The Philosophy of Good Sci-Fi

This week saw the premiere of APB, yet another in a long line of police procedurals with a thin veneer of sci-fi slapped on top (the thinnest yet), the third on FOX in particular following the abysmal receptions of Almost Human and Minority Report (still can’t believe that got the green light). The basic premise is a Libertarian power fantasy: a tech billionaire, personally affected by crime, takes over the incompetently run police precinct by throwing his money around against the city’s politicians and turns it into his privately run force that works perfectly through the use of apps and drones and tech buzzword #37 not found. Admittedly, the premise annoys me on its face; this kind of billionaire “altruism” is just not true to reality, and by forcing this into the setting of a real, modern city like Chicago, it just makes the difference that much more stark. Yes, I’m aware it’s “inspired” by a real event, and the show had a female cop to voice the audience’s potential concerns in the pilot…

But, ironically, that’s exactly where it falls apart. In an attempt to head these off, they fall back on standard police tactics even where it doesn’t make sense, eschewing the tech advantage that they’ve built for “experience and street smarts beat all.” Trust me, the show had plenty of other issues in terms of acting and storytelling, but if it could commit to the idea at its core, it wouldn’t fall into the same category as its predecessors. Because after looking at dozens of these sci-fi TV shows over the last few years, there’s a pattern that’s emerged:

The longer a show has run, the more likely it is to have a clear philosophy to its story. Shows that aren’t founded on a core belief inevitably flounder and fail.

Why? Let’s take a look.

“The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives.”

The success stories are easy and obvious–Star Trek just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and it is by far the most ideologically driven sci-fi series out there, as Gene Roddenberry deliberately used the show to tackle social issues and teach morality. All humans, and even aliens, are seen to be equal in the eyes of the Federation; everyone has what they need to survive, and work to better themselves and society instead of being motivated by personal profit. Are there flaws in this ideology? Naturally, and Star Trek itself explored these in Deep Space 9, where they were put to the test in extreme situations. But the heart of the show remained intact, and whether the goal is attainable or not, it’s an admirable one to aim for and was often responsible for winning over fans with its idealistic view of the human future.

We could play this with Doctor Who as well, with its even longer history at work. The Doctor often waxes poetic about the achievement of humans, and what makes them special, what draws him to Earth so often over other worlds, but that’s not quite what’s at the heart of Doctor Who. Rather, a show based so heavily on one protagonist must have its ideological core reflected in his actions. The Doctor is nonviolent; he’s clever, an independent thinker; he approaches things with an investigative mind. He’s the ultimate expression of brains over brawn and love defeating hate… but that doesn’t mean he has to be nice about it all the time. He sees something in us that’s worth protecting, and knowing that is enough to push those who meet him to become the best they can be and prove him right. It’s arguably even more idealistic than Star Trek, although in a more individualistic way.

What do the Rangers even do? Are they military? Law Enforcement? Does their parent organization represent anything but a source of budget cuts?

But these are easy, the great success stories. What about the opposite, shows that stand for nothing? The most recently covered example here is Space Rangers; in its poorly implemented attempts at aping the tropes and mannerisms of more popular series like Trek, it only looked skin deep. It looked right, on the outside, but within it had no driving motivation, no idea it needed to get across. There’s no story that needs to be told there. It was just someone’s attempt at fulfilling their contract or making a quick buck. Or we could look at M.A.N.T.I.S., which started out with a desire to take a stand, but had its heart scrubbed out by executives during the retooling process, resulting in a show that became generic and aimless, trying things out in a desperate attempt to find a new identity.

The presence of a show’s core values isn’t a guarantee of success, either. Earth2 took a strong environmentalist stance, and yet its slow pacing and preference for annoying characters over more interesting ones slowly whittled away the viewers drawn to it originally. Max Headroom had a biting satirical take on the future of television, taking a strong stance against the ratings-driven direction TV was headed in… and since its prediction has almost come true, it still has a lot to say. But regardless of their ratings success, these shows managed to be entertaining enough that I still found them worthy of recommending, even 20+ years after they aired.

Approaching the story this way gives the show an identity, a purpose, and a guiding principle. In a lot of ways, to an intellectually honest writer, a story built on a philosophy is almost like a thought experiment. Challenging that philosophy creates drama and consistency, proves its utility, and offers a wide variety scenarios for future installments. You might not be an enormous success, even with a strong philosophy at its heart, but if you’re afraid to take any stance at all? You won’t even make it out of the starting gate.

There you have it. Do you agree? Disagree? You can let me know in the comments. Of course, I’ve already been applying this to my own work, and I hope you can see the background philosophies at work in The Arcology and especially Eidolon. Check them out and see if you agree.

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  1. This is so true. And the benefit of running long enough is that new writers can come in and push against it to see what happens, like on Voyager (and hopefully Discovery).

    You know what sci-fi franchise has a very clear philosophy and is still going strong after a long time? The source material for Judge Dredd. It’s great!

    Another show that came to mind though was the relaunch of BSG. In fact I am surprised it did not get a mention in the article now that I think about it. Maybe it had too short a run I guess.

    • It’s easiest for me with Star Trek, obviously, so that’s generally my go-to. BSG certainly had a philosophical basis early on, but I think it unraveled as they started to take the Cylon’s monotheistic religion too seriously (and too literally). That makes it complicated to discuss in this context.

      I’d definitely agree on Judge Dredd. I think it’s proof that you don’t need to be ideologically aligned to a work to enjoy it.

      And suffice it to say, the second episode didn’t do anything to change my opinion on APB. If anything it was worse, using small children and dogs getting injured in a cheap attempt to elicit emotion. Weak stuff.