Imagine what your life must look like from a distance. You spend a lot of time bizzy and bizzier only to flop down from exhaustion at the end of a week. The minor irritations caused by your family or boss or anyone don’t seem anywhere near as important when you try to explain them to someone who isn’t involved. The small joys you receive from the loves of your life aren’t as important to someone else.
That perspective is both very valuable and chilling at the same time. I often advise a “strong half-step back” because while a bit of perspective is important, you have to stay close to the small joyous moments of life if you are going to remain a decent and loving person.
The very best of Science Fiction and its sibling Fantasy is like this. My kids have started to read longer books, and they love the latest generation of books on worlds apart. Just to make sure that they have some perspective, I’ve done my best to give them the material that I grew up with.
The problem with taking that “strong half-step back” is that you have to be able to imagine, at least for a short while, what it’s like to see your life from a distance. The best works can pull you into an alternative world that you never want to leave, but if they do their job well you find that you can return to a normal life having something in your head that sticks with you. Our species of standing-up chimp learns by vague allegory even quicker than it can learn from linear experience.
The best experiences I’ve had with material like this are the BBC show “Doctor Who”. This was a very early Sci-Fi teevee show that crossed the line into Fantasy many times. My favorite Doctor was Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor, who you may know as “the bug in the tux”. But they’re all good to me.
I’ve shown my kids “The Carnival of Monsters”, in which the Doctor finds himself in a kind of electronic zoo, and “The Pirate Planet”, where the inhabitants of a planet find themselves fabulously wealthy by destroying other worlds without ever really asking why their telepathic conscience hurts so badly.
These are both situations that we will never find ourselves in, but we find our societies participating in constantly. In the case of these 30 year old (and more) cardboard shows there is little chance of falling helplessly into the universe where a Police Box can be much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But the wit and charm and dashing of a being who has a greater sense of Grace than the race of intergalactic enforcers that he came from is something that can stick with you.
I’d like to tell you more about Doctor Who, but that’s not really the point. There is a lot more entertainment that is like this. The value is that it can stimulate someone’s thinking without preaching. Want to get people excited about Global Warming? Do it through “The Day After Tomorrow” rather than a speech. It stays with them much longer, and ultimately becomes a more visceral call to action.
The reason this works is that when the images stay with us, they cross the line into our daily lives. The lesson goes from one of great perspective to one of exciting immediacy. Too much perspective and you can’t cross back to ordinary life and the fable stays out in the world of fiction. It stays in a world apart.
Perspective is necessary to keep our lives meaningful and balanced. Special effects that aren’t all that special and a world that is apart but bears no points of reference to our own will not create the allegory that really makes the entertainment stay with us and teach a lesson. Sometimes, the best examples are the shows that rely on the force of a personality more than the gadgets and high concepts. Doctor Who did a great job of that, and it stayed with me all these years. Perhaps it will stay with my kids.
It all starts with that perspective that takes us out of our daily lives. Science Fiction and Fantasy, at their best, illustrate how strange and silly it all can look from afar. But the really great ones take us back home and stay with us long enough to make us a bit better for it all.