The U.S.-U.K. Rivalry on Science Fiction

I’ve been meaning to dive into this GeekDad post arguing that British science fiction is superior to its American counterpart for a bit, but it wasn’t until after starting Torchwood this week that I figured out exactly what I meant to say. I want to separate out sci-fi and fantasy, which Donahoo conflates here, because I think there’s actually a difference between British sci-fi and British fantasy, and some of the things Donahoo singles out as strengths, like a tendency towards localism, are much more present in the fantasy shows he names than the science fiction ones. Being Human is phenomenal, but it’s not science fiction. And fantasy and science fiction do similar, but different work.

British science-fiction is very good at using the tropes of the genre to take on issues ranging from the rise of the security state in response to crisis, national control of nuclear weapons, torture, the impact of reality television on society, nuclear power, and cloned organs. It’s an issue-of-the-week approach to procedurals instead of a body-of-the-week one. But I wonder if the reason shows like Doctor Who and Torchwood, even Red Dwarf, are able to do this is because they’re less committed to consistent world-building. That’s not to say that there aren’t long-running and well-developed concepts behind all these series, but the point of Doctor Who isn’t to get to be fully absorbed into Galifrey, but to jump around and explore different worlds and times, just as the institutional culture of Torchwood establishes the parameters for alien investigations. And there’s no real effort to integrate all the phenomena and aliens and technology into a set of coherent rules about how science works, however nebulous.

There are a lot of American shows that operate on these terms, of course, Star Trek chief among them. But a crop of American shows like Battlestar Galactica, the Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe explore smaller numbers of issues through longer arcs. Even The X-Files is centered around one main question, though it’s more procedural. The rules may be loose, but the real work is in figuring out the parameters of the universe you’re watching, how science works, and how humanity and human institutions change in response.

I think it’s more a matter of preference than anything else. I love world-building (particularly if there’s a good juicy fictional religion for me to think about), so I like some of the work American shows do, and I get irritated by things like the lack of clarity about Torchwood’s relationship with the British security agencies and the metropolitan police. But I love the rhythms of procedural as well. And with shows like Doctor Who starting to air simultaneously in the U.S., there’s more opportunity for trans-Atlantic cross-pollination.