsequent generations,  a theory that holds very little water.
The parallel between Hitchhikers and punk does not stand up either. As the programme points out, Adams was not a parvenu, he was already on the periphery of the comedy establishment. He was one of only two people outside of the Monty Python team to have been given a writing credit on their show (the other was Neil Innes), and had co-written an episode of Doctor on the Go with Graham Chapman. He did not bring the do it yourself punk aesthetic to science fiction, but his stated intention was to create a immersive science fiction experience as the Beatles and Pink Floyd had with music. Even the theme music was by the Eagles.
Punk had very little of an analogue in science fiction at this stage (although Derek Jarman’s dystopian Jubilee (1977) might be one example), and on the whole science fiction was very much associated amongst most in punk culture as part of the progressive rock past (think of the covers of those Yes albums by Roger Dean, such as Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Be-Bop Deluxe’s reimaging for HG Well’s The Sleeper Awakes as “Life in the Air Age” (1976), Bowie’s surfeit of SF imaginary). Disco too had its SF moments, from Funkadelic to the brief Space Disco craze of 1977. Punk, unsurprisingly, rejected the technology and often optimistically lightweight science fiction imagery of prog and glam. There are some exceptions, the very early Fall and XTC were briefly styled sci-fi rock in 1977, but it did not amount to much. Only Gary Numan, who looked back to Bowie and thus was a bridge through punk and new wave to the new romantics, of that generation took science fiction themes in music seriously in the UK. A few post-punk bands picked up on some of the literary science fiction, Joy Division songs borrowing from JG Ballard and William Boroughs, the Comsat Angels taking their name from Ballard short story and with more than one SF themed song. If you wanted to find a band collaborating with a science fiction writer, that would be the old hippies of Hawkwind who worked with Michael Morcock over many years.
It took a while for science fiction to get its punk. In some ways the dark dystopia visions of Ridley Scott’s films were a bridge, but it took quite some time for the punk generation to influence SF. It is questionable whether science fiction ever had its punk moment. Perhaps the (fairly) low budget Terminator (1982) could be considered to have something in commons with the Ramones. Perhaps it was through comic books (notably all but absent from the first episode of Tomorrow’s Worlds) particularly through the British 2000 A.D .that took at least some of the DIY fanzine punk aesthetic into science fiction grew into role after its first publication in 1977 (its most famous creation was Judge Dredd). There is considerable overlap between superhero comics where by the mid-1980s British writers and artists reinvigorating some rather stale American characters (think Alan Moore related projects such as Watchmen (1986) and V for Vendetta (1989)).
Tomorrow’s Worlds is thus is a wasted opportunity. It is slow to move beyond the shiny surface of popularist work like Star Wars and while it recognises that science fiction has been a vehicle for more serious consideration of social and political issues, fails to get to grips with how it does this.
 Jan Johnson Smith (2005), American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate and Beyond (London: I B Taursus)
 For a summary of socialist science fiction, see China Melville’s summary on his Fantastic Metropolis blog, reposted here: http://theweeklyansible.tumblr.com/post/20777236577/50-sci-fi-fantasy-works-every-socialist-should-read
 Dominic Sandbrook (2006), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London: Little Brown), p791.
 This section has drawn heavily on a fantastic Wikipedia page, “Sex and Sexuality in Speculative Fiction” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_and_sexuality_in_speculative_fiction (accessed 20/11/2014)
 Lucian of Samosata, True History (translated by Francis Hickes) (London: AH Bullen, n.d.), p39 [Accessed via Google Books, http://lucianofsamosata.info/downloads/lucian_true_history.pdf (18/11/2014)]
 Dominic Sandbrook (2012), Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979 (London: Allen Lane), pp565-566.