Monday, August 10, 2009

Missing Touchstones

I know most of you are too young to remember the earliest sci-fi movies. Forbidden Planet. The Day the Earth Stood Still. All the Japanese flicks, including Godzilla and Mothra.

Tell me when you first encountered sci-fi. Why did it matter? What moved you? I know when I finally saw Star Wars (4 years after the fact), I thought, "Who cares?"

Why do you care?


  1. First sci-fi? I think my parents took me to see Return of the Jedi in the theater when I was six, my first movie. The monsters freaked me out, but the robots, light sabers, and spaceships got me hooked.

    But then it went away for a while -- my brothers and I were outside kids, always running around, building stuff. We liked cartoons, sure, but I didn't catch the sci-fi bug until my teens years.

    Star Trek: The Next Generation -- for me, it was about the technology. It wasn't the photon torpedos and phasers, it was the holodeck, the warp drive, transporters.

    And I think that's my answer to the appeal of sci-fi -- the fact that humans have learned and are learning the secrets of the laws of the universe and the manipulation of atoms. Sci-fi writers perceive and dream up the benefits and dangers of technologies not yet existing, and I enjoy thinking about these. Not necessarily futures either -- again, I defer to the film Primer, which is about discovery and consequences.

    I moved past Star Trek and bizarrely enough, immersed myself in old school sci-fi via sarcastic humor in the brilliant vehicle of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. Laden with obscure references, biting humor, and bad, bad movies, I got to see the world through the eyes of the dreamers of the 1950's optimists, with scientists as unstoppable heroes -- This Island Earth, anyone?

    More later, if anyone's talking...

  2. Star Wars was my first real exposure to sci-fi, but it never made the impression on me that it did on most of my contemporaries. I never felt any compulsion to own every toy and action figure. It was a good enough movie, to a six-year-old mind, but it didn't hit and stick. Honestly, the first sci-fi that really had any impact on me was TRON.

    Bad acting? Goofy dialog? Guilty on both counts, though certainly no moreso than Star Wars. The difference was, whereas SW was set in some "long time ago, far far away" cookie-cutter human-scale universe populated by people in yak-hair costumes and wastebaskets, the TRON universe was right here and now. Video games were on the rise, we were seeing computers evolve from card-punching industrial equipment to small, sleek, elegant enigmas capable of conveying an engrossing story and challenging interaction.

    That these machines might contain an actual universe of their own populated with independent thinking beings who had their own culture, values, and even their own religion...well. Now THAT was something worth exploring.

    That it looked completely unlike anything that had come before it was another matter entirely, and certainly part of the appeal, but really...could anyone from that time period who played any of the Infocom games come away without some suspicion that the machine was actually interacting with them, rather than spitting out canned responses?

    Star Wars was fantasy meant to remain fantasy, whereas TRON carried just enough air of plausibility to make a child's mind wonder what was really going on behind that screen. And that was enough.

  3. Well, this is not going to sound very original. Star Wars was my first Sci-Fi experience. Like I mentioned back Over There, I loved the space ships, the special effects, the lightsabers, etc. I also liked Tron, but that was not as big with me (though I loved the light cycles). Voltron and Transformers were other sci-fi staples of my entertainment.

    In the mid ‘80s my family moved to Germany, where I spent all of my elementary school. Over there we had only one Armed Forces Network channel that showed American shows, but usually older things. I missed out on a lot of the shows I had liked back in the States but got introduced to some new ones. I watched a lot of classic Star Trek, which I liked a lot, and I was also spellbound by the cartoon Robotech. That was the English adaptation of a Japanese animation series called Macross; another sci-fi thing with an aircraft carrier in space, little fighters that turn into robots, aliens, lots of stuff blowing up; all the necessities. It had more mature themes than what I had seen before, though, and was like a soap opera, which is why I think I was so hooked by it. There were relationship issues, people died in violent explosions, and it had a definite ending. Star Trek: TNG started airing the last few years I lived in Germany. I loved it until I started watching Babylon 5, and I think everybody knows the rest.

    So why have I loved sci-fi so much? I have always loved space. I have always loved the idea of exploring space. Even now I can read articles about or look at pictures of space with the same slack-jawed awe I had as a little kid. What is it? Why is it there? Why are we where we are? Is there anybody else out there? How much do we even truly know about it? In many of these sci-fi stories, people have the ability to climb into a space ship and go wherever they want to. I would love to do that. I also liked how most of the characters in these stories were fighting against something (though TNG to a much lesser degree). I have always liked good versus evil stories where the good guys actually get to shoot weapons at people and try to kill them. I recently bought one of my nephews a set of Voltron DVDs for Christmas one year. Voltron liked to end each episode by forming his blazing sword and slicing the bad guy right down the middle, at which point the bad guy would usually explode. My nephew was not used to seeing a story resolution like that. In short: I’ve always thought sci-fi was very cool and it has always lit up my imagination.

    And I actually have seen Forbidden Planet, the original Day the Earth Stood Still, and a few Godzilla movies. And I also loved MST3k. I believe the worst I saw was Manos: the Hands of Fate, which isn’t quite sci-fi. Sidehackers or Mitchell were close runners up. Once Joel left, it was never the same, though.

  4. C'mon, Eduardo where's the love for Space Mutiny?

    It's debatable whether Manos was the worst of the worst in a world that allowed Plan 9 From Outer Space to exist, but it definitely made for a superior MST3K experience.

  5. Re: Robotech -- wow, Ed, that just triggered a wealth of rusty synapses in my brain! Man, I loved that show, with the ominous beginning of a massive alien fleet that just...KEEPS...ON...COMING.

    Like you, the exploration of space is another big factor. Anyone ever read E.E. Doc Smith's "The Skylark of Space"? Very old school, very non-PC these days, as a white American male genius and his best girl make the ultimate discovery, build an amazing ship, go across the galaxy, and then single-handedly save an alien civilization from themselves. A great, quick read.

    And as for MST3K, I own all of the above mentioned (on VHS, no less), and have seen that abomination Manos probably a dozen times as I show it to people. Did you know that a large number of the cast and crew ended up committing suicide later? Joe Don Baker as MITCHELL! is high on my list of favorites, along with Pod People (Trumpy, no!) and This Island Earth (the official movie). Ed, I liked Joel, but I have to say that Mike really did it for me in the later years. They always said that Joel was like the bot's parent, where Mike was like their brother.

    Have you seen, where that whole crew sells audio that you play along with *real* Hollywood movies to get that MST effect? I've done it for a few movies that I love (5th Element for one) and it is a great way to see movies you know really well.

  6. "Have you seen, where that whole crew sells audio that you play along with *real* Hollywood movies to get that MST effect? I've done it for a few movies that I love (5th Element for one) and it is a great way to see movies you know really well."

    Don't know it. Please tell me more

  7. If you're not familiar with Mystery Science Theater, it was a show that played old movies with mocking commentary overdubbed. Three characters (a human and two robots, for some reason) sit in the front row of the theater and just crack lines in response to the ridiculous movies. Interspersed during breaks were a series of truly weird sketches by the cast.

    When the show ended, MST fans began trading tapes and DVDs of the shows (hundreds of them) with great zeal. They've made me laugh like I've never laughed before, much like a certain thick green and black book. A couple of times an episiode, a line catches you just right and you fall apart.

    Anyway, the same cast realized they had a following and set out to do the same treatment to real (well, 'new') movies. Rather than try to obtain rights to show the film, they just record an audio track to be played on a computer or ipod or burned CD on top of the movie. The result is excellent, in my opinion.

    They have some sample videos on their site from the old 1950's educational films that they showed in schools -- hilarious even without the added commentary. It's at

    Some movies that get the treatment:
    Star Wars (natch)
    Red Dawn
    Jurassic Park
    The whole list: (wow, that's a lot of movies)

  8. Yes, I know Mystery Science Theater. Not a total ignoramus. I was hoping the Rifftrax thing was some kind of software that enabled movie watchers to record their own comments... alas.

  9. Well that's simple enough, there's a thousand freeware audio recorders out there.

    Try Audacity.

  10. The Rifftrax featuring the actual MST3K cast members are good, but the "Rifftrax presents" or other "sponsored" riffs by others are of variable quality, generally much lower.

    If you're curious what happened to the remainder of the MST3K cast...they're over here.

  11. Growing up in a Cleveland suburb I had the good fortune to get two creature features a week: Hoolihan and Big Chuck on Friday night, Superhost on Saturday afternoon. I got to see Westworld at the local drive-in when I was 4 or 5.

    The Electric Company, Sesame Street, and the Flintstones and other cartoons all introduced me to varying degrees of sci-fi.

    I must have seen Star Wars in 1977 because the only thing I remember about my 2nd grade teacher (before I moved to a new school partway through the year) is that she continually caught me drawing Star Wars cartoons and she always chewed me out for it.

    I think what struck me the most about Star Wars was that it was BIG. Cavernous hangars, gigantic spaceships -- huh, sounds kind of erotic now that I think about it. I did have a whopper of a crush on Carrie Fisher. At any rate, Star Wars seemed to have a scope and scale unlike anything else I was accustomed to (at age 7).