Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Final Frontier: Science Fiction and Christmas


When it comes to movies, I don't think any genre has been more under served at Christmas than science fiction. There's a massive amount of Christmas-themed horror and fantasy, but very little SF. I'm honestly not sure why: it's a surprisingly logical fit, given the genre's interest in culture and religion. There are a handful of exceptions, though most of them are mixed with other genres.

By my count, there have between two and four Christmas science-fiction films with meaningful budgets made in the past five decades (the exact number depends on how generous you are in defining both "Christmas movie" and "science-fiction").

Of course, TV has been more generous: science-fiction series, like every other genre, are often compelled to carve out some time at the holidays. What follows is essentially intended as a survey of the genre and a breakdown of how the concepts interact.

SPACE

When most people who aren't fans of the genre hear the words, "science-fiction," they think space ships and aliens. While this is only one facet of the genre, it's as good a place as any to start.

It's also an aspect of science fiction that Christmas movies have barely touched, which I consider a little surprising. Stories of humans choosing to retain or discard their traditions once removed from their origins can be powerful, and there's no tradition more recognizable to contemporary America than Christmas. What would it mean to celebrate what amounts to the recognition of the solstice when you're light years away? Would explorers be ashamed of where they came from or proud? How would such things align with alien customs?

Aren't these the sorts of questions Star Trek embraced? I've always been surprised there was never a Christmas episode (though they've acknowledged the holidays in passing a few times, and there was an episode of Voyager where the ship was briefly transformed into a Christmas tree ornament, presumably as a nod to the line of licensed Hallmark ornaments).

But, for whatever reason Star Trek never devoted a program to the holidays. Perhaps that's part of the reason why so few other space-based properties have thought to do so. It's a shame, because I think Spock would have had some interesting things to say on the subject. Or, if it had been tackled by Next Gen, the unintentional comedy would have been hilarious.

The real tragedy is that we'll never know what Data would have gotten Spot for the holidays.

I should also talk about the most infamous case when a space-based franchise attempted to confront the holidays when it probably shouldn't have. The Star Wars Holiday Special is almost legendary. It's clearly an example of a property that did not need or want a Christmas installment, and the results speak for themselves. Granted, this had at least as much to do with the producers' and writers' failure to understand the property they were entrusted with. Perhaps fear of being compared to this has made other franchises and series think twice before trying to put together a Christmas special of their own.

Of all the franchises to give us a Christmas installment, the one that surprises me most is Alien. While most people don't think of Prometheus as a Christmas movie, the holiday permeates the premise and story line. Ridley Scott has confirmed the backstory includes an extraterrestrial Christ, and the movie's time line involves an alien birth at Christmas. While I'm strongly of the opinion Prometheus fails as a film, it at least offers an outline for the ways Christmas elements could be interwoven into complex, dark science fiction. It's an intriguing aspect to an otherwise weak movie.

Finally, no discussion of Christmas and the cosmos would be complete without a few words about Mars. The 1964 film, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, enjoys something of a cult status. It's a bizarre low-budget production that's almost worth watching for the camp value. I can't say the same for the 2008 movie, Christmas on Mars, which offers little to no substance. Likewise, I can't endorse the 2009 animated special, A Martian Christmas.

In addition, some test footage for a proposed Marvin the Martian movie was leaked a few years ago, and like so many Martians before him, he was trying to get a handle on Christmas. Or, at the very least, vaporize it. He was downright festive compared to Invader Zim, who sought to manipulate humanity's love for Christmas to take over the planet.

While it's not exactly a rousing success, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians at least starts with an interesting premise: how would an alien mind view Christmas? The Martians understand it in terms of functionality. Humans have a festival, and it results in positive results. This idea has also been picked up by shows like Alf, Mork and Mindy, Third Rock from the Sun, and Lilo and Stitch: the Series. These stories tend to focus on aliens learning (or comically failing to learn) the true meaning of the holidays, essentially just rehashing the Scrooge or It's a Wonderful Life narrative.

But there's room for so much more. Christmas's placement in the solar cycle makes it relevant on a planetary scale - I'd live to see more exploration of this idea. Likewise, the holiday's religious aspects already heavily influenced science fiction (again, Star Trek has devoted numerous episodes to the exploration of God and faith from multiple perspectives). Even the iconography of the star of Bethlehem lends itself to the genre.

If you're interested, I've written a few Christmas stories in this sub-genre, including "Tribes of Gypsies," which I'd list as one of the best pieces I ever wrote. Likewise, Lights on the Roof includes some Christmas guests from way out of town. Several of my friends are fans of a short piece I wrote called "Christmas Conquers the Universe," though - honestly - I don't share their enthusiasm for it.

DYSTOPIAS AND POST-APOCALYPTIC FILM

Terry Gilliam clearly either loves Christmas or at least finds it fascinating. His surreal dystopian film, Brazil, is set at the holidays. While they don't play into the story much, they're a major component of the setting. It seems to be the absurdity of the holidays he's exploring. Personally, I far prefer his time-travel film, 12 Monkeys, where the holiday is offered a very minor role on a voice mail recording which is central to the story. The film never quite makes it to December 25, and there's not enough decoration to really qualify as a Christmas movie.

Speaking of Gilliam, he's clearly an influence on Alfonso CuarĂ³n's more recent dystopian story, Children of Men. This is one of those "maybes" I mentioned earlier - the movie is essentially a futuristic nativity story, but it seems to take place in November. That may or may not qualify as a Christmas movie, depending on your requirements.

One of the best Christmas shorts ever made, Peace on Earth, is a post-apocalyptic Christmas parable from 1939. It tells the story of the end of mankind and the rise of an animal civilization. It also features some of the most beautiful animation of the era: if you've never seen this, you should track it down as soon as possible. There was also a 1955 nuclear update, Goodwill to Men. The original is a little better, in my opinion, but they're both impressive. 

I'd love to see more of these sub-genres explored more in holiday media. Who wouldn't love a Mad Max Christmas special?

Check out my story, Scrap, if you're itching for more dystopia around the holidays. Likewise, the zombie story, The Perfect Gift, explores a post-apocalyptic shopping dilemma, though it's more horror than SF.

TIME TRAVEL

The holiday's biggest SF proponent might be a time-travelling alien: Doctor Who has produced several holiday specials, combining genre tropes with Christmas traditions. These are best watched in the context of the series, so you'll have some sense of who the characters are.

I think my favorite is the 2010 episode, A Christmas Carol, where The Doctor plays the part of the three ghosts and recreates the classic story for a curmudgeonly old man. The story uses the device of time travel not just to mimic the effects of the ghosts, but to transform the original story in unexpected and fascinating ways.

We get a similar (albeit less successful) approach in the Quantum Leap episode, A Little Miracle. Like in Doctor Who, this involved a time traveler, inspired by Dickens's story, manipulating a cruel, rich man into behaving honorably around the holidays. In this case, the temporal tools at his disposal were limited to information about the future, which provided a less satisfying resolution. At least there was a holographic projection to stand in as a ghost.

Of course, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol itself can be viewed as a primal Christmas time-travel tale (though obviously it should be seen as a holiday ghost story first and foremost). The ghosts operate like the TARDIS, able to travel in space and time. In that respect, dozens of homages have at least skirted the genre over the years. It's unusual for anything to go as far as Doctor Who and view this from a science-fiction framework, though Blackadder's Christmas Carol heads in that direction briefly. Already a subversive comedy, it takes the "Christmas future" concept to a far extreme, offering a glimpse at a space opera complete with made-up aliens and ridiculously absurd galactic wars. And, as always, it's at Christmas.

Likewise, the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life, utilizes similar tropes. It's worth noting that It's a Wonderful Life can be viewed as an re-imagined Christmas Carol where the Scrooge figure is already a good man, he just needs to realize it. We watch his life play out for the angel, Clarence, who shows him not the future, but the present without him (which, like the future in the original, can still be changed). It should be noted that this sequence, which incorporates an alternate timeline, was extremely influential in subsequent time-travel stories, including Back to the Future, Part II. Like A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life isn't technically science fiction (since the device empowering the story is magical in nature), but it's certainly an important component in the genre's history.

There's another time-travel Christmas tradition, also built around magic and also influential in science fiction. This one's actually a little more convoluted, however, as the original story, Christmas Every Day, didn't include any actual time travel. It did, however, seem to inspire others to correct that oversight. The premise, that Christmas occurs daily, lends itself extremely well to a time loop, and it seems more than likely Groundhog Day was at least someone inspired by the 19th century story. This has been adapted several times, such as the admittedly crappy made-for-TV Christmas Do-Over, which has a loop almost indistinguishable from Groundhog Day's. Of course, Sesame Street did it better with Elmo Saves Christmas. I also enjoyed Fairly Oddparent's spin on the premise. Of course, it's debatable whether any of these should be described as SF, since the causes were (again) implied to be magical in nature.

Counting the myriad imitations of these three classics, time travel might be alone in SF in being over-represented. However, the vast majorities of these are relatively straight-forward adaptations or parodies of A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. I'd love to see more variation in the approach and for more time travel stories to emerge, leaving behind these these archetypes.

I've written one Christmas time travel story, A Ring. In addition, I have written a spin on A Christmas Carol called The Sixth Stave, though it contains no time travel or science fiction elements.

ROBOTS AND ARTIFICIAL LIFE FORMS

This is a sparse but fascinating source for SF Christmas stories. One direction is essentially a variation on the extraterrestrial Scrooge/It's a Wonderful Life premise mentioned above. The Batman: Brave and the Bold episode, Invasion of the Secret Santas, is a good example. The story focuses on Red Tornado's attempt to experience the Christmas spirit. It's a somewhat ridiculous SF/superhero tale told at the holidays.

You could also include Edward Scissorhands in this category, though its Christmas credentials are a tad dubious. This artificial man is closer to one of Blade Runner's replicants than a conventional robot, but it all points back at the forerunner of the sub-genre, Frankenstein's creation. The holiday elements are less central to the story - they're more for tone than plot - but it's a similar idea: Edward is trying to find a connection to humanity. What he discovers, unfortunately, is that he's more human than the rest of us.

More common than artificial beings trying to be real is Christmas fantasy re-imagined as robotic possibility. Nothing has done this as well as Futurama, which featured a malfunctioning evil robot Santa in several holiday episodes. Of course, an evil Santa plays as a Krampus stand-in, though it's unclear if that was intentional. The obscure animated show, My Life as a Teenage Robot, played with related ideas in their cleverly warped episode, A Robot for All Seasons.

While cyborgs are not, in fact, robots, The Six Million Dollar Man fits in better here than anywhere else. In the episode, A Bionic Christmas, Steve Austin uses his mechanical abilities to play Santa while walking a Scrooge stand-in through a Dickensian vision quest, all to ensure he'll help the US government successfully reach Mars. It's a moronic episode, but I can't think of a more succinct synopsis not just of the episode but the entire genre's relationship with the holidays.

While there's not a huge volume of Christmas television devoted to robots per se, they are closely related to at least one common holiday fixture: the snowman brought to life. While these are almost always magical in nature (but not always - Doctor Who has played with at least nominally SF origins), they're still at their core sentient artificial beings, essentially robots animated by Christmas magic instead of circuit boards. Set aside the magic hat and Christmas snow, and Frosty the Snowman is a story about an artificial construct learning what it means to be human. He actually has a great deal in common with Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I know I already mentioned my story Scrap in the section on dystopias, but it applies here just as well. It's also the only Christmas story I've written to date about robots. But, if you were convinced by my comparison between living snowmen and robotics, my horror story, Man of Snow, offers more than a little science fiction mixed in, as well.

CONSPIRACIES

Is it because Santa's workshop is hidden away in a top secret location, equipped with surveillance monitoring everyone on Earth? Is that the reason shows revolving around government conspiracies and secret organizations feel compelled to do holiday specials?

The X-Files two-part Christmas episodes Christmas Carol and Emily don't have much to do with the holidays outside of set dressing. Then again, the episodes don't deliver much of substance (a later episode, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, was much better, but it doesn't qualify as science fiction).

But they're not alone: Warehouse 13Roswell, and Eureka have all done Christmas episodes, even if they weren't especially memorable. Roswell was by the far the most religious, playing up the Christ parallels. The other two bordered on fantasy, though - who are we kidding? The genres cross over all the time.

While it's not remotely science fiction, Stanley Kubric's final film, Eyes Wide Shut, also features a shadowy conspiracy with near infinite resources and a borderline supernatural knowledge of the world. Was there some connection between this sex cult and Santa's workshop? Seems unlikely, but no more so than any of the other theories trying to make sense of this mess of a movie.

I don't have much to offer here from my own fiction. As a rule of thumb, I avoid worldwide conspiracies in my writing: I guess I got my fill of that genre growing up in the 90's. I suppose Department of Letters comes close, though.

SANTA CLAUS AND ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY

A discussion of SF and Christmas wouldn't be complete without mentioning how it's become commonplace to upgrade Santa's workshop with futuristic inventions, such as his rocket-powered sleigh in Elf. That's nothing to the high tech equipment present in Prep & Landing. Granted, this is more secret agent than Star Trek, but it still has a definite SF vibe.

However, nothing has done super-science at the North Pole better than the criminally under-appreciated CG masterpiece, Arthur Christmas. The closest we've ever gotten to Star Trek at Christmas might be the Enterprise-inspired sleigh featured in the opening. The movie asks what it would take to plausibly deliver presents to every child in the world in a single night then - astonishingly - answers the question with mathematical precision. There's at least as much magic in the movie as science, but the science fiction is used thoughtfully and rationally (as is the magic, for that matter).

Technology isn't always a good thing, though. In Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas, the elves are mind-controlled by Dr. Claw. Sometimes, Santa just can't catch a break.

I don't have much to add to this section other than the piece I just mentioned, Department of Letters. Then again, I'm proud of the story, so I don't mind presenting it twice.

CONCLUSION

Christmas movies have clearly been reluctant to embrace science fiction, though they have a tendency of interjecting the occasional element. When science fiction is explored, it's disproportionately skewed towards variations of Scrooge and George Bailey: while these are fine directions to head in, I'd like more variation. There's no reason for science fiction to shy away from Christmas when other genres embrace it so completely. It's utterly baffling to me that we get an almost unlimited number of Christmas horror movies, but only a handful of science fiction.

Wouldn't you rather get a steam-punk or post-apocalyptic Christmas movie than yet another family dramedy or rom-com?

Okay, okay. That steam-punk comment was a cheap attempt to shill The Carnival of Father Christmas, the only SF Christmas story I wrote that I couldn't work into any of the above categories. That's everything, though. Yup. Nothing else to mention.

Crap. Fine. Go read Last Minute if you want to throw away 15 minutes of your life. But don't come complaining to me about how boring it is: I'm well aware.

Finally, I thought I'd mention an unofficial Star Trek Christmas video. There are actually quite a few recut videos online offering different interpretations of the holidays aboard the Enterprise, but this one is by far the best I've ever seen.

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