Aug 31, 2014

Can a SciFi Story Poke Fun at SciFi?

Williams: The Bicentennial Man
I've previously blogged about humor in science fiction. In particular, one such blog post about humor made mention of the movie Bicentennial Man. With the recent death of Robin Williams, humor has been on my mind.

Another buzz-worthy event during August 2014 has been the continuation of the Doctor Who television show, with yet another new incarnation of the Doctor. I've previously discussed the role of Sydney Newman as a creator of the show and the idea that science fiction stories written by Asimov might have influenced the creators of Doctor Who.

As a fan of Isaac Asimov's science fiction, I enjoy the Bicentennial Man movie, largely because of Williams' performance and also because that film held true to the good Doctor's style of robot stories in which computers and robots are depicted as useful inventions, not the evil destructive techno-thingies usually portrayed by Hollywood.

Doctor Who was among the first science fiction television shows that I ever saw, probably starting in 1972 along with Star Trek  (WKGB, Boston). That was about the same time that I was discovering published science fiction that had been written by masters of the genre such as Asimov.  Doctor Who was originally conceived as a children's program that would use a time travel gimmick for exploration of educational history topics. However, a funny thing happened after the first 4-episode serial of the television program was "in the can".

A Dalek
Apparently the next (and only) script that was ready to be produced was a SciFi-themed serial called "The Mutants" that ended up airing as the next 7 episodes. "The Mutants" serial is now better known as "The Daleks" and it is credited to the Welsh comedy writer Terry Nation.

Kirk buried in Tribbles
I've previously admitted that the humorous Tribbles episode of Star Trek is on my top ten list of episodes for that television show. I've recently mentioned in passing the great humor elements that Jack Vance included in his science fiction.

I can appreciate humor in a SciFi story, but what happens when a science fiction writer is mocking SciFi tropes and themes? (A slightly different question can also be asked about The Avengers.)

My views on SciFi horror.
Tribbles are funny, but the Daleks (EXTERMINATE!) were just annoying, the robotic equivalent of zombies. If I want mindless horror then I'll go out and delve into that genre; please don't stick it in my science fiction.

MIB alien ambassador
The idea of a mechanical device with a squishy biological organism inside at the controls is a classic science fiction trope. It was probably done best for video in the Men in Black movie (image to the left).

Martian: War of the Worlds
An early science fiction example of this trope is shown to the right. In The War of the Worlds, the invading Martians were multi-tentacular beasts who terrorize Earth by riding around in their armored vehicles mumbling EXTERMINATE!

But why create anything new and interesting for a T.V. audience that does not read and does not care? On a low budget it is far easier to spoof and derivatize the work of others.

War of the Worlds
Terry Nation filled the Dalek episodes with many recycled ideas (or, according to some claims, outright stolen from others). Nation was the Alfred Yankovic of science fiction, but mercifully The Weird Al Show only lasted 4 months. Daleks and similar "bad guys" have blighted Doctor Who for 50 years.

What evil alien of Cold War television could be complete without the involvement of radiation? In the beginning of the series, we were told that the insanely xenophobic Daleks arose by mutation from a species called the Dals, aliens who were originally peaceful and scientifically advanced, but their nature completely changed in the aftermath of a nuclear war. This type of biologically-implausible mega "mutation" is common in the fantasy worlds of comics and Hollywood.
terror on nylon castors
For decades I've harbored the hypothesis that the Daleks originated as an attempt to inject some humor into Doctor Who and have some low co$t fun with some science fiction tropes. I've often wondered if anyone actually enjoys watching the Daleks. Certainly the interwebs are awash with jokes about Daleks -typically the jokes deal with issues like their inability to climb stairs. Maybe the popularity of Daleks comes from the fact that they represent an annoying source of danger and episode-ending conflict while all fans know that the Doctor can always defeat them?

Fandom or Commercialism?
After my search through the interwebs, I suspect that most true fan loyalty to the Daleks exists only since about 1975 and the "Genesis of the Daleks" which provided a re-imagining (or, at least, a fleshing out of their backstory) of the alien Daleks and, perhaps most importantly, a spokesman for the Daleks who could move Doctor Who scripts past their annoyingly limited verbal repertoire. For the 1975 version of the "history of the Daleks", they were depicted as arising through the efforts of an evil scientist (Davros). By the 1970s, a new generation was coming of age, young adults who had grown up with the annoying and frightening (really?) Daleks and who had the shared experience of watching Doctor Who from "behind the sofa".

Dr. Strangelove
Davros reminds me (and others) of the 1964 film character, the "mad scientist" Dr. Strangelove. Strangelove was an ex-Nazi and the Kaleds (the aliens who give rise to the Daleks) were depicted as Nazi-like fascists.

An essay called "The Impact of Genesis of the Daleks", purportedly by a "long-time fan of the Daleks" praises the "Genesis of the Daleks" serial for its "fantastic plot, great performances, brilliant intelligent subject matter and the range of dialogue". The author of the essay says, "...the story is less about the Daleks and more about the affairs and characters on Skaro. However, this works to their benefit, as the Daleks are used sparingly."

Dalek fan club poster
The best thing that can be said about the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks is that they are used sparingly. Is there anyone who would argue with that?

Peter Sellers was able to insert a comic tone into the Strangelove film, but Davros is just a relentlessly fanatical murderer bent on genocide, all apparently in an attempt to make Doctor Who darker and "more adult". Really, the only thing more absurd than the idea of educational television is television that does not attract the highest $pending demographic groups. The Daleks became a merchandizable ca$h cow, to be milked for all they were worth.

Nicola Bryant and her 3 companions.
3 cheers for regeneration augmentation.
Quark in drag
A clear trend in pop culture is a steady escalation in "darkness". Audiences become desensitized to the horrors that get depicted in movies and on television and so ever more horrible deeds must be written into scripts. A sure fire tactic for script writers is to build a story around starkly delineated forces of good and evil.

Leela the cleavage
savage warrior
The basic $trategy is to target the lowe$t common denominator$ in the market. It is far too much work to try to please audiences with intelligent plots and inspirational stories when you can, with less effort, simply recycle the proven tropes - as long as they periodically get spiced up with darker evil-doers, tighter skirts or more cleavage. Pulp science fiction got many light years of mileage out of "planetary romance" and scantily clad warrior queens and princesses. Star Trek had its fair share of characters like Zarabeth and Sirah.

Cover art by Milton Rosenblatt
In the era of pulp science fiction it did not take calculus and rocket science for publishers to figure out what would attract the attention of young (mostly male) fans. These days we have encyclopedia articles on topics such as breasts in science fiction. Star Trek was able to have some fun with the topic of science fictional commercialization of breasts in the context of the avaricious Ferengi.

I've previously commented on the era of pulp science fiction when authors could describe most plot devices as some sort of tube. For the Exode Trilogy, I poke fun at that era by making use of Hierion Tubes. Actually, my favorite plot devices are currently nanites (or femtobots or zeptites), tiny machines that can do almost anything.

Dalek appendage
For the Daleks, their plunger-like appendage plays a similar role. In Star Trek you play the science fiction game and use a device like a tricorder to scan for Spock's brain activity. In Doctor Who you can $ave on prop co$t$ and fantasize that a sink plunger can scan brain waves. Still, there is a border between laughing with SciFi fans and laughing at them. Personally, I can't escape my feelings that keep telling me Doctor Who and the Daleks are on the wrong side of that border. If fans are having fun and being entertained then all is well. For me, the Daleks have provided only decades of annoyance, but in so doing they seem like the perfect Doctor Who reflection of the endless parade of annoying war-crazed aliens from Klingons to Borg in Star Trek.

I not only blinked, I long
ago stopped watching
I've previously blogged about my preference for thoughtful science fiction stories that avoid mindless horror and parades of evil aliens. After about 1973 I found it impossible to sit through any more movies or television shows about Daleks, Kilingons and all the other absurd war-like aliens that have invaded pop culture SciFi. But, to quote Jack Vance out of context:

The dismayed Glinnes Hulden laments: "The situation is absurd".
Tired reply from a jaded official: "....we deal with many absurdities, this is no more than an ordinary example".

Just say, "No Daleks!"
To improve pop culture science fiction, I advocate a much cleaner separation of the horror and science fiction genres. If script writers want to insert humor, then they should do so in an intellectually stimulating way, not by trying to invent yet another "evil alien" that will annoy viewers for decades. Daleks? Just say no.

A female Time Lord lead character? That should have happened decades ago. Is there anything that could get me to watch Doctor Who? They might bring in some interesting (maybe biologically plausible  hermaphrodites?) aliens, but would it ever be possible wash away the horrors of the past?

The Stuff of True Terror
I won't be watching Doctor Who "Series 8".....

Deep Breath - Robotic bad guys collecting body parts. Ug. Need I say more? OK: "Man falls from the balloon and is impaled on the spire of Big Ben". Ick.

Into the Dalek - Let's smear the plot of Fantastic Voyage all over the miserable Daleks? No.

Robot of Sherwood - "I am not a Merry Man."  For American audiences, any SciFi television show about Robin Hood will have to compete with memories of Star Trek.

Of course, what could have been a fun episode must become dark and stupid in the Who-verse. First: use one of the all time idiotic SciFi tropes (aliens need gold from Earth). Second: use the evil robot trope. Third: throw in a decapitation scene.

The only good thing is that the decapitation had to be edited out, prompting at least one reviewer to complain that the episode was to "too funny"....the Who-verse and Who-fans in a nutshell.

More book and magazine covers

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