Last week, James Cameron and a crew of sci-fi writers, actors, scientists, and more took a look at aliens and the human condition. This week, a similar group took a look at the final frontier: space.
If you’re thinking that that’s a bit of a broad topic for 42-minute time block, you would be right. The first episode of the series, “Aliens,” jumped from topic to topic, looking at different conceptions of aliens and what they say about the humans who imagine them and are fascinated by them. “Space” started on a similar note: George Lucas says, “Science is basically saying, ‘there are no limits,'” and soon after, Sigourney Weaver adds, “Where are we going and what does it say about us as humans?”
As with aliens a week ago, we are given the idea that space (at least sci-fi space) adapts to our wants, needs, and fears. We’re then taken on a sort of chronological look at how space in sci-fi has developed, rather than a jump from topic to topic. As with the first episode, we do get a look at writers and grandfathers of the space sci-fi genre: Jules Verne and HG Wells, as well as early attempts in film.
The earliest attempts are glossed over in a quick-cut montage with a discussion on how early film and literature showed a space with a breathable atmosphere, no special gear required, and so on. Then there’s a look at how discoveries in science influenced sci-fi’s development. By the twenties, things like atmospheric changes and G force were being addressed, and editor-authors like John W. Campbell (“Who Goes There?”, the basis for The Thing) demanded “scientific verisimilitude” in their publications, which pushed things further. Next came the major influence of Forbidden Planet, its influence on the original Star Trek, which eventually moves forward to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Star Wars, Starship Troopers, eventually ending up around The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy.
This episode doesn’t go as in depth on its topics as the first one did–like I said, space is a broad topic, perhaps too broad for such a small block of time. Sometimes this episode feels unfocused due to this. However, Cameron manages to have a go at some deeper topics. There’s a look at the universal topics: thinking of the basic story, or feeling, and going outward to what makes a story about finding family, etc. a sci-fi story (James Gunn [Guardians of the Galaxy] says it’s the space part). There is a look at influences outside of sci-fi that influence sci-fi (like Hitler’s propaganda films influencing Starship Troopers), what makes more appealing sci-fi, and the general craft of world-building. It’s great stuff that could fill whole books, or their own, individual episodes.
It talks, much more briefly, of similar topics as the first episode: how space allows us to approach oftentimes controversial issues of today in a safe way, with some disconnect that may make it appear less threatening, à la the original Star Trek, the topic as a reflection of our society and our fears, and the desire to communicate, and how that may be done.
The topics of contemporary issues and communication are raised in the Star Trek segment of the show. The most interesting and thought-provoking moments came in the Star Trek segment; it felt like the one item that things really slowed down on for a defined focus. Perhaps this is appropriate: Lisa Yaszek, a professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech, pointed out that this is the first piece of media that really “brought space into the living room [and] made it accessible.” Whoopi Goldberg talks about representation in media in relation to the show, which featured Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman not withheld by stereotypes. There’s also a wonderful moment where the power of the show is discussed, because it was, ultimately, optimistic about the future in many ways: “Star Trek was a way of saying, ‘Look, we can do better–the way things are is not necessarily how they have to be.”
One big thing stuck out for me this episode, though. For this episode, our “frame” was George Lucas. He says a few interesting things about Star Wars, and Cameron certainly asks great leading questions, but Lucas doesn’t seem to have as much to offer as his colleagues. It felt like the other guests would answer questions beautifully and eloquently, and Lucas just gives a simplified version of other answers. I was hoping for more from the creator of a beloved series and got what I’ve come to expect from him instead, unfortunately. That said, there was some nice footage and description of effects and materials and influences present in the original Star Wars films.
Admittedly, this episode wasn’t as exciting for me as the previous episode was, but it was an ambitious topic to try and wrangle. It didn’t always feel focused, but I was expecting that from the get-go. The topics that were discussed were interesting and though the approach wasn’t quite as scholarly as those presented in the first episode, they were still discussed intelligently. The group gathered to speak and films shown were both smaller than the previous episode, but the previous episode was the hook; this is the continuation. And the group was just as varied and informed. I don’t mind a smaller pool if it means we end up really digging into interesting topics.
The next episode of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, “Monsters,” will air at 10 PM EST on AMC.