Does TV’s Science Fiction Need to Be So Grim?John P. Johnson/HBO TV Features science fiction
Science fiction is a genre ripe for allegory, and right now, in an era of impending ecological and political meltdown, the genre is jammed with dark reflections of the age. On film, there have been a handful of recent examples— 2014’s The Rover, last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road—but the phenomenon has been more pronounced on television. In the recent months, four new series have presented us with a range of dystopian futures: from HBO, Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld; from Syfy, David and Alex Pastor’s Incorporated; and from Netflix, Pedro Aguilera’s 3% and the streaming service’s first post-acquisition run of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
All too conscious of the worries of our time, these series voice major concerns about the now by glancing ahead a few years or more, to where we might be headed. Westworld, with its paranoid depiction of a world in which machines are both figuratively and literally taking the place of humans, takes a 1973 big-screen romp by Michael Crichton and retools it to address anxiety regarding the looming revolution in automation and AI. Incorporated and 3% both present a future Earth divided up between haves and have-nots, where climate change has wrecked the planet and rich and poor have diverged enormously—today’s post-recession, environmentally-lax society taken to the extreme.
Black Mirror’s expanded, more generously-budgeted new season, meanwhile, offers up several grim near-futures inspired by contemporary concerns: in the first episode of Season Three, “Nosedive,” a sickly sweet false Pleasantville in which everyone is ranked Uber-style reflects China’s own burgeoning social credit program; in “Men Against Fire,” a fascist mega-state in which genetic undesirables are mercilessly exterminated was no doubt inspired by the global rise of the xenophobic far-right; and in “Hated In The Nation,” one with the right skills can manipulate technology to genocidal ends in a reality not noticeably years away from our own, where hackers can crash cars and even influence presidential elections.
Though what futuristic visions we find in this digital scrying mirror wildly vary—in The CW’s The 100, Earth has been wrecked by nuclear war, while in Syfy’s 12 Monkeys and TNT’s The Last Ship, humanity has been decimated by disease—dystopia appears to be the default. Until the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery debuts in 2017, you won’t see the more optimistic alternative on the small screen.
We are, as the old saying goes, living through interesting times, and TV’s showrunners are clearly as receptive to that as the rest of us. They’ve being influenced by the chaos creatively: Aguilera and the brothers Pastor picking up on the post-recession, us-versus-them vibe, Brooker taking a smorgasbord of issues that are increasingly obvious today and showing us where we might be heading if we don’t curtail our worst habits. There’s also the matter of story mechanics If you’re going to make a show set in the future, a dystopia just makes more sense. Dystopia means disorder and conflict, two things that the storyteller thrives on; a vision of the future where all is well is likely to be less compelling.
Some might say the moment for dystopian television has come at the wrong time. Right now, especially in the wake of the crushing vote on November 8, science fiction that functions as pure escapism might seem more appealing. Indeed, certain critics have had the knives out for both Black Mirror and Westworld, arguing that the two shows are unnecessarily gloomy. Westworld has been called a “bleak-fest; while Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk argues that Black Mirror is more interesting when it has an “optimistic perspective of what the future could hold.” It’s not an unreasonable criticism. Critics like VanArendonk are looking at how harsh the real world currently appears and asking if there wouldn’t be more value in our small screen sci-fi if it were hopeful, or at least not so thoroughly pessimistic.
George Monbiot, in highlighting “13 impossible crises” now facing humanity, writes that the gravest issues of our time—including climate change, soil loss and accelerating wildlife extinction—do not, at present, seem to be abating, but instead “appear to presage permanent collapse.” Monbiot notes that, unless mankind makes a conscious and serious effort to arrest what is objectively a worsening rate of decline, there will be no “other side” for us to come out on. With that in mind, one has to ask what kind of purpose it would serve for TV’s futurists right now to give us a portrayal of the future that is anything but bleak.
VanArendonk argues against cynical entertainment’s tendency to “punch holes in things without offering much in the way of solutions,” but it isn’t Brooker’s or Nolan’s job to offer society a map to harmony. Dystopian futures in fiction act, partly, as cautionary tales. In presenting a view of the world at its very worst, shows such as Black Mirror and Westworld make us care, potentially even make us act. It’s not an exaggeration to say the most troubling of dystopian science fiction has, on occasion, changed the world. To take an extreme example, two TV specials from the mid-1980s, nuclear holocaust docudramas Threads and The Day After, so terrified then-president Ronald Reagan that he would later sign a landmark treaty with the Soviet Union to significantly reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the USA and USSR’s possession.
If the function of a fictional dystopian future is to scare us out of complacency, then there must be merit in the likes of Black Mirror, Westworld and 3% being as dark and unforgiving as possible. It may not be wholly pleasurable to be subjected to such grim visions—though it must be said that all three series are still supremely entertaining—but this kind of sci-fi has an important role. Critics can argue that such shows are too bleak, but what would be the point of offering false hope? When inequality is worsening, when electorates the planet over are being seduced by the fascist right, and—most importantly—when global warming is set to be worse than originally thought and current rates of soil spoilage give us an average of just 60 more harvests, things don’t look rosy at all. What would be the use in pretending otherwise?
The fictional utopia of a future like Star Trek’s is so comforting as to allow us to relax and ignore what troubles we face as a species. The likes of Black Mirror and Westworld offer no such comfort. They force us to sit up, elucidating as they do future fears we aren’t fully able to contemplate. For example, though we’re far from feeling the worst of climate change, Incorporated, following Fury Road and The Rover, presents a worst-case-scenario for where we might end up if we don’t swerve from the current path—the equivalent of a smack to the head. Such shows are more useful than those that are cautiously optimistic, and inspiring in their own way, precisely because they’re so cynical.
Messages of positivity and hope are useful right now, but there should also be no illusions about the enormity of the dangers we currently face. The day may come when we get to bask in the warmth of a plentiful Star Trek utopia. To get there, we first have to face reality: that we’ll see no utopia on this present trajectory. Dystopian sci-fi may not always be fun to watch, but at least it helps us come to grips with some sobering, essential truths—and, hopefully, get some way toward figuring things out.