To Boldly Go Where No Fan Has Gone Before – BSFA’s Donna Scott (The VH Interview)

Ahead of the release of Star Trek Beyond, Empire Cinemas has commissioned new research which looks at which space films the British deem to be the most realistic and which Sci-Fi inventions they wish existed.

The results of the study are released today, alongside expert insight from Donna Scott, the chair of the British Science Fiction Association.

In the study, Apollo 13 was named the most realistic science-fiction film, while Alien takes the top spot for ‘film with the most realistic alien’.

Yesterday, I got the chance to speak to Donna Scott about the results, the British Science Fiction Association and science-fiction cinema:

 

Thank you very much for speaking to us at VultureHound. I wanted to start off by asking you about the British Science Fiction Association.

So the British Science Fiction Association has been going since 1968. It was set up by a group of publishers, readers, fans, writers. Member number one is still with us, and that’s Brian Aldiss. We have a membership of around 700 members, and put out several publications a year. We have two magazines; Vector Magazine, which is a critical journal, and Focus Magazine which is more about subjective writing; we cover lots of all the creative aspects of science fiction with a focus on literature.

 

I noticed you’re quite into literature yourself, aren’t you? You do a lot of writing and poetry and stand-up as well.

I do, yeah!

 

How did doing that get you into the Science-Fiction Association?

Basically, I started going to conventions around 2003 – quite a late goer; I first went to Grissecon, which is a Storm Constantine event in Staffordshire. I started meeting all these people that were involved in publishing and writing and fan-do’s and things and then I met Ian Whates, who is a fantastic science-fiction writer.

When I met him, he was just trying and get back into writing and publishing a lot of short stories. He eventually became chair of the British Science Fiction Association, and invited me to become awards administrator. I took an active role in helping manage their awards and eventually became chair.

Quite a journey!

 

Do you still get time to do your stand-up and everything?

Not an awful lot of time, but I try to where I can. I can do some stand-up at the Science-Fiction Association, so it’s going okay!

 

In regards to the actual study; why do you think Star Trek Beyond was the film that called for this? It doesn’t feature in the ‘most realistic films’, but instead is featured for having some inventions like the holodeck and teleportation as things people would like to see in real life.

This particular film, Star Trek Beyond isn’t even out in British cinemas yet, so that’s probably why it isn’t in the study.

But Star Trek is one of those franchises that is renowned for having pioneered quite a lot of science-fiction-made-reality gadgets such as automatic doors and telecoms and stuff. It’s also a pioneering kind of show in it’s own right. And this particular film is really calling on the vision of Gene Roddenberry. What do we really want from Science-Fiction and the genre now? Is it just an action story, or is it more diverse? So it appeals to that sense of wonder that that first original series really captured.

The sixties are kind of like that golden time I think. It really does just fire up and down your imagination. We’re getting back to that, I think. Which is always a good thing.

 

Do you think we’ll ever see any of those inventions in real life? Like the teleportation?

Teleportation? I understand that it can be done at a molecular level. I probably wouldn’t want to try it; I’ve seen The Fly, I know what happens.

 

When you put it like that it doesn’t sound tempting at all, does it? Another invention that audiences want to see was the babelfish. I thought that was quite interesting because there’s a lot of translators and stuff in science-fiction, so why do you think it is that audiences want to see one that’s a creature that you stick into your ear?

Well, the babel fish is intrinsically cute, isn’t it? It’s a fish! Fish feature a lot in Douglas Adams. Don’t eat them; they translate!

I actually miss babel fish, because it was a programme that once existed and it’s now been replaced by Google Translate. I miss the cuteness of having that translation tool, even if it wasn’t accurate. But people like the idea of a translator that instantaneously works. But that’s not so far from reality, because of how the brain works, and how pictures work; how we can interpret sounds and vibrations. Who knows?

 

Looking at some of the other aliens in the study, this time on the ‘most realistic extra-terrestrials’ list and some of them seem like very strange choices. For instance, both the War of the Worlds films are on the list and in the 1953 version, the Martians look… very peculiar. Why do you think it is that makes the British people believe that it’s a realistic alien?

Well, I think people want to have something they can fear as a tangible creature. They also want aliens that are very far removed from a friendly humanoid face. We are the kind of people who see faces in inanimate objects and think they’re friendly. You see loads of memes going round on the internet, of coat hooks that look like friendly baby octopi and things like that.

Speaking of which, the original aliens in War of the Worlds were originally meant to be sort of octopus forms. But a lot of people have reckoned that this is like an extreme imagining of the end of evolution. That Martians were in effect a fear of what a human could become.

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I suppose that really answers the question for The Thing and the Xenomorph from Alien as well, because those are both far removed from what we recognise in real life, aren’t they?

Well, not that far removed, I mean, the Xenomorph’s were created around the human template. They have that bipedal sort of form. They look insect-like, but they were based around a more human form because they wanted actors to do it and I think that works well because it’s uncanny. Familiar, but not familiar enough, that unsettles people. For that reason The Engineers who came in through Prometheus; they are also uncanny. I mean, they’re mostly CGI, which is a bit peculiar, but they look so much like- I mean, they could be a rock band, just big body building rock people with their shaved heads, wearing lots of leather; that’s what they look like!

They also have the blank faces. It’s the lack of the emotion on their faces that makes them very disturbing. All of that is kind of hidden in the Xenomorphs; they just seem permanently angry. Because you can’t tell with the hissing- you see another kind of emotional impact from them, you glean the what they’re about through what they’re doing; how they move, rather than their facial expression.

But from what I understand about that film is that it ties in with genesis of the human race, and the Xenomorphs with The Engineers, so we all have some shared ancestry or creation and it calls back to that idea of ‘is there still a creator? Well yeah, apparently there is, but it’s not who you think!’
That will affect your sense of self, because if you believe in a creator, if you believe in something divine, which ultimately intends only good, then what would something like The Engineers do? Or at least, that’s my take on it. I’m very different from a lot of people on film.

 

Well, out of the two of us, you are the science-fiction expert.

And I get into so many arguments.

 

Do you think that’s why 2001: A Space Odyssey makes it onto the ‘most realistic films’ list? There’s a lot of ‘WTF’ moments on there, like the mysterious monolith and the character David Bowman’s transformation into a cosmic foetus. But do you think the monolith’s links to human evolution in 2001, like The Engineers in Prometheus, allow 2001 to be viewed as realistic?

I’m sure the monoliths are like a great big message that you can’t quite get. It’s like in a language that’s so different that you’re not going understand it and it’s awesome in the original sense of the word; in that it fills you with awe. And that can be kind of scary as well, knowing there’s something else; there’s something bigger. And you can’t quite get to understand it.

At the same time, you’ve got that juxtaposed with HAL, the computer, who’s a human creation, but has gone beyond that sense of ‘slave machine’ to the humans. In that he- he’s a- see, I’m calling him a him! It’s not a him, it’s an it!

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He does definitely speak with a mans voice though, doesn’t he? That’s probably why he comes off as a bit creepy; human but so emotionless at the same time.

Yeah, it’s again that sense of uncanny, it’s a friendly sounding voice that’s saying unfriendly things. But it’s not emotion free, it’s a very soothing voice.

[Imitating HAL]: ‘Dave… I’m not going to let you in Dave…’

It’s a soothing voice; it’s just that what he’s saying doesn’t quite match what it sounds like.

But I think we’re a long way off from that, no matter what the development seems to be; and it’s getting better and better and better and better, we’re a long way off from that kind of scenario, where you have that… Although, that said, the military are developing some stuff, which does sound scary.

 

On the topic of the films that do make the top ten ‘most realistic’, I was wondering what you had to say about the winner, Apollo 13, because obviously it’s based on a true story, so do you think it still counts as Science-Fiction?

No I don’t. It’s a lovely story, but it really happened! So I don’t know how it can be science-fiction. You could say it’s a dramatization of real events and they maybe make emphasis or draw on certain aspects of the narrative that all build up to the action or drama of certain bits. But we’re not overreaching here into the realms of imagination. It’s something that actually happened and it’s amazing and the truth is sometimes weirder than fiction. And that this happened at all, I think is amazing.

I think that anybody who decides to become an astronaut or work in any sort of space-orientated science; my hat goes off to them. It’s such an incredible area of science to work in.

And to be that sort of person who says ‘yes, you can pop my body in a rocket, and I will fight gravity and try to leave the planet and do something in zero gravity- in something that’s even more hostile than the arctic or the desert; I’m going to go up there and do stuff and then come back and try not to die in the meantime. It’s amazing. They could have died.

 

That’s a lesson Sandra Bullock learned.

Yeah, oh, well yeah. The thing is, Apollo 13, we know that that happened. They should have died. They didn’t die. They came back. Something a little bit less out there, not even quite in space. And the Challenger disaster; they died before they even left the Earth. That just shows how dangerous it is and how fraught of issues the space programme can be.

And then we have something like Gravity come along. And it’s done so realistically that people think ‘Oh, Apollo 13 was a good story and Gravity’s a good story’, but they’re not the same. They’re not the same at all. We have Gravity come along, and it’s completely different ballgame. That is a situation that draws on a lot of aspects of an Apollo 13-type mission, where we have people in space working; a disaster happens and then they have to try and survive against all the odds. And against all the odds means that in terms of dramatic tension, we’re only really concentrating on Sandra Bullocks character and wishing for her to get home against all the odds by herself, which is so unrealistic, I think. Incredibly implausible.

 

I was rooting for George Clooney. I didn’t even know he was going to be in the film, so when he showed up I was like ‘Oh God, George! Don’t die!’

Well, it’s really silly that he wanted to be heroic and save her and really that was the wrong decision, I felt. If you have a chance of getting to things, it would be the person with the rocket, just use your own inertia, get to a place of safety. Don’t burn up all your fuel trying to save someone else so that the pair of you might not be able to make it. It just seemed like really crazy.

 

That leads me into my next question quite well, because you’re saying about how crazy real life can be compared to science fiction, and I read that you’re fascinated with black holes. That’s right isn’t it?

Yeah, I am.

 

So what’s your favourite take on that space phenomena in film? Is it something like Star Trek or Interstellar, or is something a bit more left-field like Event Horizon?

Event Horizon… I can’t watch it. I thought it was so, so scary and gory. I cant watch it anymore. I’m really, really sorry, I know it’s a lot of people’s favourite film. But it’s just so ‘ah! oh my god, his eyes’; really, really horrible. So for that reason, I like the slightly more twee Interstellar. And it is twee. I know that. I mean this whole idea that there’s this blight across earth affecting people so they need them to be farmers; ‘oh, lets all do lots and lots of the same type of stuff’. No, that’s not how you solve blight. They’re deservedly doomed in that story.

And then they have to keep all the science secret and underground, so as to not give people false hope. It’s got no money anyway. Yeah, I think the whole black hole thing saves that film. All the science around the flowing of time around the planet. I that’s something that’s been fascinating me for years, not necessarily just on a universal scale, but even when it comes to things like geodesic time displacement; that sort of thing. When you have time moving more slowly next to a huge object on earth. Not that I could do anything useful with that, I just think that that’s a cool idea.

 

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If you stand- well, I’m probably going to get disproved by a real scientist now; but if you were watching people stand by the pyramids, and you’re far away, time is probably moving more slowly for them than it is for you, if you haven’t got an object by you.

I liked the whole crashing on the planets and, again there was a guy waiting for Matthew McConaughey’s character and, oh gosh-

 

Anne Hathaway? She was down there too, right?

Anne Hathaway! That’s the one. Anne Hathaway. Waiting for them on the space ship going, it’s okay, I’ll go to sleep in a sleep pod. They come back up and he’s old, like ‘I got bored!’

Just thought I’d wake up for a bit- I half expected him to say “I just got into a boxset, and before I knew it I was old”. I was like, ‘stay in the pod you silly-‘
Yeah so, it’s a good idea. A lot of people have said they don’t like the twee-ness of him communicating with his daughter through time, via the different dimensions that he falls through after the black hole and that it was basically our selves evolved to cope through the limits of a black hole. It’s kind of nice, but it’s sad too, in that we like to cling to the ideas that families are strong and its the preserving things; we want to preserve the things that are recognisable to us. And they say that in the future we’re basically going to be energy waves, and it’s kind of like… what is the point of preserving any of this really? But apparently, those things are worth doing. I can’t get their logic, but it’s nice!

 

You said that Interstellar is your preferred take on black holes, and you mention in the study that modern films are a lot less about unfamiliar technology and these fantastical happenings, but I was just wondering, as a science-fiction expert, what is your all-time favourite science-fiction film? Doesn’t have to be modern or realistic. If you could choose one, what would it be?

Oh gosh, this is where I would have to argue with people again, because I would probably pick a science-fantasy film. I’m probably going to pick Star Wars. It was the first science-fiction film I saw with my dad. And people say it’s not really science-fiction; they’re in space-ships! With a massive Death Star and laser things! It has the hallmarks of something old, and something very futuristic. The whole universe gives us lots of things to think about. How we would live with such different kinds of species in harmony, if there weren’t discord. It’s broadly a cowboy film and good vs evil, but it does present this idea that you can travel to different places; there’s fun things to do; you can go see a band; you can fly space-ships, and yeah, there’s a whole universe out there.

That’s probably my favourite for those different reasons. It’s probably nostalgic and silly.

 

Everyone loves Star Wars, don’t they? Did you have any thoughts on The Force Awakens?

I liked it. It probably didn’t have to be so similar to the first film. I think its great. Nice feisty heroine. And the bad guy turned good, which is a trope that they do very often, but usually it’s the good guy turned bad. It’s nice that they decided to explore something else for a change.

 

I suppose, we’re sort of straying the opposite way away from Star Trek now, aren’t we really? Are you excited for Beyond?

Oh, immensely. I really am. There’s been an awful lot about it in the news, this week. I’m just really excited to see a storyline that takes the characters in a new direction. It’s basically the same characters as the original franchise, but in a different timeline. We’ve got to learn their story so far but I love the fantastic take on the whole time split thing, and I just want to see what happens next.

Also, I’m a huge Simon Pegg fan, and the fact that he’s had a hand in the script really intrigues me. I want to see what he does with it.

Star Trek Beyond is released in Empire Cinemas on Friday 22nd July, book your tickets here: www.empirecinemas.co.uk/synopsis/star_trek_beyond/f5076