Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror: A Comparison of Popular Genres of TV Series
There are numerous debates around the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, and their characteristics. They are very similar in their core as they all refer to imaginary world, however, different in their approach to portraying that world. The sci-fi and fantasy base their storyline on the fight between the protagonist and the enemy or the so-called monster, while the horror tends to emphasize the emotional struggle of the characters. The sci-fi intends to predict the future; fantasy delves deeply into the past, while horror mostly deals with the present. All the genres tend to be more successful when depicting the current social, political or historical events with the corresponding allusions. The essay aims to discuss the genre characteristics of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy in TV series, which, although being different, are often combined in one cohesive unit that impacts the audience by raising questions about the past, the present, and the future.
Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films embrace social, historical, and political perspectives to make the show more true-to-life and engaging even for a viewer who is not particularly interested in the speculative genres. For instance, in “Rise of the Cybermen” episode of Dr. Who people of the Earth wear EarPods that transmit information directly to their brains, which is a satire of the modern obsession with different devices and lack of critical thinking skills thereof. Moreover, in the same episode the homeless people are captured for the dangerous experiments posing them as the most vulnerable and helpless, thus, revealing the social inequality. This episode, although sci-fi in its nature provides the viewer with the valuable insights regarding the real state of things.
Similarly, in the episode of the fantasy show Game of Thrones “Oathbreaker,” Daenerys is captured by the Khals. They do not take her seriously as a woman and a widow, as they believe she is simply too weak. Their actions remind the educated viewer of the subservient nature of women throughout history. Despite all that, Daenerys manages to escape her captors not only thanks to her fire resistance, but also due to her courage and quick wits; thus challenging the preconceived notion.
The horror genre, although viewed by most as a fear trigger, can surprise the viewer as well. For instance, in The Babadook, the movie by Australian director Jennifer Kent, the mother suffers from severe depression because of her husband’s death. The depression is portrayed in her irrational fears and illusions that make this movie not just a generic horror film, but a meaningful psychological drama. The horror elements in this movie are portrayed along with her depression; and in the end, when she finds strength to confront the Babadook, she really develops a rather severe depression. The movies that pay heed not only to the action and special effects, but also to the human aspects are often more successful than the ones that fail to do so.
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Among the other goals, persevered by each of the genres on TV, science fiction unlike horror and fantasy, strives to predict the future and warn people about their behavior in the present. For instance, in the episode “The End of the World” of Dr. Who, Rose and Doctor observe the last day of Earth as it collapses due to the expansion of the sun. Owing to deforestation and the greenhouse effect, Earth is now more affected by the solar radiation. This episode alludes to the current problems faced by the planet and the results it can produce in the future. In another episode “World War Three,” the aliens Slitheen are trying to obtain a nuclear activation code to destroy the Earth. This element demonstrates the potential danger of the arms race between the developed countries as any of them can turn into “Slitheen” to shift power on their side.
Fantasy films tend to encompass a wider almost historical picture analyzing the past and not the future. In the episode of Game of Thrones “Mother’s Mercy,” religious fanatics force Cercei to atone for her sins by walking naked through the crowd to the castle. This act of penance reminds about one of the medieval inquisitions where the sinners were often publicly humiliated and even executed for their misdeeds. Additionally, the fact that she was forced to parade naked through the city alludes to the fable of Lady Godiva, who rides through the town of Coventry naked to protest her husband's unfair taxation. In the episode “The Dance of the Dragons,” the viewer observes the slave battles similar to those of gladiators in the times of ancient Rome. Finally, the war between the five kings is reminiscent of almost every European war in the medieval age as well as in modern times. In this way, an insightful viewer can compare and contrast the real patterns with the movie events.
Horror movies revolve around the hidden fears and ulterior motives of the characters. The characters appear in the present, however, may also include flashbacks and flashforwards (Sanchez). For example, the episode “Murder House” from the TV series American Horror Story, concerns a couple whose relationship is deteriorating because of the husband’s cheating and wife’s miscarriage. His actions are a key reason why the mood of the story is highly depressing and the tone is rather distant and pessimistic. There are a lot of flashbacks that provide insight into the lives of former residents of the house who have now become ghosts. However, the story unfolds in the present, and the flashbacks serve just as an explanation for the present terror. Additionally, in 28 Days Later, a zombie horror movie, the director Danny Boyle transforms the zombies to make them more dynamic and viral compared to the previous iterations. His transformation is a metaphor for the present terrorist activities which have become faster and more widespread. They are no longer singular events without any serious consequences, but rather massive catastrophes like hurricanes or earthquakes. 28 Days Later portrays the inability of people to escape the dangers of modern world, since they have become instant and viral just as the world has become tightly interconnected. Therefore, horror movies base highly on the present and the psychological profiles of the characters.
The concept of change has been conveyed differently by science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, albeit there are certain similarities. According to McKitterick, “Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change,” and this change transcends time and space (McKitterick.) Science fiction shows how people transform the world and themselves through technological breakthroughs, and how this can become the present of modern humans. When science fiction preserves a positive view of technology, horror according to Paul Wells “has defined and illustrated the phobias of a “new” world.” In Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien, horror utilizes the fear of the new world instead of science fiction's common use of hope in a new age (Wells.) The crew of the spaceship discovers hostile predatory alien species, and is left to fend for themselves. This movie's ship is very ramshackle and decrepit which, considering the film, appeared during the Iranian hostage crisis and an era of economic downturn in the US. This clearly demonstrates horror’s ability to turn science fiction on its head and express the collective fear of the future (Baccolini). In fantasy, the change often seems to be predictable as the genre itself plays with universal themes of good vs. evil and love vs. hate. Therefore, the viewer can expect the main character to commit heroic deeds and win in the end (Timmerman). In general, the change in sci-fi brings hope for the future, whilst in horror it fosters suspense and uncertainty, and in fantasy is just a plot device that often leads to a predictable ending.
There have been ongoing debates about attributing varying genres to different movies such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. Talking about different genres of fiction, McGowen claims that, “None of them can ever be combined with fantasy and still maintain its true character”(McGowen). However, modern film theory managed to challenge this preconception by combining various genres into one harmonic unit. Although Star Wars, for instance, is traditionally defined as a space opera, it has elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Some technological advances, for example, holographic messages and automatic doors that appear in the original series, have already become a reality in people’s life. Those things, however, were uncommon in 1977, thus making it a sci-fi movie. Nonetheless, the work contains a large number of mythical features such as the Force which provides the Jedi with supernatural powers and even allows them to become ghosts after death which already makes it a fantasy. Therefore, this movie series is a combination of genres which does not diminish its success and value for the viewers. Similarly, in Doctor Who series the backbone of the show is of course the sci-fi elements such as the time machine and the space travel. However, as the show progresses, there is an enormity of fantasy features that disperse randomly around the sci-fi foundation. Many of those fantasy spots emerge due to the lack of the so-called scientific explanations of events as Doctor Who is a soft science fiction. Nevertheless, in the episode “The Satan Pit,” Doctor Who confronts the Beast, the Satan who is a mythical creature and a defining element of both fantasy and horror. This episode, like some others, portrays even possession and exorcism which are the religious factors not typical of science fiction. All things considered, modern film directors are not afraid of successful experimenting and combining different film genres.
Horror literature derives itself from pulp fiction and has been largely influenced by popular culture as well. According to Sanchez, “Horror fiction never has made it out of the murky depths of its pulp roots, despite the unquestionably-literary works that bear its name.” The same can be testified to the horror film, as even the best horror movies usually receive lower critic points than other genres. Nonetheless, they remain popular among the audience as they refer to the basic people’s desire to feel safe and secure behind the screen. People get adrenaline from watching the horror film; however, they understand that the events shown on the silver screen are not real, and it gives them a sense of satisfaction. Alternatively, fantasy movies conjure up childhood memories as many of them have unique characters such as fairies or giants. These conjuring tricks provide for the desire of people to recognize the ancient archetypes as well as to submerge into an unknown past epoch. The brutality and simplicity of the fantasy world relieve people from the complexity of the modern world relationships. Sci-fi movies in their turn foster people’s desire for the advancement and betterment of their being. Just like in fantasy, people get a chance to explore the unknown, although this unknown in the case of sci-fi can be made a reality in the future. All three genres have other worlds that distract the reader from the known facts and also provide the audience with the flashback into the past or give ideas for the present dangers and future improvements.
In conclusion, the concept of genre has become vaguer throughout the past 50 years, as filmmakers prefer to combine different categories into one cohesive unity. All three varieties introduce the viewer to the unknown imaginary world; however, one can see the struggles and challenges of the reality. The characters in fantasy and sci-fi fight against an external threat, thus affirming the humanity’s need for the feeling of safety, while the actors play vulnerable and psychologically unstable people, thereby illustrating people’s need to perceive themselves as a part of the horror movie. Although all three genres intermingle, there are key characteristics that help draw a border among them. For instance, sci-fi concerns the future of humanity and the possible dangers that can cause its destruction; fantasy often renders past events, thus analyzing human history and endeavors, while horror plays upon the fears and anxieties of the present. However, there is no denying the fact that all three genres will further develop and raise new questions as the technology advances at an ever-increasing pace, and people’s life becomes more globalized and interconnected.