Saturday, September 8, 2012

Innocent pleasures

I enjoy sci-fi, ranging from the classics of Jules Verne to the modern.  In an interim college class at St. Olaf on genre writing, I came to appreciate more fully that good genre writing must not only satisfy the same requirements of any other good writing, but must also conform to actual rules for that genre, making it more demanding, not less.

So, for example, in a murder mystery, the author should not play fast and loose with the reader, but should provide them the clues to allow them, if they are clever enough, to solve the mystery for themselves.  Supplying information in the final pages with entirely new information that could not be deduced by the reader is not good mystery writing.

I find a special charm in the 1960s era Thunderbirds movies, one last week and one this week on Turner Classic movies.  Done in 'super-marionation', the studio of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson produced puppet dramas that were very good sci-fi for adults, not just children.  They promoted a reality where supersonic transportation was a reality while the Concorde was still in development, and where space travel had become virtually routine, ahead of the first moon landing in the larger context of the Soviet Union / U.S. space race.  They posited multi-part vehicles that used reusable modules combined with rockets, well before the space shuttle became a reality.

What I was NOT very aware of was that the UK and Australia had their own space program during the end of the 50's, through the period of the Thunderbirds (2 movies and a very popular television series) in the 60's, and into the early 70's.  I was reminded of it by an episode about it that was the premise of an episode during a PBS re-running of an old BBC/Australia comedy series, Supernova. (I so wish they had made more episodes than they did; it's another favorite of mine, an unlikely premise about an astronomy observatory in the Aussie outback that combines a very real terrestrial frontier with the science frontiers of space.  There are some kinds of humor that only the Brits could pull off so well.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the Brit space program, there is this youtube video that highlights it, and a simple wikipedia survey of it.  This wikipedia entry provides a good overview, including their current program, refunded and reorganized in 2010/2011.  In this era of the international space station cooperation where previously we had rivalry and duplication, side by side with private space exploration, and the entry of other national space agendas, including the European Union, knowing the past of space exploration from the 20th century is useful for understanding the present and future.

In watching the Thunderbirds, I can satisfy my science and history geekiness, and at the same time gratify my anglophilia and occasional joy in nostalgia.  The movies and television series, along with their successor series, are not particularly fast paced, and the characters rely a bit too much on stereotypes in place of character development, but they are still fun, and more thoughtful and thought provoking in their day, the pre-CGI era, than some of our more modern special effects driven efforts.
They have an astonishing amount of originality, given how many ideas in their productions actually came to be reality.

On another geeky note, check out the Google homage animation for the original Star Trek anniversary.  The optimism of 60's sci-fi is refreshing, in contrast to some of the more dystopian sub genres; their universal themes are still universal as we continue our Mars exploration.  And speaking of Mars...early Mars exploration was the premise of the first Thunderbirds movie, and the subsequent Gerry/Sylvia Anderson series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons that takes place on Mars.

Definitely something best enjoyed in moderate quantities, unless you're seriously science geeky, but fun for those who have the patience to appreciate the charms of vintage sci-fi from this era as an alternative to formulaic same old same old newer genre offerings.

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