Inside Television: Sci-fi series set out to answer questions - and could deliver plausible theories

  • @MsEllenEJones

"Science fiction," said Ray Bradbury, “is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it's the history of ideas.” If that’s true, then TV drama has lately been shirking its responsibilities and indulging instead in escapist genres like fantasy (Game of Thrones) and period drama (Mad Men, Downton Abbey). Now, sci-fi is back in a big way. So does that mean we’re once again ready to engage in some serious thought?

Last week the premiere episode of new sci-fi series The 100 set a ratings record for E4, Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service is hoping to get in on the action with the Halle Berry starring Extant, and the most anticipated new series of the autumn, HBO’s The Leftovers, is also in the science fiction genre.

The first notable trend of the new sci-fi is that trends are much easier to identify than they once were. Long-running series like Star Trek used a space odyssey premise to touch on a different ethical dilemma each episode. During it’s first run, Star Trek famously confronted militarism, intolerance and included the first inter-racial snog on television. These new shows are comparatively limited in their themes, but the concerns they do have remain more or less consistent from episode to episode and series to series. These concerns are, if you like, built into the shows’ very DNA.

When the second series of Channel 4’s excellent conspiracy thriller Utopia begins on Monday evening, it will continue its interest in how genetic science might save or damn the human race. Last season we discovered that The Network’s objective was to prevent war and genocide by introducing a virus/vaccine which would sterilise 90 per cent of the population. Horrific eugenics experiment? Or genius act of heroism? Part of Utopia’s appeal is that both seemed applicable. By the end of series one, even the show’s most sympathetic character, paranoid nerd Wilson Wilson, had switched sides.

The Leftovers, which will air on Sky Atlantic, is also concerned with a mass extinction event, only it takes place after the fact. In a small US town police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) struggles to maintain normalcy after two per cent of the world’s population just vanishes. The 100, skips forward another century to a time when nuclear war has left Earth uninhabitable. A group of teenagers are dispatched back to the surface, not to investigate, as they at first believe, but to conserve rapidly dwindling resources for those who remained on the space station.

Over-population, reproduction, population control; how will the human race survive? And does it even deserve to? These are the questions that all the new sci-fi series set out to answer. To the relief of viewers of sci-fi’s last big let-down, Lost, it looks like they may even deliver some plausible theories.

The Maracanã can't match Morse

On Sunday evening, the World Cup final will be airing on both ITV and BBC One from 7pm until at least 10.30pm - later if the match goes into extra time. That’s great news for fans of high-drama, high-level sporting events, but what about everyone else? Perhaps you’re avoiding the football in protest at the tournament’s increasing lack of fair play and sportsmanship. In that case, try ITV3’s marathon of 60s-set Endeavour from 7pm - young Morse is the ultimate gentleman. Are you bored of football’s macho stereotypes? Then you’ll want The Night Watch (BBC2, 9pm), an adaptation of Sarah Waters brilliant novel on wartime social conventions. And if you simply find the competitive tension unbearable let The Sky at Night (BBC Four, 10.15pm) remind you of how insignificant it all is, in the grander scheme of things.


University Challenge: Class of 2014, BBC iPlayer

Ever wondered what academic swots do for fun? This two-part documentary has the answer: more swotting. We meet the teams preparing to enter the 2014 University Challenge tournament, and they’re a fascinating bunch. It’s the past contestants, however who reveal most about how higher education shapes intelligence. Particularly Gail Trimble, aka the show’s cleverest ever contestant.

Couples Come Dine With Me, 4oD

Even if you thought you’d already had your fill of Channel 4’s dinner party reality show this new twist on an old recipe is surprisingly moreish. Three couples compete to host the best dinner of the week, but the real drama is what goes down in the kitchen. Too many cooks spoil the broth, especially if they happen to be married.

Extant, Amazon Prime Instant

Amazon are hoping this will be the series that turns their Prime Instant Video service into a realistic rival to Netflix, and it’s obvious why. Exec-produced by Steven Spielberg, Extant stars Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns from a 13-month solo mission to discover she’s mysteriously pregnant. To complicate matters, her husband John (Goran Visnjic from ER) is on a sinister baby-making mission of his own.

Penny Dreadful, Sky Go

This gothic horror series got off to a slow start but the finale has left us gagging for series two. Eva Green has found her calling playing preternaturally calm mystic Vanessa Ives, but it’s Rory Kinnear who will send a shiver down your spine. As Frankenstein’s monster Caliban he manages to evoke a tear of pity, even while murdering blameless old men and throttling defenseless women.