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Stranger Things, Westworld, and Mr. Robot: What’s driving our fascination with sci-fi?

If, as one study suggests, you’re like 70 percent of Americans these days, you likely binge-watched a series or two over the holidays. And with the sheer number of science fiction or alternate reality shows available today, maybe you watched Netflix’s The OA, or HBO’s Westworld, or USA’s Mr. Robot.

Is pop culture having a “metaphysical moment,” as coined by The Atlantic? If it is, what’s pulling it in that direction? According to associate teaching professor Nathan Blake—whose expertise was built in part on work in documentary film and television—the combination of new media platforms, remarkable talent, and a cultural “suspicion that shadowy forces are shaping reality” has paved the way for a broader consumption of sci-fi shows.

Shows like Stranger Things, The OA, Westworld, and Mr. Robot all seem to fit together in a category, though describing them as science fiction doesn’t seem quite right. How would you describe them?

I agree that many of these shows are not easily classified as any particular genre. While Westworld may fit certain science fiction templates, it also explicitly plays with the conventions of the Western. They all certainly share a degree of self-reflexivity in terms of genre, often in ways that challenge audience expectations. International film historian Thomas Elsaesser has recently noted the prevalence of “mind-game” films, which play games on the protagonist (is there a conspiracy or am I delusional?) as well as the audience (can we rely on the narrator?) This kind of complex storytelling is well suited for serial TV, as it has many more hours to develop its world and can even respond to audiences in subsequent episodes. While the “mind-game” or “puzzle” film or show isn’t really a genre, this mode of narrative and reception almost always involves stories in which new technologies and-or institutions forge alternate worlds and realities.

In your estimation, have shows like Stranger Things, The OA, and Westworld permeated pop culture in a new or different way than sci-fi programs of the past? If so, how?

In some ways, they continue in the tradition of Star Trek or The X-Files or Lost in that they engender a dedicated fan culture. Compared to the blockbuster science fiction and comic book movies that truly permeate pop culture, these shows have a relatively small audience. But in today’s fragmented media economy, having 14 million viewers watch Stranger Things constitutes a phenomenal success.

Netflix, HBO, and Amazon are producing streaming content for a media-savvy audience that is more than happy to produce lots of supplemental content through social media, podcasts, fan sites, etc. These sites also have a different metric than the network dependent on advertising; they sell subscriptions, and such content generates a great deal of recognition. And as streamed media, I’ve no doubt they’re mining all kinds of revealing data on the molecular level about how audiences engage with such content.

Elsaesser argues that the mind-game narrative is more akin to a database than to a literary work; viewers scan the text for codes and clues. If you search through Reddit you’ll find just how deep fans will dig into every aspect of a show. The writers of Mr. Robot found a fan who had recorded the sounds from Elliot’s radiator with the assertion that it held a Morse code; this has in turn changed the way they script episodes.

The OA was produced by Brad Pitt and his team at Plan B, and the other programs mentioned earlier feature relatively well-known actors. Is it a testament to the caliber of acting or production that these shows are so successful? Or does their success indicate something larger about culture in general?

This speaks to the ways in which services like Netflix are willing to take risks. Many of the reviews of The OA characterize it as nonsense—but also praise it for taking such a leap. This is refreshing in an environment where studios are reluctant to invest in anything but a well-established franchise. These shows are gorgeous and slick, with remarkable talent on screen and off, and this may also expand the audience beyond fans of certain genres. Netflix has been gathering lots of data on what its subscribers like, and given its success rate, it seems to know exactly how to translate that into the right package, so maybe The OA wasn’t such a risk after all.

Christine Folch posits in The Atlantic that the love of science fiction is something found uniquely in Western societies and is largely absent in Bollywood because “disenchantment creates a demand for these stories” in the West. Do you agree?

First, I’m reluctant to speculate on why Bollywood does not produce many major science fiction or fantasy films or why so few Indians watched a film like Transformers 3; I suspect there are other global economic and marketing factors to this—and East Asia continues to produce many great science fiction films. But Folch is on to something when she expands upon the 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber’s notion that since the Enlightenment, Western culture has been in a state of “disenchantment,” that the world feels explainable, predictable, and boring (although I would argue that quantum physics, for example, is anything but).

Folch argues that we turn to science fiction and fantasy “in an attempt to re-enchant the world.” The structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov shares a similar insight when he defines the “fantastic” as the possibility of a hesitation—an uncertainty—between the laws of nature and some apparently supernatural event. In some ways this is at the heart of the way we view film in general: as a photographic medium, we tend to see film and television as having some connection to the real world before us, but it also transforms reality and reveals other fantastic dimensions. For the most part, I don’t see that much “enchantment” in contemporary science fiction. There may be plenty of technological fetishism, but this merely masks some underlying ambiguity or dread. These shows, along with Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, reflect a deep paranoia, a suspicion that shadowy forces with mysterious technologies are shaping reality, breaching other dangerous dimensions. There’s a common truism that science fiction is not about the future, but a lens on the present.

Do you think our political climate is contributing to people’s interest in science fiction? In other words, do you see it either as a form of escapism or as a way to make sense of things?

Science fiction can serve both of these desires, and I don’t see them as necessarily in opposition. Many forms of storytelling in general help us work through frightening or complicated issues elliptically—not unlike the ways dreams apparently help us process our waking life. Dystopian narratives can reflect our current situation in a manner that viewers can perceive and process. If a story presents a fantasy world, a wish fulfillment, it also indicates some lack, failing, or crisis. For instance, Avatar conveys an intimate sense of community and a connection to a harmonious natural environment; Star Trek, The Martian, and Arrival feature global collaborations of supremely competent and rational individuals. Ambiguous and paranoid narratives like Mr. Robot and Stranger Things do two things: They highlight the anxieties of the surveillance state, runaway technology, and institutional corruption; but their conspiracy theories also posit that there is in fact some hidden order and meaning to the disorienting, alienating, and chaotic world. Technology is changing so quickly these days that we must imagine the future—of artificial intelligence, wearable computers, or drones, for example—in order to lay the foundation for the world we want to inhabit.

Photo via Flickr user Rachel Young.

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