Not Just Strange For The Sake Of It
I don’t think there are many people who would look back on 1995 and refer to it as a landmark year. Things happened, certainly, as they do every year and there are definitely things that made and are still making impacts all this time later but alas thirteen year old me was focusing on other things. Namely, TV.
You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking back and not remembering any real classic TV that debuted in 1995 with the most notable ones being Star Trek: Voyager, The Drew Carey Show and, Baywatch Nights? Pinky and the Brain may have been out that year as well. My parents loved Star Trek and we watched it regularly as a family so that was an instant hit but for the most part everything else sort of fell flat for me. Like many freshly minted teens in ’95 I had a voracious TV appetite and no access to it in my room so that meant if I couldn’t sleep or I simply wanted to watch more the only option was to sneak out to the living room after everyone had gone to sleep to see what was on.
Infomercials mostly, much to my chagrin.
At some point though I got lucky and something magical happened when I realized that after a bunch of the crappy infomercials there was a run of shows on that included Hercules the Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and, The Outer Limits. While Hercules and Xena will always have a special place in my heart as some of my all-time favorite cheesy adventures and acting this article isn’t going to focus on them. Rather on the strange misfit in that trio, The Outer Limits and what had me thinking about it again recently.
For me the only version of this show that I knew was the one that aired between 1995-2002 however it did exist prior to that in a short run during 1963-65. It’s more popular kindred show The Twilight Zone was just coming to a close at that time as it had aired between 1959-64. The Twilight Zone generally held to a more Fantasy-Horror theme where The Outer Limits skewed more towards Science Fiction which meant for me it was a perfect match. They both certainly strayed into each others chosen flavors but they primarily stayed in their own playgrounds.
1. pertaining to, of the nature of, or characterized by speculation, contemplation, conjecture, or abstract reasoning: a speculative approach.
Over the course of my life I don’t think I’ve ever been a bigger Fantasy fan than I have Science Fiction but for no other reason than I simply enjoy the expansive nature of Sci-Fi.
Make sense? It didn’t to me, either.
It’s hard to put into words why one similar passion might necessitate winning out over another and I’ve long been loathe to name my “favorite” of anything much to the frustration of my friends. The fact is that for me it really depends on my mood, no one thing ever ranks as my all-time favorite regardless of what else may come along. Even the incredible tent-pole passions of my life like Star Wars, Star Trek, Dragonriders of Pern, Lord of the Rings and numerous others spend their time at numbers other than one as much as they do occupying that top spot. Like some sort of primal atavism they’re what I revert to when there is nothing to currently be consumed in the fire of my passion for new and exciting content.
Watching Amazon Prime’s Electric Dreams over the weekend, and by extension considering what I loved so much about The Outer Limits, I think it gave me some clarity. As I mentioned above Sci-Fi has this expansive quality to it where it takes bedrock principles of our daily reality and nudges at the boundaries to push us into new and exciting places or ways of thinking. What made me really appreciate the style and execution of these shows is how they explored big ideas in very small, personal and, relateable ways. Even though the vast majority of episodes shared no story, characters or common threads it was nearly impossible to not understand their plight and ride that feeling willingly to whatever bizarre destination was in store. As a young man with a fairly active imagination it was like taking a seat on a familiar carnival ride instead of the usual blind leap needed to immerse myself in a concept.
Fantasy for as much as I love it requires you to stand at a precipice of disbelief and leap armed with only the faith that the author has provided you with a soft spot to land so that you can get up and start exploring. Suspension of disbelief is a vital part of how we connect with these stories and worlds on anything more than a superficial level. This isn’t to say that Sci-Fi requires none of this in order to work but the type of speculative fiction present in these shows, and genre as a whole, has an almost seductive way of drawing you in. By the time things get truly weird you’ve barely noticed the transition and now you’re simply along for the ride. It’s pretty close to the exact reason that I appreciate the writing of Stephen King so much because many of his stories begin as you imagine many normal, average days do around the world. It takes the mundane and stretches it like taffy to sometimes laughable lengths but each step along the way is cemented in plausibility.
Fantasy will never make me look at my reality any differently, even for brief amounts of time, in the same way that Sci-Fi does, especially when presented in the style of The Outer Limits and Electric Dreams. Fantasy is like a bath that you immerse yourself in to lose any concept of your daily existence, to be transported to another world, to become another person entirely. It is an experience wholly removed from our own except in the most allegorical sense, something that can be ignored or acknowledged to the extent any individual chooses. Sci-Fi to me always feels like a more direct extrapolation where instead of fantasizing about living in a place that cant possibly exist, you are bidden to consider what small things would need to happen to bring us to this future.
Like in the oft repeated quote of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” watching this type of Sci-Fi seems like an exercise in the inverse of that idea. Instead of dwelling on things already past and how to avoid them in the future we look to what might be if only we could collectively clear a hurdle or two. Or in some cases fail to avoid the clear pitfalls before us. In this era of our existence we seem to constantly be on the precipice of some new wonderful, bizarre future and while we have yet to truly realize any of them the prospect is tantalizingly close. What The Outer Limits and Electric Dreams do for me is take our present reality on a walk through a maze of fun-house mirrors. Stopping occasionally to marvel at the warped and twisted caricature that stares back while trying to imagine what might have led us there and indeed what may lead us there if we aren’t careful.
While not all cautionary tales presented may have a basis in any possible future there are more than a few which seem less crazy today than when they first appeared on TV decades ago. A trend I suspect that will continue and actually accelerate as humanity stumbles onward into an increasingly muddy future. For example in the past decade we’ve started to have serious conversations on the governmental level about the regulation of AI development. A discussion most people viewed as an inevitability but just not one we’d have to address within our lifetimes, yet here we are.
It makes laughing at things like this a little harder and instead raises some questions we don’t have any easy answers to. It is sure fun to ponder though.
Many of the ideas and thought experiments posed are more philosophical in nature but that level of ambiguity often begs more consideration instead of less. It starts to become more about what we might do when it arrives and less about if. That is the conversation that holds my attention and its the one I enjoy having almost above all others. When I read or watch science fiction everything there seems within our reach if not for a few mathematical equations that elude our understanding. As much as I may want it with every fiber of my being I know I’ll never be able to conjure fire by sheer force of will. But conceivably before I’m dead I might be able to travel into space or visit the moon as an ordinary citizen of Earth.
So, what does this all this mean?
Honestly, I have no idea.
What I can tell you is that you should take some time and watch Electric Dreams then let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading!