I’ve been batting around the phrase “cult television” for a while, but have managed so far to avoid talking about it in any depth or detail. I mean, we did Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the whole point of that was that it wasn’t cult. We did The X-Files, but had too much fun with paranoia to do its cult aspects. So we should probably slip one more in that deals with cult television. And, perhaps, for good measure, what it’s not. Actually, let’s start with that, simply because “actually successful science fiction of a sort” is probably a more useful baseline to have. So let’s go with Independence Day.
Improbably, and in addition to being an extremely successful movie, Independence Day is absolutely ridiculously fun. And a lot of this comes down to the fact that it is a movie that does not make the slightest effort to be taken seriously. It is not a movie that lends itself to any reading based on its supposed sincerity. Yes, it’s an overtly jingoistic film about how America is the greatest country in the world and Macs are compatible with anything up to and including alien death ships. But that’s not the point. The point is the scene where Will Smith’s dog survives.
The thing about this rather incredible scene is that it’s so spectacularly unsubtle in what it does. So, for those poor souls who haven’t seen the film, the aliens attack with their giant death explosion beam thingy. And Will Smith’s wife, played by Vivica A. Fox, is in her car in a tunnel, and is thus about to explode. So she takes off, with her kids, and runs down the tunnel to find a little nook to hide in and, you know, not explode. Which she does. And to be clear, at this point all of the significant human characters are out of danger. At that point Vivica Fox’s character whistles for their dog, which had been left in the car.
Let us pause for a moment and consider the dramatic implications of this sequence. All danger to the main characters has, at this point, been resolved. Absolutely nobody is in any danger except for the dog, who has been deliberately put into danger. At this point we must pause to consider the tastes of the average American moviegoer who has selected Independence Day for their evening’s entertainment over such options as Phenomenon, The Nutty Professor, and Striptease. These are not people who are going to stand for the death of a dog. The idea that the dog might die is actually slightly more implausible than the idea that Will Smith might bite it. (Will Smith, of course, is the lone black man who is allowed to survive action films.) Which means that this entire sequence has, in effect, been set up to tease the audience with the fact that the dog might die. Needless to say the dog instead runs down the tunnel and scampers into the hiding space just as the shockwave of the explosion rides past. In slow motion. So the film has set up a spurious threat for the sole purpose of giving a big dramatic payoff scene. Not, to be clear, for the purposes of engaging the audience or anything like that, but purely to get a visual set piece of a dog triumphantly bounding away from an explosion into the film.
This is the key thing to recognize about Independence Day. Nothing whatsoever in the entire film is there because it advances the “plot” or anything so pedestrian. No, it’s all there to string together the set pieces. It looks like a plot and acts like a plot, but the movie is not only purely interested in stitching together its big visual scenes, it’s not even invested in hiding that from the audience. This is important for contextualizing the movie’s name-earning scene, in which President Danes gives a stirring speech to the world about, essentially, how America is the best country in the world and will lead the rest of the world so that July 4th is their Independence Day too. If you haven’t seen the film, you’re probably underestimating how ludicrously jingoistic this speech is. But by that point in the film’s somewhat impressive running time the film has clearly sacrificed any goals other than chaining together all of the obligitory set pieces of the exceedingly obvious movie structure that it is. So it has the big stirring pro-American speech, but it’s impossible to take it seriously simply because the movie has been so unrepentant in being an insincere piece of shlock that there’s almost nothing to take seriously.
Almost nothing. As with any good piece of camp it’s not entirely possible to work out how deliberate Independence Day is in its insincerity. Certainly the requirement placed on the BBC Independence Day UK radio play (featuring Colin Baker, among others) that the British were not allowed to save the day is… troubling, especially given that the radio play was hardly going to risk any sort of backlash in the US in 1996. And the further work of Devlin and Emmerich never has them manage the level of self-aware and self-effacing irony that animates Independence Day. The film may well be a case of a bad film that came out at the exact moment where it could be good in spite of itself. It happens.
Nevertheless, Independence Day is another marker in a larger shift that’s going on through here in popular relationship to sci-fi media. Sci-fi has been a part of popular culture as long as it’s existed, but there’s obviously a division between what we might call “cool” sci-fi and “uncool” sci-fi. In 1995, at least, Doctor Who was spectacularly uncool, and Independence Day was very cool, to the point where it was the subject of a lot of “sci-fi is back” covers, because apparently it had gone away. But it’s worth charting a certain arc here. The category of “geek” as a vaguely oppressed category is largely a post-Star Wars invention. I mean, there were geeks before, yes. But the cultural construction of geeks was a phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s. And I can vouch, as a geek growing up in the era, that there was something terribly strange about trying to figure out why liking Doctor Who got me attacked but liking Terminator would been OK. (Not that there weren’t dozens of other reasons I was screwed there.)
And here it’s worth looking at something we’ve mostly avoided, with is an utterly dire piece of American cult television from the 1990s. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Sliders. Alarmingly, this is one of the closest things that the United States has ever made to an American version of Doctor Who. It concerns a group of four people who travel between parallel universes via a malfunctioning machine that they can’t pilot, trying to get back to their home reality. So you’ve got all the tropes of the original premise of Doctor Who, right down to the cast size and basic structure, with the teenage girl demographic being replaced by the token black man. The only difference is that Doctor Who was good, whereas Sliders is the most eminently punchable television show I’ve ever watched.
For the purposes of comparing directly to Independence Day, let’s take “The Prince of Wails” as our episode of choice. There are others that would do, but that one concerns an alternate earth where the British won the Revolutionary War and so democracy never took hold anywhere in the world and every country is just a monarchy. It is difficult to adequately encompass how mind-wrenchingly and horrifyingly stupid this is, but just for the fun of it, let’s try. The idea that democracy is purely an American invention is, of course, absurd. The Founding Fathers were influenced massively by the Enlightenment. Key lines of the Declaration of Independence were nicked wholesale from John Locke. Other thought depended heavily on the French, who actually had their own revolution that was kind of important in global history. The idea that the British were particularly ruthlessly undemocratic is especially rich, given that they were busily devolving power from the king to Parliament at the time. Perhaps the crowningly offensive moment of this episode comes when the characters inform the crown prince of the concept of the “Bill of Rights,” apparently largely unaware that Britain had one for nearly a century prior to the American Revolution. Instead we get a vision of Britain as a tax-happy bunch of lunatics who casually and by royal decree impose tax rates of 80% or more. (In fact this is one of the things that the English Bill of Rights explicitly forbids.)
This sort of default jingoistic American patriotism is made all the worse by the fact that the wise old scientist character is played as British, and yet seems to firmly believe that America invented democracy, individual liberties, and freedom, cheerily dictating the American Bill of Rights to the crown prince as they encourage him to form a fairer society. He only gets through the first six Amendments, however, and hands the rest off as a quick series of notes. The seventh through tenth Amendments, incidentally, turn out to just be the Declaration of Independence. Who knew. Meanwhile, while all this discussion of the roots of government is going on, the lone black character attempts to get amendments added about how people should be treated equally regardless of race, religion, or musical preference, and apparently wants to enshrine the greatness of James Brown as a Constitutional principle.
So this is obviously terrible. But superificially there’s no obvious way to distinguish the ways in which it is terrible from the ways in which Independence Day’s jingoistic “Today we celebrate our Independence Day” speech. Both trade on a pro-American viewpoint that seems to be being expressed not out of any actual evaluation of anything but for the simple reason that a pro-American bias is somehow expected or necessary. It’s an utterly contentless patriotism that exists purely to reinforce a blind cultural default. Except for one thing, which is what we’ve mentioned already: Independence Day is, if not ironic, at least thoroughly camp. Sliders, on the other hand, seems to lack any self-awareness.
This is what makes it the epitome of uncool science fiction, and perhaps more to the point bad science fiction. It has no interest whatsoever in the question of whether it’s doing anything significant or interesting or meaningful. It’s just blithely executing sci-fi genre tropes with the expectation that they are inherently worthwhile and that an audience demographic will tune in and be fans. Which, as Sliders improbably demonstrates, some people will. Sliders hasn’t the slightest sense that anything has developed since Buck Rogers except for special effects. The result is almost unwatchable, and demonstrates what is so deadening about the bulk of self-consciously cult television.
But every once in a while something comes along that presents an alternative. Take, for instance, Xena: Warrior Princess, an unabashedly cult show that is nevertheless thoroughly fabulous. This is despite not actually being “better” than Sliders in any articulable sense. The only thing it has going for it compared to Sliders is that it has a reasonably sound self-assessment of its quality and is content to be a ludicrous piece of sapphism. And yet that turns out to be tremendous. It’s tempting to describe this in bland and cliched terms like “treating its audience as though they’re intelligent,” but that’s both insufficient and not quite accurate. It’s more accurate to say that Xena: Warior Princess, like Independence Day, is honest about what its audience wants. In this regard, at least, it comes much closer to the model offered by Russell T Davies in Dark Season or Century Falls: a show that simply rejects the idea that being campy adventure need be anything other than a source of joy.
But Xena: Warrior Princess opens another front here that has to be addressed, which is that it is so excessively and blatantly sapphic. But this is, in the show, meticulously rendered as subtext, albeit an almost entirely unambiguous one. That Xena and Gabrielle are a lesbian couple is possible to overlook only through willful blindness. But equally, the show goes to great lengths to keep from explicitly confirming it. Part of this is simply that you couldn’t get away with that yet in 1995. But Xena ran for six years, three of them post-Ellen and “The Puppy Episode.” If it had wanted to do a big “Xena and Gabriel are confirmed as gay” episode it could easily have gotten away with it.
A more useful explanation extends from the historical links between the camp aesthetic that Xena: Warrior Princess unrepentantly fits into and gay culture. There are a raft of historical reasons for this, but the point remains: there is something that is actually preferable about the deferred nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s lesbianism. There is a real sense in which it works better for them to be ensconced in a blatantly camp and transparent closet. And this is something that wasn’t hugely visible in Davies’ shows, at least up to this point, but that is important about Doctor Who and how it came back: the sorts of storytelling tools it used to reestablish itself came out of gay culture. And yet they’re tools that obviously apply well and specifically to cult television.
There’s years of untangling of this to do, and we’ve got some more significant milestones that we’re going to cover, but the basic issue should be clear. What does and doesn’t work in science fiction (and in most things) is getting increasingly complex and based on meta-awareness of tropes. A legacy of camp that intersects heavily with gay culture provides a road map out of that, but the overall intersections between gay culture and science fiction are minimal (although I’m sure you see where this is going for our purposes). And most people, or at least, most people with greenlighting powers for television projects, tend to think that Doctor Who is more like Sliders than it is like Xena: Warrior Princess. And while those in the world of books, particularly those with three-syllable names containing the bigram OR, largely see how to make the leap, the fact of the matter is that if Doctor Who were to come back around now it would be a complete disaster.