In the month of May (and part of June) James Cameron will be guiding audiences through the “story of science fiction.” We’ve been seeing ads for a few weeks now, which tout sound bites from some other equally big names in the world of sci-fi. The first episode premiered on Monday night, and we got to see how intensive a journey Cameron has really planned for us.

The series seeks to look at both the history of sci-fi and how the questions of what it means to be human, exist in a society, and more have influenced sci-fi’s development over the years. The very first episode looked at aliens, probably what immediately comes to almost everyone’s mind when they think or talk about sci-fi.

The episode started off in an interesting way: we tend to think of aliens as dreadful, and War of the Worlds or Alien or Predator jump to mind much faster than Close Encounters of the Third Kind or ET types. However, the show starts with James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg chatting about the possibility of a peaceful first contact. Appropriate, considering he gave us Close Encounters and ET.

There were some clips of Close Encounters to give a look at described scenes, which broke the “talk show” format. That very first segment ends with Spielberg’s ultimate optimism about the situation: “Good propagates greater good, and that’s what I thought the best sci-fi does.” That’s touching, and there are great, cumulative, meaningful moments like this, especially towards the end of this episode.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

As lovely as such moments are, the next segment must cut to the obvious, other end of the binary: destruction by aliens. This segment starts with Will Smith, a veteran of sci-fi disasters. And here things hint at how thoughtful this episode will become: Will Smith suggests that destruction by aliens is a metaphor for the destruction mankind can do to itself. Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death) notes that aliens, “portray our fear of the unknown, and in doing that we see all these aliens invade.

And we go on, looking at influences from HG Well’s The War of the Worlds, and both the outside influences on his original story–a greater society dominating a much weaker society as a take on British imperialism–and its adaptability to new fears, such as Spielberg’s take on the story in 2005. By Spielberg’s own admission, his more recent take on the 1898 novel was a “post-nine-eleven catastrophe.” This also looks at the idea of sci-fi as being, essentially, a safe way for us to deal with subconscious fears without getting too close to them, or a way for writers and directors to approach problems in society that disturb or anger them in a safer way.

The topics move more quickly after that, discussing the importance of communication, and how we could potentially connect with extraterrestrials: how our language can influence our speech, which influences how we think (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). The aliens would come into the picture that way, too, and how both parties come into it could limit or expand our ability to connect. Arrival is the great example here.

HR Giger has a moment in the sun as his design for the xenomorph in Alien (1979) is lauded extensively.

We jump to human psychological responses, and how truly repulsive creatures can be created (for example, successful horror movie aliens seem to be slimy or reptilian). Of course, eventually things go around to how an audience can be manipulated into sympathizing and loving the alien more, with the example of ET. There’s also a segment within this on how viewers sympathize with the protagonists and aliens, and which stories do this effectively, and how, bringing us back to previous topics. The episode ends with Cameron and Spielberg again, this time joking around a little.

Within this framework, we see a great variety of sci-fi greats; James Cameron and AMC spared no expense. Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park), Sigourney Weaver (Alien), Ridley Scott (Alien), Keanu Reeves (The Matrix), and Veronica Cartwight (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are just some of the large group dropping sound bites in this episode. In a wonderful move, there were even screenwriters, authors, and scientific consultants putting their two cents in on topics. There were even clips of Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles) and Carl Sagan (Cosmos), two authors who have passed on, but have proved to be greatly influential in the worlds of both sci-fi and various levels of real science.

Ultimately, this episode gave me everything that I came to it for, and even more. The commercials played up movie stars, but we got to see writers speak too. We had a surprisingly intelligent discussion of sci-fi… I wasn’t expecting things to not be intelligent, but I wasn’t expecting linguistics to be discussed, or deconstructionism and other forms of literary criticism to come into play, or psychology. It didn’t go too deeply into such topics, but for something like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to be mentioned was unbelievable. (Listen, I’ve got two English degrees. That sort of thing is exciting for me.)

Even if you’re not coming from a specific background that looks at texts or cultural items in certain ways, enough information is given to make more complicated topics accessible, and it will still be interesting to someone who just happens to be a fan of sci-fi, or even someone who is just a fan of the specific movies touched upon. It handled multiple levels of audiences well.

There wasn’t a slow moment for me, and it kept up a consistent pace and quality level, in my opinion. In terms of what was discussed and how most of the topics were discussed were nearly perfect, and the group gathered to speak was fantastic as well. Even the clips from movies and production from movies were well-chosen; there is some rare production footage in there, especially from Alien.

If this first episode is any indication, James Cameron certainly has an intensive, and thorough, journey planned for his viewers. I’m looking forward to next week’s episode.

Episode 2 of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, “Space,” will be airing on AMC at 9 PM EST.  

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