Serenity: Possibly The Most Perfect Science Fiction Movie Ever

Okay, so maybe I’m a little bit biased…but then again perhaps not.

What makes a great science fiction movie after all? Well, in no particular order I’d say; fully developed characters who use clever and engaging dialog, a good balance between emotional elements such as tragedy and comedy, a well thought out plot based on a scientific possibility, a well constructed and believable universe, and lastly general movie stuff like great acting-directing-special effects-ect. (like I said, no particular order).

Shall I start this discussion with an example of a terrible science fiction movie? Sure why not kick up some controversy. I strongly dislike 2001: A Space Odyssey! In fact, it sucks.

To be frank, Stanley Kubrick’s “sci-fi classic” simply lacks too much of the above criteria. Engaging characters? Nope, astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole are as cardboard as they get and their dialog is as flat as the surface of an ice cube in October. In 2001, there is no balance in emotional elements because there are no emotions. Aside from Hal’s deactivation, the audience feels little to nothing as sterile event after sterile event unfolds upon the screen. Does the movie at least have a fascinating plot? Nope again, perhaps we are as curious as the astronauts about the nature of that big black board thing, but we never get a satisfying answer and neither do they. The universe is also shallow where it’s developed at all and by this point, in this yawn-fest of a film, it’s too late for outstanding visual effects to save it.

There you go, internet, you may now hate on me in the comments to your heart’s content.

So why is 2001: A Space Odyssey considered by many to be the greatest science fiction movie of all time? My theory is because it beat the pants off of much of what came before. In the late 1960s, Americans were crazy for our space program and 2001 took us up into orbit with the astronauts for the very first time in film. Achievement though that was, however, the movie itself hasn’t aged well. And for writers and directors looking to make a good science fiction story, it’s a poor example to follow.

So why do I think Joss Whedon’s Serenity is such hot stuff? After all, it’s not nearly as famous as 2001: A Space Odyssey and is often found in discount DVD bin these days.

I’m glad you asked. First off, If you are familiar with the TV show Firefly, I’d like you to forget about it. True, the show was extremely cool, however, part of what makes Serenity so great is that you don’t need to know anything about Firefly to enjoy the movie that was inspired by it.

The film starts out with a brief “history lesson” scene that introduces the universe, which evolves into  backstory scene as Simon Tam rescues his sister River from a government laboratory, which flows into an exposition scene where we meet the villain, which concludes with a scene on the space ship where the captain talks to (and introduces to the audience) each crewmember in turn which includes Simon and River Tam. Honestly, I think the beginning of the movie is pure genius as the audience is engaged from square one and by the time your butt has gotten really comfy in the theater’s seat, you know everything you need to understand the story unfolding and the universe it’s set in.

The actors are all well versed in their characters (having played the parts already on TV) and are given top notch dialog to banter with one another. The comedy is never silly or distracting but is always there to counterbalance the heavy elements of the story giving the audience a roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs. This helps, as the plot is quite heavy by itself; dealing with concepts of freedom vs. science run amok in a misguided endeavor to make people “better.” I especially like how the bad guys are not entirely bad guys. The chief antagonist is not a mustache-twirling villain or a knight of the dark side but a human man who sincerely believes that what he does is for the best of mankind in the long run.

Finally, the special effects, photography and directing are all very well done. Of course, we now live in the 21st century and are used to special effects that would have blown an audience out of its seats back in the 1960s. Therefore, a one to one comparison of filmmaking between Serenity and 2001 in that sense is not reasonable and I concede that.

If you have not seen Serenity, I, of course, recommend it. I think you will see that as a film, it is exactly the kind of work that inspires good storytelling while entertaining scientific concepts of social engineering. It shows us what is possible in modern science fiction and serves as inspiration for any aspiring SF enthusiast.

By Clayton J. Callahan



Space: 1999, A Missed Opportunity

Space 1999

Have you ever found yourself hating something not because it was so bad but because you know full well it could have been so good? Well, that’s me and the 1970’s TV show Space: 1999.

First off let me set the stage. The show first aired in 1975, Star Trek re-runs were still a thing on daytime TV but there was really nothing else on the boob-tube science fiction wise. On the big screen, the Planet of The Apes movies were still going strong with their tragic endings and hamfisted social commentary. It would be a full two years before Star Wars reset the calibrations on science fiction in a big way and NOBODY saw that coming. So, science fiction fans frankly didn’t have much meat to chew on outside the printed page in those days and there was an obvious vacuum to be filled.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were a husband and wife producing team who already had some science fiction credits under their belts such as The Thunderbirds and another show called UFO. Together, they dreamed up Space:1999 and, frankly, they were off to a decent start. That is, before everything went to hell storywise

In charity, I’ll start with what was good about the show.

The sets and special effects were top-drawer for the time. In fact, the shows whole production design concept was very smoothly executed. Moon Base Alpha, where the show was set, had a style that was influenced by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey but sill had its own signature look. The costumes, special effects, props and sets all formed a believable and holistic universe that worked well for the show.

Gerry and Sylvia also hired some great actors. The commander of Moon Base Alpha was played by Martin Landau, and its doctor by Barbra Bain. Both were veteran TV actors who did some fantastic work on the original Mission: Impossible show. In fact, most of the cast was rather good because, outside of Hollywood, the Andersons drew from Great Britain’s theater community for talent.

So, great production design and a great cast, what went wrong, you may ask.

Flat out, the writing sucked! The one element that killed the show was the one that cost the producers the least amount of cash, the writers. True, the writing staff was hampered by the ridiculous premise. As dictated by the Andersons–in 1999 the moon is blasted away from Earth in a nuclear accident and sent plummeting through space.

I will grant it is hard to write a consistent narrative for such an oddball and unlikely plot. However, the writing staff seldom really gave it much of an effort anyway. Instead of trying to construct a smooth and interesting narrative, the lazy bums simply lifted plots from old Star Trek shows or even older movies like Lost Horizon. Episodes didn’t connect with one another unless a new character was introduced. And the crew of Moon Base Alpha never changed as a result of any given ordeal (although some actors did up and quit, their departure never explained).

The shame is, if the producers had just consented to leaving the moon in orbit and hired a few decent writers, I can almost taste the great show this could have been.

I can imagine Moon Base Alpha as an international colony, built with American and Soviet resources. The crew could have been a mixed bag of Warsaw Pact and NATO people who are trying to get along and do some real science in the shadow of the Cold War (Yes, in 1975 we thought that thing would last forever). Perhaps the writers could persuade the producers to allow aliens to have contacted mankind in this future. However, the aliens are only granted an embassy on the moon due to Earth’s “quarantine restrictions.” Add to that, civilian corporations could have been mining the moon for resources, and who knows what they might find in those dark tunnels? Not a monolith, of course, but perhaps something equally compelling.

As a science fiction author, my mind keeps jumping at the story possibilities that such a production design and cast  could have brought to life on the small screen…but it was all wasted.

The moment is past. It is no longer 1975 and a Cold War on the moon would not work with modern audiences. Also, the alien embassy thing was done superbly by the show Babylon 5, and there is no need to rehash that. To be sure, I expect many fans of Space: 1999 will sharply disagree with my assessment, and yes, there is a small and dedicated group of fans of this show. But when we think of the legions of fans that are dedicated to Star Trek and Star Wars a sense is gleaned of how large a fanbase Space: 1999 might have had if the show had just been better written.

As it was, the show floundered for two seasons and then winked out into the night. The star that could have burned brightly through the ages has collapsed into a black hole, and what a damn shame that is for science fiction.