Non-Fiction Book Review

American Science Fiction TV

(2005) Jan Johnson-Smith, Ib Tauris, 12.99, pbk, 308pp, ISBN 1-86064-882-7


Jan Johnson-Smith is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Theory at Bournemouth University Media School and this book seems to be based primarily on her 2001 PhD, along with an article from The Journal of American Culture. It is difficult to discern any real 'point' to this work, not because it is in any way poor, but because she covers so much ground that any overarching point becomes lost. This book starts from the premise that the Western in US TV fell from favour in the 1960's, due to political upheavals which "rendered frontier mythology problematic". I assume what is meant by this is that it was no longer possible to pretend that the white man was a civilised 'good guy' fighting against 'savages', and that even the Americans were starting to accept that their treatment of the native population was little short of genocidal. Yeah, I can see how that would be "problematic"... However, this book does not deal much with the SF TV of the fifties, sixties and seventies (though there is an overview), but concentrates instead on the SF TV available from the mid-eighties onward. Part of the reason for this is in Jan's assertion that the improvements in special effects and cgi technology allowed SF TV to overturn the idea that narrative must be delivered through language and character alone, and bring the TV experience of SF closer to the literary equivalent by bringing what would, in the past, have been background elements to the fore. That is to say that where, in the past, elements of the story, since they could not be convincingly realised through SFX, had to be delivered in character exposition (often making for a 'wordy' script), those elements could now be made more explicit through the use of technology, without recourse to 'off-putting' exposition. She may be correct. She goes on to assert that SF TV series are capable of raising complex questions and issues relating to identity, gender, race, ideology and morality, among other things (something I doubt most SF fans would disagree with), and that SF can, in many ways, subvert standard television formats, thereby affecting the industry itself. For instance, where, in the past, 'episodic' formats were the standard as far as continuing serials went (even where there was on ongoing story, e.g. The Invaders), from the eighties onward it was possible to introduce the 'story arc' and season-to-season continuity (e.g. Babylon 5 and The X-Files). The series she most-features in this book include the various incarnations of Star Trek, Farscape, the much underrated Space, Above and Beyond (like many shows, cancelled after one season, just as it was getting good...), Stargate SG-1, and the aforementioned Babylon 5 (quite possibly the best science fiction TV series we have ever had).

This is a very accessible book and, for a wonder, Johnson-Smith manages to avoid the worst excesses of academic silliness (sometimes, the way these people talk, you can not help but wonder if they have forgotten all about the real people in the audience, and instead are just so far up themselves that they are speaking only to other academics, with some very silly notions. For instance, there was the idea that Star Trek was inherently racist, and one of the examples given was that in the episode "Skin of Evil" the slimy alien that killed Tasha Yar was 'black', while she is 'obviously' white aryan! Give me a break! Jan does not descend to this level of stupidity). Some of her arguments you may well think need to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, but at least they are thought-out arguments, and not just academic drivel.

I thought this was an enjoyable read and, if you are interested in this sort of thing, then you might too. The really good news is that, with a bit of judicious searching around on the internet, you can probably pick this up for as little as 4.99! Now there's a bargain...

Tony Chester

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