Essay

Revenge of the geeks

THE TOMORROW PEOPLE now seems very "yesterday". It is fondly remembered as a poor man's Doctor Who – and as Doctor Who was notoriously cheap, that's not saying much. Yet when The Tomorrow People was produced in the 1970s, children adored it. They forgave (or were oblivious to) the laughable production values and wooden performances. For them, the show was something special.

But none of this explains why, three decades later, the DVDs and audio plays are selling so well. This is not just nostalgia. Many of the series' current fans were not even born when The Tomorrow People ceased production in 1979. For people raised on the digital effects of The MatrixThe Tomorrow People looks like amateur night. A short-lived revival, produced in the 1990s, was glossier, with better acting – but nobody cares. The original, tacky series is still the favourite.

The Tomorrow People centred on a group of youngsters who had developed telepathic and telekinetic powers. Keeping their powers a secret from the world, they had a hide-out in the London Underground. To some, therein lies the attraction: the heroes were ghettoised for being "different". "These days it's difficult to talk about the original Tomorrow People without mentioning all those supposed thinly– veiled homosexual allusions," wrote the British magazine SFX recently. "We'll just say 'homo superior', teenagers who 'break out' and 'hide from the outside world' and let your minds do the rest."

Thus the characters in The Tomorrow People have unwittingly been labelled "gay icons". However, once we see past the colourful sets and the garish costumes (this was the 1970s, remember?), we notice that there is much more to them. The term "homo superior" (also used, and not questioned, by the macho comic-book heroes The X-Men) referred to the next stage in human evolution. The characters were youngsters with psychic powers. It suggested that the human race was gradually moving forward – a thrilling concept, made even more exciting by the oft-mentioned point that many people have such latent powers. You too could be a "tomorrow person". While their adventures concerned more pedestrian missions, like defeating megalomaniacs and alien monsters, the concept can be appreciated on another level: an exploration of humanity's potential. No wonder it still has a following.

When I first saw The Tomorrow People, in reruns, I was in the perfect demographic. As a teenager, I was publishing a magazine dedicated to Doctor Who with a friend from school. Rather than the latest Dire Straits LP, my pocket money would go to comic books or, naturally, Doctor Who novels. Instead of spending my weekends at the beach like most of my classmates, I would travel to science fiction conventions, where I could discuss favourite television shows with people who had memorised every storyline from Blake's Seven, or could argue vehemently over the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. Though I didn't attend these events in costume (unlike many of my friends), my fashion sense was not particularly cool. Unlike science fiction, it wasn't a priority for me. (While many people from that era now cringe at photos of themselves wearing mullets and glittery Simon Le Bon trousers, I avoided that phase. My photos of the time are not exactly flattering, however.

At the time, science fiction was socially undesirable. I was a "geek" back when that was a demeaning term. It was still the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock precariously close to midnight. The last thing that any "sane" person wanted to do was look at the future. Such fantasies were fine for younger children, but not for an image-conscious adolescent.

Most people over fifteen were laughing at Doctor Who; critics scorned the cheap visual effects and talked of "wobbly sets". (This was unfair. The sets were cheap, and often tacky, but they didn't wobble.) They never got the point. The cheapness worked in its favour. Unable to afford Hollywood sets or state-of-the-art visual effects, the focus was on old-fashioned elements like story and character.

 

CUT TO 2006. Now the techno-savy world of science fiction is not only fashionable, but utterly real. Mobile phones look like the flip-top communicators of Star Trek, while palmtop computers, surfing the internet, suddenly make The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy look prophetic as well as amusing. Science fiction pondered the world of possibilities – not just clichés like alien attack and interstellar travel, but the potential shape of the future. Writers and designers, who possessed the imagination but perhaps not the technical know-how, were envisioning these worlds in the best way they could.

Fans of most literary genres tend to look down on television – and science fiction fans are no exception. Nonetheless, Star Trek's prophecies (in design, if not technology) have proven to be self-fulfilling, and the science fiction television shows of the past are treated with more respect than they were in their prime. Young viewers, willing to forgive the cheap sets and primitive visual effects of Gen– X favourites, are discovering these gems on DVD (and, perhaps more commonly, internet shareware). Of course, the perspective from which they see these programs is quite different from that of the original viewers. Back then, they were visions of the future; now they are relics of the past – and in most cases, this is blatantly obvious.

While they rightly predicted that there would be a future, these television shows have so far gotten most of it wrong. If we had followed the warnings of the ABC's 1980 series Timelapse, New South Wales would have been under a corrupt fascist government by 1991. In hindsight, the well-researched 1975 British seriesSpace: 1999 did better than most (scientific plausibility aside), designing a future so credible that it now belies its age – until the lead heroine ruins the fantasy by writing her diary on a manual typewriter. We are suddenly reminded that, while science fiction was merrily predicting space stations on the moon and talking robots capable of witty retorts, nobody was predicting laptop computers.

Hence, when Doctor Who was revived in 2005 – fifteen years after the last episode – some executives in the BBC assumed that the new series would fail, destined to be watched only by fanatics and nostalgic older viewers. Instead, it was more popular than ever. For the first time, Doctor Who was no longer just a children's series with a dedicated cult following; it was now one of Britain's highest-rating adult dramas. Science fiction is more relevant than ever.

 

JOHN FARRAR IS not a well-known name, not even to science fiction fans, but as programming director for the UK Sci-Fi Channel, he sees more to science fiction (or "SF", as the fans prefer to abbreviate it) than many people.

"I always think that SF has to deal with those big epic questions of the human condition, what it is to be human," he said recently. "Either answering those philosophical questions, or making allegories about the society we're living in currently. When SF is at its best, as it was in the 1950s, that's what it has absolutely been about. There's been a resurgence of that in this post-9/11 world."

Of course, 9/11 is used as an excuse for almost every recent trend. On television at least, SF in the "post-9/11 world" has moved notably from the future to the present. We could not consider exploring alien planets and futuristic technologies, a la Star Trek, without first fixing our current problems. Series such as Lost andThe 4400 rate well. These are not glimpses of the future, but are ostensibly set in the present. Even though the Doctor in Doctor Who often travels through time to the distant future, he returns to the housing estates of modern-day London.

Science fiction is no longer focused on prophecy. As Farrar suggests, the buzzword is now "allegory". Rather than possible futures, these series present alternative views of present-day society. However far into the future the Doctor goes, the people and the culture are, in at least one significant way, strangely familiar.

Lost, television's most popular SF series, has a devoted following. Fans fill chat rooms with hundreds of messages: which characters can be trusted? Where is the storyline headed? And most of all, what does it all mean? For those who have not been lured into this series, it centres around an ensemble of plane crash survivors, stranded on a desert island. All have secrets to keep, teasingly revealed in flashbacks. The island has some incongruities, like polar bears and mysterious, French-speaking jungle women. As the puzzle is gradually pieced together, fans can meet over a coffee and analyse it to their hearts' content. "As far as theories, I've heard we're all dead, we're all in purgatory, we're a part of the kid Walt's [one of the characters'] imagination, or we're trapped in a dream sequence," said actor Evangeline Lilly in one interview. "There are lots of cool theories, but none of [the cast] knows anything, just like the audience." Creator J.J. Abrams has already countered one of the most common theories by saying that the characters are not dead, and the show is not set in the afterlife. Beyond that, nearly everything is currently open to interpretation.

Lost has been analysed almost as much as the British series The Prisoner, which lasted a mere seventeen episodes during the 1960s, and inspired fan clubs around the world. University courses have been based around The Prisoner. The series' creator, actor Patrick McGoohan, preferred not to call it science fiction, due to the genre's rayguns-and-robots reputation.. Lost, for similar reasons, is never promoted as SF.

The Prisoner, like Lost, concerned a stranded man – in this case, a former secret agent – trapped in a luxurious holiday resort from which nobody can escape, where everyone is known by a number, and where non-conformity is apparentley illegal. While other television series might frequently be described as "wacky" or "spine-tingling", the cliché of choice for The Prisoner is "Kafka-esque". This was art-house television, with no easy denouement. The final episode – ostensibly the one in which everything was explained – was even more bizarre and perplexing than the others.

So far, Lost can be seen as a microcosm. The castaways include a cross-section of the world, with different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and political beliefs. "Each one of us was brought here for a reason," one of the characters says mysteriously. Of course, we don't know how Lost will end, and therefore, what it all means. Perhaps Abrams, like his cast, is in the dark about how the dramas of his microcosm (or indeed, the world on which it is based) will be resolved. Lost holds a mirror to the world, but the solutions are up for discussion – in chat rooms.

 

IN THE PAST decade, I have made only rare visits to science fiction conventions. At a gathering of Doctor Who fans, I caught up with some old friends. No longer innocent youngsters, they had discovered something about themselves: they were gay. One of them even suggested, in a thesis, that this was a major reason behind the show's devoted following: as with The Tomorrow People, gay people were "turned on" by the "look" of the series.

This was a bolt from the blue. As a teenager, I often felt alienated – socially inept, unfashionable – and now it turned out that I might have been a latent homosexual as well. This didn't seem right – and indeed, it wasn't. Some of my friends (both male and female) had been quietly gay, but I was not. Matt Jones, an openly gay columnist for Doctor Who Magazine, tackled the issue in the magazine's twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 2004:

"I don't think Doctor Who has a specific appeal to gay men – I just think it strikes a particularly strong chord with anyone who's ever felt like an outsider, who's had a whiff of discrimination, bullying or being ostracised by the mainstream. And that, unfortunately, just happens to include more than its fair share of gay boys," said Jones.

"The whole point of the character is that he's willing to intervene to help anyone in trouble, anyone on the outside. The Doctor's ongoing battle ... has always been against those who stamp down on unsuitable feelings, who hate people who are different or don't fit in."

So Doctor Who fans need not be homosexual, but do they need to be alienated? Again, it's hardly necessary. Someone later suggested that the success of Doctor Who is due to the Doctor's role as a protector, a wise spiritual master. Like a resurrection, he will "regenerate" (into a new actor) every few years. While some Christians doubt that even Jesus Christ will save them, all Doctor Who fans know that the Doctor will save the world from the Daleks, the Cybermen or the latest evil force. Spirituality was always the most convincing theory of the success of Doctor Who, and gives a new twist to the term "cult television".

Of all science fiction TV franchises, only Star Trek can rival Doctor Who in its long-term cult following, inspiring many with its utopian view of the world's nations eventually conquering their differences and moving on to "space, the final frontier". Star Trek fans are notorious for the obsessive minority, who can speak fluent Klingon and wear Starfleet uniforms to work. At American science fiction gatherings during the 1980s, Doctor Who and Star Trek fans (Whovians and Trekkies) were known for their light-hearted but nonetheless passionate debates, as they belittled each other's favourite television shows.

Australian fans were less vehement, but there was a political difference between the two camps. Star Trekfans often suggest that Trek's outlook was enlightened and progressive, praising the liberal views of its creator, the late Gene Roddenberry.

For all the talk, it wasn't quite as progressive as it could have been. The crew in Star Trek followed a military order, in which the military instincts of Captain James T. Kirk were obeyed without question, however impulsive or risky his actions. They spoke of the "prime directive" – the order never to interfere in the affairs of other planets – but they interfered in almost every episode, disposing of tyrants and installing democracy, American-style.

This was partly due to Roddenberry's military history (he served in World War II), and partly because, while it was his vision, it wasn't completely his show. Roddenberry did not have the freedom of control that American writer/producers like Abrams now enjoy with Lost. The network, NBC, toned down his vision to appease the sponsors. Hence a plain-looking, liberated female first mate, seen in the pilot episode, was removed. A celebrated scene, in which Kirk kisses Uhura, a Swahili member of his crew (the first multi-racial kiss on US television), was changed by network order. They were allowed to kiss, but only after their minds were overtaken by an alien force.

Doctor Who, meanwhile, did not promote military life. As well as refusing to carry weapons, the Doctor was a rebel, escaping from his own people to travel the universe. It is perhaps ironic that Star Trek, created by a liberal visionary, was in some ways reactionary; while Doctor Who, devised by a committee in a cherished organisation like the BBC, was anti-establishment. In episodes made during the 1970s, in which the Doctor worked with the British Army to fend off alien invasions, he was constantly at odds with the charming but deeply conservative Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

The politics of science fiction can be seen in many of the more popular shows. The military order of Star Trekis also also found in Thunderbirds and Stargate. The defiance of Doctor Who is not far removed from the non-conformist hero of The Prisoner and even the sceptical government agents of The X-Files. On the face of it, these shows did not deal with the mundane, Earthbound problems that we read about daily. Though their methods might have differed, they all wanted to save the world – but then, so do we all.

Recent reruns of Doctor Who, I'm pleased to say, have justified my old childhood obsession. The Doctor was the Socrates of SF. His philosophy, even more than his scientific genius, was his greatest asset. One quote from a 1977 story, is especially striking today: "You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views – which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering."

Such aphorisms were written for children's television? For children's science fiction television? If the genre (as well as the medium) is finally getting respect, it's happening at just the right time. 

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