Worst Moments in Sci-Fi

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Battlestar Galactica I Runs Out of Everything

The first Battlestar Galactica featured the original premise that human civilizations in space, fleeing genocide, were attempting to find Earth. The unoriginal part of the premise was that Earth had been colonized in the remote past, a rehash of Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? scam. (And scam it was. He was literally in prison for fraud when he wrote the book, evidently figuring out - correctly - that you can con ignorant and gullible people this way and not go to prison.)

Still, it was an interesting and exciting idea. Unfortunately, the series producers almost immediately ran out of the two things needed to make it work: ideas and resources.

The idea hemorrhage saw the writers fall back on cliched conflict plots, and then sink to doing send-ups of hackneyed movies. The nadir came with a Western quick draw contest between Starbuck and a Cylon robot. And then to raise the saccharine quotient (because the massacre of billions of people isn't emotional enough), they included the standard Superfluous Kid and a robotic dog, whose lovable antics every week made you yearn for a sudden airlock failure.

The resource shortage meant they couldn't sustain the action very long. Every episode saw the same half dozen stock shots. Eventually, the show stopped airing weekly. Instead of admitting honestly the show couldn't be produced at a weekly pace, and scheduling it every other week, the networks continued to list it in the same time slot and pre-empt it for "specials." The bottom of the barrel was the night they pre-empted it for The Way We Were, a film appealing to a completely different audience. That was the ultimate demonstration of Hollywood's contempt for its audiences, a clear message to viewers: "We will air whatever we want whenever we want, because you're stupid and addicted enough to watch whatever we serve up anyway."

David Gerrold Runs Out of Steam

David Gerrold's place in the science fiction pantheon is secure by virtue of his writing the most beloved episode of Star Trek: the one, the only, the inimitable Trouble With Tribbles.

In the 1990's he began a series that stood head and shoulders above the trite themes that dominate most science fiction. He pictured Earth being transformed by an alien ecology, the Chtorr, and humans' desperate attempts to figure it out and combat it.

The project has its flaws - some pretty huge ones. The lead character is such an ignorant, arrogant, immature, selfish and downright imbecilic oaf it's hard not to root for the alien organisms to eat him. At one point, the scientists leading the effort to combat the aliens plot to kill him. Why? He's not even worth the effort. He's a junior enlisted man. Put him on perpetual latrine detail and find somebody worth caring about. Then he falls in with a cult that essentially worships the invaders (something that would very likely happen), stays with them for a year, furnishing opportunities for extended accounts of the sexual habits of the group (some bordering on child pornography by today's standards). Then he ends up at a refuge on the coast, adopts some kids orphaned by the aliens, then abandons them, none of which makes the slightest sense.

This is all defended in some circles as character development. I am not the least bit interested in whether a clod like that develops, or how, any more than I am interested in the character development of a tapeworm. He is such a complete jerk that he mars the work.

Then we have the pulpit pounding that is such a staple of too much science fiction. There's a long account of a training session called The Way, and though Gerrold warns readers not to try to build a movement around it, it's the sort of mishmash of libertarian politics, laissez faire economics and authoritarianism that seems to fuel the fantasies of so many sci-fi authors.

But this is all semi-forgivable because you can skip past the painful character development and philosophy and enjoy the sweep of the stories. At the end of Volume 4, a military expedition to investigate the alien infestation in the Amazon crash lands and ....

Well, nothing. Gerrold has remained very busy cranking out books and scripts, but his single most original idea (apart, of course, from tribbles) is no closer to resolution than it was a decade ago. He claims to have over half a million words written for each of the next three volumes, but whether they will see the light of day, who knows?

L. Ron Hubbard is Rehabilitated

You have to understand how much I hate and loathe L. Ron Hubbard. I didn't want Battlefield Earth to tank at the box office - I wanted it to go down in cinematic history along with Showgirls or Ishtar. And it did.

L. Ron Hubbard is the apotheosis of the messiah complex that is rife among sci-fi authors. Like David Gerrold's The Way or Frank Herbert's pontifications in Dune, he felt that knowing a smattering of science qualified him to design a rational utopian society. Only Hubbard went further. He quit writing his admittedly original science fiction and actually began to try to create his utopian society. With him as leader, of course.

Just being leader of a cult isn't enough to make Hubbard a worm. Hubbard's cult engaged in criminal harassment of its critics, including framing reporter Paulette Cooper, and filing myriad frivolous lawsuits (but of course we don't need tort reform, because frivolous lawsuits never happen, right?)

So when I started seeing science fiction anthologies featuring some of Hubbard's works, and reprints of his books, I concluded the science fiction fraternity had lost whatever shreds of integrity it had ever had and descended into wholesale prostitution. These are authors and science fiction prides itself on challenging convention and exploring radical new visions. If anyone needs to defend freedom of speech, it's science fiction writers. And here they are welcoming back into the fold someone who worked strenuously to destroy freedom of speech. It's as creepy as the NAACP sponsoring a screening of Birth of a Nation on Martin Luther King Day.

I do not subscribe to the idea that intellectual merit compensates for amorality or immorality. Frank Lloyd Wright designed great buildings but he was a thoroughly rotten person and no amount of architectural brilliance will atone for it. Hubbard is many strata deeper in the slime than Wright. Nothing Hubbard did to develop the genre of science fiction can possibly redeem his efforts to destroy free speech.

Humanoid Cylons

By all accounts the new Battlestar Galactica is superior in every way to the original. Better special effects, richer plots, bla-blah, bla-blah.

And though I saw the pilot, I completely lost interest early on for two reasons.

First, instead of being a traitor, Gaius Baltar is a dupe who was tricked into betraying critical information. This sets up an endless array of plots based around what I call Predictable Stupidity. You know, where the hero sneaks into a building and doesn't watch his back, or there's a chain of pratfalls that could be avoided if someone would only clear up some misconception (think While You Were Sleeping). I flatly refuse to watch anything revolving around Predictable Stupidity. It's not funny in a comedy, it's not suspenseful or exciting in a drama, it's simply stupid. And since it's also predictable, you can see it coming a mile away, so there's no suspense except for wondering how excruciating the stupidity will be and how soon the plot will get back on track. If you enjoy this kind of suspense, you will probably love wondering how much a root canal without Novocain will hurt. So Baltar tries to cover up his mistake, leaves himself open to blackmail and coercion, has to be careful lest he inadvertently reveal too much, etc. Of course, if he'd done the patriotic thing and 'fessed up, he'd have been imprisoned, executed, or maybe just left to the mercies of the Cylons, but at least the surviving humans wouldn't have a mortal danger in their midst. Or he could have done the really honorable thing and gone on a suicide mission.

And why did Baltar give away information? Because some of the Cylons are humanoid, and the one he confided in is very humanoid in all the right ways, if you get my drift. In the original, the Cylons were machines, and when we last saw anything of the invaded home worlds, the Cylons were preparing to massacre the survivors. In the new series, crank up the Great Big Cliche Machine. We have the humans falling in love with seductive Cylons; we have Cylon infiltrators; we have Cylon doubles, we have conflicted Cylons, we have characters we're not sure are Cylons or humans, we have characters who are not sure they're Cylons or humans, we have human collaborators and resistance movements.

And then there are the political intrigues as the remnants of civilian government clash with the military authorities who actually are responsible for humanity's survival. Because, hey, the series needs conflict for dramatic interest, and the survival of a whole race isn't engrossing enough, I guess. I can watch reruns of West Wing for that. If I want to watch people in all their complexity I can just read the newspaper.

Okay, there's a third reason I don't watch the new Battlestar Galactica. I don't have cable. If you are dumb enough to pay for television and still have to watch commercials, be my guest.

Dune

This is a novel about a conflict involving four factions, each of them so vile that nuking their home planets to glass would be a satisfying ending to the story. We have the Bene Gesserit, a combination religious order and finishing school for wives for the nobility. We have the Sardauker, a race of ruthless mercenaries. We have the Harkonnen, a corrupt and dissolute aristocratic family, and we have the sand people of Dune. Think all the worst negative stereotypes of the Middle East and you've got it. There's also a confederation called the Landraad, where the normal people of the galaxy live.

So when the only character in the novel worth caring about dies halfway through, you have a huge dramatic hole to fill. Herbert fills it with his plodding, pretentious philosophy.

The Fans Think They Own Star Wars

Okay, so Jar-Jar Binks wasn't the best idea Lucas ever had. Do you actually think that if we ever do make contact with aliens, we won't encounter races that murder human language just as badly and look just as silly? Wonder how we look to Gungans ("Earthlings. No ears, sunken eyes, flat faces and no tongue to speak of. And they can't even pronounce a simple consonant cluster like &^$]&#^*#{%.")

Is there some part of private property you twits don't get? There was no Star Wars before Lucas conceived of it. No Force, no Han Solo, likely no Harrison Ford, no Darth Vader. Star Wars is what took the bit player in the white cowboy hat from American Graffiti and made him a superstar. Lucas created them. You didn't. The only thing most of the critics of the second trilogy were creating when Star Wars first came out was poopy diapers. For many of them, that was the high point of their lifetime creative output. You have to have seen Star Wars in theaters when it first came out to fully appreciate how utterly novel and different it was from anything that had ever been done before.

Not Playing Fair

Playing fair means attempting to maintain some degree of connectedness between events in a story. Best example I ever saw of not playing fair was a military exercise I was once on. I was supposed to do my bit for the morning briefing, only to discover there was a totally new unit on the map. I sized things up and basically said what we would have done if there were a unit in that location. Afterward I asked one of the staff officers and he said "Oh, the controllers decided there needed to be a unit in that sector, so they put one in." Zap. Real war should work that smoothly.

World War Z is a good read but has plot holes big enough to march a zombie invasion through. At one point a footnote explains that it's still not clear how much zombies rely on sight. After a ten year war, and ten years after the war? This is not Nobel Prize medicine. It's on the level of Lisa Simpson's science fair project "Is My Brother Smarter Than a Hamster?" (No). Strap one down and run an EEG. Put them in a totally dark setting and see how well they navigate. Poke their eyes out and see what happens.

And they apparently need neither food nor oxygen. So how exactly do they get energy? Are we really to believe nobody has a clue after twenty years?

But the champion is S. M. Stirling's Change trilogy. The Change happens when suddenly all electrical devices and all explosives cease working. Not just sensitive electronics, but things like flashlights. I got half a dozen pages into the book and gave up on it in disgust. The premise is so unbelievably incoherent. Do magnets still work? Compasses? How exactly does your brain work without electricity? If you toss a pressurized can into a fire, does it still explode? If you spray a fine mist of gasoline, will it burn? If so, then why won't it work in an engine cylinder? Tell me the world ended because of meteor impact (Lucifer's Hammer), nuclear war, alien attack or EMP (One Second After), but don't postulate some change to a basic law of physics and then limit the effects to a small range of phenomena.


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Created 12 March 2007;  Last Update 27 April, 2012

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