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It’s OK to whinge about the internal consistency of Sci-Fi shows

In 2014, the BBC Sci-Fi show Doctor Who ran an episode called Kill the Moon. The story climaxed with the revelation that the Earth’s Moon was actually an egg, which proceeded to explode/hatch a giant Space Dragon… which then beat its wings(!) as it flew off into the vacuum of Space to presumably go and find other giant Space Dragons to mate with and lay more moons. Even for Doctor Who, the writers of which don’t generally scrimp on the crazy juice, this was noteworthy for its absurdity.

After it aired, a pitched battle began online, with one set of fans FUMING at the writers. Their charge? They lamented the show’s descent into a lack of scientific believability. But hold on… (Whovian defenders retorted) this is a show about an ancient alien who flies around Time in a Police Box which is bigger on the inside. An alien who always seem to arrive at a time & location (usually in the present-day UK) just as some alien-oriented hijinks is about to go down. An alien who regenerates into a new body after death. An alien whose tool of choice is a screwdriver that can do literally anything the plot requires it to do. But you’re annoyed about scientific believability?? Chill out, guys! It’s a family show! It’s light, fluffy, popcorn. Don’t take it so seriously!

As put-downs go, it’s pretty solid. You’re getting red-faced because you don’t like how a story played out in a kid-friendly bit of light entertainment. In terms of things to get enraged online about, it’s not exactly up there with Climate Change and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

But, similar arguments continued to appear, not just relating to Doctor Who but also, among others, the first season of Star Trek: Discovery and JJ Abrams’ Star Wars. The same dismissive, mocking responses told these dissenters to just chill out and enjoy the story.

Just. Enjoy. The. Story. And herein lies the heart of WHY people get upset by this kind of thing and rage about it online. And why the writers and producers of these shows would do well not to be too dismissive. People are annoyed because they’re deeply invested in the Universe the writers have built. They LOVE the story and feel passionately about it… but are upset because the writers are ruining it. Why? Because they’ve got to abide by one key rule:

The Universe must be Internally Consistent

Let’s imagine that JK Rowling is sitting down to pen a new Harry Potter novel. Rowling has spent decades cultivating the Potterverse, establishing the framework of rules and constraints in which her stories take place. What do we know about these constraints?:

  • It takes place in parallel to our Universe, overlapping at several points
  • It’s set now
  • Magic is real

The fact it takes place now, in our Universe establishes a number of boundaries to her story. We’re on Earth. The Laws of Physics apply. Modern-day human society, technologies, cultures and politics are all in effect. The introduction of magic is obviously odd… but it’s established early, its deployed consistently, and the rules around what magic is and isn’t, can and can’t do are enforced coherently. We even understand the rules of the magic society, how they educate their kids, what they wear, how they talk, what they do for fun, what kind of jobs the adults have, etc. So we can enjoy any story in the Potterverse providing it remains consistent with these constraints and rules.

Now imagine JK Rowling’s latest Potter novel culminates in Potter and chums overcoming the forces of evil by slipping through a magic portal to The Magic Planet, securing the services of the Magic Space Knights, who travel back to Earth in their Magic-powered Space ships to bombard the evil army with Magic Space Bombs.

WOAH! Hold on! Where did the Space stuff come from? Magic Planet?? Space battles? Even if it was coherent, in isolation, from a narrative perspective, it makes no sense in the wider context of the Potter Universe. If Rowling had previously established or even hinted in the Potter books that there was a multi-planet setting, or that trans-planet travel was possible, then she could make a case for this radical departure to the story. But in the absence of such World Building, her new story would be absurdly anachronistic and likely to upset those who’ve deeply invested themselves in this parallel, imaginary world. A good story in immersive; the more we know and understand the World of the story, the more immersed we are. So anything which jars us out of this immersion and reminds us that we’re just looking at ink on paper and we’re not actually vicariously attending a wizarding school… well, it’s obviously bad.

You’ve ruined Potter, Rowling!! would be the cry from critics and readers alike. Twitter would explode. But guys!… it’s a kid’s book about a school of wizards! Of course it’s not real! Why are you getting so upset about it? Chill out! and JUST. ENJOY. THE. STORY.

There’s no reason why Sci-Fi shows and films should be exempt from the rule of internal consistency. In fact, as these are typically stories with deeply established canons and expansive extended Universes, the ease at which one can slip into immersion is greater and therefore the need for internal consistency is arguably more important.

So when Star Trek: Discovery introduces a mushroom-powered warp drive, that allows a ship to go anywhere in the Universe instantly, steered by a depressed, giant Tardigrade… it’s not unreasonable for fans to rebel. Such a plot development is not internally consistent with the framework of rules established elsewhere in the franchise. Star Trek doesn’t follow the same scientific rules as our Universe… Trek’s Universe has empaths and non-corporeal beings for starters. But even in-Universe, within the established scientific framework of Trek, there’s no basis for the Mycelial Network. It makes no sense. It’s jarring. It’s the TV equivalent of ripping you out of your immersion and reminding you that you’re just looking at ink on paper. It leaves you reflecting on the fact you’re just sitting watching something… well… silly.

For fans who’ve invested hundreds, if not thousands of hours of their lives loving and really immersing themselves in the Trek Universe, they have the right to get quite upset at being jarred out of it.

Defenders may respond with the charge that the science of Trek is fluid and intentionally vague, and the entire raison d’être of the show is the exploration of “strange new worlds” for which the Mycelial network surely fits. They may argue this is a bold, brave narrative shift and that the obvious issues of retrospective continuity will be solved later.

Fair enough. But how incongruous does something have to be, before its too much of a breach of internal consistency? How jarring does something have to be in order to jump even the most ardent Trek defender out of their immersion?

If in an episode of Discovery, Michael saves the day by using Potteresque magic and ‘disapparating’ off an exploding ship… that would be ridiculous, right? I think we all agree, the departure of the show into actual fantasy magic would be too far. But why? If the internal framework of rules is fluid, why is one incongruity worse than any other? Maybe in one “strange new World” they actually have genuine magic? Why is this any more absurd than the spore network? Come to think of it… Why do Star Trek fans universally wince at the Giant Space Hand?

OK, so some people do get a little TOO carried away. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek answer on Quora once suggesting the engineers of the bridge consoles on Starfleet ships should consider fitting fuses to stop them exploding and killing crew members with alarming regularity. I was rounded on by someone who went to ABSURD (and frankly aggressive) lengths to explain why, in the in-Universe engineering framework of Star Trek, the consoles exploded. The reason was, of course, nonsensical. But you’ve got to admire the absolute dedication to the lore that someone has come up with a reason so as to avoid it jarring them out of the immersion whenever they see it.

I think there’s a happy medium somewhere. I love a good crime story, but I would be justifiably pissed off if Sherlock solved a mystery by performing a Vulcan Mind-Meld on someone. It’s not unreasonable to demand that stories remain internally coherent within the Universe they are set, and it’s not unreasonable to complain when they don’t.

I dare say, even the most aggressively ardent Trek fan might give an exasperated sigh if, within the Trek Universe, Earth’s moon turns out to be a giant Space Dragon egg.

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