Strange New Worlds: How Sci-Fi Has Changed

Sci-fi is inherently camp, but over the past few decades it's gone from gaudy to gritty...

Popular sci-fi shows have changed over the decades, starting out as enterprises of  escapism and fun before developing into complex narratives exploring politics, religion and coitus with cat people from the planet Whiskas.

In the beginning, puppet spaceships bobbed between painted plywood planets on five-year missions. Womanising captains led crews clad in rainbow uniforms decorated with hand-sized insignia. They fought against men in lizard suits or people covered in blue make-up and armed with laser guns and flashing swords. Their great feats would be celebrated by an unseen crowd of unpaid extras covering imaginary streets with bunting.

Star Trek was a pioneering science fiction show, pushing boundaries with the stories it told and the relationships shared by its characters. It paved the way for every other show of its kind, which either followed it by creating complex stories, or just by using cardboard box robots with funny voices.

Homemade robots and every other trashy aspect of sci-fi are a staple of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The titular hero set off in a spacecraft in 1987 but, due to a life support failure, ends up being frozen and drifts in space for about 500 years. Longest nap ever. Buck wakes up in a trippy, futuristic 80s where everyone wears tight white jumpsuits and listens to electropop or punk ballads. Our man out of time quickly finds himself an irritating robot sidekick called Twiki, who seems to suffer from Tourette’s – “biddi biddi biddi.” Buck is admired by evil Princess Ardala, who wants nothing more than to conquer the universe and fuck him. Tinder would’ve been a lot less hassle.

Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who have also been guilty of giving in to the camp, gaudy side of sci-fi. The former followed a ragtag fleet of refugees searching for the mythical Earth, pursued by malevolent cyclopian centurions looking for the best disco in the universe and committing genocide along the way. Actors covered in foundation and eyeliner pass for aliens, and spaceship battles are the showpiece of every episode. It’s a camp but enjoyable space opera romp, and its exuberance is a product of its time rather than dictated by form or narrative.

Doctor Who started out as both a science and history lesson for kids, but quickly became a cultural phenomenon. The Doctor and his companions would face terrifying threats in the form of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master, and many other homicidal aliens – even if they all fell for the villainous cliche of “bwahahaha-ing” while steepling their fingers. The science could be a bit iffy, with a sonic screwdriver and jelly babies destroying one too many doomsday machines than could be believed. Doctor Who remained a TV constant for decades, right until someone decided it was a good idea to cast Bertie fucking Basset as a villain. After that it was dead in the water, which was pretty unfortunate for Ronald McDonald.

Since their original cancellations, both shows have made huge comebacks. Battlestar Galactica was revived by writer Ronald D. Moore as a dark, misanthropic dystopian examination of a post-9/11 world through a sci-fi lens. The series got rid of non-human races, binned technobabble and made the Cylons terrifying killer robots, some of which look like humans. It deals with complex issues like terrorism, sleeper cells, religion, and civil rights – light-hearted stuff that sometimes made it just depressing enough not to watch.

Doctor Who has grown up a bit as well, focusing on characterisation as much as goofy concepts. The Doctor’s companion being a romantic interest became a necessity, and the Doctor’s actions in the Time War became central to the plot. Each series has told one over-arching story, while individual episodes experiment with form in a fun way, ranging from the brilliant monsterless, psychological thriller to the what-the-fuck-was-that, trippy, one-man show.

New sci-fi dramas created in the past few decades have taken the same route as those modern revamps by ditching the campness. Stargate SG-1 was both plot-heavy and character-driven, as a military team venture to different worlds enslaved by the Goa’uld, an ancient alien race who posed as the gods of Egyptian mythology and travelled around in pyramid spaceships. A complex story and character relationships made the show exciting, and ensured it lasted for ten series plus two spin-offs.

Two of the most successful shows of recent years, Arrow and The Flash, have created entire universes between them without a Bat Phone in sight.

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