More Unintelligent Claims of Unintelligence: Science Fiction

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Last week I said the following about people who make themselves feel superior by criticizing how some people use language but turn out actually not to understand the linguistic principles of the case and thus criticize something that's perfectly fine:

Those who make fun of people who say things like this are therefore ignorant about how the English language works. It's kind of ironic that it's so easy for people to place themselves as having a superior understanding of language by making fun of people who talk about PIN numbers, when doing so is actually betraying their own ignorance of how language works. Unfortunately, this sometimes goes along with a sense of superiority about being a better master of the language, and as with those who criticize President Bush's regional dialect as unintelligent it just turns out to be arrogant ignorance disguised as intelligence and superiority, a very unattractive combination.

A similar phenomenon occurs with reviews of science fiction. Those who simply don't like sci-fi sometimes speak of it as fantasy adventure stories for children and thus reveal that they themselves are either ignorant of what the best sci-fi is really like or not intelligent enough to understand the intelligence behind much science fiction.

One of the most intelligent TV shows in the history of TV was Babylon 5. It drew from the richness of historical, political, interpersonal, and religious traditions to form a five-year story that included some of the best storytelling I've ever encountered amidst asking truly thought-provoking questions. I don't agree with the show's creator on very much when it comes to politics, and I suspect I would disagree with many of his own answers to the ethical and metaphysical questions that he raises in the show. I still think it's the best show I've ever seen. Yet critics mocked it as a copy of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, simply because both shows took place on space stations and were darker than the standard Trek optimism that Roddenberry's ghost managed to maintain on the other franchise shows.

This not only ignored the facts (Straczynski had his whole story planned out years before DS9 was even conceived and made a point not to watch Trek just to ensure that he wouldn't be accused of stealing from them). It also showed a complete ignorance of what the shows in question were really like. It was as if all the features of B5 that took a higher level of understanding even to have aesthetic appreciation had just gone over the heads of people saying this sort of thing. They didn't even notice the things that some people were appreciating, regardless of whether they would have liked them if they had seen them. They were completely unaware of them to begin with, or they couldn't have made the comparisons they made. They were immune to the appreciation of what made it such a good show not because they didn't appreciate it aesthetically but because hey weren't able or willing to grasp what takes some level of higher thought to understand. Then they talked as if the people who watched it and thought it was good were simple-minded people who couldn't see that it was stupid.

I don't want to detail all the times I've seen this happen. I think it happened with the last two seasons of Enterprise, especially the last one, and some people did it with Andromeda when it was good (before they fired Robert Hewitt Wolfe during the second season, leaving the show in the position of justly being called unintelligent). It clearly happens with intelligent spoofs like Airplane, The Fifth Element, Demolition Man, and The Last Action Hero. I don't mind if people don't like those movies, but those who claim they are unintelligent seem to me to be demonstrating their inability to see something that it takes some intelligence to see. The latter two do an especially good job at making fun of movies the chief actors in them have done in the past, and Schwarzeneggar's ridiculous caricature in the last of those three of the style of character he's often played in the past is just plain brilliant. Not everyone may find it funny, but it takes stepping back from the film to see something about the meta-level ideas of what the film is doing to see what the film is about, and I don't think views who consider it unintelligent have done that.

As I said, though, this isn't what I wanted to say here. I wanted to point out that someone else has noticed this phenomenon with the Stargate shows. I don't see the name of an author cited, but this GateWorld staffer seems to me to be absolutely right. People are writing about these shows as if they're mere action and adventure shows that happen to involve sci-fi devices (aliens and interstellar travel). They describe it as a good ride, basically, but it's not as if they see it as an intelligent show.

I think nothing could be further from the truth, and if they've missed this it shows that they either haven't really watched the show (as one reviewer this piece links to admits) or simply aren't able to see the intelligence behind the show. One explanation is that they're not very bright themselves but think they are and for some reason like to put down things they don't grasp. Another is that they haven't been able to keep track of some of the things in the shows that demonstrate the writers' intelligence, which could happen if they aren't watching the show from the beginning in order (which no one who has the SciFi Channel has any excuse to avoid doing if they're going to comment on the show with negative evaluations). I don't actually agree with all the statements made in defense of these shows, but I agree with the overall sentiment.

The moral of the story: we ought to be very sparing in our willingness to call anything unintelligent when we may simply not understand what's going on with it. It may well be that we're not intelligent enough to see that it's not unintelligent.

7 Comments

Moral appreciated. I am the first to raise my hand as one of those unintelligent idiots that refused to see Bablyon 5 when I was watching DS9. A price I now pay by having the series in my netflix queue after several reviews of "one of the greatest series ever".

And I wonder if this opinion would fade away if the shows were watched back to back. I mean, when Stargate first aired I thought it was just mindless action and giving me a taste of what I already liked in the movie. I dropped the show in the first season then started watching the dvd's in Season 6. Watched them all back to back. Saw everything else as it aired. Not only do they have a pretty good continuity going, they manage to have enough cult references and nods to other scifi that it should at least garner some sort of geek-spect.

And forget it, Atlantis has blown me away. Smart, funny AND fun. Not that not-funny is a bad thing. The space epic of Battlestar has also blown me away in the amount of things they do right.

re: BSG

But... Starbuck is a GIRL.

I saw that, and decided I would refuse to watch it, out of a sense of moral outrage.

Starbuck was a debonair daredevil. He was a gambler. He was a GUY.

*sigh*

Agreed about B5, Stargate, and most of the rest of your point.

People who don't get hard sci-fi just don't get hard sci-fi.

I've read over 5,000 sci-fi books, last estimate. The take that some non sci-fi readers have on some of the best book series I've ever read just make me shake my head and proceed to bury it in my hands, while weeping.

Not that I have an opinion, or anything.

I believed the line about B5 when it was first on without ever watching it. The first episode I saw was near the end, and I wasn't paying much attention. I finally watched it at the insistence of my wife and one other friend when SciFi started showing reruns, picking it up in the middle of the third season, right when it became absolutely obvious that it was something no one had ever done before.

With Stargate, I saw the first episode beyond the pilot without seeing the pilot, which is probably one of my least favorite episodes to date, and I've seen all of them. It held my interest enough that I would have watched it if they'd shown it during a normal time, but 1:00 am for what I expected from that episode didn't exactly motivate me. When SciFi started showing it in four-hour blocks on Monday nights, I realized what I'd been missing.

What they're doing with this new Galactica isn't what they were doing with the original, though it shares some of the main themes and much of the original surface-level plot. Not one of the characters is a repeat. It's not a remake but a revisioning. How would Ron Moore have taken the Battlestar Galactica idea if he had to do it now with everything that's happened since 1979, including development in how SciFi stories are told? The characters are all much more interesting than the original characters who share their names and some surface-level comparions, but the new ones aren't cheesy the way the originals now seem, and they're nowhere near as boring or simplistic. The new Starbuck is a gambling daredevil, by the way. I hate to say it, but I think the "Starbuck is a girl" objection exemplifies the point I was making in this post. If you haven't watched it, I think you have no right to complain.

I've watched BattleStar Galactica, and making Starbuck a female was a major mistake. Actually, it might have been OK if they had actually made her a woman, but instead they did what so many SF authors do: make a male character and put breasts on it. There is nothing remotely feminine about the Starbuck character. And although this actress does a better-than-average job of being a woman acting like a man, she's still annoying and she's still not believable.

Other than that it's a pretty good show.

If you've seen it and have an opinion, I have no problem with that, but I do disagree. I think they've very much made her a woman. Her struggle with her relationships with men, particularly with Lee, has been very interesting, and she's developed the character in ways that the writers didn't want that involved her being more feminine while still being all the things you've associated with being male (e.g. the dress at the end of the election episode, and the second season will have more of that in her adventures on Caprica, according to Katee Sackhoff's own report of things she's asked the writers to do). The one thing that I think is most interesting about it is that she's a woman who fits a lot of male stereotypes who is still a woman and wants to be recognized as a woman but doesn't know how to get that. She ends up with disastrous relationships. This is a common enough phenomenon in real life that I think it's interesting storytelling.

I actually love that Starbuck is a woman. What Jeremy says pans out with how they're treating the character on the show. I think getting a peak at her apartment actually underscored that bit--seeing all the art and what not--while she's sitting there, smoking a cigar in a bulky, yet comfortable, jacket. Excellent visual story telling.

Back to the main point...

we ought to be very sparing in our willingness to call anything unintelligent when we may simply not understand what's going on with it. It may well be that we're not intelligent enough to see that it's not unintelligent.

I totally agree. I've long been bewildered by people who called Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not the movie) "stupid". Now you may have any number of valid reasons to dislike the show (though personally it is one of my favorites of all time). But to call it "stupid" is just inane. It had long and complicated story arcs that stretched over whole seasons (and sometimes multiple seasons). The writing and dialogue was witty and intelligent. It took genre conventions and turned them on their heads to terrific results. It managed to be a comedy/drama/action/horror show without losing internal coherence. You might hate its style or values or production quality or cinematography, but I don't see a legitimate way of calling it "stupid" or "unintelligent".

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