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(December 1994)

SF on TV

Originally uploaded to the Amentet BBS ("Low Oxygen" Section) in December 1994.
Reprinted in "Reality Module No.4" (ANZAPA) in June 1998.

Dear Folks,

I've often wondered whether there can ever be any *really* good SF on TV.

Look at the Star Trek shows: virtually all the aliens are human-beings with funny foreheads and they all talk American. (I was particularly cheezed-off when some aliens came to Deep Space Nine from the Gamma Quadrant (the other side of the flipping galaxy) - and they looked *just like us* except with funny foreheads, and they spoke perfect American!) One of the *terrific* things I've found in written SF is that the aliens really *are* alien, their appearance is weird, their behaviour hard to understand, and they communicate in odd ways and with alien tongues/tentacles, etc. Great stories can involve humans trying to understand these aliens or to decipher their language and figure out how they see the world. Consider weird looking aliens like the Puppeteers in Larry Niven's Known Space novels, some of the aliens in Piers Anthony's "Cluster Series", or those gaseous aliens in Asimov's "The Gods Themselves." Why are there so few *alien* aliens on TV?

Secondly - why is TV SF so bloody simplistic? A whole episode of Star Trek or any other SF TV show takes one hour, or less. They just begin to explore a situation, before they have to start tackling it, and then buggering off on their next adventure! (At least Dr. Who gave you stories lasting two or three hours - a bit of time to explore backgrounds and develop characters). Where's the SF mini-series? [An example - do you remember that episode of "Star Trek : TNG" where they found that Dyson Sphere? Terrific, I thought. Wow, what'll they find there, I thought. Bugger all! The place was deserted, and nobody lead an exploration team. (They could have had a *whole season* just exploring this alien environment! I was so *angry* when they just racked-off without a decent look at the place: so many possibilities for stories there, so much potential for imaginative extrapolation - thrown on the dung-heap!!)]

What do I think you need to bring decent SF to the TV screen? A mini-series format - how else could you bring something like Larry Niven's "Ringworld" or even Asimov's "Foundation Series" to TV - even the two to three hours of a movie would be inadequate. You need a whole multi-part series! (It can be done - I'd consider some of the Japanese Anime SF series to be the best TV SF there is - They take time to develop stories over many episodes and devote much time to providing you with the background and motivation of the major characters. They aren't *crippled* by being forced to try and tell all in an hour or less!)

I think things will get better. There's some sign that TV people are starting to take SF more seriously. The golden age of TV SF may shortly be upon us. Why? Let's see:

1. SF in general is starting to become more respectable in the mainstream, but mostly:

2. *Technology*. Animatronics mean that we can now create synthetic aliens which are basically remote-control robots and not human-beings in latex-masks and futuristic garb. Consider an early example - Jubba the Hutt, more recently the Alien! (The problem here is these robots are expensive - only motion picture producers can really afford to go about making great ones and blowing them to bits. ;) )

Advances in computer animation offer great benefits to SF on TV. Models of starships (or whatever) are expensive to build and animate, and only high budget SF series - e.g. "Star Trek" can afford terrific models. New SF series like "seaQuest DSV" and "Babylon 5" use computer graphics instead of models. Some people have complained about the quality of the computer-generated images in these shows, but that is unjust. Images in "Babylon 5" are fully texture-mapped and ray-traced - state of the art. (Technical aside - the space station in "Babylon 5" is formed from over a 100,000 polygons - the object datafile is over 64 *megabytes* in size!) To realise how good they are borrow "The Last Starfighter" from your local video library - these images were created in 1984 on a Cray supercomputer -and they aren't even texture- mapped and ray-traced, and unlike in "Babylon 5" they don't even have shadows! Watch the play of light and shadow on the surfaces of spinning objects in "Babylon 5" - it is beautiful. Another advantage of computer animation is that you can have the spaceships move anyway you want them to - no strings attached - and you can have bits of them open and shut in "a smooth ballet of technology."

I'm looking forward to seeing more of "Babylon 5" - I expect to see some delightfully baroque spaceships!

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Copyright © 1994 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.


Last Updated: 16 March 2003