Why don’t sci-fi shows and movies win more awards? Are they badly produced? Are they stories that don’t relate to everyday life? Are the actors and directors and writers just bad or somehow sub-par? Or is it that the awards people just don’t consider the genre worthy of awards?
Now I want to be clear that not all sci-fi is award worthy. Clearly some of it is bad. Even some high-profile movies and TV shows produce “clunkers” of an epic magnitude. But is that any different from all other genres of entertainment? I think not. The Academy Awards and Emmys ignore those crappy films and TV shows, choosing to honor the ones they think are great. Let’s take this one part at a time and see how some well know sci-fi stacks up.
#1 – Are they badly produced?
A good production, when you talk to producers and studios, is one that makes a quality product, on schedule, on budget, and MAKES MONEY. By this metric, sci-fi is mostly well produced. It has all the requirements of a drama, but also has the extra lead times for extensive special effect, and post-production work that add a layer of production oversight and planning that would swamp a lot of dramas. Imagine having to add that level of post-production work to say Law & Order. Would they still be “Ripped from the headlines?” No because the months that pass in post-production would make it all but impossible to meet air dates. But let’s take some specifics into our argument. I’m a big Star Trek fan so I’m going to use materiel from there to help illustrate my case. Looking at Season 5 of Star Trek the Next Generation (TNG for the uninitiated) and in particular an episode called Darmok. And for the film side I’m going to use Star Trek IV – the Voyage Home. With all the fandom, conventions, scrutiny, and above all money generated by Star Trek, the 13 (at the time I write this) movies have collected a grand total of 1 Academy Award, and of course that was for “Best Makeup” for the 2010 re-boot of the series. The Voyage Home garnered a whopping 4 Nominations, for sound, sound editing, cinematography, and best score. Those nominations are fine, and I agree well deserved, but do they really sum up the greatness of this film? Some films get robbed by the academy. (I give you the Color Purple for example, that had great impact, stand out performances and was clearly a superior film but didn’t win a lot of awards. I mean seriously Out of Africa won best picture against the Color Purple? Yikes! But I digress.) But this film had some wonderful performances, (even by the whales) great comedic moments, and the writing and direction were all very high quality. Should it have won over the likes of Platoon or Hannah and her Sisters, which took home the lion’s share of the awards that night? Probably not. But should it have gotten a nomination at least for writing over the likes of the Paul Hogan idiocy that was Crocodile Dundee? You tell me.
Was it about money? I don’t think so. The Voyage Home was the 5th highest grossing film of the year, beating out both Aliens and Ferris Buller’s Day Off. On the TV side TNG was meeting its production schedule and making great television. It had during it’s fifth season about 12 million viewers per episode in syndication, (meaning not on one of the big three networks or Fox, which was establishing itself at the time) making it not quite comparable to the Cosby Show, which was leading the Nielson ratings at the time, but still a very successful show.
So for my money it’s not the production values, or the people in charge of production that keep these movies and TV shows from being considered for large awards. They were successful on all counts from a production point of view, in fact TNG wasn’t cancelled due to ratings or production problems. Although the cast members were contracted for eight seasons, Paramount ended The Next Generation after seven, an unusual decision for a successful television show. Although doing so let the studio begin making films using the cast. Additional seasons would likely have reduced the show’s profitability, due to higher cast salaries and other considerations. The cancellation also encouraged viewers to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the forthcoming Star Trek: Voyager, both of which were much cheaper to make than The Next Generation. The show’s strong ratings continued to the end; the series finale was ranked #2 among all shows that week, between fellow hits Home Improvement and Seinfeld.
So if wasn’t the production maybe it was-
#2 – Their Stories Don’t Relate to Everyday Life.
This is an easy case to make. The stories are about everyday life in so many ways it’s not funny. Although they can be odd, a story about whales and Darmok- the story centers around two groups being unable to communicate and find common ground, are great from all perspectives.
Voyage Home and it’s centering on a he environmental issues, the health and well being of whales, and the health of the oceans and killing of whales that is unnecessary in our current world, was both timely, ahead of its times, and created an entire generation of environmentalists. It was a terrific story that connected to everyone with wonderful moments. The image of Scotty trying to talk to the Macintosh computer was really great. Comedic and fun while showcasing the issues so many people were having, and still have, engaging technology was insightful, and prescient. The industrial complex of the military, and other images of the day were also abundant. The struggles of individuals against corporate might were also shown, although more from a distance.
Darmok, while on its face is a very Star Trekky episode mirrors the impact of communication for us as humans. Talking only in metaphors, the aliens say things like “Temba – his arms wide” and other nonsense phrases. Captain Piccard has to work and somehow decipher these phrases in order to communicate. In one scene Troi explains it as if someone said to you “Juliet on her balcony” to showcase how cultural references are at the heart of how we communicate. This is really true for us as humans, and intercultural exchanges are all the more difficult for it. Finding common ground is a complex proposition and we as humans struggle with every day. Religion, education, language, are all culturally derived and impact how we view the world and how we communicate with each other. Our current administration seems to use these as reasons to dislike and fear each other rather than opportunities to learn, grow and gain new perspectives of the human experience. Sounds pretty relevant to me. Even our personal interactions are colored by these issues and we could all learn from trying to work to understand each other and not take for granted that we understand what others are saying, but to listen for the deeper meaning and messaging behind the words. I think it’s incredibly relevant even today, as it was 20 years ago.
So many episodes have a similar relevance and connection to our everyday lives and use the genre of sci-fi to take a look at how they are impacting us. So given that it seems many of these shows contain commentary and connection to our every day lives, perhaps we should look at…
Are the actors and directors and writers just bad or somehow sub-par?
Let’s look at our examples again. Voyage home was a thrill ride with fun action sequences, but also some wonderful moments personal interactions. It was funny, well-paced and a feel-good movie that made us care about the characters as well as the environment. At the end Spock gets the acceptance of his father and our heroes never kill anyone or even fire a phaser, but they use their intellect to solve a problem destroying their world. We ate it up. So it must have been well written. The direction was crisp and moved the story at a great pace. The performances made us all believe in the cause and the people. From caring about getting Checkov out of the hospital to the woman that Macoy heals (giving her a new Kidney with just a pill out of his bag) we root for all of them and are engaged. Isn’t that the hallmark of a great performance? That we care for the character?
I suggest that great performance abound in Sci-fi. Having to act through mountains of makeup, and with scripts that play with language and meanings like the stories of Star Trek do, requires even more of actors and directors. Darmok showcases this well. Paul Winfield plays the titular character of Darmok, a captain of an alien ship, who only speaks in metaphor. With extensive head makeup and finger extensions etc. he makes us care for this character and feel his frustration, and need to communicate with his counterpart captain Piccard. His layered and powerful performance are overlooked because it’s a sci-fi show. We care about him, aching along with Piccard to understand him, and forge a friendship with this difficult to understand person. That they do so without the help of computers and everyone else, creating understanding and a partnership makes the conclusion both powerful and tragic. Should this performance have been rewarded with an Emmy nomination. I think so.
So it all comes back to the people giving out the awards. Are they really awards for quality or just a nod to selling a few more tickets. I really can’t answer that, but next time you watch a sci-fi show, think about the great actors, directors, writers, producers and everyone else involved with making great entertainment for us.
By the Way — I personally think Tony Todd deserves an Emmy for his performance in The Visitor in Deep Space Nine. You watch and tell me I’m wrong.