Spectacles and Seriality: The Entwined Pleasure Potential of Science Fiction Television

Sherryl Vint, University of California, Riverside |

Scholarship on science fiction (sf) has long privileged print as the medium best suited to convey what is conventionally regarded as the genre’s key quality, the effect of cognitive estrangement. A term coined by Darko Suvin in his extremely influential Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, cognitive estrangement describes a kind of literature premised on radical discontinuity with the empirical world that yet remains connected to this world in that the invented world’s features are “not impossible” (viii) in empirical reality. Suvin contended that sf is a powerful tool whose representational strategies enable “dynamic transformation” of the world rather than the “static mirroring” he associates with realist fiction; sf is thus “not only a reflecting of but also on reality” (10).

Although Suvin’s definition excluded much of what was actually labeled sf at the time he published—and has been the topic of much revision and critique in sf scholarship—nonetheless it strikes me as fair to say that many sf readers and critics have taken considerable pleasure from a quality of sf that aligns with Suvin’s vision. The genre excites us and gives us pleasure because it allows us imaginatively to inhabit worlds different from and often better than our quotidian one. It prompts us to envision what we and the world could be like otherwise and, at its best, inspires us to embrace such “dynamic transformation” in worlds beyond the textual as well. This is the power and pleasure of sf that has been celebrated by feminist writers such as Joanna Russ[1] and postcolonial ones such as Nalo Hopkinson.[2] It is the pleasure of reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and immersing oneself in the politics of a world founded on different values; it is the pleasure of puzzling through Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy and realizing how strange and unnatural our ubiquitous focus on gender can seem, if we imagine from the point of view of a species without binary gender.

Yet linking this capacity for sf to intervene critically in the world we take as natural to the specific qualities of print narrative has led to the marginalization of other sites of sf production – film, television, radio, comics, music – at least until recently. Carl Freedman argues, for example, that a true sf cinema is impossible because “special effects are deliberate triumphs of cinematic technology” (307) rather than sf worldview, triumphs that tend to overwhelm rather than critically, cognitively to engage the viewer. I would agree that many of the pleasures of sf cinema emerge affectively, attached to the enjoyment of spectacle rather than to narrative. In this, sf cinema has a close relationship to Tom Gunning’s theory of early cinema as “the cinema of attraction,” a method that sees the medium  “less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power” (230).

This illusory power can also challenge and compel us to see the world otherwise, can provoke a reflecting on reality itself. Spectacle can move us as powerfully as can cognitive estrangement, as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) demonstrated, particularly given its enthusiastic embrace by some NGOs and indigenous activists as symbol of their causes. Although the film is problematic in a number of ways, it does seem to have been inspired a sincere affective transformation toward greater concern for the environment in many of its viewers. Critiques focus on the colonialist fantasy of the white hero in its narrative,[3] and do not charge that it sacrifices content for spectacle. The spectacular new 3D effects Avatar pioneered changed the pleasures of sf cinema, enabling one to feel surrounded by the action and immersed in a world radically discontinuous with empirical reality. This was key to my own pleasure in watching the opening sequence of Guillermo de Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) – in Imax, in 3D – in which I fully felt as well as understood the scale of the Jaeger technology on display, and had a brief moment of wonder, feeling “this is like watching a film in the future, not just one about the future.”

This was a feeling of being overwhelmed by the spectacle, to be sure. Yet rather than see this as a failure of sf in the film, I see it as part of another pleasure long celebrated in the sf community, the sense-of-wonder the genre inspires. This sensibility is a popular culture sublime, that effect produced by contemplating something (a work of art, the powers of nature, technological marvels) whose scale and capacity engender mixed feeling of awe and terror. The sublime is a dialectic experience, oscillating between our cognitive struggle to grasp what we seei ntellectually and our affective sensibility of being overwhelmed by something indescribably vaster than ourselves. Articulated through the special effects of cinema, this sense of awe might be doomed inevitably to fade, as once-stunning special effects begin to seem commonplace and then even a bit clunky, just as avant-garde aesthetics of shock inevitably lose their cutting edge, as Peter Burger has theorized. I can as vividly recall being enthralled by the fight scenes in The Matrix (Wachowskis 1999) when I first saw it, being equally impressed by the vision of the morphing cityscape in Dark City (Proyas 1998) – both of which now seem well executed by hardly overwhelming.

I do not think, however, that these anecdotes lead toward the conclusion that the pleasures of sf spectacle are ephemeral and un- or a-critical, whereas those of sf narrative are substantial and enduring. Rather, I contend that the pleasures of sf are and have always been this dialectic between cognitive estrangement and sense-of-wonder, between intellectual and emotional response, between elements of narrative and those of spectacle.

What’s more, now is a very exciting time for the genre, in which creators can produce visions of worlds radically discontinuous from our own that fully attain all that these entwined pleasures of sf have to offer in the environment of transmedia storytelling. Film, print, television, comics and games no longer stand alone as isolated media, but instead share characters and worlds and capacities across them. Instead of settling for creating one’s world only in a single medium and hence favouring that mode’s privileged techniques, sf practitioners can envision worlds that compel affectively and cognitively, through spectacle and through narratives of estrangement. There is a considerable risk, of course, that all this is only so much viral marketing sold to us as ancillary entertainment, so much dully of the genre’s critical edge by its commodity form. Yet I see potential as well as pitfall in this media landscape. Successful transmedia narratives are not mere adaptations from book to film and the like, nor are they mere promotional products: they can be more, storytelling across a variety of media, each illuminating a specific aspect or experience of the narrative world. Although still emerging as practice, transmedia storytelling has the potential to transform our relationship to sf and its pleasures.

In conclusion, I want to argue that sf television, in particular, is positioned to become one of the genre’s most important sites in this nexus, if it takes advantage of the opportunities created by the collision of transmedia storytelling and the context of TV III, that is, television in the age of choice, niche networks, streaming platforms, and viewing across a variety of devices no longer tied to location at home or network schedules. Television produced under such conditions rewards the close scrutiny of fan viewing practices, filled as it is with information that can be decoded only by such attentive viewing practices, such as the glyph symbols used before commercial breaks in Fringe (2008-2013). Jason Mittell argues that television has developed a new narrative mode beyond the episodic or serial structures that once defined the medium, a mode of narrative complexity. One aspects of this mode, “the narrative special effect,” makes the storytelling itself, as much as content, a source of pleasure and wonder. Using devices such as flashforwards, retrofitting back stories as new characters are introduced, or temporal leaps that violate the conventions of episodic television (moving the story forward by years or more between episodes or even between shots), such television creates narratology as spectacle, pushing “the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; often these instances forego strict realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis” (Mittell).

In television, sf might combine two of its most central pleasures: the sense of wonder produced by effects, in this case narrative as much as visual, and the immersion in another world that affords us a critically estranged perspective on this one. Glen Creeber holds that the long-form narrative of serialized television, which combines the episodic, open-ended structure of traditional television narrative with the seriality of ongoing story arcs, is “arguably better able to reflect and respond to the increasing uncertainties and social ambiguities of the contemporary world” (7). Serial television, he argues, “may actually better reflect, engage with and respond to the subtle nuances, political preoccupations and social realities of the contemporary age” (15) than the privileged visual medium of film. We do not yet have sf television equivalent to the most accomplished series, an sf The Wire (2002-2008) or Breaking Bad (2008-2013), but the genre has been making significant strides in this direction. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) convinced many that it was quality television despite the fact that it was sf. What we now need is a series that is quality, complex tv because it is science fiction: because it entwines the sf pleasures of cognitive estrangement and sense-of-wonder. Contenders abound as sf and fantasy series continue to proliferate in new network and other offerings, from the remake of The Tomorrow People set to air on CW this fall, only one of half a dozen new sf-themed shows; to the return of Eric Kripke’s popular Revolution (2012-), a series that achieved wide viewership beyond fandom without belying its sf identify; to more innovative developments in the world of TV III, from the Steven-Spielberg-produced, live-action Halo series set to air on Xbox live, to Chris Carter’s The After coming soon from Amazon Studies, not to mention his as-yet-unnamed project in development for AMC. Or perhaps it will be the Salman Rushdie series, Next People, in development at Showtime. There’s even a chance that Vince Gilligan, who made his start on The X-Files (1993-2002), might be convinced to return to the genre now that Breaking Bad has concluded.

For me, the chief pleasures of sf and of complex television are the same: long-term immersion in an intricately realized world different from this one, a world that makes think otherwise and feel a sense of wonder at its difference. As television finds its mature potential in new conditions of production, I eagerly anticipate the sf series that can bring these entwined pleasures to their full promise.


Works cited

Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Creeber, Glen. Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen. London: BFI, 2004.

Freedman, Carl. “Kubrick’s 2001 and the Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema.” Science Fiction Studies 7.5 (1998): 300-318.

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Film and Theory: An Anthology. Ed Robert Stam and Toby Miller. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000. 229-235.

Hopkinson, Nalo. “Introduction.” So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004. 7-9.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “James Cameron’s Avatar: Missed Opportunities.” First Peoples January 20, 2010. <http://www.firstpeoplesnewdirections.org/blog/?p=169>. Accessed September 2, 2013.

Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. Prepublication Ed. MediaCommons Press, 2012-2013.

Russ, Joanna.  What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class and the Future of Feminism.  St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

[1] See What Are We Fighting For?

[2] See  “Introduction.” So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy.

[3] See Daniel Heath Justice

One thought on “Spectacles and Seriality: The Entwined Pleasure Potential of Science Fiction Television

  1. Sherryl Vint rethinks the split between intellectual and emotional dimensions of science fiction, bridging the gap between the pleasure that lies in the cognitive dissonance of entering a world both familiar and strange and the inherent pleasure of the strangeness and spectacle of visualised scifi. The possibility of articulating these entwining pleasures, Vint suggests, is most powerful in television, a medium uniquely suited to bring together narrative and spectacular wonders.nn1

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