SATURDAY REVIEW. From Star Trek to Westworld: the evolution of sci-fi series (as I know it)

Since the Star Trek convention at the NEC Birmingham, last month, I meant to write about the evolution of sci-fi series as I have experienced it. I became as a fan of Next Generation right after the fall of communism in Romania, in 1989. And in recent years I caught up with most of the other big titles.

While life circumstances kept away from my love of watching sci-fi series for a long time, I was lucky enough for my partner to own the box sets of Battlestar GalacticaBabylon 5 and Firefly. Recently, as a friend recommended, we started to watch Legion. And one thought grew roots recently. In my view,  story telling evolved and improved from one big series to another.

Firefly scifi series

One of the most regretted sci-fi series the producers never got,
but fans carried on loving, Firefly turned into the later Serenity movie. 

I cannot entirely remember why I never watched the whole of Star Trek – Next Generation. Maybe I just preferred, at some point, to spend time with my friends as a teenager. Or it might be that the Romanian tv channel did not broadcast it to the end. For whichever reason, in my head it stays today as the Jules Vernes type of story telling. And I never managed to get into his books, except couple of novels.

Still, my love of sci-fi began with the books I read as an older child. Back then, I read so much that the City Library in Timisoara, Romania, rewarded me the diploma for the most avid reader in my age group. And I used to devour novels and short stories by Russian sci-fi writers. Remember Laika?

My sci-fi series journey: from Stargate to Legion

After a long dry-spell of watching sci-fi series, I discovered Stargate SG-1. Then, as I said, over the last couple of years I watched more titles than ever before. Also, I progressed with my readings: I declare myself a fan of Iain M. Bank’s Culture world.

Now, before going back to the evolution of the sci-fi series genre, as I have experience it, a warning is due. With this, I initiate my own collection of review-type writings about box sets. And they will contain spoilers. I’m writing for people who have already watched them too.

Obviously, as one shouldn’t write/talk about what they haven’t watched, this is my list of big titles:

  • Stargate SG-1
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Babylon 5
  • Westworld
  • Legion 

Of the last two, I only went through the season 1 of each so far. But it feels enough, at the moment, to talk about the story telling choice and what they bring on the plate.

It’s all in the character: archetypes versus people

Despite the fast adventurous rhythm of most episodes, my second passion, Stargate SG-1, focused more on ideas and concepts. Possibly the best side of it all, the story explored such concepts through adrenaline spikes and action loaded scenes. However, the characters change very little, save for the scientist who develops some testosterone-based features.

The first and probably easiest point to note and make about the sci-fi series evolution regards character build & development. Dr. Baltar Battlestar Galactica

In Star Trek, SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica, the characters pretty much stay the same throughout the story . The team of four in Stargate push the exploration and discovery of the Universe, but they don’t change themselves with the experience. Only the geeky Dr. Daniel Jackson, having died and come back, gains more courage and stamina. But the glimpses of emotions escaping Colonel O’Neil’s bunker of concrete don’t mark a change. Those feelings have always been there, he just doesn’t express them.

Often, my partner and I joke that Battlestar Galactica is actually the story of Dr. Baltar (photo right). Truly, the mad scientist, with his constant need for confirmation and his acute sense of survival, reaches the end of the journey a different man. All the others around, cylons or humans, embody archetypes – the Mother and Father (two sets of these), the eternal doubters (two as well), the dedicated lovers (two again).

If we look at Babylon 5 and Westworld, all the characters grow or suffer alterations. And here we’re not talking about depths exposed by the context. Neither Jakart, no Molari ever thought of the wisdom and understanding of each other they’d gain, in spite of their early fiery and arrogant selves.

When things are not exactly what they seem

For what I remember, New Generation used a mostly linear story line, with the occasional shift and turn. The same goes for Stargate SG-1. They featured a main background story and a few other, equally important, providing the context and the concepts (the Goa’uld, the Asgard, the Replicators, the Ancients, the Ori). Besides the tension providing twists, the story just moves from A to B.

Also, same goes for Battlestar. Here, however, the writers introduced the extra parallel episodes, like pockets in the main line. And all of us, fans, would remember the big surprise of cylons occupying major roles in the humans’ forces. I have to admit how much I enjoyed that turn of events. It placed the whole origin and meaning of events in the biblical resonance of all of this has happened before and will happen again. 

Did you predict that will happen? Westworld & Legion

Westworld scifi

With a breathtaking run of events in Westworld, the story and the characters
 develop depths we did not expect to start with.

Now we get to the most recent titles in my sci-fi thread: Westworld and Legion.

If you watched the first, most probably you never knew, just like us, who was the villain. Out of the two most successful candidates, one seemed just an old man carrying for his legacy rather than a psychopath, and the other, somebody on a mission rather than a sadistic bastard. Through the episodes, the facts and behaviours tended to point towards either of them as the villain. By the feeling they triggered in us, as viewers, spoke otherwise.
Is that clever as hell or what?
Then we see the villain in the character of the victim. And we cannot even blame her for killing everybody around.

Of course, when we realise that Dolores’ journey happened a long, long time ago, everything changes on its tracks.

When we talk about Legion, we cannot ignore the David Lynch legacy. Whatever happens next, the Gothic-surrealist nightmare rhythm and style of the first episodes, and the whole first series, will stand as an exceptionally well written and imaged story. The mixture of ambiguity, intuitive elements, rewinding and fast-forwarding, small and big moments, composes a movie symphony. And the music contributes a big deal to it.

With this, I declare my series on big sci-fi titles open. Would love your feedback and opinions in return, whether you agree or not with my interpretations.

6 comments

  1. Mary - Reply

    I haven’t seen the other series, but am a big TNG fan. You need to bear in mind the era in which the series was created. A lot of the episodes are based in the politics of the time. This was the time of Glasnost, and the beginnings of the fall of communism. We were all hoping for a brave new world of peace and nuclear disarmament, where diplomacy would lead the way. Hence Captain Picard being more inclined to talk than shoot first, a reversal of Captain Kirk.

    • CatalinaLGeorge - Reply

      Absolutely, I think the series evolved with the times.
      And it is more than possible that the times pushed writers to a more complex type of storytelling. But then, at the same time, Iain M. Banks was doing the same thing in literature decades ago.

      I watched Next Generation after communism fell in my home country, and a new world opened to us all. Still, we turned out to be the bitterly disappointed generation, in a way.

  2. Mary - Reply

    And I forgot to add: Babylon 5 is retelling of Lord of the Rings in a science fiction universe. I loved it!

    • CatalinaLGeorge - Reply

      Hmmm, interesting, never thought of it this way.
      I fail to see much similarity though, would you like to develop this idea a bit more, please? Sounds intriguing.
      Just one thought: I am still to watch the last season, which I intend to do soon.

  3. John Mills - Reply

    The LIon KIng is a retelling of Hamlet but that has nothing to do with sci fi. I am not a great watcher of anything nowadays but I’ve always been interested in how science fiction can act as a mirror reflecting contemporary issues. Take for instance the first inter-racial kiss in Star Trek and the investigation into the role and place of women in Margret Atwood’s Handmaid’s tale.
    Now I’m in a mess and need a definition of Science Fiction. Is it just a vehicle for allegory in the same way as the secondary worlds that Kafka, Peake, Tolkien. Lewis and the like create?
    An interesting and thought provoking piece.

    • CatalinaLGeorge - Reply

      Thank you, happy this stirred thought.
      Now, Tolkien & Lewis go with the fantasy genre, not necessarily placeable in time, and always including elements of mythology/fairy tales. Sci-fi is placed in a more technology-based background, sometime in the future. It’s the simplest elements by which I can define the two myself.

      Both offer the writer/storyteller the advantage of talking of things without using a historical & political context in regards to which we’d already have our own expectations and clear ideas we might want to hold on to/defend.
      Hope this makes sense.

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