Magical scifi and building worlds

Two planets with a solar flare behind one

Image: Space Scene by Deiby

Detailed back stories, characters’ past experience, in-depth consideration of every detail of a place, person, environment, machine or action – for me, these are the elements of great storytelling. These are the things which raise a good story up to a great one.

I’ve never thought of myself as a scifi fan. Aside from the odd Star Trek film (number IV, the one where a giant chocolate roll threatens Earth’s survival and can only be appeased by an extinct species of whale), the TV series and related spin-offs passed me by.

Recently though, I threw myself into Battlestar Galactica, a remake of the 1970s TV series brought into modern times. I was hooked, completely and utterly, from the pilot mini series through to the final fifth series.

Every character is developed, relationships established and changed over time, challenges faced, adventures won and lost, in wonderful detail. The visuals – the strange movement of the ships, expansive exterior space and planets with colourful starbursts and solar winds – are stunning. Everyday objects like notepaper shapes, shirt collars or a mechanic’s spanner have been considered and designed to fit in with the look and feel of the fictional world they are set in.

What this does is create a believable ‘world’. When a character commits an action, you believe it. When a mechanic opens a hatch and fettles a pipe with a spanner, you believe she’s fixing something. When the series’ villain (Gaius Baltar) is a British Byronesque genius scientist collaborating with an enemy race of machines, the principle of which is a beautiful, seductive blonde woman in a skimpy dress, only visible in the villain’s mind’s eye – blimey, even something that ridiculous, when the world is fully developed you still believe the story.

When such fantastical (and yes, sometimes ridiculous) elements come together and create a narrative world you believe in is when scifi works for me. This is when scifi becomes magical.

When you have a world that isn’t bound by physical laws or the current limitations of our environment, space, brains, understanding of the universe or cultural expectations, you have a world where anything becomes possible. This is where imagination can create new routes, parallel stories, subplots and adventures.

I’m pleased to see another strand of the Galactica world starting online today, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, albeit just a two-hour pilot. This spin off story is being shown on Machinima‘s YouTube Channel after Syfy chose not to commission a series. Here’s a trailer:

Extending a series by focusing in more depth on a particular character, an event or going back in time to see how key events came to be, as with Blood & Chrome, is also where stories’ mythology can come from. Imagineering ever deeper creates more context, more reasoning, filling out characters in ever more detail and hence drawing us into the world even more.

The expansive documentaries in the Alien Quadrilogy collection give a great insight into the people who imagineer such worlds for a living. Some of the most fascinating insight is in the pre-production documentaries. These include HR Giger’s Alien – its form, biology, motivation and indeed evolution – and overarching frameworks of Alien‘s human world by concept artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss.

Ever more story and detail, for me, is what makes great scifi – and storytelling for that matter, whether film, TV or in novels – immersive. And when stories become truly immersive, we are transported.

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