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American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate, and Beyond
Jan Johnson-Smith
Wesleyan University Press, 309 pages

American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate, and Beyond
Jan Johnson-Smith
Jan Johnson-Smith is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Theory at the Media School at Bournemouth University (UK).

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A review by Charlene Brusso

Jan Johnson-Smith is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Theory at the Media School at Bournemouth University (UK), and a bona fide science fiction fan as well as a respected academic. She's also an enthusiastic, thoughtful, and insightful analyst with plenty to say about the development of science fiction television over the last two decades of the twentieth century.

After a brisk and literate introduction to the field of science fiction scholarship, the author provides a provocative chapter linking American history -- specifically the romantic notion of the frontier in the American West -- with science fiction and television. Now, why only cover the last two decades? Well, remember what early science fiction shows (think 60s and 70s) were like. Usually they focused on "idea" stories where even the most alien worlds resembled locations on Earth, whether historic or contemporary. After all, television's "natural tendency is to provide secure and familiar scenarios.... It wants to entertain its audience because, in order to exist, it needs to maintain its audience." At best, early SF television offered a bit of exotic window dressing to spice things up: shiny fabrics and daring costumes, funky hair-dos and make-up, and skillfully painted matte backgrounds. Not the best way to bring off that classic suspension of disbelief which enables the reader to be drawn so easily into the world of a written work.

In the late 70s, advances in computer and video technology led to breakthroughs in film special effects. (For readers of a certain age, remember the sense of wonder you felt the first time you saw Star Wars in a theater?) The technology quickly trickled down to television. Now, finally, the small screen could immerse viewers and let them see the science fictional world as its characters saw it, depicting alien landscapes and events "realistically." Computer-generated imagery (CGI) also enabled shows to develop their own unique visual styles. Imagine The X-Files without its grainy imagery and thick shadows, or Farscape without its warm retro palette and moody lighting.

With the expansion of visual effects came an expansion in themes to explore in greater depth: gender, race, religion, politics and the military; the ethics of cloning, colonization, and sharing technology; as well as the fine old human themes of courage, love, and honor. This new -- and welcome -- complexity is the fuel which feeds Johnson-Smith's incisive analysis.

The author touches on many shows -- some which you'll remember fondly, others which you may wish had gone unmentioned, and more than a few you may never have heard of, from Star Trek to The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Farscape, Stargate, Seven Days, Andromeda, Battlestar Galactica (the original), and others. The myriad incarnations of Star Trek taken all together rate a chapter. Aspects of space travel from Farscape, Stargate and others are examined in a chapter on the treatment of time and space. Johnson-Smith devotes her strongest chapters to her obvious passions: Space: Above and Beyond and Babylon 5. (Large parts of both these sections are taken from scholarly papers written earlier by the author.) Fans of B5 will be especially pleased by her enthusiastic and nuanced discussion of that ground-breaking series.

Johnson-Smith adroitly analyzes a broad spectrum of SF television, placing each show in a scholarly context as clear and easy to understand as its social context. For readers eager to learn more, the book also includes extensive endnotes and an exhaustive bibliography which includes classic fiction as well as more rigorous academic articles.

Science fiction has always been about epic journeys, both mental and physical, social and personal; about exploring, pushing, fighting our way beyond the known frontiers. It searches for and exploits our sense of awe at the new and extreme -- while also creating resonance between those extremes and our own not-so-vivid lives. What makes Johnson-Smith's book so enjoyable is that, while she has plenty of serious things to say, she also never forgets the wonder of the new and the sheer, simple joy of discovery.

Copyright © 2005 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.

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