Why are all these science-fiction shows so awful?
Science fiction was once a niche TV commodity, but March brought three major live-action genre projects. Star Trek: Picard finished its debut season on CBS All Access. FX shared Devs with Hulu, pitching the miniseries as prestige bait for the chattering class. Season 3 of Westworld was HBO's new hope for a buzzy, sexy-violent epic. And they were all terrible.
What happened? I kept pondering the problem while watching the latest season of The Twilight Zone, CBS All Access' disappointing anthology reheat, and Brave New World, Peacock's goofy dystopian riff. All these shows look okay — decent-sized budgets, solid casts, theme-y dialogue — and they exude a uniform unhappiness. Their mascot could be Jimmi Simpson, cast in Westworld and The Twilight Zone as a desperate loner falling in murderous love with a woman who might not be real. Or maybe it's Alison Pill, cursed on Picard and Devs to play a brilliant scientist who sleeps with her mentor while experiencing monstrous prophecies. Necessary to point out, of course, that each series has its supporters, and defensive fandoms. My brilliant colleague Kristen Baldwin put Devs on her mid-year top 10 list. Someone out there really wanted Westworld to become decaf Blade Runner with an abominable Aaron Paul performance, I guess, and the series just earned a raft of lower-tier Emmy noms. And anyone who loves Star Trek has lived through bad first seasons.
What intrigues me is the common plot thread between all these divergent series: godlike technology run amok. Westworld and Picard back into identical sagas about vengeful synthetic life. The former's noirish reboot in season 3 relegates great characters like Thandie Newton's Maeve behind bland tycoons controlled by a nefarious orb. That supercomputer sees everything — just like the device in Devs, which peers across time and space. Brave New World adds its own omniscient artificial intelligence to the 1932 source material. And Picard's finale climaxes with genocidal time-traveling megamachines. Actually, that's the second straight neo-Trek season to end with bad robots. Last year, Discovery stared down an all-powerful security system: Skynet for Starfleet, basically. Meanwhile, ambient techno-paranoia informs the new Twilight Zone's mood. In the season 2 episode "You May Also Like," iPhone-ish device anticipation becomes a spiritual fixation in a colorless world.
I get it: We are all scared of phones, and bots, and the Algorithm. Yet by demonizing technology, these projects oddly exonerate the people behind that technology. CEOs with tragic origin stories in Westworld or Devs are puppets for machines they can't control. Higher-tech powers in Brave New World and "You May Also Like" control whole civilizations comprised of unaware humans.
I'm reminded of how people in Silicon Valley have lately become fixated on dark prophecies about the singularity, the moment when A.I. will evolve beyond humanity. Those concerns always sound handwashy to me, a way for unbelievably powerful rich people to worry about something cool when they could be worrying about income inequality, social-media-enabled totalitarianism, or all the other problems their industry's success directly propagates. Consider A.I. skeptic Elon Musk, who recently complained loudly about coronavirus stay-at-home orders. His Fremont, Calif., Tesla plant reopened — and employees started testing positive for COVID-19. Wouldn't evil A.I. be smart enough to listen to Dr. Fauci?
Musk is an avowed fan of science fiction, and has even drawn a direct line from a childhood affinity for Isaac Asimov's Foundation series to the grander Martian-terraforming plans of his company SpaceX. As a billionaire genre enthusiast, Musk is probably dwarfed only by Jeff Bezos. Amazon's founder famously rescued The Expanse from cancellation, possibly because he views the series' central concept — humanity spread through the solar system — as a roadmap for Blue Origin's colonization future. Both men have done fannish cameos — Rick & Morty for Musk, Star Trek Beyond for Bezos — and they both benefited immensely from the glowing depictions of tech entrepreneurs that a way-too-credulous media crafted throughout the early 2010s.
That worshipful tone evaporated after 2016; recently, in-depth reporting on Amazon's dystopian treatment of employees has turned "Amazon employee death" into a freakishly recurring Google Alert. The most mainstream opinion today places tech titans somewhere on a spectrum between Capitalist Self-Parody and Inhuman Emperor of the Anti-truth Apocalypse — Surfin' Joker Zuckerberg and Fascism-Enabling Zuckerberg, basically.
Yet the old glowing haze informs the depictions of Big Tech in these latest science-fiction dramas. In Devs, Nick Offerman's Forest actually has created the kind of godlike device that people used to think Google X was working on. That device can anticipate everything, everywhere — precisely like the year's other big quantum computer device, Westworld's Rehoboam. That looming sphere was created by Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel), possibly the worst character to ever appear on an HBO TV series. Serrac and Forrest are both villains — arguably, in Forest's case — but it's telling how they both linger mournfully over sorrowful backstories and frequent declarations of global importance. I worry that the TV writers seem asphyxiated by their own good taste, as if it would be uncouth to let these characters be motivated by money.
Picard has its own problems in this area. For 54 years, Star Trek has been a franchise about the soaring awesomeness of technology: spaceships, transporters, a voice-activated computer, a phone in your pocket! Both CBS All Access shows bend over backward to build trendy device anxiety into the spacefaring canon. Discovery imagines Starfleet falling victim to its own security A.I. — and besides the obvious way-too-late Terminator ripoff, the A.I. has the embarrassingly Tron-ish moniker Control. In Picard, the Federation turns racist against synthetic beings, an obviously uncool social vibe rendered incoherently accurate by the climactic threat from fifth-dimensional synthetic beings who actually do want to destroy all organic life.
If any of this sounds like a morally ambiguous take on the problems of contemporary technology, it is my spoilery duty to inform you that Picard ends its first season by bringing the main character back from the dead as a rebooted android, all wounds healed, powered up for decades of new adventures. Devs and Westworld feature their own variation of resurrection, all main characters revived into some digital heaven or other. So all the early warnings about tech turn into secret religious endorsements, and a handy way to do shocking cathartic deaths without actually killing anyone. Actually, the aggressively nonsensical Westworld finale winds up arguing that society will collapse without the sacred orb. The merely infuriating Devs finale ends with Forest explaining his own new godhood. (Lest you underrate the assaultive tone-deafness underlying Devs' fancy philosophizing, the miniseries practically ends with a tech boss telling his female employee she really should smile.)
"Digital heaven" is not a new idea, but you sense the long shadow of "San Junipero," Black Mirror's acclaimed romance about two women finding real love in the eternal simulation. The anthology's creator, Charlie Brooker, staged his own dark corollary with a Trek satire that, oddly, also features Jimmi Simpson. (Everything should!) "USS Callister" stars Jesse Plemons as Robert Daly, a startup founder who turns sci-fi nostalgia into a brutal weapon, imprisoning his co-workers in an endless space adventure.
Epochs of human history have passed since "Callister" aired in 2017, but it remains the defining portrait of the internet's moral corrosion: workplace misogyny, the do-what-thou-wilt toxic narcissism of online life, the hasty evolution of the American nerd archetype from endearing shyness to retributive destruction. In our own dark future, some of the most powerful men in the world are science-fiction fans — are, in fact, often more religious in their science-fiction fandom than they are about any actual religion.
This is not just a one-percenter issue. Fandom has many faces, but the boots-on-the-ground attack squad version of extreme franchise zealotry has become a depressing constant reality, to the point where creators like Rick & Morty producer Dan Harmon seem to feel a moral requirement to speak out against trolls. The culture of grievance fandom has a lot in common with intense religious worship, buoyed by decades of triumphalist declarations about science fiction's social importance. In the centerpiece moment of "Callister," Daly quotes the mission of his beloved TV series Space Fleet, describing with adoration how "it's a belief system, founded on the very best of human nature. It's a goal for us to strive towards, for the betterment of the universe, the betterment of life itself." For him, though, it's also an excuse to do anything he wants to do. How many terrible things have been done in Christ's name?
It's possible to support the lofty ideals of high-tech innovation while questioning whether those ideals have become corporate propaganda covering up old-fashioned worst-practices inequality. And it's possible to doubt that someone who speaks eloquently about space travel really has the best interests of humanity at heart when their business puts literal humans at risk. Above all, I think, it's worth wondering if science fiction as a reaction to our modern age increasingly looks like the source of the problem, not a solution. These shows offer an easy escape for everyone watching — the computers have gone mad! — while here, in the real world, old-fashioned malicious human error is tallying six-digit fatalities from sea to shining sea.
Worth pointing out that this live-action drought is occurring alongside an ongoing spree of great fantastical cartoons, from the exuberant nihilism of Rick & Morty to the conversational surreality of The Midnight Gospel and the hard-won optimism of Steven Universe Future. Those series are thrillingly unencumbered by any genre expectations. They also paint with a more complex emotional palette, balancing apocalyptic numbness with comedy, imagination, and the kind of willful meandering that used to be the best argument for television as a separate art form. Not everyone digs animation, so maybe this just comes down to what you expect from science fiction: thrilling weird worlds full of new ways to conceive of the human experience, or talky self-serious blather filling time between cool new ways to kill people on screen.
All the recent science-fiction dramas deplore the machine but can't help sanctifying the humans; they reflect the audience's fear, without interrogating the audience's complicity. If anything, they reward that complicity: Stick with the internet, kids, and after some bumps in the road you'll live forever in the cloud! Coming soon to Fox: Next, where a messianic founder chases a rogue A.I. (At this point, wouldn't it be better to chase the rogue messianic founders?) This is why I keep on coming back to Black Mirror, the greatest science-fiction series of the digital age. It gets a wrong rap as a show about evil technology, but it's really about how technology gives people new ways to be evil. That's science; the rest is just fiction.
A version of this article appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.