To start, I’m going to borrow the opening of this episode for the definition of a sci fi monster, since they can overlap with aliens, but are not always aliens: “A… monster [that can] be explained scientifically and combated technologically.” Lisa Yaszek (Professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech) continues, “We have to kill them. It’s that simple.” Insert your own clips of movie monsters here. (For the record, we’re immediately treated to a velociraptor, the titular Thing, Brundlefly, and Frankenstein’s monster.)
The episode starts out promising: I don’t look up information for episodes beforehand, so finding that Guillermo del Toro was the “frame” for this episode was exciting. I’ll freely admit a bias here: I started watching del Toro’s movies because I had seen interviews of him talking about horror films he enjoyed and had been struck by how eloquent and intelligent he was. So, I had high expectations for him the second I saw his face, and boy, did he deliver: after the intro, James Cameron asks where the “interzone” between horror and science fiction is. Del Toro responds, “The great distinction is the fuel for the early horror tales. It has to be spiritual. It comes from the belief of good and evil. And then there comes a point in Western literature in which the element includes, now, science.” Look at my arm: goosebumps.
Del Toro continues with the idea that monsters are based on the possible “adversity of the natural world,” at least at their very core, and gives the example of dragons as successful monsters because they mash up creatures that our earliest ancestors would have had to be conscious of. Deep down (or maybe not so deep down for some), we still have unease for birds, snakes, and large feline predators.
So, our obvious starting point would be Jurassic Park, right? What’s scarier to our primeval rodent brain than big, scary, predatory reptiles? Of course, we’re impressed by the brachiosaurs and the triceratopses, but it’s ultimately a tale of man playing god, and as we all know, that doesn’t go too well in sci-fi films. There are lovely moments of discussion of not just our fears, awe, and theory, but with the cast and crew (ah, Jeff) about the shoot and the effects over absolutely fantastic production footage. Even the hard science possibilities are discussed. We’ve come a long way since 1990.
We then pull back to the original “playing God” text, and what is really the first science fiction text, period: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Again, Guillermo del Toro introduces it eloquently, talking about empathizing with the monster, who comes into the world innocent, but regularly mistreated by humans who are, more or less, horrified by his looks.
A standout in this section was a look at how the story has been adapted over years. A lovely surprise was that this small segment started with Thomas Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein film, a relative unknown today. It is pointed out that the creature is created with chemicals, because Edison didn’t want bad associations with his bread and butter. In the original book, electricity is used, because that was the big new thing when Mary Shelley was writing. People were doing things like using electricity to stimulate the muscles in corpses and it seemed like it could go the distance. In the fifties and sixties, we’ve got atomic energy bringing us the monster in B horror flicks, in the nineties the monster’s birth was visceral and reminiscent of a real, human birth, the “first test-tube baby” (Yaszek). We then jump to (or fly to?) The Fly (1986), another example of scientific hubris creating something that seems wonderful, but you know, kind of wrecks things for our protagonist.
We take a break for some ideas that have been discussed before: sci-fi as a safe place to explore broad and sometimes very specific fears. We know that even if we don’t get a happy ending, we will get an ending, and it’s not happening to us. Del Toro and Cameron then bond over Alien, which of course has not stopped spawning sequels full of Xenomorph-related dangers and bodily fears. Alien and Aliens got a lot of love in the “Aliens” episode, and a lot of its appeal was discussed there and in many other places outside of this show. There is a lot of time that is spent on a female protagonist which relates to pushing boundaries in sci-fi, which has also been discussed in a prior episode, but focused on more here. Eventually we come to a great comparison between Ripley and Newt and the Xenomorph queen and her spawn in Aliens (1986). Seriously, can we have an episode just on this franchise? It steals the show whenever it comes up!
We jump to Resident Evil (the movies), which discusses female presence in sci-fi again, and The Thing (1982): the other in human form (well, some of the time). Things start moving much more quickly from here, through to Pacific Rim, B horror movies, Godzilla and his transformation in Japan and translation in the US, and even jumping to Stranger Things. A lot of time was spent on Stranger Things, and it was an interesting conversation despite the fact that I know almost nothing about the show. It is difficult to get lost even in unfamiliar territory in The Story of Science Fiction.
Ultimately, this episode brought back more of the excitement I had watching the first episode. There is an easy to define core to this episode–monsters–which keeps it together better than “Space.” Topic changes are also very clearly defined while still remaining related to the preceding conversation, so there is less work on the viewer’s part to figure out why we’ve gone from here to there.
Admittedly, there was some repetition from the “Aliens” episode–monsters and aliens are, in some ways, cut from the same cloth (in terms of what it may represent in mankind’s fears and hopes, etc.), but if you’re really into this genre and you love the topics, it’s exciting anyways. It’s as intelligent and thoughtful as previous episodes in the series. Again, we get our look at classic sci-fi and a nod and clips at the sci-fi pantheon in John Campbell and Mary Shelley, as well as some words from still-living members of the sci-fi pantheon and representatives of science fact. If this is your thing, this will be fun, and even if it’s not your thing, or maybe you only care for a movie or two I’ve mentioned, it’s still worth a shot. This episode really felt like there was something for everyone within, so long as they have an imagination, and, yes, some deep-down fears.
The next episode of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, “Dark Futures,” will air May 21, at 10 PM EST on AMC.