On Monday, James Cameron treated us to another look at a facet of sci-fi: “Dark Futures.” Just as it sounds, the episode focused on the less optimistic tales of humanity’s sci-fi future. You know, the sci-fi tales we tend to dwell on.
This episode kind of just threw us into the thick of things, which I appreciated: by episode four, we know the show, we know the format, and to be honest, we have had introductions to the theme. Many stories that were discussed in previous episodes, especially “Monsters,” and presumably will be touched on in upcoming episodes, especially in “Intelligent Machines,” make their place in this episode, too.
So the episode just tosses us into I am Legend. And although it’s tempting to scoff at the choice–general feelings about it are mixed at best–it does serve as a really good intro to the post-apocalyptic future. And if you’re still a little incredulous about the movie choice (admittedly, I was), Will Smith discusses the original ending which paints his character as a monster too, and the reshot, action ending that audiences preferred. He doesn’t press the thought, but it certainly is some food for thought.
Rather than dwell on that, we reach through history–the original novel was by Richard Matheson (a good one, too!) that came out in the fifties, and was adapted to film twice before the 2000s. Each adaptation reflected its time in its own way, which is something Spielberg discussed in the very first episode: how his adaptation of War of the Worlds in 2005 was directly influenced by 9/11. Peter Capaldi, on this theme, takes us to The Planet of the Apes, a series that has been rebooted recently and gives us two fearful views of essentially the same future. We only get a basic overview of the two series and how they compare, but more along the lines of this theme would have been even more of a treat.
But apocalyptic futures aren’t our only dark future. We have our dystopian futures too! Or, as Elliott Kalan (Mystery Science Theater 3000) puts it: “Something went wrong along the way, and things are not working out right.” This segment of the episode seemed to have more meat to it. Maybe because, as this and other episodes have suggested, our interests and concerns reflect the time we’re living in, and an insidious government that relies on panem et circenses is sort of the norm right now. The Hunger Games kicks us off, a series that’s literally all about the violence, the class distinctions, the violence and culling, inspired by MTV and war footage. As Matt Singer suggests later, discussing the grand daddy of dystopian tales, 1984, “You may be in the dark future already and not know it.”
One of my favorite segments talks about how young people and young women have agency in young adult sci-fi, where in real life it’s rarely as possible or as plausible as one would hope. Obviously, we’ve got Katniss, who literally topples society, we have our Divergent heroine, and later a lot of time is spent on The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred is limited by tactics used in Nazi Germany or during the Salem Witch Trials, yet still has a mind and exists, which is a rebellion in itself. Perhaps a small one, but an important one. I loved this discussion, and although it was discussed in “Monsters” regarding the Alien franchise, it felt like it was integrated much more skillfully into this episode. Although factual, it felt like an aside in “Monsters.”
Philip K Dick’s stories are also touched upon: his stories have always done well, both in print and on the big screen. A recurring theme in his stories appears to be the fact that the reality presented is not an accurate reality at all. Of course, this leads to The Matrix, heavily influenced by Dick. If you’re a big Matrix fan, this will be your shining moment, as there is a fair amount of time spent on it, and we get to see some of those test reels and production footage.
We see more in the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, Robocop, and Mad Max. Mad Max is used to make a point: Max may be able to save the situation or one particular day, but things are on the whole, actively getting worse. Historical sci-fi gets its nod with The Twilight Zone. Created by Rod Serling in 1959, it allowed him to look at issues in society that alarmed him without having to worry about censors. He clothed contemporary issues–some of which are still pertinent–in sci-fi and fantasy. Naturally, this gets us to The Handmaid’s Tale, whose segment I’ve mentioned above already.
The episode ends on a somewhat optimistic note with The Walking Dead, of all things. The ending of this episode is probably the strongest of the series so far with this assertion, and Spielberg and Cameron’s send-off.
This episode admittedly meanders at the start, but it’s never uninteresting, and it never feels disoriented. Although it suffers from what feels like a lack of center in the beginning, he topic of dystopia binds things together tightly, and that’s the content of three-quarters of the episode anyways.
I was impressed by the fact that even though old ideas are touched on, it never feels like a needless retread. The angles are just different enough. The variety of items covered is impressive too. Even items that one might not automatically classify as sci-fi such as 1984, V for Vendetta, or The Handmaid’s Tale have their segments, which suggests that care and research went into this episode. Because, of course, they do belong in the realm and are all important pieces. And as always, tribute is paid to classics in the field like Richard Matheson and Rod Serling, which is always great to see.
The only weak bit of this episode that really stood out for me was with our frame. For this episode, it was Christopher Nolan. But it didn’t really feel like he was any more present than any other speakers. He even felt less present than many of them. To be fair, Nolan isn’t someone I know well enough to recognize visually, whereas there’s no question in my mind as to who Guillermo del Toro or George Lucas or Spielberg are (heck, I even know some of the guest scholars better than Nolan). So maybe I was simply less inclined to notice him. For the few minutes he’s on he spoke well enough, but I’m still not sure why he was our frame.
Overall, the episode was a solid, stable episode. It wasn’t the most exciting–the topic just isn’t glamorous enough–but the conversations were intelligent, and things felt organized once we got past those first ten or twelve minutes. Some of the best sound bites so far were in this episode.
The last two episodes of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, “Intelligent Machines” and “Time Travel” will air May 28 on AMC, at 10 and 11 PM EST, respectively. And if you’re wondering how the previous episodes measure up, please check out our reviews for “Aliens,” “Space,” and “Monsters“.