On her Twitter account, independent script editor and Script Angel blogger Hayley McKenzie wrote, “When I think ‘sci-fi’ I think action-adventure, but the trailers for Outcasts made it look earnest and ponderous.” I hadn’t seen Outcasts or even the trailer at that point, so I couldn’t comment on her impression (here’s Good Dog‘s take on the show, and Den of Geek‘s more sanguine view).
But with the undoubtedly spurious feeling that I somehow had a stake in the territory, I was moved to point out that early TVSF was suspenseful/cerebral and always built around the core of a surprising idea pushed to its logical conclusion. Out Of The Unknown, Quatermass, Triffids, Chocky…
With a bit more thought and more than 140 characters I might have brought the list more up to date with Sci-Fi Channel’s The Lost Room or mentioned Life on Mars. Life on Mars is as solid an inner-space SF concept as you’d find in the pages of New Worlds or anywhere in the New Wave – though to this day the BBC seem convinced that what they had there was just a 70s nostalgia show.
Developing a startling idea with ruthless what-if logic sets science fiction apart as a form, and characterises its unique thrill. But the notion that SF automatically means action-adventure seems to have taken over, much like Sunny D pushing orange juice off the shelves. SyFy, as the Sci-Fi Channel now calls itself, isn’t commissioning any more Lost Rooms. I’m not going to blame Star Wars for the crimes of its imitators, but there’s a whole raft of crap to be found on SyFy and Movies4Men where clones and cyborgs run around Mad Max landscapes in fibreglass armour, zapping each other. With no central driving idea worth the name, these schedule-fillers recycle the tropes of science fiction in standard adventure plots.
Even at the high end, TVSF has come to mean an ordinary drama in an extraordinary setting. The BBC/ABC co-production Defying Gravity was pitched as ‘Grey’s Anatomy in space’ and then-controller Jane Tranter wrote in the press release, “Although primarily a human drama, the landscape and context and genre of Defying Gravity give it a very different flavour from other dramas on the BBC.” Which frankly is completely arse about face – SF isn’t a flavour, it’s a form.