Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why some of us put up with bad science fiction movies

There's a story that a couple of well known science fiction writers were invited to discuss being involved with Space 1999. The show wasn't yet on television, and perhaps at this early date they had yet to film anything. I'm not sure if they were just trying to get these two authors to write scripts for them, or if they were looking to hire more people to work directly for the show as consultants, or if they were just thinking that maybe these two authors would give them some advice.

I'm told that the two writers were Ben Bova and Isaac Asimov. But I did not read the story myself, so I might be remembering the wrong names.

So the two writers listen to the plans for the new show. If you're not familiar with Space 1999, let me explain. The story is about the men and women of Moonbase Alpha and their adventures in outer space, which all happen after a nuclear waste explosion sends the moon out of Earth's orbit, causing them to visit other planets and meet aliens, etc.... Somehow, the explosion that is big enough to part the Moon from the Earth doesn't destroy either. And somehow the out of control moon ends going fast enough and going through wormholes and such that it ends up visiting a different planet every other week.

This seemed like a good idea to someone in 1975. Someone invested money in this show. Really nice sets were built, costumes were made, models of spaceships were made, special effects experts were hired, etc....

So the two writers were in this meeting listening to all of the plans for Space 1999. At some point they all took a break, and Ben Bova said that he and his colleague were going to go outside and discuss a few things. Bova left and Isaac Asimov followed him. Bova just kept walking, and Asimov asked where they were going.

"As far away as possible."

My husband says that I will watch any bad sci-fi thing that comes on TV. This is possibly true. I did not get to watch Space 1999 when it first aired, when I was only ten and probably would have really enjoyed it, but I tried to watch it a few years later when one of our local stations was showing reruns. I was a teenager by then, and could see that it didn't quite make sense. Also, a lot of the episodes involve fighting with rubber monsters. But I didn't have much else to do and watched it anyway. I have recently watched them all again on DVD. I needed an excuse not to do housework, so I borrowed the longest thing I could from my brother.

This is probably not even the worst thing that I have watched. There's some really awful episodes of Lost in Space. And there are other series that I'll watch again just because I liked them as a kid. And there are still even other things that I will watch just because they are on the tube.

Notice my husband says that I will watch any bad sci-fi thing that comes on TV. I probably won't watch any bad sci-fi thing that is made into a movie. Going to the movies usually requires time and effort and money. Turning on the television is much easier.

We have found the exception to the rule. I will not watch whatever monster movie that ends up on The Sci Fi Channel on Saturdays. Those are usually really bad. And they are two hours each of really bad. Some of the stuff that used to be on at 2am on One Star Theater was better than most of these. Saturdays on the Sci Fi Channel often include movies about dinosaurs, giant spiders, sea creatures that Peter Benchley decided not to bother with, etc....

I've been told recently that I have to suspend disbelief....

No, I don't. I don't have to suspend disbelief, and neither does anyone else. I am well aware that this is the saying, but it is more properly said that if you can suspend disbelief you might enjoy the movie. Sure, that is true, but I might also enjoy the movie if there were not so many logic gaps, more interesting characters, properly thought out motivation for what everyone is doing, and maybe a bit more plausible science in the science fiction.

So it isn't that I have to suspend disbelief, it is that most of the time I want to suspend disbelief. I want to suspend disbelief for an hour or so to watch Star Trek or Stargate or Babylon 5 or The Outer Limits. I'll even suspend disbelief and watch those first few episodes of Lost in Space. But don't make us go that extra bit and make us suspend disbelief in places where you've just written a bad script and haven't thought things through or done the homework on the science. Our suspension of disbelief limit has already been used up by stuff like most aliens look like humans, act like humans, live on planets with the same gravity and air as Earth, and usually speak English.

And why is it that we want to suspend disbelief?

Because we like science fiction, but we really don't want to spend two hours watching a movie length version of "Cold Equations". One hour on The Outer Limits was good enough. Padding it for another hour with special effects and longer discussions of why someone has to die wouldn't help anything.

And we don't want Disney buying it and giving it a happier ending either.

So we don't have to suspend disbelief, but a lot of us want to. Not all of us do. When Star Trek first aired, it was not universally loved by the readers and writers of science fiction. It wasn't serious enough for them. For some people, science fiction should be left entirely to the written word, or very rarely made into a movie or an episode of The Outer Limits. So for some people, Star Trek was not taken seriously as science fiction, not seen as a good thing at all.

Some thought it was end of civilization as we knew it, rather like The Beatles.

For some of us, Star Trek is the standard by which we measure everything else. Other people will have other standards like Star Wars. Maybe there are others who would choose Plan Nine from Outer Space. A few people still go the other direction and measure everything against 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I think that most of us first saw Star Trek or Star Wars, and for us one of those is the ideal of science fiction, and we are either okay with people on the other side of the galaxy looking and talking just like us on Star Trek, or maybe we go with the idea that no matter what you look like or sound like you can still breathe the same air and still drink beer at Mos Eisley. Star Trek explains things with universal translators and such, while I suppose in the case of Star Wars that The Force might keep beer from doing more damage than the usual hangover.

If you measure things against Star Trek, you expect that most of the science stuff has been thought out to a certain extent and that except for the English speaking human looking aliens you don't have to suspend disbelief too much. If you measure things against Star Wars, you expect that the science stuff is going to be very limited, that spaceships work a certain way and that weapons work a certain way, etc...and for the most part other science is going to be left out of the story. If there's no science in your science fiction story other than having spaceships and lasers around to give the movie a certain look, then you can't ruin the story by messing up the science. If you try to add other elements of science to something like Star Wars, then you are probably going to screw it up.

Still, there are films that try to use varying degrees of science, which is often used incorrectly. While I might watch these films and even enjoy these films, I would prefer that the person writing the story would do the research and not make these mistakes. Or, at least, the writer needs to do the research and realize that things don't really work that way, but it just works out better filmed a certain way, such as explosions in space that make noise and spaceships that travel here there and everywhere without dealing with stuff like time has passed on the planets involved that the people on the spaceships did not experience.

And then there are films that just out right do things wrong. But we go see the film anyway because we enjoy watching the actors, we like most of the storyline, and most everything makes sense until the cable guy gives the alien spacecraft a computer virus. Or we go to see a film that makes even less sense, because we like Bruce Willis and scenes of stuff being blown up.

So what happens when your script has scenes that don't make sense and characters with no motivation, and Bruce Willis doesn't want the job, and whoever might be interested in it doesn't have the budget for good special effects?

If the script doesn't go straight into the trash bin, it might be sold but never made into a movie. Or it might go through so many rewrites that your name gets taken off of it.

Or it might show up on the Sci Fi Channel on a Saturday.


The Diva's Thoughts said...


I so hate sci fi.

laughingattheslut said...

Well, I'm sorry that you feel that way.

Do you hate all of it? Didn't you like The Terminator, or the first Jurassic Park, or the original Andromeda Strain, or Coma, or any version of Superman?

dmarks said...

Diva: Or the TV shows "Lost", "Heroes", or the new "Battlestar: Galactica"? A lot of people who don't ordinarily care for science fiction love these shows.

Laughing: I remember the discussions of "Space:1999" when it came out. No way could a nuclear waste explosion cause the moon to drift away like that. When the original "Battlestar: Galactica" came out, it was smugly ridiculed with poems in "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine"

Yes, there are some really bad episodes of "Lost in Space". But I saw it before I saw "Star Trek", and it set some sort of standard for me.

Rob said...

If you're referring to me again, Laughing, I explained the evolutionary science behind my movie treatment. It's roughly the same evolutionary science used by Harry Harrison in his classic West of Eden series.

Neither of us needs to prove that our scenarios could actually happen. All we have to do is give our audiences a valid reason to suspend their disbelief.

You've read West of Eden, DMarks. Do you consider it good or bad science fiction? Were you able or unable to accept the premise of dinosaurs and humans co-evolving?

laughingattheslut said...

Harry Harrison is Harry Harrison. You are nobody. You have to do better than Harry Harrison.

The suspension of disbelief thing is limited. You get away with it on one or two points if you write something that is really good otherwise. You haven't done that.

I have come up with a better explanation for the dinosaurs and humans co-evolving than what you originally wrote. It only took me a day or two. You may end up figuring it out for yourself, but I'm not going to give it to you. I might even use it myself.

Now, quit trying to convince people that you can write something interesting and actually go do the work of writing something.