A Sixties Future

Most films don’t draw me in. Usually it’s the characters and the script which are lacking; a good story is often wasted because I just don’t care about the people. But the films I do love, like Casablanca and Chungking Express, have one other element: a sense of time and place.

It’s the same thing that fascinates me in old photographs. I can gaze endlessly in wonder at a picture of streetcars in the muddy Vancouver streets of a century ago. I try to imagine what it was like to live then, and get an echo of that thrill that ran through me the first time I stepped off the plane in Europe and the street signs were all round and the buildings flowed together. It is here, in viewing the past, that science fiction television reigns supreme.

These shows take the world as their time saw it, and project it into a future that is often shockingly alien. The old Star Trek, famous for its then-liberal attitudes, is hilarious today because of its twisted (from today’s perspective) view of sex. In one episode a man is kept alive for hundreds of years by an alien life form. The crew think perhaps it is keeping him as a pet. But when they discover the alien is female, they know there can only be one reason: love.

The Star Trek of the eighties is distant enough to be equally antique. The first few episodes seemed exciting at the time, but rapidly became ho-hum. The writers were determined to ratchet up the tension only to reveal at the end that everything was just a misunderstanding. With open communication, there were no fundamental disagreements in the Star Trek world. Of course that is what makes the series interesting today. The beige carpets, flat lighting, and ship’s counselor present a sanitized hell of political correctness, where television, film, and culture itself have ceased to exist, save for Shakespeare and classical music.

But television is a visual medium. Where set design, costumes, and monsters are concerned, Star Trek must take second place to Doctor Who. Spanning the sixties, seventies, and eighties, Doctor Who experienced changes in era, writing, acting, and directing. Best of all, it benefited from a tiny budget and all the creativity that brings with it. The Doctor’s arch enemies looked like pepper pots. The cybermen had heads like two-handled coffee mugs. No-one was afraid of building an alien city from cigar tubes and warped pieces of plastic. These worlds and monsters may look fake, but where a show with more money could afford to film in a power plant or outdoors on location, in Doctor Who the artists were free to show us how they saw the future.

When I was small, I didn’t even recognize these strange cities of round buildings and transparent spires for what they were. I thought they were machines, or simply confused results of low production values. If I had been alive in the sixties perhaps I would have understood, but the curves of pod chairs and lava lamps were foreign to me. Even when I encountered them they were usually battered relics or faded photos in magazines, a backdrop to strangers in stranger haircuts. Doctor Who bridged this distance. It – and series like it – showed that sixties styles were futuristic in their time. Ironically, science fiction gives us some of the clearest views of the past, and lets us in on the misplaced hope and idealism of a bygone era.

2004-05-10

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