New sci-fi shows are more of the same - and that's okay

David Swigart - February 16, 2017

In a short span of time, many novel and exciting science-fiction series have come to television, such as 12 Monkeys, Humans, Legion, and Sense8. In fact, it seems that we may be in a defining era in the genre. Recent big hits like Westworld and Stranger Things, along with the release of the third season of Black Mirror, illustrate that sci-fi is experiencing its own little renaissance on the small screen. Rather than highlighting every new series that is being created right now, I would like to investigate a still hidden but strange occurrence amidst this Cambrian explosion of sci-fi. Has it become possible at this moment for a truly different style of sci-fi to emerge? Has it become possible for sci-fi to become comfortable?

Sci-fi distinguishes itself from most other genres by its mind-warping uniqueness. It deals with impossible worlds that, left to one’s own faculties, few would ever explore, let alone imagine. In this way, sci-fi inherently opposes one’s reality. While it can (and often does) play with realistic ideas, it nevertheless uses common notions to welcome viewers into worlds that are far from the reality they inhabit. This paradigm shift often serves as a psychological twist, making one go “whoa” after one’s perception is turned on its head. However, this “twist” is just a taste of sci-fi’s ability to confound. When watching the original Star Trek series, the viewer feels wonder while exploring new worlds and engaging with innumerable species in the endlessness of space. This wonder deeply moves and challenges one’s views of both scientific possibility and one’s place within the cosmos. Although wonder may be viewed as a positive shift in one’s perception, the power it possesses is shared with dread, as one may feel watching Alien. It presents the horror of forced alien impregnation and degeneration of human purpose to simply functioning as hosts. Both of these reactions to sci-fi, wonder and dread, point to a hallmark effect of sci-fi, perturbation. The genre is collectively unsettling by manipulating the audience's emotional stability.

This may not define sci-fi as a whole, a genre which is effectively diversifying beyond the previous barriers of its brand. That is the point. This breaking away from perturbation is precisely what is enabling sci-fi to become something else, something comfortable. What then is comfort? It is the opposite of perturbation. Instead of being thrown into truly foreign worlds with a feeling of wonder or dread, one is soothed, secured, comforted. Consider television shows that have no reality-bending elements, no incomprehensible moments--they just give you what you expect. These shows are comforting because they reestablish one’s emotional stability and fits within one’s sense of reality. That is not to say perturbation is superior to comfort, but that science fiction has favored, if not been defined by, the former rather than the latter. Let us consider at least one specimen that may fit this emergent comfortable style of sci-fi: Dark Matter.

Dark Matter is a Canadian sci-fi series that began in 2015 and is based on a comic book of the same name. It follows a group of six people who wake up with no memory of their identities on the spaceship Raza. Accompanying this crew is an android, and together they travel through space to both survive and piece together their pasts. I would like to consider three elements that show how this sci-fi series comforts viewers rather than perturbing them: the setting in deep space, the spaceship itself, and an artificially intelligent android.

In the first moments of the series, the viewer is put into the depths of empty space. A ship is surrounded by a vast blackness interrupted by only a few faint stars. This kind of environment is commonplace for most sci-fi series. Thus, opening the show in this way provides a familiar--and therefore comforting--perception of science fiction.

The viewer is then taken into the Raza, guided through a series of labyrinth-like passageways. The lighting consists of eerie mixtures of deep greens and blues interspersed flashing lights of red and white. The ship is undergoing emergency protocol and the crew are emerging from their cryogenic chambers, unaware of what caused the chaos. To anyone who lives in an apartment or home, these conditions should be foreign if not terrifying. Hallways are rarely made with ominous lighting and confusing passageways. However, it seems right at home in a space ship placed in the middle of nowhere, because the viewer has been placed there before. A space ship is expected to be constructed in this way, especially if it is undergoing emergency protocol; a spaceship that is brightly illuminated, lacking paneled lighting and intricate tunneling, though more like a basic human apartment, would really be strange in this context. The ship, nestled in the habituated emptiness of the cosmos, is as the viewer expects it, a fantastical machine that fits neatly into the sci-fi genre.

The amnesiac crew members, who seem to be even less familiar with the ship than the person watching the show, accidentally discover an android in the cargo bay. It turns out to be the neural link to the ship’s functions. Like any super-intelligent anthropomorphic piece of technology, it dwarfs human strength, reasoning, and yet remains emotionless and ignorant to the finer parts of humanity. All the while its gears whirr and its nanites (mini machines that repair any damage at an unbelievable pace) do all the things they apparently do best. Nevertheless, it strives like all peripherally sapient beings towards overcoming its limitations: it wants to have the ability to feel. Rather than finding the android that calls into question the division between man and machine odd, it is the machine that looks human and yet does not attempt to become human that would thwart the viewer’s expectations. The foreignness and challenge to human identity is comforting rather than perturbing, because it is a theme with which the viewer is familiar.

It is not my intention to say that sci-fi that seems to defy itself in this way is bad or unnatural. Instead, I want to identify this new creation, one readily recognized as science-fiction and yet it relaxes and revives the viewer like no other science-fiction known. The point of this observation is for the moment purely practical. It calls forth two increasingly important questions.

When you decide in the coming months to enjoy the premiere of an older or brand new sci-fi series, settling into your coziest mode of viewing, ask yourself: are you watching for the sake of comfort, to be at home in these other worlds? Do the writers and directors that create these new worlds, the writers and directors of these series, give you that comfort--and more importantly, do they intend to do so?