The sometimes uneasy alliance between high-tech and sci-fi

As someone who loves high-tech almost as much as I love science fiction, it’s been something of an eye-opener to realize that the two have an often-awkward relationship. And this is especially the case for movies or TV shows – watch them again, 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years after they were made, and you’ll be amazed at how dated the technology looks.

It’s not always the case, of course – movies like Blade Runner push the tech to the background, so it’s less noticeable. But in general, just wait ‘til you see a computer room or a piece of “state of the art” technology and you’ll wince, or laugh, or both.

Generally, 1970s and 1980s “future tech” – especially in BBC TV shows such as Dr Who or Blake’s 7 – feature computer consoles as banks of blinking lights, plus good old analog switches. This is the pre-widespread adoption of LED era so the indicator lights are big, round and clunky, or you’ll see a bank of square colored buttons. What’s most striking is that there’s hardly a display panel in place – except perhaps a cryptic, low-tech readout that characters in the drama will study before proclaiming “incoming enemy targets detected in quadrant four, sector five – closing fast!” When there is a display, what’s shown is usually a telescope-like view of what’s going on “out there”, whether this is on the surface or in deep space. Text or even icons on displays is rarely, if ever, shown.

Watch enough 20-plus year-old sci-fi and one thing in particular will jump out: “futuristic alien technology”, like that of the Blake’s 7 Liberator, is just a joke: the computer room comes straight out of a 1970s IBM publicity shot. Today, this doesn’t balance so well with the storylines – for example in one episode a female robot is so realistic that the entire crew are initially duped. Eventually they cotton-on, and open up the side of her head (we aren’t treated to the explanation of how they get the “a ha” moment and decide to tear open her skull). When we get to look inside her head, it looks like she’s powered by a Sinclair ZX81!

Some shows, such as the 2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica, have taken the tech credibility gap into account and de-tune the technology, or put it into human form, although our real world smartphones and tablets tend to look a lot more advanced that most technology you’ll see touted in sci-fi.

That is, except for the ability to beam people around the universe, of course. Popularized in Star Trek and plagiarized in Blake’s Seven with a nod to Willy Wonka, real-time matter transfer is still pretty damn cool – and probably extremely fatal.

Also I’m still searching for one piece of technology that I’ve really, badly wanted since the 1970s: Dr Who’s famous sonic screwdriver. To this day haven’t found anything in my local hardware store that comes remotely close.

It looks like the staples of the future science fiction world are capabilities such as speeding around the universe at improbable velocities, zapping people with a single shot of a photon gun, and communicating with anyone, at any time, from a handheld device that never needs powering up – and never shows the dreaded “no service” message. Mind you, I shudder to imagine how much Captain Kirk is paying in roaming charges.

Beam me up, Scottie.

Simon Jones, Managing Director, OnPR, GmbH

uday May 4, 2012 at 2:56 am

Hi Simon
My favourite bit of science fiction ‘tech’ is the babel fish from the hitchiker’s guide 🙂

Combinatorial Implosion May 4, 2012 at 4:45 am

It is possible to get the look and feel of future tech at least somewhat right. Consider the movie from which your HAL 9000 tag originates: 2001, A Space Odyssey. Because Kubrick really wanted to depict a 2001 which might have actually happened he listened carefully to the scientific and technical advise coming his way from the likes of Fred Ordway, Marvin Minsky, and Clarke himself. Here are the results:

Note that the “computer displays” are actually SFX. They didn’t have actual computer displays like that back in the 1960’s, but technologists did think that they would have such displays by 2001, and we did. Trying to think that far ahead requires extra effort and, sometimes, extra budget for something that doesn’t add much in the way of dramatic payoff. Where it does pay off is with an intangible sense of verisimilitude at the time and the tendency for the depiction not to feel as clunky and outdated as time goes on. I would argue that it is worth the effort to do this, that actually thinking through how the tech in your SF works lends the work a subtly more solid feel than if you just make sh*t up, even for a non-technical viewer that might not be able to put into words why something doesn’t seem real.

Budget, as I implied, can make a difference, but it is not just down to budget. Consider this clip from “Lost in Space” versus this clip from “Star Trek” Both were contemporaries, made with relatively limited per episode budgets, but the Lost in Space feels “cheesier” some how. Tech types will have an easier time putting a finger on why this is, for example- use of a sixties-era tape drive which provides the same cognitive dissonance as with the “Blake’s Seven” computer room. I think this just comes down to the fact that Roddenberry was more concerned with making his future seem plausible than Irwin Allen was.

Simon Jones May 6, 2012 at 3:20 am

Thanks Uday for reminding me of the Babel fish. Yes indeed. Fab idea!
Combi I also much appreciate your thoughts: You are right, 2001, A Space Odyssey is the most-honorable exception. I’m going to have to watch again now … Lost in Space feels much cheesier than Star Trek.

Meanwhile the 1950s tv version of Flash Gordon is kitch as anything, yet somehow I love it more for that.

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