Meeting the Other in the Third Millennium
This year has seen a dramatic change in sci-fi. Not only is there more of it on television than there's been in ages, but the quality for the most part is exceptional. Reality TV seems to be heading to its well-deserved demise. All three of what were once called “the major networks” have their own sci-fi offerings this season, and interestingly, all are of a sub-genre which has never been done as a series before: first contact. (V doesn't count.*) What's more, the most-hyped sci-fi movie of 2005 was also a first-contact story, a remake of the very first first-contact tale, H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
The “first contact” story—present-day humanity meeting extra-terrestrials for the first time—was once very common in film, before true masterworks such as Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. created heights so intimidating that most directors shied away from attempting to match them. Instead, the monster-on-a-spaceship/space station sub-genre became the poor substitute for the work of honestly considering what might really happen if today we found ourselves face-to-face with proof that we are not alone.
The first contact genre is a mirror which allows us to see the projections we place on the “Other”—whatever seems "alien" to us, whether other cultures or countries, to the shadow side of our own psyches. During the Cold War in the 50's, first contact was typically a sinister invasion; Earth (the United States) was in danger of being “taken over” by aliens (the Soviet Union). There were sometimes more thoughtful works—Red Planet Mars had beneficient aliens reminding us to follow our own spiritual teachings, and The Day the Earth Stood Still showed us that our own fear was more dangerous than any outside threat. In the hopeful days after the end of the Vietnam war, Spielberg's classics promoted a degree of optimism about first contact that had never been seen before. Yes, Close Encounters had an entertaining level of tension—kids were abducted, and the motives of the aliens weren't clear until near the end, but the compulsion to discover overrode all fear. In E.T., there was truly nothing to fear but Fear itself, symbolized by the government's meddling in a situation that children had well under control!
Much has changed since then. The short-lived peace after Vietnam dissolved into a series of escalating wars, ranging from covert operations in Central America, to open conflict in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Yugoslavia, to 9/11, the "War on Terror," and lengthy, bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's little wonder that in 2005, first contact is painted with darker colors, as suspicion and anxiety rule about the unknown Other who's now with us.
Traditionally, first contact portrays the Other as coming from the sky, and that aspect is present in these new stories, but there is also a strong degree of "from below" in these tales as well. Specifically, the primordial element of water figures very prominently in all three of the series, especially in Surface and Invasion. Water is the mystery element par excellence. It covers the depths, which symbolize our subconscious, and is considered the point at which life on earth began, the womb of the world. Water is the element of baptism, symbolizing new birth and becoming a spiritual being. It is the predominant substance of our bodies, so the mysteries water holds are within us as well as around us, and connect us to all things in this world. In Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake, the threat comes from below as well, but mostly from underground instead of underwater.
The first-contact story presents unique challenges as a TV series. Since first contact is by definition an event, the movie format is perfect for presenting it as such. However, the hope of any television series is that it will air for years. Thus, the event needs to only become a process, but one which maintains interest and suspense over the span of dozens of episodes. New things must constantly be revealed, but once too much is, the series will fall apart. This makes it even more amazing that not just one, but three networks are attempting the same feat at the same time:
Update: Threshold exhausted its ideas within a few episodes and expired after a half-season. Perhaps its failure caused NBC and ABC to lose confidence in their much stronger offerings; at any rate, those networks decided not to renew their shows for the 2006 season. This led to the last few episodes having a greatly accelerated pace as the writers hastily sought to wrap up loose story ends, with mixed results. It would have been a great treat for Surface and Invasion to have had another year to play out their intrigues and revelations.
* V is considered by some to be an example of a first-contact series, but actually its first-contact themes were exhausted in the mini-series that inspired it; by the time it became a regular television series, we already knew everything about what the aliens were up to, and only a campy war story remained. Back