Evolution of Sci-Fi Series
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Reading Time: 00:05:55
From iconic lines like, “Beam me up, Scotty!” from Star Trek TOS, “Engage,” “Space the final frontier…” in Star Trek TNG to “May the force be with you” in Star Wars. These are perhaps the most iconic lines from easily identifiable sci-fi series and films.
The words itself means Science Fiction, turn it the other way around and it sounds Fiction Science or simply put Fictional Science or Scientific Fiction.
What a non-sci-fi series movie audience usually refrains from is the technobabble that is mostly associated with these films.
I spoke to some of my friends and they wonder if watching such a series requires investing any of their additional brain cells! Despite not having any tech-talks, some series required some sound fictional technical knowledge.
Sci-fi series has come a long way since then. I am a sci-fi fan since childhood. Star Wars Episode 4 was the first Hollywood movie I saw as a child. Star Trek was next. In the initial days, I did not take favouritism in my stride. But, when I saw Darth Vader a few movies down the line, my heart inclined towards Star Wars.
One could not blame the genre of these films completely because these series had to be ‘different’. Is there is a reason why most adult films show nudity in some form of the other or sex scenes? That’s because these are films meant to cater to the adult audience and displaying unclothed or partially clothed female or male body is ‘natural’. Films with sensuous titles convey the subtle message here.
Does Body of Evidence (1993) films, Indecent Behaviour (1993), Bitter Moon (1992), Body Heat (1991) or even a name like Body Chemistry (1990) require you to understand the context of the genre? I don’t think so.
Why the technobabble initially?
Have you come across an adult series or film that is ‘meant’ to show nudity and or sex scene and does not show it? Such films have typical names that showcase what can be expected. I digress.
That’s how sci-fi initially defined its genre by technobabble. Baring a few, the initial years were replete with fictional science! The visual spectacle was another defining factor. Apart from the fictional tech-talks, visual appeal is equally important and necessary. Some shows managed to tone it down and focus on the storyline, case in point: Babylon 5, Star Gate series, etc.
I am not considering Star Wars in it because it concentrates more on the ‘fantasy’ aspect to get going.
When Star Trek took the world by storm in the 70s, revolutionised how sci-fi series was viewed. Before that, most of the time only books were the only solace leaving the rest to your imagination. Yes, there were series prior to that, Lost in Space series (1965) in black and white was really good and stood strong during its run.
Very few matched up in the latter decades.
Technology advanced and most sci-fi series have since done away with little to no technobabble if the current trend must be trusted.
There are several reasons why the eventual evolution compelled the series to change. I will explore some of the key reasons.
Technobabble only for the technically sound: Let’s face it. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of fictional science. No matter how plausible. The in-universe explanation needed some background knowledge on the subject.
What is the in-universe explanation for artificial gravity in Star Trek? The answer – Artificial Gravity Platting throughout the ship! If this was news to you, let me know in the comments.
Some sci-fi series focused on the fictional tech that got them the needed traction because they were new and unheard of. Admittedly it sounds fascinating as well. Imagine hearing fictional technical terms like Warp Coils, ‘If we modulate the inter-cooling manifolds then it will help stabilise the anti-matter reaction’. The audience is given only a technical glimpse on that technology.
For example, the general (fictional) principle of teleportation involves slicing and dicing your body smaller than atoms, digitising it, re-materialising your body and reassembling all the smaller than atoms back to its original place. Makes sense? No. No one is concerned about the actual physics involved as long as it seems fascinating!
Let’s also face it, teleportation is possible maybe in the distant future.
Justifying the fascination:
Wouldn’t the battle over Cardassia look awesome? How much do you hate the borgs because of their philosophy but still admire them? What about the dispassionate Vulcans who learn to aggressively control their emotions? The space battle over coruscant makes no sense but the visuals are breathtaking. No has seen a space battle before. Hence the fascination. Each and every sci-fi series or films comes up with something unique to contribute to the sci-fi universe.
Was it only meant for those with the technically sound mind? Even if it was fictional? A case in this example is the Star Trek series which relied heavily on the in-universe explanation for the tech the world was built on. The problem would be technical and the solution technical, however, the writers made sure it sounded plausible. Otherwise, the series would not make any sense.
IMO, Star Trek was the only series which was overflowing with technobabble and less dramatics. Some episodes were exceptions. Watch the TNG series and you will know why. Watch the DS9 series and then Voyager. Although DS9 was less technical, Voyager retained the intense technobabble throughout its series with not much character development.
Going beyond Star Trek where the story and not technobabble was necessary:
Then came one amazingly well-made sci-fi series called Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica. It did not need any technobabble to survive. It relied on character developments, story and their interwoven relationships with one another. They were lighter moments, political moments and interesting revelations. The perfect sci-fi drama had arrived.
Case in point is the Star Gate series. The series main focus is the stargate which made near-instantaneous space travel possible minus the spaceship. The Star Gate required 7 points in space as co-ordinates to be ‘dialed-in’ to make space travel through the portal possible.
The Star Gate series had a momentous run. It was good and had varying twists and turns. For once, it mixed sci-fi with archaeology or linguists to be precise. The characters were amazing. The story did not focus too much on the sci-fi bit except restricting it to common sci-fi knowledge like shields, sub-light thrusters, etc. Even non-sci-fi lovers would enjoy this series. Most importantly, there was only one character – Amanda Carter who was technically sound and one hell of a brainiac! If you loved Geordi’s character in Star Trek then you will love Amanda Carter.
I would like to call the Star Gate series more of a sci-fi adventure series. The protagonists keep travelling through the stargate discovering newer and newer things. Call it space travel minus starships! Make no mistakes, Star Gate has some iconic starships but I will reserve that for future posts.
Most of these programs functioned on two important things – enticing visuals and more focused storyline. The first season is always the testing phase regarding how accepting it is going to be. Once it takes off to a good start, chances are it will run at least through five seasons easily.
The focus has fallen short of technobabble and more on the story, character development and of course the visuals.
The Expanse, Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard have brought in more story phenomena and large production values. It is all about drama and less technicality of how does the warp drive work, whether the anti-matter coolant has enough pressure to keep the reaction sustained, the plasma manifold has ruptured, the hyperdrive motivator is damaged or bypassed and what not!
I may be doing injustice to Star Wars because it is more of sci-fi fantasy, little to no technical stuff and more focused on the story.
Another reason is, void of fictional tech-talk opens the avenues to non-sci-fi lovers. For instance, Patrick Stewart fans would not mind watching Star Trek Picard. Even if such fans may have not watched Star Trek TNG series they are very well versed with his acting potential!
Watching a veteran actor like Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Jean-Luc Picard is nothing short of amazing. I watched it with bated breath! It was quite a ride watching Star Trek Picard and thank God it was shown on Amazon Prime and not Netflix.
The gradual evolution: All changes are subtle in series and films. Even Star Trek had to accept the change focussing more character development and storyline.
Nowadays, the sci-fi series comes with drama and not functional tech. Subtle references are always made to maintain the technical wizardry of the genre. But, it is not the sole problem creator and neither the solution.
It’s all about the story.