The Sci-Fi Shows We Don’t See

It’s MacGyver in space! Watch him make a bomb out of a battery and some space whale mucus.

I’ve recently started watching Stargate SG1, and I’m getting annoyed. It seems like the writers have skipped the best part.

At the start of the series, exploring other planets isn’t yet a thing. Having found portals to other worlds, the US military faced an alien species that could conquer the world, and so retreated to safety. Kurt Russell has magically turned into MacGyver. Nothing much has happened since.

The first episode is spent re-establishing the need to use the stargates. The second shows the first time something bad comes back through. The military are just starting to turn stargate exploration into a thing, and then suddenly, from episode three onwards, everything’s in place. There are stargate teams 1 through 364. Some of them have been on other planets for months. The characters crack jokes about the time they visited the planet of hats. The Star Trek style planet of the week antics have begun.

You know what I want to see? I want to see the bit that’s missing after episode 2. I want to see the challenges of those first tentative steps, as the Stargate teams try to work out whether exploration is even a good idea. They should face the challenges of doing dangerous work as a new governmental organisation – under-supplied, with endless disputes about their purpose and hierarchy, no-one even knowing yet how best to train the teams for this completely unprecedented job that they’re doing. We should see them adjusting to the lifestyle, to the secrets, to the dangers and uncertainties. The conflicting interests of the military and the scientists should be a huge thing, their support from government erratic, even as they risk their lives every day exploring the universe. Maybe there’d be disputes over whether this should even be a government venture, as private companies try to stick their oar in.

But no. By episode three everyone’s acting like seasoned pros, the scientist is shooting his gun straight, and the base commander has a direct line to the president. Half the challenges of their situation are gone.

I’m not saying that I want to watch Stargate: Months of Bureaucracy, but I wish they’d taken the opportunity to explore those complications, even as they took their weekly trip to the planet of hats.

The shows we imagine are often better than the reality. Remember when Star Trek: The Next Generation ran a plotline about terrorists/freedom fighters living in a disputed border region? Those guys would have made a fascinating show, full of moral complexities, shifting loyalties, and characters struggling to enact their ideals. Instead we got Voyager, and disappointment.

Maybe I’ll just have to write those stories for myself. Or imagine them as I fall asleep at night, like I did when I was a kid. But maybe one day, if I try really hard, you’ll all get to watch MacGyver: Space Terrorist.

Anybody else have ideas for the best things we should have seen in sci-fi shows but didn’t? Tell me your awesome ideas in the comments.

The Martian by Andy Weir

For decades we’ve dreamed of Mars. Even before the first human set foot on the Moon, there were people looking to the next step, to landing on another planet. The possibilities of that distant red rock seemed extraordinary.

The Martian is a story about that dream turning into a nightmare. Mark Watney, an astronaut on the third manned mission to Mars, finds himself stranded and alone. How can he survive in this bleak environment? Will he ever get back to Earth?

It’s a book perfectly pitched to grab readers’ attention, with its sci-fi take on Robinson Crusoe. Even the cover is an attention grabber. Only released this spring, it’s already creating a big buzz of conversation among sci-fi fans. So what’s with this book?

There's another cover out there, but I picked the pretty one
There’s another cover out there, but I picked the pretty one


All about the science

The Martian is a story firmly grounded in scientific know-how and the challenge of engineering. Weir has clearly done vast amounts of research, which he uses to create both plausible challenges and unexpected solutions. The joy of the book lies in seeing what problem will strike Watney next and how he will overcome it. How do you communicate using only a camera? How do you make water on a lifeless world? How do you grow potatoes in dead dirt? As Consumed by Ink’s review said, this stuff is mind-boggling in the best possible way, and makes for a fun story.

Critically, the explanation isn’t over-done. I never felt like I was being assaulted by long streams of show-off explanation. Having so much told by Watney helps, as what we see of his character is very likeable and this stops the explanations becoming dry.

A dead planet

I liked Watney because I got to spend so much time with him. But by the end of the book I realised that I still didn’t know much about him, and hadn’t had a strong impression of his feelings going through this terrifying ordeal.

That’s the weakness of this book – a lack of emotions. Watney is a survivor, which makes sense given his training. But he seldom springs to life in the reader’s mind. There’s no emotional journey here, just a physical one. We occasionally see glimpses of his isolation bothering Watney, but not in any depth. We know almost nothing of his life back home.

This approach adds to the abruptness of the ending, as picked up on by Twitterwoods. Because the story is entirely concerned with Watney’s physical survival, once we get to the point of escape or die there’s nowhere else to go. We aren’t faced with doubt about how he’ll cope with the terrible strain of this final section. We don’t get to feel the emotional impact on any of the characters. It just ends.

A different balance

Normally, that lack of emotion would be a problem, but not here. We spend so much time alone with Watney that we end up caring about him despite how little he reveals of himself. And the fascination of seeing how events play out makes for a compelling read.

The Martian is an unusual book. It strikes a perfect balance, focused enough on its details to maintain tension amidst a heap of technicalities, just getting away with the minimum of character depth.

There is an emotional engagement here for the reader, and it lies in the excitement and curiosity of Watney’s survival story. If you have any taste at all for hard science fiction, if you’re the sort of person who moans at the bad science in Star Trek, if you’re just looking for an unusual read, this one’s worth your time.

And what did I learn as a writer? That expanding on the right little details can be fascinating. Seriously, the minutiae of Watney’s story makes for a way more compelling experience than you’d expect. And I’ll never look at a potato the same way again.

Anybody else read this one yet? What did you think?