Why Is Bad Quality More Acceptable In Old Sci-Fi?

Author’s Note: Contains spoilers for a really bad episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who; if you actually care about the show, I recommend ignoring this warning, because dear sweet gods that episode was bad and maybe now you won’t have to actually watch it. Also spoilers for some episodes of older and newer Star Trek, not that the basics of the plot really mattered in the stories under discussion.

I recently sat through one of the worst episodes of Doctor Who I have ever had the displeasure of watching. The episode in question was “Kill The Moon,” near the midpoint of series eight, starring Peter Capaldi. Even Capaldi’s superb acting couldn’t come close to saving this episode. I sat and stared in disgust for the entirety of it, and would honestly not have cared much if the human race had been extinguished in the episode, because the whole premise was so ridiculous that I found myself unable to suspend any disbelief. To give you an idea, I am arachnophobic to a point that can actually be considered a mental illness, but the giant spiders crawling all over the moon for some reason (still not entirely clear on why, honestly) didn’t bother me in the slightest.

After I finished watching, though, a thought struck me. The premise of the episode is absolutely awful: the moon is a giant egg waiting to hatch a giant alien that’s the last of its species, apparently, though how the Doctor knows that is unclear since it is otherwise a complete mystery to him, an alien that will do something to earth, maybe possibly, so, uh, maybe the human race will have to kill it, or not, except that shouldn’t be an issue because the Doctor is either a jerk or an idiot, and I as a classics major should not have enough knowledge of biology and physics to figure out this problem faster than the Doctor and all the scientists of earth, and meanwhile there are single-celled spiders infecting the moon for no good reason. But it’s awful in a way that would have been perfectly at home in classic Doctor Who with a less annoyance-filled version of the summary. And I would have watched it and laughed hysterically and enjoyed myself greatly.

To make things more complicated still, there are exceptions to the old-good-new-bad rule. There are some really awful episodes of new Who, which are still fun to watch, particularly in series one. Anything involving the Slitheen, who wander around with zippers in their foreheads (and oh, did the special effects department love that shining blue light effect, they’d never had a budget before – they had a special effect, and by god they were going to use it, over and over and over….) was frankly kind of ridiculous, even coming on the heels of mannequins trying to take over the earth, but it all still worked somehow. My initial theory was that it was due to expectation of that kind of campy quality from fans of the classic show, but new viewers seem to feel the same way.

Which leaves us with the same question: what makes bad science fiction palatable, and why is it so much more common to find it in older work?

Doctor Who makes a great test case for old science fiction versus new science fiction, simply because it’s the same franchise. For the same reason, Star Trek and Star Wars do admirably for the same purpose, and are worth spending some time discussing here.

I love Star Wars, and always have. But you will not find me claiming that even the original trilogy is made entirely up of brilliant films. Groundbreaking, perhaps, but this is not the same as brilliant. Of the original trilogy, I have always maintained that the only one which is objectively high quality is The Empire Strikes Back. I love A New Hope in particular, and always will, but I can’t claim with a straight face that it’s actually a good movie, in pretty much any respect. Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is a better film – but its flaws are much harder for me to accept. I thought at first that it might be due to the fact that I hadn’t watched A New Hope in a long time, but upon re-watching it, I find I love it as much as I ever have, and am willing to ignore flaws in it that I am incapable of not raking over the coals in more recent films in the franchise when the exact same mistakes appear.

I find I have the same expanded tolerance for artistic mistakes in early Star Trek. I am more able to accept that women on the original Star Trek cling to Captain Kirk and say, “I’m frightened, Captain,” all the time, where women looking ethereal with their hair blowing in the wind of new planets as they model their pretty skirts in Star Trek: The Next Generation bothers me intensely. In part, I am able to excuse the politics of the earlier show because of its earlier context, but the fact that it’s also just plain poor writing bothers me less in the earlier show – and this is just one example of many.

Star Trek gives us a lovely additional gold mine of opportunity in terms of discussion: episodes of old Trek and new Trek which are not only from the same franchise but based on the exact same concept, sometimes openly so. There are episodes of the original series which are the subject of episodes in later series – only changed from drama to comedy, because really, who could possibly take seriously the concept of water with a molecular difference that makes people drop their inhibitions and go crazy. And yet, “The Naked Time” is one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek, precisely because of its variety in the way the characters are affected, and what is revealed about each of them. Okay, yes, the crazy-making-water is absurd, but it’s just a mechanism, it doesn’t actually matter. But when unlocking its mysteries becomes a central concept in “The Naked Now,” in Star Trek: The Next Generation, it can only be handled as comedy.

And now, I think, these three franchises between them have provided us an answer key.

Modern science fiction takes itself seriously in its details. A film that claims to have science of any variety will have any inconsistencies pulled apart by fans. A film that does actually have real science will be combed carefully by popularizers of science and roasted if the opportunity arises. The explanation of “it just works that way, okay?!” is no longer acceptable. Many viewers I know, myself included, have a certain tolerance for that kind of explanation, but once it goes beyond that line – and I’m not even exactly sure where the line is, except that I’d be willing to bet it’s different for every viewer – any science fiction that uses that explanation, must either be bad, or be deliberately comedic.

The reason “Kill The Moon” failed utterly as an episode was the fact that it attempted to take itself seriously. The Robin-Hood-themed episode earlier in the season fared much better, because it was unabashedly silly for most of its run time. “The Naked Now” is ridiculous and delightful. A lack of imagination plus a consistently deadly serious attitude, combined to produce a thoroughly unappealing atmosphere for much of later Star Trek – and the times when this is not true, those episodes are amazing to watch.

It’s kind of sad, the idea that we can’t take the explanation of “it just works that way, we don’t understand why” seriously anymore. Part of it, I think, is that actual science has progressed so far in the last forty years or so, and knowledge of science has become so popularized through the work of people such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we’re able to accept older science fiction as being the product of a culture that didn’t have as strong a foothold in science fact. Even so, today’s viewers seem to have a seriously deflated view of how much people actually knew in the 1960’s, or what people were willing to accept. When we look at awful special effects, and someone points out, “oh, but it was much more impressive back then,” there are still plenty of examples where, at the time of a movie’s release, people didn’t think it was any more realistic than they do now – they were just more able to focus on the creativity than on the need for realism.

And that, I think, is the answer I’ve been reaching for.

And yet, I wonder what might have been, had the Star Wars prequel trilogy tried to simply offer a rollicking good time instead of trying to make Serious Social Commentary.

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Miles Vorkosigan and Physical Disability in Science Fiction

CONTENT ADVISORY: While this post isn’t particularly disturbing, in my opinion, there are aspects of the book series which may come up in discussion that are. Read the comments at your own risk.

I will never forget meeting Lois McMaster Bujold at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention some years back, when she was the year’s Guest of Honor. I stood in line for a long time to get books signed and shake her hand, and thank her for the way she writes disabled people. There were probably about two hundred people in line, grand total, and about half were using some kind of visible aid: canes for the blind, walking canes of different types, wheelchairs, hearing aids, ASL interpreters, aid dogs of various kinds, were just some of the different assistive accommodations I saw in line that day, (Brief note: for those who don’t know me, I am an on-and-off user of some of these myself; my mobility level ranges from “I require a wheelchair” up to “I can walk without assistance as long as it’s not too far or too steep.” At the time, I was using a walking cane and a number of braces on both arms and legs.) I spent most of the wait time talking with the women directly in front of and behind me, and we shared our reading experiences and why the books had really hit home to us:

“I bet you had athletics trainers who were just about that understanding, didn’t you… yeah, me too.”
“That pressure, not to disappoint people by the things you can’t do. That, yes, I know that one. She really nailed that.”
“The moment when your health makes you watch your career flash before your eyes and vanish. God. That was painful to read because I recognized it so thoroughly.”

If you aren’t familiar with the books, the protagonist of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is Miles Vorkosigan, eldest son of a noble and powerful family, third in line for his planet’s seat of power… and severely physically disabled, in a culture with a military-nobility caste. He’s also a hyperactive and bipolar genius with an amazing capacity for getting into trouble… and, fortunately, for getting out of it again, though not entirely unscathed. The books start out mostly fun romps through a cool sci-fi space opera mystery, unless you happen to identify just a little too closely with the main character (let me tell you, it was a spectacular experience, reading that first book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, while laid up wearing leg braces from ankle to hip, but probably not the best life choice I’ve ever made, and not one I would have made had I known just what I was letting myself in for). Later books are harder to take, and a few, such as her novel Memory, are frankly a kick in the teeth, though also brilliant – there’s a reason this book won pretty much every award for which it was eligible. I’ve never forgotten the exact words of the description I heard that day: “Reading Memory was like having my world torn apart and put back together again from tiny shreds, and realizing it was bigger than I’d realized.” Brilliant, yes, but also extraordinarily painful to read. Every time I reread the series, I ask myself whether I should skip this one… but I never do.

A large part of this experience, for me, is the compassion and respect with which the author handles the main character’s disabilities. They are crucial to his decision-making processes, and to the mechanisms of his daily life. They affect parts of his life ranging from simple self-care to romance to long-term career planning. The physical and mental are intertwined as well; while his disabilities are primarily physical in nature, there are major psychological and psychiatric issues that result directly from them. At the same time, his disabilities do not define him, as much as his society would really like them to. He is tremendously successful, though not without difficulty – but then, nobody in this series accomplishes anything that’s both really major and really worth doing without some challenge, kind of like in real life. Miles’ disabilities just give him a different set of challenges from those faced by others in his world, and often they are a set of challenges that others have trouble understanding because they are so far beyond the realm of their own experiences. But, and this is also key, there are wonderful people who make the effort to try. They don’t always succeed, but if there is one thing that Bujold captures better than any other author I’ve ever seen, it’s the importance of having those around you try to understand the challenges you face.