Science Fiction Archive: These columns first appeared, in edited form, on TVBarn.
Copyright © 2001 by John Zipperer.
By John Zipperer
(12/7/99) Y'all gather around Uncle Zippy's chair as he tells you the exciting but true story about how science-fiction and -fact writer Arthur C. Clarke invented the geosynchronus-orbiting satellite. What? You've heard that story already? Well, of course you have. Along with "Star Trek's" prediction of the handheld medical scanner, Clarke's prophecy is one of the two best-known examples of real-life advances foreshadowed by the creators of SF. There are others, but why bore you with a long list of predictive hits and misses (transport beams no, talking computers yes, etc.)? What's more interesting, is how science fiction has tried over the years to make political and cultural predictions. From time to time, every self-respecting SF franchise asks the ponderous questions about society and our roles in it, questions most of us rarely contemplate.
Gene Roddenberry's legacy, "Star Trek," is famous for its predictions that humans will outgrow such bad traits as racism, sexism, violence, and irrationalism. People may think this view is famous because of the steady proliferation of "Trek" spinoffs in the last two decades, but the franchise's progressive optimism was its selling point even before it bloated into a franchise. For Roddenberry (and perhaps more telling, for a major corporate broadcast network in a three-network nation) to be predicting a future beyond war and hatred and ignorance was breathtaking, because he began doing it in the 1960s when the country was fighting communism in Vietnam and itself at home. Knowing that the show was canceled after only three seasons is not the important point; that the show got on the air at all is important, and the challenges against it doing so should make one a little more indulgent of the commercial compromises the producers had to make.
Will we grow or evolve out of our species' bad traits? It would be nice, but it is debatable whether any visible advances have been made toward that goal. Then again, in "Trek" lore, we in 1999 are still a third world war away from encroaching enlightenment. But that's a problem with any TV series set in the future, and I don't want to wait 400 years to write this column. Luckily, even though most of the SF-TV series are set in the future, they all reflect the political and cultural times in which they were (or are) produced.
Peter S. Fisher looked at a pre-television society's science fiction to see what it told him about the real political and social situation of the day. In his fascinating "Fantasy and Politics: Visions of the Future in the Weimar Republic," he recounts the many national and racial revenge zukunftsroman (novels of the future) that were published in inter-war Germany; their drumbeat of national humiliation at the hands of England, France, and the United States was relentless. Strangely, they were idealistic in that fanatical way that shows Hitler was less a mutant anomaly than an evil opportunist in evil times, for they predicted a better future for Germany -- some even predicted international peace and goodwill -- but only on the terms made possible by a rejuvenated Germany that could face down its former tormenters. If you can wade through Fisher's occasionally breathless Freud revivalism, you'll find an eye-opening book that is also sobering; it is also proof of the power of SF cultural and political predictions, even for the worse motives.
Those predictions and reflections often come from surprising sources. "Battlestar Galactica," usually derided as space-western eye-candy, was a very telling reflection of American Cold War fears in the late 1970s. After the Galactica's homeworlds are destroyed (when their leaders are duped by a detente-promising turncoat), the giant battleship flees with the other surviving humans, chased all the way by the relentless aliens. The blessedly short-lived revival, "Galactica 1980," reflected politics less than it reflected a reduced budget and an early-evening, kid-friendly timeslot. But judging from comments of original series creator Glen Larson and series star Richard Hatch, each of whom is working on a separate new "Galactica" film/TV project, the next incarnation of the series is likely to delve further into the mythological and religious trappings of the original series, and in so doing, it will cannily reflect the ongoing internalization of our culture and the regrowth of spirituality in all its forms.
And others? There are many other series, though few deserve mention. The most common prediction of many of them is a world government, which has yet to emerge (and if it does, its makers will no doubt look back at the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting as a low point in its development) but which gives heart palpitations to many right- and left-wingers who fear a trampling of rights by a global government. And seques nicely into the grand prize winner for predictions, "The X-Files," for creating a conspiracy-and-paranoia television genre (later followed by NBC's "Dark Skies" and others) and then mercilessly mining those fears and that paranoia. And the success by "The X-Files" points to Fox TV's only programming blunder for Sunday nights: the network plans to move "Futurama" (which largely confines its predictions and satire to our culture's commercialism and impersonalism) earlier in the evening, when it should immediately follow "The X-Files." Just to pick us up after the dark stuff, you know.
And no, there was no artistic, political, social, or educational contribution made in any way by "A.L.F."
on the brink
(4/9/99) If the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" folks wanted to go out with a bang, they failed. But if they wanted to begin the end of a decade spent poking fun at bad films with the same, finely-honed insouciance that made them a cult favorite in the first place, then they've done themselves proud. In the season premiere airing 11 p.m. Sunday, the crew at Best Brains Inc. in Minneapolis demonstrates why their show has stayed fresher after nine seasons than "The X-Files" and its two little meat puppets have after just five.
As Barry Diller's Sci-Fi Channel relaunches itself as a mainstream-friendly SF outpost, it has chosen to drop baggage such as "MST3K," very much as Comedy Central punted the show in 1996 during its 2.0 upgrade. In one sense this is understandable, because "MST3K" has never been a phenomenon. It never swept the cultural consciousness the way "Star Trek" did. Crow and Tom Servo were no Mulder and Scully. Nor did Sci-Fi ever get the kind of PR mileage from "MST3K" that it is currently enjoying from the Francis Ford Coppola-produced "First Wave," just as Comedy Central waited in vain for the show to create the brand identity "South Park" eventually would. But "MST3K" has been, as the New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum once wrote, "perhaps the funniest ongoing critique of American culture ever." I would further note that it is an unofficial critique of the Sci-Fi Channel's programming for "MST3K" to let the viewing public know, as it has these past three years, that the programming emperors have no clothes.
The heartwarming story of a stranded temp worker and his robots who while away the hours talking back to bad genre films, "MST3K" will air its tenth season of 13 episodes and will then end, barring a paradoxical plea from the show's producers to their fan base to help save the show (the Sci-Fi Channel claims that Best Brains practically welcomed the issuing of the pink slip). The show has endured an obstacle course since its founding. It went from Twin Cities indie station KTMA-TV to Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) to Sci-Fi Channel. The producers even tried, briefly, to repackage the show in one-hour episodes for syndication, a futile effort that will be remembered for host Mike Nelson's game imitation of A&E personality Jack Perkins. At the height of its fame, such as it was, Best Brains even released a movie version of "MST3K." That tanked at the box office -- and then Comedy Central cancelled the show.
"MST3K" suffered the loss of important players over the years, including Joel Hodgson, its creator, whose on-camera name was Joel Robinson. (He preceded current host Mike Nelson as the designated human "meat puppet" at the show's home base, the Satellite of Love.) Other expatriates include Josh Weinstein (probably unknown to all but the most diehard "MST'ies," Weinstein was the high-pitched Dr. Erhardt in the first season), Frank Conniff (as TV's Frank) and Trace Beaulieu (who played both the evil Dr. Forrester and the onetime voice of Crow). Much like the stars of "M*A*S*H," Hollywood anonymity was the destination of most of the departed.
As is their habit, the "MST3K" folks are eschewing the usual irritating promo gimmicks for the final season launch. That is, unless you count the new opening credits and the ever-so-brief return of TV's Frank and Joel Robinson (Hodgson looks somewhat beefier than his earlier version). In this outing, Mike Nelson and the 'bots skewer "SoulTaker," a film Mrs. Forrester correctly calls "skin-peelingly bad."
The "SoulTaker" roasting is vintage "MST3K." This is a show that over 90 minutes manages more laugh-out-loud lines than three typical sitcoms. After Joe Estevez takes the soul of a hospital patient, the non sequiturs begin to fly.
Crow: "You know, it's just not death with dignity if there's an Estevez in the room."
Tom Servo: "You think he's hourly? Or does he get paid on a per-soul basis?"
Crow: "See, if he put The Club on his soul, this would not have happened."
And so on.
The Sci-Fi Channel is a prime example of the growth of the once-insular SF genre and its saturation of the culture. The high profile that Sci-Fi is giving its new Friday night prime-time block is a good indicator of where the channel thinks its viewer growth will come from. It won't come from the dedicated remnant of "MST3K" fans.
So "MST3K" is being dumped for flashier, more accessible shows like "Farscape" and "First Wave." But it would be wrong to conclude from this that "MST3K" was inaccessible to the non-SF audience. Appreciating "MST3K" does not require an aficionado's knowledge of science fiction, despite the references over the years to "Starlog" and Harlan Ellison. It does have its rewards for a viewer with an unpretentious love of movies. And sure, someone who knows the location of UW-Stout or the village of Ashwaubenon will find even more to appreciate. Is that so wrong?
Some films inspire sympathetic wincing by the audience because the producers so obviously tried to make a decent film. But this show's stock in trade is the film whose producers just didn't care, the minor investment someone hoped to cash in on. "MST3K" makes no attempt to pretend to be art or education (never mind the Ayn Rand or Aeschylus references over the years), but it does hold Hollywood up to the best critical eye available: that of three guys who love movies but don't fall for industry BS. Which may be the most problematic aspect of this show for Sci-Fi Channel. Let's face it, that heads-and-chairbacks silhouette familiar to "MST3K" fans could have run along the bottom of most of the channel's programming in recent years. Now as Diller tries to reinvent Sci-Fi as a Channel That Matters, we can welcome the resultant drop in dreck, but mourn the loss of the anti-dreck truth squad from Minneapolis.