“Extraordinary How Potent Cheap Science Fiction Is…”

Recently I was asked by the delightful Louise Angrilli to write something for Ethel The Ardvark, the official publication of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. I promised to write an article about the importance of exploding collars in science fiction, but I got stuck when trying to find anything to actually say about the subject. So I wrote in praise of cheap science fiction instead.

For some reason, I’ve never trusted big budget science fiction.

Universes torn apart by CGI explosions, vast armies of robots battling across infinitive voids – it leaves me cold. But a fabric backdrop painted silver and lit by an ex-disco oil projector? I’m there. I was raised on a diet of ’70s BBC television, in which ancient Rome and the far future had a tendency to look much the same – like a large television studio, in fact. Shot on harshly lit videotape, everything was exposed – special effects were simple and often done live-to-tape, with only basic chromakey or model footage for those “wow” moments. All the film-makers could truly rely on was the acting and the writing – the very essence of storytelling. They couldn’t hide behind mere spectacle.

As a young audience member, I had no problem with that. I knew that every time an “army” of Daleks stormed somewhere, we’d only see three of them at a time. I was happy to take those as symbolic Daleks and not literal Daleks. (The Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story Day Of The Daleks features a large country house being “surrounded” by three Daleks. It always reminds me of the old Soviet joke – “Why do policemen travel in threes?” “One who can read, one who can write, and one to keep an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals”).

For many people, Star Wars was the thing that made them want to work in film. Although it now seems quite tame compared to the effects extravaganzas it spawned, it was the first time most of us had seen science fiction approached in such a purely visual manner. Star Wars opened the eyes of many to the ability of cinema, but not me. Admittedly, I came late – seeing the first film just before the release of Return Of The Jedi, on that newest of miracles, the home video recorder. (It was a betamax, so the quality was a little higher than VHS – apparently). While I could appreciate the design side of it, I couldn’t help but think it was a little… dull. The good guys and bad guys were so clear cut, so humourless, so… American.

Star Wars changed the world of visual SF. You could argue that 1968′s 2001: A Space Odyssey was equally impressive visually, but the film itself was a quiet, meditative exploration on the themes of… something. Possibly evolution. Or velcro. No-one was rushing out to Italy to make cheap knock-offs of 2001 starring Caroline Munro.

Star Wars ushered in the “Big ‘N Stupid” era, leading to the Bruckheimer-esque Things Explode movies we have today. Now I love a good explosion as much as the next man, but I like to have subtext too – I feel a film should explore man’s tendency toward conformity and the inherent racism in the Australian psyche before blowing up a whole bunch of stuff – or is that just Dead End Drive-In?

Writing in 2001 (the year, not the movie), director John Landis said “Computer generated animation has grown so sophisticated that no matter how stupid the movie, the monsters look great! What these films often lack is a real sense of magic and personality”. No longer can we have quiet, cheap science fiction that explores present-day issues – the Soylent Greens, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, On The Beaches or The Days The Earth Caught Fire have been banished. The tyranny of high-gloss visual effects rampaged through cinema and television, killing off anything that dared to be small, modest, or even visually distinct.

Even my beloved Doctor Who fell. When it returned to our screens in 2005 we no longer had 90 minute stories, full of suspense and well-told plots. The new 45 minute Doctor Who follows this standard pattern – 10 minutes standing around talking about relationships, 24 minutes being chased by a giant CGI monster from “the dawn of time”, 1 minute making the threat disappear with a combination of magic buttons, magic words or a magic wand/sonic screwdriver, followed by 10 minutes of crying on a beach. That’s not science fiction. That’s Neighbours. In space. And the Christmas specials are even worse.

The irony is that while all this was happening, standard SF special effects became extremely cheap. Even the most basic laptop-based editing system has the ability to do green-screen, dissolves and simple effects. You want to do teleportation, superimpose characters onto alien worlds, combine live action with models? Easy. You have at your fingertips more power than the mid-’70s BBC could possibly imagine. Yet liberating the means of production hasn’t led to a plethora of low-budget ideas-based SF. We’re not seeing any Alphavilles or The Men Who Fell To Earth turning up in our local arthouses. And sadly I think it’s because audiences have lost the ability to watch cheap science fiction.

Quentin Crisp once said he could enjoy silent movies because he grew up with them and could watch them “with silent eyes”. Modern audiences have become so used to high-tech gee-wizzery that anything less sends them into paroxysms of laughter. The acting can be great, the ideas can be riveting, but people will complain that the alien planet looks like a quarry, or that the army of Daleks is actually just… three. “That spaceship is so obviously fake”. Yes, you’re right. It’s not a real spaceship.

I guess I’m writing this as a love letter to the cheap science fiction I miss. The science fiction that was often the springboard – or even the cover – to play with ideas and themes you couldn’t get away with in more mainstream fields. In the 1950s, writer Rod Serling was so tired of having his work censored or watered-down that he created The Twilight Zone as a way of exploring issues – racism, difference, inhumanity – that were routinely cut from his other work. If he was writing now he’d probably be making The West Wing.

Of course some of it was simply terrible, with nothing to recommend it at all. But cheapness often allows freedom, and among the B-pics and children’s programming there was space not just for the creators’ imaginations, but also for our own.

So let’s take to the streets. Let’s demand well-thought out, cleverly plotted SF with excellent acting and writing. Let’s say we don’t mind if they have to scrimp a bit on exploding suns and extraneous Daleks, that we can fill in the gaps ourselves. Let’s embrace the freedom of idea and expression, and throw off the shackles of cultural expectations and high quality effects.

Until then I’m staying under my doona with box sets of Battlestar Galactica.

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18 Responses to “Extraordinary How Potent Cheap Science Fiction Is…”

  1. Narrelle says:

    We’ve been rewatching Red Dwarf and noticing how, in the seventh season, when they seemed to have budget of some sort, the SFX got *worse*, because they kept using CGI instead of the old model work they did. And what do we see? Bad animation instead of little pretend spaceships. Of course, it was all going irrevocably downhill by then. Sigh.

  2. Dave AA says:

    A couple of dalek-related things;

    Neil Gaiman notes that in China they have toilets available for daleks:
    http://files.neilgaiman.com/restrooms.jpg

    This YouTube celebrates Dr Who’s cheapest moments;

    Can I use HTML in comments here?

  3. Chris says:

    Maybe I should change my name to ‘comment chris’ :) or ‘The evil Dr Comment chris’ to really throw people off!

    A very worthy low budget scifi movie I saw at MIFF a few years ago was “Primer”.
    theres a write up on it here http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002591.html
    I remember it being abit confusing so I’d like to see it again and try and figure it all out.

    There was also a silent scifi’ish movie on at MIFF this year called La Antenna which even though I nodded off a couple of time(primarily due to lack of sleep rather than the movie itself) I thought it was quite good.

    The best modern day silent movie(even though it runs at only 46 mins) I have seen recently is ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. I don’t think I’ve seen it available in Oz though is orderable from the US.

  4. outlandinstitute says:

    Hey me peeps,

    Chris: Yep, I saw Primer and didn’t really understand it either. Apparently it is intricately plotted so if you watch it multiple times it all makes sense. I think it won the major award at Sundance, and was made for $3.50 – def worth a look.

    Also, Last Night (see poster above) is brilliant, it’s about the last day on earth, as the world coming to an end (although we’re never told exactly why) and how people spend it. Writer/director/star Don McKellar has said it’s a satire on Canadian politeness, and it’s got a great performance from David Cronenberg as a man who spends his last day ringing everyone to thank them for using the Gas Board all these years. Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Sarah Polley and Leoben-the-Cylon all appear as well.

    What’s Call Of Cthulhu about? (not that I need an excuse to watch anything Cthulhu-related).

    David: Is there anything Neil Gaiman cannot tell us? Don’t know about the HTML.

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    I’m not a big SW far – but – for us who were there – it was the most mind blowing and influential experiences of 1978. (If only I’d kept my collection of Mark H TV Guide posters – OK – I admit it – at the age of 10 I thought Luke Skywalker was hot. )

    I saw Primer – it was great. The one about 2 blokes who make a time machine in their storage shed? For me to remember it – it must have been good.

    John – just watch a bit more of Dr Who – I wandered away after the initial hoo ha – but I’m back. But the last 2 parter in series 4 is a bit twee.

    If have pics of Dalek cake for you – but my comments appear limited to just the word kind. There’s a pic of it somewhere on my fb page. If only it had been served with dalek bread…….

  6. Anne-Marie says:

    could this be where your grandma found the knitted K9? Even if it was round and shaped like a sloth…

  7. Edward says:

    In an odd turnaround, I’m now enjoying the new Doctor Who by concentrating on the decent scripts and forgiving/ignoring the CGI, in exactly the same way we used to forgive/ignore the cheap sets and models of the old Doctor Who.

    My favourite cheap science fiction of the 70s-80s was Sapphire and Steel. Five episode stories with rarely more than 4 characters trapped on a set that was one house/room/railway station.

  8. outlandinstitute says:

    Edward: Sapphire and Steel was brilliant! I only saw it recently when it came out on DVD, and I was amazed that a) they ever got to make it in the first place, and b) it went out in Prime Time on a commercial network! Astonishing. A show in which NOTHING is ever, ever explained. Who are the heroes? Dunno -maybe time itself. What are they doing? Dunno. Who are the villains? Dunno – maybe time itself. What the hell is going on? It’s really great. I do wish they’d been able to shoot it on film, though, it’s such a moody thing it would’ve suited film.

    Anne-Marie: Yep, I believe that would be it. I’m sure I’ll get around to reviewing for the site in due course…

  9. syms covington says:

    battlestar, battlerstar, battlestar

  10. Edward says:

    Your points on Sapphire and Steel – astonishing indeed! I like to imagine an ITV exec being pitched a show that opens each week with the line:

    “All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available… Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.”

    Sorry, just felt so good reading that again, I had to share it.

  11. Sam says:

    I always find it strange that the old sci-fi monsters almost had too much weight – wonderful clumsy things that would bang into door frames and make the whole set wobble – whereas cgi monsters seem to have no weight at all – they don’t seem to be able to differentiate between solids and the spaces in between – they don’t have to.

    My favourite low-budget Dr Who creature is Alpha Centauri, the Ambassador from The Curse/Monster of Peladon – I think we used to have curtains like that somewhere… and for some reason the big high-rise in Albert Park reminds me of this character.

  12. outlandinstitute says:

    I should also mention 2001′s The American Astronaut, which is the best black and white science fiction western musical you will ever see…

  13. outlandinstitute says:

    Link for The American Astronaut trailer here:

  14. Chris says:

    John: Call of Cthulhu is, strangely enough, a retelling of Lovecrafts story Call of Cthulhu. From what I can remember its a pretty faithful retelling with a few changes. Its in the style of a 1920s silent movie with dialogue cuts etc.

  15. Chris says:

    for those that don’t know the World Science Fiction convention will be held in Melb in 2010

    http://www.aussiecon4.org.au/

  16. Stacy says:

    Wonderful post. I’ve long lamented the inability of folks these days to appreciate ideas and not just excessive production values. It seems the practice of using one’s imagination to fill in the blanks left by a low budget need no longer apply. I think it’s symptomatic of the general regression back to the ‘cinema of attractions’, where mindless spectacle reigns and conscious thought is unnecessary.

    “That spaceship is so obviously fake” Hmmm…yes, imagine that. As a child raised on the original Doctor Who, I can’t understand that mindset. It’s like those painfully boring people who watch fantasy or otherwise blatantly improbable films and arrogantly say, “Well, that wouldn’t happen, would it?”

    People are still using their suspension of disbelief when they watch expensive effects-laden sci-fi, they just now have an unfair standard that can’t accept anything less than such empty CGI slickness. One of the most infuriating things I hear is when people talk about old shows by saying, “Well, they didn’t have CGI back then so the effects are a bit crap”. You go die now. I recently tried to show some people the very first episode of Doctor Who from 1963, and they all dismissed it as boring and worthless. After exterminating them, I returned to my cocoon of DVD’s of old sci-fi shows and seethed.

    These days I still enjoy cheesy and stupid sci-fi with loads of special effects, like Stargate SG-1, which I enjoy for many reasons, but I still can’t decide if it’s consciously a propaganda tool of the US military, or blatant satire of it. I’m tending to the former. But the most memorable episodes of that show are the ones that develop the ideas and mythology, not the ones with all the action. Likewise with any good sci-fi.

    And I was very pleased to hear mention of Sapphire and Steel, easily the greatest TV show of all time.

  17. Clare says:

    An excellent post – I love your summation of the new Dr. Who. No moments as in the Jon Pertwee era where the Doctor says ‘I need to think about this’, then cut to another scene of people doing something else while he is thinking.

    I just went into a bit of a DVD ordering frenzy when I discovered a whole lot of 70s British sf I have never had the chance to see is now available on DVD. The DVDs have all been arriving in the last week: Ace of Wands, Timeslip, The Owl Service, Labyrinth, Casting of the Runes, Children of the Stones. So it’s cheesy 70s retro for me at present.

    And a couple of American items – the complete box set of The Man from Uncle and David McCallum in The Invisible Man.

    Ditto the remarks about Sapphire and Steel – my favourite science fiction series. If only there was more stuff like it (sigh).

  18. LegoDaleks says:

    Wow dude! I totally agree with you about Doctor Who & Nu-hu stuff! I’m always in forums writing the EXACT same stuff. When you said Neighbours in space & magic wands I nearly fainted. I was like: Did I write this? I’m so glad you wrote this & that I found it. I nearly lost hope in humanity’s taste.
    People nowadays are so easily impressed with the video-game graphics & banal music as well as simple stories. It seems the simpler they are the more people like them.
    I never considered Star Wars to be science fiction. It’s clearly fantasy. Most people just don’t realise that fantasy is basically limitless (there are some limits though like I’ve never seen contagious diseases in fantasy), all they see is space & space ships & think it’s sci-fi.
    Anyway check out my Nu-hu review/spoofs on Youtube – my channel is: LegoDaleks

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