GeekPlanetOnline’s resident telly addict, Gillian Coyle, likes to write about the box almost as much as she likes to watch it. From soap operas to space operas, if you need some thoughts on a television show she’s your woman…
If you've read any of my previous columns, you'll know that when it comes to telly, I have pretty catholic tastes. Still, I often find myself justifying my love for various non-genre shows in terms of their genre credentials, even to myself. It's odd, because I don't feel I have to justify my taste in films or novels in this way.
I don't think that I'm alone in this. I've had countless conversations with people who've asserted that 24 is sci-fi by calculating how far into the future each season is set (by Day 8 in 2010, it was technically set in at least 2014), despite the producers saying that they deliberately avoid dates so that the series is set in a “perpetual now”. People also use the James Bond Defence, i.e. Bond is sci-fi therefore 24 is. Personally, I don't accept that most Bond films are sci-fi, so you won't convince me with that approach.
Michael C Hall seems to attract a lot of this. Was Six Feet Under fantasy? Well, I can see the case, but no, if we're being honest, it wasn't. The same goes for Dexter. Yes, I guess technically serial killer equals horror, but come on, it's straight drama. Excellent, constantly outdoing itself straight drama, but nonetheless straight.
Claiming The Big Bang Theory as genre is just mental. It's clearly for us, non-geeks wouldn't get a fifth of the references, but it's not in any way, shape or form sci-fi.
Maybe it's just that these shows are so damn good that we want to claim them as ours.
But it's not just shows like these, for which one can make a “from a certain point of view” case, that I find myself trying to squeeze into the genre-shaped box (it's probably a tesseract, or bigger on the inside). Oh no. I'll get far more tenuous than that.
I'm a pretty big fan of Desperate Housewives. Now, not only is it narrated by a ghost, but it stars Lois Lane! Add to that its long, long list of genre-staple guest stars (Nathan Fillion, Gary Cole and John Barrowman to name three), and I can kid myself that it's okay to watch it, 'cos it's sort-of sci-fi. It's a homely step-cousin of sci-fi.
I do give myself a little internal hug when I manage to pull off this kind of intellectual prestidigitation. Ugly Betty? Christopher Gorham! Glee? Jayma Mays! Boston Legal? Everyone who was in Star Trek ever, and James Spader!
The other half has recently managed to convert me to the ways of CSI. I think there's a pretty good case for claiming that as sci-fi. Seriously, the NYPD does not have a holodeck. Not in this reality anyway.
Oh and Neighbours, obviously. I know I drop mentions of Neighbours into almost every column, but my reasons for squishing it into the genre box are many and varied and would probably bore you all to death. Just think yourselves lucky that I haven't devoted an entire article to it. Yet.
So, is this intellectual trickery snobbery, or inverted snobbery even? Perhaps. It's possible that it's a geek pride response to the intellectual snobbery that leads writers, directors and TV producers to desperately claim that their latest product “isn't really sci-fi”. I can just about forgive Margaret Atwood and her “speculative fiction” nonsense, because she's written a disproportionately large number of my all-time favourite novels, sci-fi or otherwise.
I'm less willing to forgive the “You should watch Battlestar Galactica: it isn't really sci-fi” crowd. You should watch Battlestar Galactica. Because it's brilliant. If you won't watch it because it's sci-fi, then I have as much respect for your opinions as I have for people who won't watch black and white or non-English language films on principle. Guess how much that is. Besides, what's the point of trying to convince someone to watch something on the basis that it's “not really sci-fi” when within the first 20 minutes of watching it, there are spaceships, robots and lasses with glowing spines on another planet?
I've heard so many non-geek friends pull this kind of crap about so many beloved shows and films and novels over the years. When they hear I'm a geek, they'll pull that face we all know so well and ask if I'm into all that “Star Wars Trek stuff.” But they love Lost. Or Heroes. They loved Superman and Batman when they were kids. Or they rave about 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale. Ahhhh, but you see, Lost and Heroes aren't really sci-fi “because they're about human relationships really”; those films are “the kind of films you love when you're a kid”; and those great science fiction novels aren't really science fiction “because they're about society and politics really.”
I've given up trying to convince people that actually, they like quite a lot of science fiction.
All this, in a timely fashion, brings me to Outcasts. For our non-UK readers, it's a sci-fi show that's just started on the BBC. But predictably, according to press releases and interviews with cast and crew, it's not really sci-fi. It's set in the future, after Earth has been devastated, on another planet, and there are clones and stuff. But it's really about human relationships and society and politics.
At its best, science fiction and fantasy are always about human relationships and society and politics. These genres are, for my money, the best way to examine who we are, who we could be, who we have been. It's often the perfect way to examine ideas that are too big for our everyday, mundane reality.
Maybe, when people run and hide from the label of sci-fi or fantasy, they're not running from accusations of being for kids, or being cheap and pulpy; they're running from accusations of being too smart. Well, it would be nice to think so.