Thinking About SF: Classic Erosion

What do Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Star Trek TOS, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series have in common?

Watched the second episode of the new TV series Foundation last night. It’s well-made, well-acted, yet most of the plot so far is totally created by the series producers, using only the base premises of Asimov’s stories (a group of novelettes and novellas that became the three books (“novels”) in the “Foundation trilogy”), about the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire and the idea of “psychohistory” to predict future events, to kick the series off.

I had a clue about this when I read that this entire first series of 10 episodes is based on only the first two stories in the first of the three Asimov books. (I blogged at length about that first book, including the first two stories, here back in 2017.)

From Wikipedia, it seems the producers think they can keep this series going for *eight years* of 10 episodes each, to cover the entire trilogy. (Good luck with that; I predict it won’t.)

Anyway, my takeaway from episode 2 is that the series suffers a common effect I’m calling, for the moment, “classic erosion.” That is, the erosion of a classic work into a familiar form more palatable to a wide audience.

The whole reason some works are “classics” of course is because, at the time of their publication or release, they did something truly new, something no other work in its genre had done. Those works became the bases for discussion, and inspirations for other writers/filmmakers/et al to develop their works.

But my thesis is that “erosion” always occurs. The farther from the original, the more imitations, or translations, or versions, the less they are like the original and more like the popular forms of the day.

With Foundation (as I’m sure I said in that linked earlier post), Asimov’s stories, written in the early 1940s and in 1950, had the form of stage plays. Characters stood around and talked. Very little “action.” The drama was all intellectual. The characters talked about grand and important events, but those events were happening elsewhere. Asimov was an intellectual author, not given to dramatics, and most of his stories and novels were actually types of puzzles, about some event being deconstructed and explained, in the manner of a locked-room murder mystery.

So here’s the erosion: this Foundation TV series not only adds huge, gratuitous special effects, it also adds a major plot point about a rebel planet bringing down a “space elevator” on Trantor, causing the deaths of millions, and thereby triggering a campaign of retribution by the Emperor. It also adds the notion that the emperor is a series of clones. It also adds the notion that Hari Seldon is murdered. (In Asimov’s stories, Seldon died offstage.)

Because, *obviously,* a bunch of characters standing around talking about a problem, as if solving a mystery, would not engage a sufficiently large modern TV audience. So they had to change it.

(I seem to recall an old joke about the Hollywood producer to the author of a book: “It’s brilliant! Let’s change it.”)

Not yet seen: the famous scenes in Asimov’s stories in which Seldon appears holographically in a “vault” to retroactively predict the current political crisis Terminus — the planet where Seldon and his acolytes settle — has suffered. These scenes, at the end of the first few stories of Asimov’s series, were highlights of the books.

Since this sort of thing happens again and again, the result is that Hollywood makes movies, and TV series, to be as much like previous movies and TV series that have been popular as possible. The distinction and uniqueness of, in this case, the original books, is almost lost. (Fans of this TV series who seek out the books are likely to be disappointed.)


Two other prominent examples come to mind.

Frankenstein has become entrenched in popular culture as a flat-headed, incoherent monster, and whose danger represents a warning about men who “play god” by attempted to create new life. (It’s the essence of the thriller, an adjacent genre to SF: if it’s new, it’s dangerous, and must be destroyed.) Beyond the fact that, in Mary Shelley’s original novel (published in 1818!), Frankenstein was the name of the scientist, and not of his monster, the philosophical themes of that novel have been completely taken over by the various film adaptations, from the 1931 film through various later iterations that became increasingly campy. The same, roughly, has happened with various other “monsters” that Hollywood adapted into films in the 1930s and 1940s — Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, King Kong, et al. All of these became similar to one another (not only because Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred in so many of them) that they became parodies, the originals of these characters turned to pablum in popular culture.


And my favorite, and most personal, example of this effect is Star Trek [The Original Series], i.e. STTOS. It ran for 3 years in the 1960s, and was a formative experience in my life. And it’s the classic example of a cultural form that wasn’t particularly popular at first — precisely because it was unlike anything that had been done before — but which became vastly popular (what at first was called a “cult” hit) over the decades until it’s now, like Star Wars, an inescapable component of popular culture.

And yet, the very distinction of the original series that launched the franchise that has lasted decades, has not been preserved. The original show was about “seeking out new life and new civilizations,” and given the format of TV shows of the time, each episode was independent of every other episode, with rare exceptions. Thus they could be watched in any order. And thus something truly new could be discovered — in almost every episode — that didn’t have to be accounted for in any of the other episodes. So you truly had no idea what to expect from each new episode, and why each new episode might well provide a total new perspective and challenge to preconceptions.

Yet even in the second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation in the 1980s, this ideal became diluted, by the prevalence of recurring characters and themes — Q, the Borg, the Ferengi, the holodeck — and the frequent focus on the show’s standing characters, especially Data and Worf, in ways that were more like soap opera than space opera.

Even TOS had recurring political themes, what with the Romulans and the Klingons. Such themes became more prevalent in TNG and especially in the later series: Deep Space 9, Voyager, Enterprise, and the others. I did not follow these beyond initial samplings. Virtually nothing about exploring strange new worlds and encountering concepts never before considered.

The movies were worse; every other one seemed to blow up the Enterprise. Great special effects, but so what? They’re all about spectacle, the lowest of Aristotle’s elements of tragedy, and least of interest to true science fiction.


I have similar comments to make about how stories erode, via sequels, in another post soon.

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