Windows on the World: Why Documentaries Are The New Science Fiction

28 01 2009


Award-winning documentary which inspired this post

Award-winning documentary which inspired this post

When I was a kid, I wasn’t just a science fiction nerd of the 70s – Doctor Who,  Gerry Anderson shows, Blake’s Seven, Star Wars, etc.  I was a space cadet, a budding technophile in the making.  I wanted to jet-ski to work down the Thames, with a TV phone watch and all that.  I watched Tomorrow’s World (UK science & technology current affairs programme) with near-religious fervour – THIS was what tomorrow WOULD be like.  I read, and watched, and read, and watched.  That blend of TV primed me for classic literary SF – the late, great Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands In The Sky collection launched me off into years of thoughtful amazement.  Asimov, Niven, a quick detour via Doc Smith and back to names taken more seriously than his.  Even Patrick Moore‘s Scott Saunders series, what would now be termed “young adult” books, were devoured, more than thrice.  I can still quote the odd line from all of these folk – my favourite from the Moore series was Saunders ‘M’-style boss’ method of congratulations;  “Congratulations.  You can have a cigar or a coconut, whichever you prefer.”  Strange what sticks in the mind.


However, over the years, science fiction has entered more and more into popular culture, not just in the West.  Ideas once talked about in hushed tones amongst geeks are common currency; the actual technology once imagined has come to pass, though maybe not as predicted – my 3G phone, looking remarkably like a Star Trek communicator, can do video calls, and I use it instead of wearing a watch.  Wow – who knew!  Much of the best of SF has been borrowed, reworked, dismantled and rebuilt, until now shreds of it are everywhere, confetti after the wedding.  And yet, and yet…

I honestly believe the heart of the genre is missing.  Movies have reduced Science Fiction to SF to sciffy (pronounced skiffy), action or melodrama or comedy with SF trappings draped over them, like a soothsayer convincing others his furs grant him that animal’s powers.  Action, a genre of TV and cinema I love, is particularly guilty of that, inflicting over twenty years of low-rent clones of Aliens on us, the way anime has made Blade Runner familiar and friendly.    The core of SF is not the surface, but the IDEAS, the science explored through the fiction.  Beware any film or TV show claiming to be SF where the writers staff revel publicly in their ignorance of science – all they will be able to write is melodrama.

Which lengthy introduction brings me, finally, to documentaries.  Having written up a number of them for my weekly column, Mission: International,  over at, I’ve been given real pause for thought about the recent resurgence of the genre, and the success even made-for-tv docs have been finding in the cinema.  Why?  Why are cinema-going audiences willing to go out and pay for a ticket to see a documentary in the cinema, even if it has a TV showing scheduled?  What is it about the recent crop that is so compelling? Is it purely a matter of the quality of production – reality shot and edited like fictional cinema?  Partly, as  so much cinema has taken on what used to be the visual traits of documentary (handheld cameras, overlapping dialogue, etc.), which has been too much for some audience members.  Is it taboo subject matter? Unlikely, given how much of that is exploited through reality TV.  No, there has to be something more, I’m sure.

Today, watching The English Surgeon, I realised exactly what it is.  The best documentaries offer us windows on the world, glimpses into places we may never have been nor will ever visit,  insights into people who are not us, who may be nothing like us despite being fellow humans, or who are incredibly like us.   They take ideas the directors have had, or have spotted while filming, and then explore those ideas through the craft of film applied to the recording of reality.  In short, they do what the best science fiction used to do – they find a way to explore ideas and technology and the world around us through a medium given to fiction, shaping reality into narrative, teasing out the threads nestled beneath daily life or specific occurrences.  In a world with satellites, video phones, portable computing power that easily outstrips that of the original Apollo programme and computers built inside computers, the most alien creature out there are ourselves, the most outlandish ideas and technologies still from our minds.

No wonder people are paying to see them – they’re seeing more of the world than the narrowband focus of modern TV allows.  Forget reality TV – reality itself is out there now, but bizarrely, it’s on film.



4 responses

31 01 2009
Big G

Hugh, cheers on the blog! What a totally appropriate outlet for you! Question though…. what would you make of Gattaca or Code 46, do they qualify as true-to-the-genre SF movies? In my minde I’d say they are by your criteria but would be interested in hearing what you think…



1 02 2009

Sorry, can’t believe I didn’t mention either of those, or even Dark City, which was the first DVD SE I bought, and the first BD DC I’ve bought! I think it’s been some considerable time since films of such ideas were produced and released, enough to warrant my feelings that we’ve been stuck back in a period of non-SF films masquerading as SF. Honestly, in the last ten years, the list is dominated by turn-of-the-century titles, and certainly, one doesn’t see as many genre pieces as one did in the lat 60s, the 70s, or the 80s.

6 02 2009

Interesting how you mention Blade Runner, which (at least to me) was intended to be a vision of the future but as the future overtook it, the film wound up as a piece of nostalgic fantasy. Big G’s mention of Gattaca caught my attention too. It’s one of the few sci-fi movies that is actually in keeping with the old tradition of the genre: speculative fiction rather than fantasy. It’s future is frightening, but also not outside the realms of possibility – it poses pertinent ethical questions and the science is convincing, as well as looking all pretty-shiny and futuristic.

Is it just that sci-fi has become a label to slap on fantasy stories to make them sound more appealing? Something like Blade Runner (or, more accurately, the book that it’s based on) or Gattaca are ‘speculative’ visions of futures or alternate realities, while most of the titles you’re criticising here use speculation and ‘real’ science to package ideas that are a lot less credible and valuable. As much as I love the Fifth Element for instance, it’s a fun fantasy movie more than a sci-fi one because the ‘science’ is so vague.

Before I go off at a huge tangent here, I agree that documentaries could now be the new source for visions of the future and the realism, because what passes off for science fiction just doesn’t cut it any more! I suppose the popular image of sci-fi is the futuristic cyberpunk one, which isn’t always you see in the seminal sci-fi works from Clarke, Dick and Asimov.

6 02 2009

I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, Martin. With you on the Fifth Element as well – its roots in Jodorowsky’s L’Incal comic are not only well-documented, but Jodorowsky considers himself more a shamanic storyteller than anything else, so no surprise that stuff like L’Incal and Metabarons are far more primal archetypes set in SF settings – again, as you say, fantasy in SF clothing. Star Wars is, of course, the most well-known version of this.

Looking at the industry daily as I do, there are an increasing number of SF projects appearing on the slates, but still many of them are “action movie in SF setting” or “horror movie in SF setting” – and there is an increasing amount of disappointment coming out of Morgan Freeman and David Fincher when they get asked about their looooong-gestating production of Rendezvous with Rama. I think I’m just starting to get to grips with the realisation that some of these may never come to pass in my lifetime – and make my peace with that, returning to the printed word instead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: