If you look around, you’ll see that science fiction seems to be very popular, especially in movies (The Matrix, Star Wars) and TV (Heroes, LOST), but you may have noticed that science fiction still doesn’t seem to get the respect from the teeming masses that it’s popularity would seem to indicate it deserves. This time we asked science fiction bloggers and authors the following question:
Despite science fiction’s popularity, and success, on film and TV, why does it still have the stigma of being a ‘geek’ genre?
Jay Garmon is the author of Geekend
hosted at Tech Republic. Jay is quite knowledgeable when it comes to science fiction and geek trivia.
I’m going to answer this in a roundabout way. As a sci-fi consumer, I’m betting you have one of those friends who doesn’t “do” sci-fi despite being an avid reader, movie buff, of TV watcher. Every time you recommend a sci-fi show or flick to this person, they respond with a typical line: “I just can’t get into it.” In my experience, what this phrase really means is “I can’t identify with the characters.” The average-joe schlub in the sitcom, everyone can see themselves as. He doctors and lawyers and police detectives that catch bad guys—everyone wants to see themselves as. The polymath engineer-cum-diplomat starship captain? Not so much. This is the central divide between geek genre and mainstream genre.
By virtue of its setting, science fiction and fantasy have a certain distance from conventional experience. For some folks, that’s the draw. For others, it’s a put-off. Geeks, to lean on a stereotype, have no trouble envisioning themselves in these foreign settings. (Heck, most of us are willing to literally dress up in costume to emulate them.) Sadly, this puts us in the minority. Geek shows only become mainstream when they design themselves to be accessible to the regular viewer, not the geek viewer.
“Chuck”—about an average-joe schlub who gets thrust into a wacky action-movie goofy CIA underworld, played mostly for laughs. The protagonist is designed to appeal to the average guy, even if he does trend a little geeky. The cast makes this show rise above its McG origins.
“Heroes”—despite a subpar second season (I wasn’t wild about the first, either), is about ordinary people who wake up one day with superpowers and extraordinary destinies. Dash in some maudlin soap opera tropes, and you’ve got a network darling.
“Lost”—a bunch of average folks thrust into a bizarre, byzantine, mysterious situation that is only barely revealing itself each episode. Also, the island castaway setting let them sneak the show past you, getting a larger audience hooked before they realized this was a geek show. Admit it, you thought this was a dramatic version of “Survivor” or at least Tom Hanks’s “Castaway—The Series” before you ever heard of the Dharma Project. But by then, it was too late.
The new “Battlestar Galactica” fails this test. Despite having what I would argue are some of the most human and humanly complex characters on television, BSG presents a setting that is just too outside the norm for regular folks to buy in. By any aesthetic measure, BSG is the better show than any of the three listed above, but that trio will kick BSG’s ratings butt from here to eternity, largely on the strength of accessibility. (Being on major networks helps, but BSG is owned by NBC, and it could have had mainstream positioning a long time ago if there was any hope of it justifying a network timeslot.)
Wildly successful sci-fi movies, by contrast, don’t have to play by these rules, for two reasons. One: They can get by on spectacle, with folks coming in just for the eye candy and explosions. Two: They are a one-off commitment, so they have a certain measure of accessibility built in, and where that fails, the movie-goer is a bit more forgiving. And anyone who does make a long-term connection with the characters is almost instantly branded a geek—hello, Star Wars fans who wear costumes in line for the next movie.
Take a look at the all-time (inflation adjusted) box office gross Top 30 list, and pick out the sci-fi members: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm
#2 Star Wars – Spectacle, the original Memorial Day tentpole move
#4 E.T. – Average kid meets cute alien, everyone identifies with Elliott
#12 Empire Strikes Back – Spectacle, the sequel
#14 Return of the Jedi – Spectacle part three
#16 Raiders of the Lost Ark – Spectacle with classic movie feel, plus everyone hates Nazis who steal religious artifacts
#17 Jurassic Park – Average kids get chased by dinosaurs while scientists save them. We rooted for the dinos.
#19 The Phantom Menace – Raping the corpse of spectacle for a new generation
#30 Ghostbusters – Screwball comedy with sci-fi elements, likeable schlub Bill Murray as main lead
As geeks become more and more identified as “the average guy,” this stigma will fade a bit, but never completely. While “the computer guy” is now seen as an average fellow by most people, simply incorporating computers no longer qualifies a work as science fiction. As sci-fi continues to push the edge of the plausible, those who enjoy these outlandish settings and ideas will always be viewed as outlandish and unusual themselves. It’s the price of admission. One, incidentally, I’m more than willing to pay.
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