Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part Thirteen – A variety of films and TV shows, from aliens to vampires
By Mark Wegierski
The never-ending James Bond series may be mentioned here. It should be said here, that Sir Ian Fleming's original books (and, indeed, some films from this series) were sometimes rather more anti-Soviet, than is usually considered to be the case. For the most zealous leftist intellectuals, even such a banal series was said to have been “legitimating Cold War attitudes”.
Somewhat more politically correct was the television series, Man from U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law Enforcement), which was somewhat a reference to the idealistic concept of the UN. The struggle was against an international criminal organization with the rather harmless sounding acronym, T.H.R.U.S.H., which was supposed to represent the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.
Television Series of the 1970s
After his incredible success with the original Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry attempted to begin a new series, under the title, Genesis II/Planet Earth. It presented the Earth in a “post-apocalyptic” period, that is, after a nuclear war and other catastrophes. A scientist from the 1990s, “frozen” in a cryogenic capsule, “awakens” in a new, strange world. One of the technological elements in the series was a system of a superfast underground subway. The first episode of the series portrayed a conflict of a utopian liberal society with a city of cruel mutants, who were not grotesque, but even more physically attractive than human beings, who enslaved normal humans with the help of “electronic wands”. The second episode (which would today be seen as highly politically-incorrect), portrayed a society ruled by women – where the hero, played by John Saxon, resolves the problem of female dominance by simply seducing the queen of the tribe.
The television series Six Million Dollar Man, and Bionic Woman, ran for a number of years. The basis for both shows was the reconstruction of a human being after an accident, with various artificial “enhancements”, for example, artificial legs with the ability to run with the speed of a car. Actually, the series belonged to the “action-adventure” genre. Nevertheless, it presents itself today as a rather conservative show – the clean-cut white hero and heroine are in the “special services” of the American government, fighting against various evildoers. Their boss also looked very serious and clean-cut. The show avoided the massive concentration of minorities, which became virtually de rigueur in American television series in the later 1980s, the 1990s, and today. Especially appealing were the episodes portraying the protagonists’ encounter with space aliens, and the “Sasquatch” serving them. The space aliens looked simply like highly attractive human beings.
Another series, which moved generally speaking in the direction of parody, was Wonder Woman. The series was memorable mostly because of the looks of the heroine (Lynda Carter) and her companions from the “Island of Women". Especially effective was the episode where she met an incredibly attractive, male space alien, resembling a Greek god.
This British series is one of the longest running television series in existence. The central figure is the time-travelling Doctor, who is a bit of an eccentric, and is helped by various young, attractive, intelligent women from throughout the milieus that he visits. The rather low-budget special effects in the series are counterbalanced by the clever story-lines and witty dialogue. Dr. Who is usually shown as a skeptic about various mysterious milieu that occur throughout the series. Nevertheless, his cheerfulness, good humour, and devotion to reason make him a positive example of a decent humanist. Interestingly enough, Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant admitted to liking this show very much, and said he watched it frequently.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Demon Seed and Saturn 3 -- parodies emerged from semi-serious movies
These two films raised a similar theme, that is the concept of a machine (a computer or a robot) which wants to have sexual relations with an attractive woman. It was doubtless difficult for the films to avoid becoming parodies.
This film portrayed the world “after the nuclear holocaust”, with a small group of people riding in a radiation-shielded vehicle across the so-called “danger zones”. The special effects were quite interesting, along with Sean Connery playing the role of an American military officer. One wonders if the happy conclusion to the journey does not strain credulity somewhat?
Death Race 2000/Deathsport
These two, rather similar movies, portrayed “gladiatorial” type combat in a dystopic American future. The contest in the first movie depended on the running over of the largest number of pedestrians during a massive race across America. It could be seen as rather sarcastic social commentary.
The Andromeda Strain
This film, set in the contemporaneous world, is considered as one of the best science fiction films in the “scientific thriller” category. What’s interesting is that, using a minimum of special effects and conventional science-fictional tropes, a very fine and suspenseful movie was made.
Polish Speculative Movies and Solaris
One of the most prominent fantasy movies of the Polish cinema was "Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie" (The Saragossa Manuscript) (1965), based on an early nineteenth century fabulation by Count Jan Potocki. This was apparently one of the favorite movies of Jerry Garcia (of the famous rock-group, The Grateful Dead).
A film similar in some ways to the V series was "Wojna Swiatow - Nastepne Stulecie" (The War of the Worlds – The Next Century) (1982), which was probably a refracted commentary on the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981.
The film "Seksmisja" (Sex Mission) (1984) is a light-hearted sci-fi comedy, which spoofs “gender wars”, showing a future society consisting only of women, which is turned upside down when two men from the past, who are thawed from cryogenic deep freeze, show up.
One of the most prominent Polish science fiction authors is Stanislaw Lem. His metaphysical novel, Solaris, was made into a famous, very intellectual movie by the Soviet director Tarkavsky. There was a new movie from the book made by director Steve Soderbergh a few years ago, although most consider Tarkavsky’s version to be the better rendering.
Two Cinematic Superhits from the Late 1970s/Early 1980s
The traditionalist elements in two very popular American science fiction movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T., are rather thin. The first, is a concentration of one of the most powerful myths of the second half of the twentieth century, that is, about U.F.O.s or so-called “flying saucers”. In Close Encounters, this is all treated with enormous seriousness. The hero is “moved” to leave everything, in order to meet with the space aliens at the famous butte in Utah. Although, from a more scientific standpoint, the film is full of inconsistencies, on the level of the inspiring “special effects”, it makes a very strong impression on the viewer.
The film E.T., on the other hand, portrays the so-called “human” or pleasant side of an extraterrestrial. In this movie, the powers of the American government virtually play the role of “monsters” whereas the alien is “human" and pleasant. This very popular film was seen by some as excessively maudlin, and full of scientific inconsistencies.
Among various science fiction role-playing game settings or backgrounds, that of Traveller (spelled with the double “l”) is one of the best rendered. It encompasses a complex “future-history” which charts the future of humanity for thousands of years. It is interesting that the posited collapse of the Third Imperium as a result of a massive nanotechnology “plague” was not too popular among the players of the setting. It probably had too many melodramatic, Grand Guignol aspects to it. In more recent renderings of the Traveller universe, that whole nanotechnology “plague” concept has been abandoned, in favor of adventure and intrigue on a less grandly apocalyptic level. The rejection of the “plague” concept can be seen as speaking to the greater commonsense and “realism” of the typical Traveller players, as Traveller has always made an effort to be a more realistic, science fiction, rather than “sci-fi” setting.
Brainstorm and Dreamescape
These two movies raised the theme of the possibility of entering into the dreams or into the mind of people, through technological means. Dreamescape also portrayed the landscape after a nuclear war (in the nightmares of the President of the United States).
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone
This very poor movie is perhaps a paradigmatic example of “sci-fi” i.e., silly, unserious science fiction. The movies’ main attraction was probably the young Molly Ringwald.
This very light fantasy movie was notable for its rock soundtrack, notably Olivia Newton-John’s Magic, and ELO’s title-song. Xanadu is a reference to one of the best-known English Romantic poems.
Two Teenage Movies of Light Sci-Fi from the 1980s
A major characteristic of the films Back to the Future (with Michael J. Fox) and Peggy Sue Got Married (with Kathleen Turner) was the portrayal of the large degree of “innocence” of the 1950s period. This could indeed cause some reflection, whether in fact, a true improvement in the human condition, had occurred in the last thirty years of American society.
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom; Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade
These are among the most famous of the movies made by director Steven Spielberg. In them, of course, we can once again see the Nazis as the stereotypical “bad guys”. What was somewhat unexpected, however, was that (Fascist-ruled) Italy in The Last Crusade was not presented as a nightmare society.
Films and Television Series for Children
Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtles represented one moment in North American pop-culture for children, which of course has now departed from the scene, now replaced with numerous other, successive phenomena (such as, Power Rangers, and, afterwards, Pokemon). Indeed, pop-culture today often moves through such crazes, which after a year or two are usually forgotten. It could also be argued that these turtles in humanoid form (ironically given the names of great European artists), actually have quite a few traits stereotypically associated with very “cool”, African-American males.
Some interesting television series oriented to children included: Ark II (a group of ecologically-oriented young people travelling in “super-bus” tries to reconstruct civilization after a nuclear holocaust); Captain Power (a small group of human super-fighters struggles against a world dominated by cruel machines); and Superhuman Samurai Cybersquad (mostly a comedy with a high school setting).
What could be considered television series for children also include the attempt to bring to the television screen (in a live action series) Dungeons & Dragons (with the wizard Lazarsa; a beautiful sorceress; and the "snake-men") – and the 1990s series -- Hercules, Xena, Sinbad, and Conan. There was also the film from the 1970s, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
This movie, with Rolling Stones superstar Mick Jagger portraying a bounty-hunter, could be seen as an example of cyberpunk. The main premise is that time travel technology is used to pick up people from the near past, who are known to be on the verge of dying in an accident, in order to provide bodies to house the minds of very wealthy old people of the future.
This film could be characterized as simply, “Mad Max on water.”
Independence Day (1996)
This film was one of big hits of 1996. It portrayed the invasion of current-day Earth by incredibly cruel and technologically advanced aliens, with their huge spaceships. The special effects were amazing. Nevertheless, the film could be criticized in certain aspects. It’s possible that it represents the stubborn American search for the so-called “ideal enemy” which is to unite all Americans into a harmonious society. It could also be noted, that it appears from the movie, that 95% of the resistance to the invasion, is conducted by the Americans.
The three heroes leading the American effort are rather symbolic. This is the WASP President, the African-American pilot, and the Jewish scientist. This trio reflects entirely the current “politically-correct” regime – that is, WASP managers or administrators; Jewish thinkers or intellectuals; and African-American fighters or warriors. It could be noted that for so-called “white ethnics” there is no first-rank place in such an arrangement.
Two Films About “Ghosts”
Two very different, but both very popular movies, about ghosts, are the comedy, Ghostbusters, and the romance, Ghost.
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was a television series of the 1990s. One of the most absurd episodes of this series portrayed the attempt to seize the American government by a highly powerful neo-Nazi organization apparently consisting of millions of people. (The series purported to take place contemporaneously.) One of the least pleasant scenes of this episode was when the stereotypical, unfashionably dressed white geek proves to be a hardcore Nazi, trying to take over the offices of a mass-circulation newspaper at the time of the “putsch”. He is opposed by, among others, a young, “super-cool” white guy, who clearly holds left-liberal views. The episode ends with the call of constant vigilance against “the Nazi threat” – which, it is said, can be lurking anywhere – even among one’s closest friends.
This was one of the more interesting films of the 1990s. It portrayed the finding of a “stargate” by American “special services” underneath the pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, after which American soldiers and one scientist use the gate to travel to planets incredibly remote from Earth.
Films and Television Series with a Vampire Theme
One can notice the incredible popularity of the vampire subgenre. One of the earlier movies about vampires was The Hunger (with Catherine Deneuve as well as David Bowie playing the role of a vampire). Three films from the 1990s were Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (with its motif, "Love Never Dies"), Interview with a Vampire (with Tom Cruise), and The Vampire Lestat. Two rather romantic and mystical series with vampires from the 1990s were Forever Knight and Vampire: The Masquerade. Now, of course, there is the Twilight film series. It could be argued that the current popularity of the vampire figure is probably connected with the problems of maintaining stable concepts of male and female gender roles today.
Two fairly interesting horror movies with somewhat different premises were The Keep (set in the period of the Second World War during the German occupation in Romania) and The Warlock (a film that portrayed a warlock as a serious figure of evil – something which is rather rare in American cinema today).
Somewhat similar to the vampire concept is “The Phantom of the Opera”. Among several other renderings, there was an interesting, but rather horror-oriented movie version of the story (from 1989) available, before, eventually, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical stage production was rendered into film, with its gorgeous music.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.