What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The force stops, and the object moves.
Despite its enviable literary pedigree (HG Wells, Jules Verne), Sci-fi was always a poor cousin of other genres of literature. I won’t go into the reasons here, but probably it was because there was (and still is) a tremendous amount of terrible sci-fi, just as there always seems to be a glut of bodice-rippers and undead (be they zombie or vampire) novels.
Television had some sci-fi successes – think The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and Outer Limits (’63-’65) – but until 1977 the schedules were dominated by cowboy dramas, such as The Virginian and Alias Smith and Jones. A promising show called The Oregon Trail had debuted in 1976, but was canned after the second series aired in 1977. Why?
The alien menace
Star Wars. It changed the territory. As a 12-year-old sci-fi fan I remember reading with glee that within a matter of a couple of years the TV schedules would change from cowboy dramas to sci-fi. To my dismay, the quality was generally low: this was mostly junk TV produced in a knee-jerk reaction to demands from schedulers – writers, producers and commissioners were wide of the mark because they applied their cookie-cutter methods to a genre they didn’t understand. It was like watching one of those specialist Chinese artists reproducing the same van Gough or a Rembrandt on a daily basis – looks like great art, but in no way groundbreaking or original, and certainly never destined to be loved as a priceless classic.
There were two notable exceptions. One was Star Trek and the other was Doctor Who. The Doctor made his first appearance on November 23rd 1963 in the UK (beating Star Trek by three years). And he stayed until 1989, when he was axed by the BBC. He did make a couple of special returns, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he came back for good, under writer-producer Steven Moffat. In his previous run he was appreciated in the US by Whovians, who tended to be older sci-fi fans, but he remained largely unknown. For his latest incarnation, the BBC did a 12-day worldwide tour across four continents, such is his popularity. His old fanbase hasn’t been alienated, and yet there is some hostility towards Moffat amongst fans. Why is that?
Timeless classic or cash cow?
Let’s compare and contrast with Star Wars. Not really an original plot when you pare it back – beautiful princess in trouble, good versus evil, etc. – but the special effects broke new ground. The next two episodes took us in an enjoyable narrative arc towards a satisfying resolution. When George Lucas came back to milk the sacred (cash) cow for the last (or first, depending on your point of view) three episodes, there was a lot of disquiet. He did alienate fans, despite the improvements in special effects. There are any number of reasons, but very poor scripts had to be a big part of it (as well as pandering to ‘the kids’ with the dreadful Jar-Jar Binks).
By contrast, Doctor Who has expanded the franchise – old and new fans love him more than ever. So why the anti-Moffat sentiment?
Moffat’s a contemporary scriptwriter. He cut his teeth on BAFTA-winning Press Gang, then moved into comedy, with the excellent Coupling deserving a mention. He’s a writer who writes in the modern style – difficult relationship issues, larger story arcs; things that are a little bit soapy in nature. Pretty much all TV drama has moved this way in the last few decades – even police and crime dramas. Where you once had a fairly cardboard detective like Dixon of Dock Green or Columbo, who is a foil for the plot, you have more complex characters such as Inspector Morse. Our tastes have matured, and our expectations are higher. So it is that Moffat has brought contemporary writing to what was a solid sci-fi plot. Clara, struggles with the jealousy of her boyfriend over her relationship with the Doctor. The Doctor himself is now given to existential angst.
Just add soap
My guess is that it’s this saponification that has the older fans a little riled, because the focus isn’t just on sci-fi – it’s on human relationships. But there’s the interesting thing: whilst Star Wars alienated some of the older fans, Whovians still love the Doctor. My guess would be because the hero has remained constant: a lone eccentric in a universe of change.
(At this point I should also credit Star Trek for having come quite close to breaking the mould earlier. Plato’s Stepchildren [1968 - season 3, episode 10] saw the first white and black interracial kiss on US television, which was between Kirk and Uhura. This was only episodic soap: no further relationship development took place that I’m aware of.)
So the changes that took place in drama in the last 3-4 decades were twofold. Sci-fi went mainstream, and Star Wars became just another franchise which left its original audience behind – they’d grown into Terminator fans, for example, as the genre had morphed and divided into sub-genres. Meantime, scriptwriting had moved on – stories weren’t just about the plot, but the characters drove it too. The unstoppable force of sci-fi met the immovable object of human drama. The force stopped, and the object moved – sci-fi became a mainstream genre as it loaded up with credible characters.