Back Seat Sci-Fi Part One – Space

  Last updated June 13, 2017 at 12:49 pm


This two-part series takes a look at some classics and underappreciated gems where, whether you realise it at first or not, science fiction takes a back seat. Part One travels at the speed of light into space themes. 

Horror – Alien

The crew of the space ship Nostromo encounter a terrifying creature, which rapidly gestates into another terrifying creature. It picks off the crew one by one, some dirty dealings by the crews’ employer are revealed, and there’s a kitty. You could pick up this scenario and place it back down at another location – an underground mine, the mall, summer camp – and the movie would still be unmistakably horrific. Monster, alien, serial killer, what’s the difference?

One big contributor is the pacing. The way we’re introduced to the characters is so intimate – they are in their jocks, after all. But really it’s the intimacy of their conversations as they drag themselves out of hypersleep. It puts you right there with them, making the horror they’re subjected to that much more affecting. Also, the timing of when both of the villains are introduced – and just on the off chance you’ve never seen it, I’m not going to tell you who or what Villian Number Two is. And we can’t talk about horror without talking about The Final Girl. It’s a genre trope, and it helps that Ripley is one of the greatest characters ever put to celluloid. Rational, brave, but still so human and fragile, she’s just the best.

Soap Opera and Fantasy – Star Wars

They don’t call it the Star Wars Saga for nothing. I mean, the franchise hinges around twins separated at birth. The opening crawls may as well end with ‘These are the days of our Star Wars.’ It’s really not worth writing you a synopsis of the franchise, or even any one of the movies. I mean, I started: “Guy wants to move away from his hometown, meets a manic pixie space princess, has to balance romance with his career, she gets pregnant, he nearly dies, she does die, he chucks a tanty and goes over with the bad guys, meanwhile his kids are hidden from him …” And then I realised it was silly. You get the point. Star Wars movies are a prime example of the classic Hero’s Journey structure. Which brings me to my next point – as much as the films are soap opera, not traditional drama, they are also fantasy, not science fiction. Sure, there are robots and space ships and aliens, but there’s also The Force.


Politics and War – Battlestar Galactica

The remake of the original 1978 series centres on the eponymous military spaceship Galactica. Its crew of military leaders, political leaders, military pilots and civilians are all that’s left of humanity when they’re attacked by the cyborg race (Cylons) they created. It’s heavy stuff, but the show isn’t a drag. There are parallels to the war on terror, and certainly lots of tense moments during the starship battles. But I find what really drives the show is the tension between military and political leadership. The Captain and the President have to balance these interests to keep what’s left of humanity motivated and functioning when it’s almost impossible to know how they will be targeted next, and who to trust. It’s a show that invites ‘what would I do’ thinking, and will suck you into the characters’ lives – both human and Cylon.


Sitcom – Red Dwarf

Put together a few sets, a couple of fixed cameras, a cast of kooky characters, throw in a laugh track, and hijinks ensue. This time in space. Set on board the mining spaceship Red Dwarf, this show takes place three million years after the radiation leak that killed almost everyone on board has dissipated enough that the only survivor, Dave Lister, can be woken up from suspended animation. There’s also a hologram, a robot, and a humanoid cat – it’s all appropriately zany. This show is basically The Odd Couple on a spaceship, and when it works the jokes come thick and fast. And at its best, it’s actually kind of heart-breaking – imagine being the last human alive, stranded on a giant but mostly empty spaceship.

Western – Firefly

The only thing missing from this space western are cowboy hats, and even so, there’s some pretty shiny headwear.


In Firefly and the follow-up film Serenity, our outlaw heroes are a rag-tag bunch of bad guys-and-gals with hearts of gold, and quick, dry wits. They hop between planets looking for their next smuggling job while outrunning the repercussions of their last one. Aside from the lack of hats, the costuming is all appropriately frontiers-like, and weapons do tend to be slung in rather fetching holsters. It’s hard to understate just how special Firefly is. It’s one of those shows where you can feel how everything just clicked, from the chemistry of the cast to the efficient and hilarious writing to the east-meets-west-meets vision of the future. It’s a a real treat. Don’t be sad that it was cancelled too early, just be happy we ever had it at all.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll keep our feet firmly planted on Earth. And let us know if there’s a space movie or show you can’t believe we left out!

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About the Author

Casey Harrigan
Casey Harrigan (@caseyharri) is a Contributing Editor for The Body and Culture on Australia’s Science Channel. Her academic background is in science communication, and her professional background is in science and factual television. Don’t get her started talking about sci fi movies, comedy, interesting animal facts, or Beyonce because she will never stop.