A lot of very beautiful entertainment can occur in the genre of fantasy - after all, there are no limits on what stories can be told beyond internal logic. The thing is, its mythic value is very specific: It represents a literary opium dream - an escape into impossible simplicity and the emotional security of predestined outcomes. When imagination is being overwhelmingly directed toward fantasy, it's an act of sheer collective cowardice and/or stupidity: The unwillingness to face a universe where people have the freedom to act, the logic to at least partially understand their actions, and yet limitless horizons in the long-term.
Likewise, there is value to be had in dystopic so-called "science fiction" where the story is all about a world where everything sucks and people are continually brutalized either by an oppressive presence (a totalitarian state) or a destructive absence (post-apocalyptic). But when that's all you offer, there is no real imagination being stoked, and damage is done to the overall purpose of the science fiction genre - namely, to impart the wisdom and beauty science has to offer on to a wider audience. I'm losing my patience with entertainment media whose imaginative offerings are virtually all fantasy and dystopic science fiction.
At some point it just boils down to an insult to the audience, or an expression of malice toward those who do possess intelligence: They either don't think you can handle seeing, or aren't worth the effort to show, worlds based on ideas that don't punish the inquiry by turning it all into some kind of nightmare. Beauty is relegated to fantasy, where the audience must implicitly concede that it cannot exist in the real world via conscious effort, but only in the imagination via irrational passions and magical forces. Reason and free will, meanwhile, are only permitted to conjure horrors or, at best, sleazy underbellies whose innovations are only concerned with serving solipsism.
If something that passes for science fiction today depicts a utopian world of freedom, security, and bounty, the only plotline that the gatekeepers of entertainment will allow to pass into mass-media is one that portrays it as a big lie with some horrific secret beneath it. And it isn't just because it's slightly more challenging to come up with interesting storylines on such a basis - plenty of genius science fiction authors in previous eras managed to do so, writing classic, inspirational works that have stood the test of time. I think it's that we are no longer permitted to believe in a better world built through human ingenuity and common cause, because such worlds would be a lot harder to control than ones where people are conditioned to expect the worst, devalue rational judgment, and associate noble values with children's fairytales rather than demanding them of real-world institutions.
On the one hand, the fantasy genre is more vibrant and beautiful than ever, with high-brow content like Game of Thrones being adapted into blockbuster TV shows while old classics like The Hobbit get new life via film adaptation, and paranormal geek-fest fantasy programs continue to spring eternal from the everlasting inspiration that was Buffy. But what has happened to science fiction? In the increasingly rare instances where it can even be distinguished from fantasy, we are offered not hope, not ideas, not a thorough examination of possibilities, but Monster Mash clown shtick and/or Mad Max redux.
I realize the translational tunnel between literary and mass-media science fiction has never exactly been a superhighway, but now it seems to be completely closed, with armed sentries making sure no one crosses the barrier. Do studio bosses demand proof that a science fiction story is either a soul-killing nightmare or a saccharine Disney cartoon before they'll even consider adapting it? It sure seems that way, because I honestly can't believe that anything could suck as much as what they're putting out these days without a conscious effort being involved.
A decade ago there were a few shows that seemed to be leading the way after Star Trek wound down - Farscape and Firefly chief among them. But despite its cult following, it doesn't seem there's been any follow-up to the Farscape legacy in mass-media, and in one of the most infamous incidents of deicide in entertainment history, Firefly was cancelled in its first season despite consistently putting out genius-level scripts, superb acting, and profoundly interesting plots. It was like the Baby Jesus being eaten by a dingo.
What seemed to move into the vacuum wasn't science fiction at all, but sheer obscurantism - shows like Heroes, Lost, and Fringe, following on the tradition of the X-Files rather anything even distantly related to real possibilities. Byzantine conspiracies, paranoia, dubious characters, comic book freak shows, spooky unexplained occurrences, and fear-ratcheting situations took the place of wonder, philosophy, adventure, and curiosity about the new. Then, of course, they "rebooted" the Star Trek series into a mindless action franchise where Star Fleet - which, if you'll recall, used to have scientific exploration and diplomacy as its primary mission - has become, in the words of the J.J. Abrams script, a "peacekeeping armada." And, of course, people are still listening to the Beastie Boys in the 23rd century on product-placed Nokia mobile devices coincidentally offered in the present time, because that's not at all painfully, embarrassingly ridiculous and corrupt.
I get it already: Democracy is evil, gun-toting know-nothing nutjobs are heroes, scientists are monsters and quacks, curiosity and ingenuity are dangerous, the future is to be feared, and the only solace to be had is in the sweet embrace of our sponsors' various consumer products, which we will now tell you about during the upcoming commercial break. Propaganda received and duly rejected. Can I have some real science fiction now? Please? It's not science fiction if all you're doing is demonizing science, ignoring everything it has to teach, and telling people they should be very, very afraid to wonder or explore. And don't pretend it's educational to swamp audiences with worst-case scenarios followed by ludicrous deus-ex-machina resolutions - show problems that might actually occur, and then show intelligent, courageous people actually solving them in nontrivial, non-obvious ways that make sense in context, that illustrate outside-the-box thinking, and show people how they are not just victims of circumstance if they choose to be more.
Science has never stopped growing, and whole new worlds of understanding on every front have come into being in the decades since "Final Frontier" became a well-known phrase, but only the most cynical and disturbing of all possibilities are shown - mind control, genetic manipulation, etc. The characters are not people who use science to solve problems, but victims of science whose magical Will overpowers the evil impositions of modernity without having to understand it because they're such strong people - the divinely-anointed come to restore the Natural Order. Neo may just be a dimwitted surfer pretending to be a hacker, but he's the Chosen One, so he can just wrinkle his nose and make the whole system come crashing down around him. Can't have networked computers on Galactica because the Cylons will invade them and eradicate humanity. Forward motion is verboten - all you can do is fight a retreating action into blind mysticism and faith, and then your problems will be solved. Fucking sick of it.
In 2004, the film Primer came out - hardcore science fiction that should have been the leading edge of a new wave, but instead still stands like some kind of monolith, alone in the desert that has since unfolded. But hey, we've got vampires, swords-and-sorcery, and troll hunters coming out of our ass, so yippee for the state of imaginative entertainment! Now if only there was some way to translate that bullshit into a better life for real people, like has been done repeatedly with science fiction, then it would be a good thing.