Why the BBC should do grown-up science-fiction

Why the BBC should do grown-up science-fiction

Arthur C. Clarke

Schrödinger is stopped by a police officer while driving. Suspicious, the officer opens the boot (trunk, if reading in American).
“Mr Schrödinger,” he says. “Are you aware that you have a dead cat in your boot?”
“I am now,” says Schrödinger.

This joke divides the world into three groups of people.

  1. If you laughed out loud, or chuckled, or determined to tell the joke to someone else or post it on Facebook, then you probably either have a science degree, or have read at least one science-fiction story, or consider yourself to be well-informed on matters scientific.
  2. If you sort of got it, which is to say you recognised that Schrödinger has something to do with dead cats, then you probably watch the Big Bang Theory, or listen to Radio 4 science programmes, or generally swim within the milieu of post-modern society.
  3. If you have no clue about why this is supposed to be funny, then you are probably still in Modernism where the distinction between arts and sciences is sacred and you decided long ago that you weren’t on the science side. Alternatively, you may just not have much of a sense of humour.

The problem for the BBC and other makers of TV shows is that there is an endless tension between informing, educating, and entertaining. The assumption is that ‘proper’ science-fiction is for science-nerds who religiously listen to the Infinite Monkey Cage (or irreligiously) and enjoy articles pointing out the technical inaccuracies in Skyfall.

Since this is only a small sector of the population, your chances of getting the 6 million plus viewers that you need for a successful series are pretty limited. That which commands low viewing figures also commands low budgets, and the prospect of low budget science-fiction sets BBC commissioners quivering with fear and distaste.

Recent experiments with semi-proper SF, such as Outcasts, have not been encouraging. It began with 4.4 million viewers, but dropped to 2.6 million and was moved to a Sunday night slot. On the other hand, Doctor Who which picked up 9.87 million UK viewers for the most recent Christmas special, now contains virtually no science whatsoever.

The rot started some time ago. Back in the 70s Doctor Who was ablaze with science — the Green Death, Genesis of the Daleks, the Giant Robot and many others were about scientists doing science. Of course, to be science-fiction, the science had to be ramped up into fictional levels. Nonetheless, the scientific method and the doing of experiments to answer the show’s crucial questions was an established part of the trope.

We could put the blame on the 21st century Doctor Whos, but in reality the show stopped being about science somewhere during the Tom Baker era. This was not such a great problem, though, because an even more grown-up SF series, Blakes 7 (sadly without an apostrophe), devised by Dalek-creator Terry Nation, came onto the screens. Not long afterwards the magnificent SF spoof The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy started on radio, positing all kinds of logical and philosophy-of-science questions to the intelligentsia who listened to. Later they made it into a TV series with most of the science stripped out, but, hey, nothing is perfect.

The grown-upness of Blakes 7, and the earlier Doctor Whos, was not because it was about any kind of serious science you could do at home with your chemistry set or even with a fast breeder reactor or an ID pass for CERNE. Rather, it was that many (but by no means all) of the episodes turned on logic bombs which were set off near the beginning, and which the viewer could follow until they exploded at the climax of the episode. The premises could be as wild as you like — giant maggots that turn whatever they touch into other maggots, metal that could grow and repair itself, teleports — but it was the fact that they were taken through to their logical conclusions that made the fundamentals of the show scientific rather than merely gizmological.

Gizmology, sadly, has become rather the order of the day since then. Arthur C Clarke once posited that any technology, if sufficiently advanced, was indistinguishable from magic. A later wag suggested than any technology, if sufficiently advanced, was indistinguishable from a convenient plot device that got the writers out of trouble. Despite some noble exceptions — Blink, Asylum of the Dalek’s, the Doctor’s Daughter — a lot of the resolutions of recent Doctor Who episodes could be rather unkindly described as “press the button marked ‘foil the enemy’s plans’ and stand clear”.

Cross the pond for a moment and things are even bleaker. Lost and Heroes were both billed as Science Fiction, despite having essentially no science component. Babylon 5 and SyFy’s ‘re-imagined’ Battlestar Galactica are on the surface more traditional space-SF fare, but they, too, had virtually no science content. American space fiction, it seems, is really all about ‘what would the military be like if they were running a space fleet?’ The reboots of Star Trek and the like underline the point: knowledge of military discipline and military protocol is what you need to follow them, not an interest in science.

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