There was a time my friends considered me to be, what many might call, a ‘geek’ and at that time, this may have been true. Now however, people might still call me a geek, but I don’t think I am deserving of the label. This is mostly because not having owned the sci-fi channel and then giving up most of my ‘me time’ whilst studying for 3 years, I just haven’t had the time to be one.
Having finished drama school though, I have found myself with much more free time than I recall having before. So, where I ought to be dedicating this time to creating more work for myself, I have decided to catch up on some long lost geekology.
To do this I’ve done 2 things; I’ve played through all three of my favorite computer games ever: The Mass Effect Trilogy, and I have started watching a show I’m almost 9 years (!) too late to: The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. In doing these two things I have suddenly reopened my eyes and remembered why it is I love Sci-fi so much!
Partially, it’s because I love anything with Star Ships, Robots, Aliens and Space Babes. But partially, it’s something a bit deeper than that. I think it’s mostly because Sci-fi, for me (and it is subjective of course) more effectively than any other genre, allows a mirror to be held up, in which our own society and psychology can be abstracted and then explored.
My journey into science fiction started a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away when my parents introduced me to Star Wars Episode IV. Obviously, it blew me away. I don’t think at the time I had ever seen anything like it, and I wanted more. My parents, being huge Sci-fi fans too, took it upon themselves to introduce me to the likes of Star Trek and Buck Rogers. I had a brief but short lived foray into the original Battlestar Galactica too, but for some reason never watched much of it.
I loved these shows, and they felt so important to me, but I couldn’t quite place why it was. I dreamed of living in a world full of intergalactic vessels and peace loving aliens. In the meantime, I also started watching shows that were a bit closer to my age, such as the Batman animated show and reruns of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet.
One show which was very important to me, was Batman Beyond. The show picked up 40 years after The Batman had retired and Gotham City, although all spruced up and satisfactorily futuristic, had gone to hell. I remember thinking that the show was quite violent at the time, and didn’t shy away from depicting scandalous things such as nightclubs and hinting at sex. I felt very mature to be watching it. One episode that struck a chord in me was about a returning villain; Bane. In this episode I think he’d been selling Venom (the drug he uses to enhance his strength) to the kids of Gotham, who were now feeling the effects of addiction. At the end there was a shocking reveal of Bane, old and haggard, hooked up to a machine supplying him with the drugs he now relied on. I think at the time the episode upset me, and also paralleled a lot of the things I was being taught in school. Yes, I was just at that age for the whole ‘say no to drugs’ thing. As I said, the show also hit upon other sensitive subjects that were relevant to me at the time; Sex, violence, heavy metal…That sort of thing. Batman Beyond had such a profound effect on me that I still rate it as one of my favorite ever shows, and place on my list of most important shows to me.
At that time, there were whispers of another sci-fi show that my parents were watching. Something darker and moodier. Something my parents didn’t quite agree on if I recall correctly. The show was called Babylon 5, and it looked frakking awesome boasting computer generated effects, nothing like the miniatures and such of other shows. It looked so awesome in fact that I made my parents let me watch an episode one night despite their misgivings. That night, I went to bed before the final credits rolled and had nightmares about men with strange hair speaking to the decapitated heads of their enemies. I wasn’t ready for that yet…
A bit of time passed and mobile phones came into proper fashion, to an extent where most people had them. I looked at my friends mobiles and thought they looked quite similar to the communicators I’d seen in Star Trek all those years ago. New Sci-fi shows started coming to my attention such as Space Precinct, Farscape and Stargate SG-1.
And so came the time that I decided to face Babylon 5 again. I watched the lot, from the very first episode to the very last (although I must admit my relationship with season 5 was not that clear cut), and as Batman Beyond did whilst I was a kid, Babylon 5 effected me profoundly as I began to enter adulthood. Here was a show which dealt with questions of war, religion, politics, discrimination and so on and so forth. It was Babylon 5 which made me realise that Sci-fi is so much more than the whole good vs bad, Jedi vs Sith thing. That it was a genre in which complex and real concerns could be addressed in a mature yet abstracted way. It taught me that these shows could and often do parallel our own world, taking real politics and worries and dressing them in different clothes. This allows us to see them for what they are and to reevaluate our ideas about whatever it is. It was only after Babylon 5 that I began to recognise this in other shows also.
Another reason Sci-fi is so important to me, is because it can do one thing more than holding up a mirror to our world, it can add to it, change it and warp it. Sci-fi doesn’t simply aim to hold up a mirror and say ‘look at what we have become, let’s all be miserable about it’, but it can also present us with solutions.
One example, could be the application of ideas such as sexism and racism. Think back to Star Trek, in which the crew of the USS Enterprise is completely multicultural. Crew members are both male and female, from various ethnic backgrounds and of course, human and non-human. This was a big thing at the time, and the role of Nichelle Nichols lieutenant Uhura (interestingly the name Uhura comes from the Swahili word uhuru: Freedom) as a leading character in the show was both controversial and forward thinking. Later, Star Trek become the show in the US to televise an onscreen interracial kiss, between Uhura and Kirk. This is very big. It’s very very big in fact, and it’s very important. This showed that Star Trek was not just a fictional vision of a Utopian future, but that the show itself was working towards creating that future.
Other franchises like Mass Effect for example also confront these issues. A large proportion of the Mass Effect story revolves around racism between alien species, and again, it attempts to not only present us with this vision, but also to present a solution. In the end, the races in Mass Effect are allied against a common foe, but it’s not just as simple as that. Atrocities of the past are taken responsibility for and if possible rectified. Age old race hate is put aside and denied. In Mass Effect, the common foe is just a catalyst, but it is the people themselves who reevaluate their relationships and work together to make up for the past. Hopefully, we don’t necessarily have to wait until a race of ultra-intelligent-robot-space-insects attack us before we start reforging alliances and irradiating racism from our world, but the message is still the same.
Another thing I really like in Mass Effect is the treatment of sexuality. There’s quite a lot of sex in these games, and it sure as hell doesn’t discriminate. Women have sex with each other, men have sex with each other, men and women have sex, aliens have sex, different aliens have sex, alien women have sex, alien men have sex…even the robots have sex, and not only with each other of course! It really presents us with an omni-sexual world and does so relatively maturely, if not with a little more enthusiasm than is entirely necessary.
Something I found really interesting is that homosexual relationships between the main male character were not actually available until the fans of the series noticed this was missing. When they spoke up, the problem was fixed, and in Mass Effect 3 man on man romance options are available. So here’s a case of the people demanding a more rounded experience and the game developers listening. This actually made me very proud of the medium. I think this should also be given a fair amount of notice given that computer games are still relativity young. I find that most homosexual characters in games aren’t really taken very seriously, and are very rarely the main characters of a game. I think most of the games which are on the right track are actually made by Bioware, who are responsible for Mass Effect. There may be others, so I’m not too sure, but either way, it is a strong decision for the gaming equivalent of a Hollywood Blockbuster and one of the biggest games of 2012.
I have recently began watching the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica which features a very strong religious element and looks to bring up some pretty interesting questions about religious extremism and racial feuds, but I’m not too far in, so don’t want to comment on it just yet.
All in all, this is why I find science fiction to be so important to me. From Star Trek to Firefly, from Babylon 5 to Battlestar Galactica. To me, Sci-fi is a place where we can discuss and explore ideas concerning politics, religion, racism, sexism, war, technological innovation and so, so much more. But most importantly, it’s where we can present solutions to these problems and move forward, taking steps to create a better world.
So say we all.