7 space-based TV shows get graded on realism

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This post is part of Science of Sci-Fi, Mashable’s ongoing series dissecting the science (or lack of science) in our favorite sci-fi movies, TV shows, and books.

Hollywood’s attempts to peek into the future are more art than science. Science-fiction TV shows, focused on making good stories, are happy to take liberties with what’s scientifically plausible if it serves the plot. 

For the most part, audiences come along for the ride without questioning the realism. If the USS Enterprise crew is already doing a currently impossible thing, it isn’t such a leap of the imagination to think it also carries machines that beam matter across space or devices that cure diseases overnight. 

Still, the concepts depicted in these shows should have some basis in science. To measure the realism of our geeky favorites, we gave each a greade based on three factors:

Technology: Are the show’s ships and gadgets in line with what we know to be possible, even theoretically? And are they depicted realistically? For example, energy beam weapons are certainly possible; pulsing ones that act more like bullets, not so much.

Time frame: In theory, any technology that can exist, will exist — eventually. Do these shows leave a realistic amount of time before we’re cruising around the galaxy? Interstellar travel makes less sense in the 21st century (where we’re still working on our first manned mission to another planet) than it would in the 51st.

Social dynamics: Do people behave the way we’d expect, given the timeframe and the technology? Historically, major advances in science have brought massive social change in their wake. At the same time, humans are human no matter the century. Have the writers balanced the new and the timeless in constructing their spacefaring society?

Let’s start with the TV space franchise that is top of most minds:

1. Star Trek (1966-present)

Spock and Kirk: Highly illogical?

Technology: Though Star Trek took some liberties with theoretical physics, warp speed and “beaming” via transporter are both possible (or at least not impossible). As the franchise expanded, though, so did its pressure on our credulity. God-like beings, torpedoes that terraform planets and cheat death, and casual time travel — to name a few — turned Trek into its own bubble universe. Anything you could imagine in a sci-fi story could and would happen.

Time frame: Faster-than-light travel and matter transmission are far-future technologies. The notion that scientists will discover both by the mid-23rd century remains wildly optimistic.

Social dynamics: Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show that humanity had moved past its petty and imagined grievances. Earth turned its back on sexism, racism, organized religion, and even capitalism. No wonder the show stayed in space and rarely delved into the utopia back on Earth, which always felt more like an cool thought experiment than a realistic look at where social progress might take us.

Grade: C

2. Battlestar Galactica (new series, 2003-09)

Frakking toasters.

Frakking toasters.

Technology: BSG, as it’s known, is a tale of tech extremes. While its day-to-day technologies resemble those of contemporary Earth (and some, such as the non-networked landline-filled Galactica itself, are even retro), it also gives us the Cylons — organic artificial intelligence physically indistinguishable from humans. That’s certainly possible in the long run; only BSG‘s jump drive, an instantaneous method of faster-than-light travel (essentially teleportation) is truly out of this world.

Time frame: “All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again,” BSG repeatedly told us. While the Galactica is connected to present-day Earth — we won’t spoil exactly how — it’s not rooted there. The time frame that the characters are aware of expands repeatedly, giving the sense that human civilizations like ours are doomed to create AI that will go on to wipe them out in devastating wars. That feels chillingly plausible. 

Social dynamics: Galactica is the all-too-human opposite of Star Trek. Characters fail, lie and betray each other all over the place. This is humanity “warts and all,” as Commander Adama would say.

Grade: A

3. Lost in Space (new series, 2018)

Dangerously unrealistic, Will Robinson!

Dangerously unrealistic, Will Robinson!

Technology: Netflix’s Lost in Space, the most recent entry on this list, may also have the most realistic depiction of technology. Most of the tech is basically identical to that of present-day Earth, or it’s a reasonable extrapolation. The spacesuits are sleeker, the ships and vehicles more maneuverable, but the seat-of-the-pants colonization plot feels grounded in a familiar reality … that is, until that robot shows up and flings everyone to a planet in a distant galaxy.

Time frame: The show is set in 2048, which feels way too early to even think about colonizing another star system. The show explains this via a mysterious and catastrophic encounter the human race had with alien technology, but not necessarily to the point where we can suspend our disbelief.

Social dynamics: The Robinsons aren’t quite the perfect nuclear family they appeared to be in the promotional material. Human society definitely appears to still have issues; the father is a veteran who fought in a recent war. At the same time these future colonists fall into the Star Trek-like trope of forming a united squeaky-clean quasi-military front.

Reality grade: A–

4. Babylon 5 (1993-98)

Never mind the science, check out the fabulous costumes!

Never mind the science, check out the fabulous costumes!

Technology: Bablyon 5’s creators wanted a show that was more realistic than Star Trek; they mostly succeeded. Sure, its hyperspace travel and governmental telepaths were pretty far-fetched — but they were shown as the domain of alien races. Human tech was decidedly less advanced. Ships generated artificial gravity via rotating sections rather than magical new science. Best of all, space combat depicted the actual physics of a vacuum — with little in the way of sound effects.

Time frame: Alas, as in Trek, the 23rd century feels way early for the Earth to become a major player in a far-reaching galactic community. 

Social dynamics: While technology has taken a giant leap forward, society itself looks much the same as in our age: similar politics, attitudes and prejudices. The show even went out of its way to show the Earth’s many religions — which are very much still a thing.

Grade: B

5. Doctor Who (1963-present)

It's a Doc and a box.

It’s a Doc and a box.

Technology: Since its first broadcast in November 1963, Doctor Who has played fast and loose with science and technology. When your hero travels in a broken, camouflaged time machine with contorted dimensions that make it bigger on the inside, you know you can find yourself in Opposite Land at any time. But the TARDIS is advanced alien technology, making it hard to disprove. The show has offered multiple futures for our planet, often showing technologies — such as self-aware plastic, instant cloning and “fountain of youth” de-aging devices — far beyond where we’re at now. 

Time frame: In recent years especially, Doctor Who has had its cake and eaten it too. Present day Earth is presented as very similar to our own, while the show has mostly pushed its far-fetched sci-fi ideas into the distant future — as far ahead as the head-death of the universe, billions of years hence. After all, both are just a step away from each other when you have a time machine.

Social dynamics: Doctor Who has always had more to say about present day social matters than the  time periods and alien worlds it visits. Whether a particular story is set in the far future or in some distant galaxy, the characters seem very human. It’s sometimes hard to swallow that, after millions of years, people are still basically people.

Grade: D

6. Firefly (2002)

Captain Mal and his crew.

Captain Mal and his crew.

Technology: Firefly was set in a single star system that humans have colonized, after a civil war between the civilized inner and frontier outer planets. There are no aliens, and, apart from the assumed progress in space travel, no magical technologies along the lines of Star Trek’s replicators. The mix of high and low tech just feels right, and it gets extra credit for ditching pew-pew sound effects for its space battles. In space, no one can hear you strafe an opponent with laser fire.

Time frame: Set in the early 26th century, Firefly seems far enough out: even with current technology, generation ships could make the journey to another star system in a century or two. 

Social dynamics: After colonizing the system, the human race retreated back into its tribalist ways, leading to a stark separation between the haves and haven-nots. This might be an overly pessimistic view of the future, but given the state of the world today, it feels eerily likely.

Grade: A+

7. Red Dwarf (1988-99)

Boys from the Dwarf.

Boys from the Dwarf.

Technology: Red Dwarf was a space sitcom with a simple premise: A mining ship from the 22nd century suffers a radiation leak. A crew member called Dave Lister happens to be in “stasis” — suspended animation — as a punishment for bringing a cat on board. Three million years later, it’s finally safe for Lister to come out. He’s joined by a hologram of his old roommate and a stylish, fast-talking humanoid that evolved from his cat. 

The show then stacked on a series of hilarious plots about sentient androids, dream recording, nanobots, backward-running universes, genetically engineered mercenaries, and multiple methods of time travel. In so doing it became more and more unmoored from reality. 

Time frame: Red Dwarf is a weird one. The mining ship tech is supposed to be at a 22nd-century level. But because Lister effectively travels into the future — and, since the ship accelerated the whole time until it reached near light speed, more than 3 million years has passed relatively — it’s clear the universe he encounters has changed a lot. That gives the show more of a pass on realism than you might otherwise think.

Social dynamics: The crew are hardly humanity’s best, which helps makes Red Dwarf a biting satire at best. Since it’s often the characters first taste of the sci-fi concepts shown, they’re very effective cyphers for the audience, an behave all too human. In other words: bull’s-eye.

Grade: C–

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