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.