Monday, September 30, 2013

Comfort TV Goes Back to the Future

It is in our nature to wonder about the future. What will we be able to do in 20 or 50 years that we can’t do now? How will society change? How will technology evolve? 

So it’s not surprising that these speculations often found their way into television, obviously within the science fiction genre but also in comedies, dramas and animated series. One of the more fascinating aspects of watching classic television is looking at how the future was viewed by the shows of the past, now that that “future” has come and gone. 

How was the brave new world of the 1980s envisioned by people in the 1950s? There was an episode of The Donna Reed Show called “Explorers Ten,” in which Jeff and his friends form a club to talk about space exploration. A college astronomy professor tells the group that man will soon land on the moon, but there is a good chance that in their lifetimes the teenagers of the club will not just walk on the moon, they might visit Mars and Venus as well. Apparently they were pretty optimistic in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Hopefully that professor never got tenure.

Whenever a television series tried to depict the future, the two areas they always guessed on – and always got wrong – were couture and computers.

Why were the television writers of 50-60 years ago so certain that future generations would all want to dress in identical pajamas or one-piece jumpsuits? We’ve lost a lot of occupations to progress – gas station attendants, switchboard operators, milkmen – but fashion designer has not been one of them.

Computers have been around as long as television, and many accurately predicted they would become more sophisticated. But the assumption was always that they would have to be bigger to do so. Whenever you see a computer in a comfort TV series, it will always be an enormous floor model with a lot of blinking lights and two large spinning reels at the top. And if a character on the show asks the computer a question, it will respond either with a hokey electronic voice, made by an actor pinching his nose when he talks, or with a card that drops out of a slot after a cacophony of beeps like we used to hear on Mattel Electronic Football.

In retrospect, it is surprising that no one associated computer technology advancement with machines that would become smaller.

The sole exception to television’s poor track record at prognostication was Star Trek. The original Enterprise crew used communicators that resemble the cell phones we use now, and the diagnostic medical beds in Dr. McCoy’s sickbay have also been developed. On Star Trek: The Next Generation you will often see characters carrying communication tablets that perform many of the same functions our iPads do. With the advances now being made in 3D printing, even replicators may become reality.

Star Trek, of course, is the dream of what our future might look like. The nightmare can be experienced in any number of post-apocalyptic series, from Ark II and Planet of the Apes to Jericho and Revolution. And if you look at any list of shows set in the future, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. We will either live in a futuristic fantasy world like The Jetsons, or be foraging for scraps in a primitive wasteland.

Neither one has happened yet. And given our genius for invention and our genius for stupidity, the future could still go either way. But look on the bright side – even if we find ourselves in the worst case scenario described in Ark II, at least we’ll have jet packs and chimpanzee scientists – not the worst tradeoff for Armageddon.  


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