Science fiction on October 2, 2009

I missed observing the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone on Friday, an oversight I am sure the science fiction fan community will forgive me. I posted a few thoughts about Twilight Zone in our General Science Fiction TV Forum on SF-Fandom yesterday. But let me add something here.

I grew up watching The Twilight Zone and found it to be a gritty, challenging series of vignettes that sometimes disturbed me and sometimes left me wondering if Serling was taking drugs when he came up with those stories. Twilight Zone (and its successor show, Night Gallery) tried to make the audience think. What was the point of living life if not to overcome challenge and find a sense of place in the universe?

I think Serling especially wanted his characters to find a “sense of where I belong”, rather than realize “it is my destiny to do this thing”. Serling seemed to favor personal choice from a well-balanced self-defined role within reality over the pursuit of predestined or pre-ordained domination of the universe, a path fraught with peril and self-destruction.

What I did manage to do right on Friday was catch the premier 2-hour episode for Stargate: Universe (which we’re also discussing in our Stargate Universe Forum, so named for reasons unrelated to the actual show).

I didn’t know what to expect but I had been led to believe that the show would shed itself of a lot of the images and icons we have grown familiar with through more than 10 years of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis. I don’t expect to see the Wraith, the Goa’uld, or the Asgard on this show and unless they are injected through plot-driven flashbacks (character development, device explanation, etc.) they have no place in Stargate: Universe.

On the other hand, I am sure my self-contained expectations will eventually be shattered. While I don’t want to see humanoid aliens I do want to see aliens that humanity has some hope of relating to (hey, we both breathe, right?). In my mind I picture blue-skinned, orange-skinned, winged creature that might look sort of human. Why that image? I don’t know. Maybe Tom Cruise’s “Legend” was good to me.

My point is that I want to see Stargate: Universe leave behind the motifs of every planet having only a few thousand human inhabitants living in pseudo-medieval villages and speaking English. Stargate SG-1 experimented with non-human aliens who could not speak English and I am sure the writers struggled to come up with compelling stories that made sense within the scope of their show, but our intrepid band of 80 refugees are not fleeing Cylons, have no hope of making it back to Earth within their lifetimes, aren’t challenging the supremacy of the Goa’uld, and don’t have any downtrodden descendants of the Ancients to rescue from the Wraith and Ori.

All the old legacies are left so far behind them that the show will, in my opinion, fail if these 80 star travelers find themselves dealing with the same situations we had in the first two shows. It was great to see O’Neill, Daniel Jackson, and Carter again, one more time, but now we have an opportunity to fall in love with new characters, new venues, new sets and props. The show’s advance publicity made it seem like the producers understand that and I hope they really do spread their wings and fly with us to places where science fiction TV has never been before, or which we’ve only glimpsed from afar.

Because in 35 years, when we observe the 50th anniversary of the Stargate phenomenon, I hope we don’t find ourselves saying, “And it fizzled out with Stargate: Universe because the writers failed to reach for the show’s full potential”. There are some connections with the original series they have to maintain, but human experience is driven by change. In 5 to 10 years, whenever this show ends, it should with a bang that makes sense in the context of 80 people flung to the far reaches of the universe.

That doesn’t mean they have to find their way home. It just means they have to find their sense of place and begin making rational choices from there. They can only flourish if they know where they belong, wherever that may be.

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