Science-fiction film and television have a split attitude toward science. On one side, science-fiction film and television approach scientific experimentation with cautious respect if not outright fear. A large number of films depict casual scientific curiosity resulting in tragedy and widespread disaster, ranging from genocidal computers to the rise of zombie civilization. Ambition is destructive. Conversely, some entertainment (primarily television shows) are optimistic about the intentions and outcomes of scientific research, even research that almost ends in disaster. Characters in these shows anticipate surprise.
Frequently, science-fiction films focus on the negative, calamitous outcomes of scientific experimentation. These films examine the ethical and moral quandaries of experimental questioning through the worst case scenario. They do so whether the scientist character has unbridled ardor or managed restraint. If something can go wrong, it does. Science becomes the primary antagonistic force in these cases. Science causes more problems than it solves. Due to the self-contained narrative of a film, science is a villain. The heroes of a film must defeat the evil consequences of science. Rarely does a science-fiction film present science as benefiting humanity (with a few exceptions). Science is shown as being faulty. Science-fiction films as a speculative platform produce a mostly glum outlook on what science is and does.
Opposingly, television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation have a positive view of science. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, science explores what lays beyond the boundaries of human understanding. Methodical scientific experimentation is a useful tool in this discovery. Scientists on the show develop hypotheses and create ways to test them. The outcome of these experiments may be expected, unexpected, or catastrophic (often the latter two to create dramatic conflict). As with films, the protagonists of the show struggle to solve the disasters generated by their experiments. However, as with real life scientists, Star Trek: The Next Generation's scientists collect data from all results and turn the event into a learning experience. Because the show's characters need to return the following week, the show has its heroes actually learning the lessons only implied by science-fiction films. These characters know more about how the Universe works following an accidental near-planetary detonation than before said near-explosion.
The scientific disasters of science-fiction films scold science while television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation substantiate science as hope.
Many science-fiction films continue a tradition of showing science appropriating forbidden knowledge. This Promethean knowledge pits science against nature, giving humanity powers that once only mythical gods held. In these films, humanity cannot responsibly handle this power. The two most common portrayals of this forbidden knowledge are Frankenstein-style tinkering with life and the technology for global destruction.
Frankenstein, written in 1818 by an eighteen year old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (and directly adapted into film numerous times), tells the tale of a scientist who plays God. Victor Frankenstein makes a then defiant but now common declaration of science by stating, "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation." He then proceeds to breathe life into a constructed man and immediately regrets the implications. He creates artificial life. Frankenstein's monster perplexes his creator. The two engage in a mortal chase: man versus his creation. Frankenstein fears the outcome of his experiments. Frankenstein discovers who the monster truly is. As one of the first science-fiction stories (or even the first), Frankenstein influences all that follow.
In film, the Frankenstein pattern of mankind's scientific creation turning on its creator is common. Characters vary in whether they openly state that they are "mocking God" through science. Nonetheless, the disasters they cause are implied to be affronts to nature. These films reflect real world developments in science. In the late Twentieth Century, humanity gains the ability to create artificial life and tinker with the basics of biology. Real life scientists can create artificial intelligence and genetically engineer organisms. Films exhibit cautionary stories of how these branches of science can result in disaster.
In these films, science makes monsters to fear. In the Frankenstein tradition, films featuring villainous artificial intelligence (such as Skynet in the Terminator franchise) turn on their creators and threaten the genocide of humanity. Scientific advances in computers and robotics are turned into metallic, glowing eyed horrors for heroes to fight. Likewise, medical science on film accidently creates plague, zombies, giant, glow in the dark lizards, regular, non-glowing dinosaurs, and brooding, hyper-intelligent primates. Science-fiction films tend toward transforming scientific research to its most perverted extremes.
Whereas Frankenstein-type films affect a fear of what science can create, films about nuclear weapons show how science can destroy. Following World War II and during the Cold War, a war of global destruction becomes possible with atomic and nuclear weapons. Certain science-fiction films warn of these dangers by playing to a reasonable fear of thermonuclear war. Films involving nuclear holocaust or a post-apocalyptic world raise an alarm (films like A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max, The Book of Eli, and even Lord of the Flies). Yet, films that show the eradication of humanity or its aftermath promote a degree of teleology in which nuclear annihilation is inevitable. The sense is that scientific discovery will eventually cause destruction as humans are destructive by nature -- a downer perspective. As Kang from The Simpsons tells Kodos about human weaponry, "... the humans won't stop there. They'll make bigger boards and bigger nails, and soon they will make a board so big, it will destroy them all!"
In order to create tension, films regularly engender fear in science.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (and shows similar to it) attempt to restore a belief in humanity that science-fiction films chiefly disparage. Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry is always respectful of science and its dangers but recognizes the benefits of science as well. Scientific experimentation does cause problems for the crew of the Starship Enterprise but the worst does not always happen. This viewpoint is the essence of Star Trek and optimistic science-fiction: science is not so bad.
In a typical episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the USS Enterprise-D travels through deep space and encounters complications, some of them scientific. As the Enterprise is not a purely military vessel, a large percentage of the crew is composed of scientists. Sometimes stories on the show revolve around scientific calamities that the Enterprise crew cause themselves, accidentally. The scientists aboard the Enterprise work to solve these scientific problems using science. Curiosity creates these troubles, and further inquisitiveness resolves them. Scientific experimentation reveals the unexpected. The entire scenario is a learning experience. Unlike in most science-fiction films, scientific disasters are solved with thought rather than fighting monsters. Due to the serialized nature of the show, these problems are resolved within the forty-four minute run time of an episode with a tidy summary of lessons learned at the end. The audience can learn along with the crew.
Star Trek: The Next Generation has its own take on the Frankenstein-style story. Artificial life forms are a key part of Star Trek. The third highest ranking officer on the USS Enterprise-D is an android named Data. He desires to be human. Over the course of the show, a variety of characters question whether he is truly sentient, comparing him to Pinocchio, a Golem, the Tin Woodsman, and Frankenstein's monster. Other artificial life forms include Data's daughter Lal, a swarm of microscopic robots, sentient mining tools, and even a holographic Professor Moriarty. These life forms are not seen as offenses to nature. The episodes involving these characters resolve themselves in a positive manner with all beings more-or-less coexisting peacefully -- a cheery yet rational perspective.
In an episode titled "Evolution," a youth aboard the Enterprise named Wesley Crusher conducts a scientific experiment with microscopic robots known as nanites and unintentionally almost causes a terrible disaster. Due to sloppy experimental practices by the naive Wesley, a pair of nanites escape containment and being to multiply. Meanwhile, the Enterprise approaches the star system Kavis Alpha to observe a red giant-white dwarf, binary star nova. The nanites duplicate and develop sentience. Their group mind creates a civilization in the computer core of the Enterprise. Malfunctions occur over the ship that threaten to catch the Enterprise in the stellar outburst. The crew discovers the nanites, and Captain Jean-Luc Picard orders their removal. A large number of the beings are destroyed. The nanites respond in kind. After a back and forth that threatens to destroy both sides, Lieutenant Commander Data establishes communications with the nanites, and Captain Picard recognizes the nanites as an emerging species. He sees them as the "new life" that he describes the crew as seeking in the show's opening credit sequence. Picard gives the nanite civilization a new home world by depositing them on Kavis Alpha IV, where they live happily ever after... at least until the nova.
The crew of the Enterprise accidentally creates new life, which poses moral and ethical questions. Like Frankenstein, they fight their creation as they do not know what forms life can take. They are initially afraid. The crew does not realize that their fearful reactions and violence are mirrored by their creation, and the nanites fight them. In a rebuke of Victor Frankenstein, Captain Picard negotiates with the nanites, recognizes them as a new species, and establishes relations. There is no reason for the Enterprise crew to fear the nanites as the nanites should not fear the crew. Both have an equal right to exist. The problem is solved and disaster is averted. The crew of the Enterprise makes a new friend and learns a valuable lesson.
The destructive force of science and technology is also addressed by Star Trek: The Next Generation. The crew of the Enterprise encounters many opportunities to cause large scale destruction: a scientist whose experiment is mistakenly causing the Universe to shatter, development of a logic bomb that can possibly eradicate their deadliest foe, the Borg, and finding that their cardinal form of faster than light propulsion, Warp drive, is damaging to the shape of Space-Time. These scientific endeavors explore the idea that humanity is destructive at its core and then immediately dismisses this concept. Unlike in films about nuclear weapons, the crew of the Enterprise, as an idealized representation of humankind, rejects the use of science as a competitive means of destruction. The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation include a set of ethical and moral standards for the crew that tempers any scientific zealotry. The crew of the Enterprise recognize the dangers of science and self-regulate to solve destructive crises and calamities.
In an episode titled "New Ground," the Enterprise's chief engineer Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge coordinates with a science team to test a new form of propulsion known as the Soliton wave. A Soliton wave is a real world physical waveform where a packet of energy maintains its speed and shape. In the television show, the Soliton wave is used to carry a spaceship like a sailing vessel on water. The crew of the Enterprise and the science team take reasonable precautions when initiating their experiment, but the something goes horribly wrong. The test ship explodes, and the Soliton wave gains speed. It heads for a Federation colony planet called Lemma II. Millions of lives are in danger due to the unforeseen consequence. As rockets that can launch satellites into orbit can be used as explosive missiles, the Soliton wave accidentally becomes a planet destroying weapon. The crew of the Enterprise scrambles to stop the wave. They do by detonating photon torpedoes at a particular resonant frequency in the wave's path. Lemma II is saved (yay).
If humanity has a destructive nature, as evidenced by intentional or unintentional development of destructive technology, Star Trek counters that humanity's nature also contains the ability to regulate and moderate destructive instincts. A film about Nuclear Holocaust purports that humanity destroying itself is inevitable. Star Trek: The Next Generation states that humanity is more than the sum of its violent or peaceful parts with science as the crux. The Soliton wave episode is an argument for the reservation and ingenuity of humanity as they control an experiment gone wrong and learn a valuable lesson.
The greatest experiment of all conducted on Star Trek: The Next Generation is not conducted by the crew of the Enterprise. It is conducted by an impish, omnipotent being named Q. Q is from a species that maintains the Universe, and this species has questions about humanity. In the pilot episode, Gene Roddenberry writes Q as issuing an ultimatum to humanity through its representative Captain Picard: prove that humanity is worthy of scientific exploration of space and exist in general.
Q returns to this test of humanity in the final episode of the series, "All Good Things..." Q takes Captain Picard and tests him in a grand experiment that spans time. Picard in engaging in the experiment accidentally generates an anomaly that travels backwards in time. The anomaly's radiation prevents life from evolving on Earth. Picard causes the ultimate scientific disaster. He erases humanity from time. Eventually, Picard realizes his mistake and coordinates with himself throughout time to reverse the damage, and single-celled organisms once again form from peptide chains in the primordial sea.
Q concludes his experiment. He tells Picard that humanity will continue to be tested. However, Q never tells Picard the results of the experiment. A good experiment has a hypothesis to prove or disprove. Q never states his hypothesis, but he subtly indicates that it is a test of humanity's potential. Q, despite being mischievous, believes that humanity has great potential and is worthy of existence -- high praise from an omnipotent being. In a way, the entire seven year run of Star Trek: The Next Generation is Q's experiment with each episode being a point of data to show how humanity interacts with science. Q's ultimatum to humanity is spoken to Picard and the television audience at home. The show ends with Q proving that humanity and the audience (as humans) should believe in itself and its potential through scientific triumph and disaster. Everyone learns a valuable lesson.
In the years since the episode "All Good Things..." aired in 1994, science-fiction film and television again slips back into a pessimistic view of science. Even the Star Trek franchise becomes darker with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. An episode of Voyager titled "The Omega Directive" even includes the concept of forbidden knowledge again. Films continue to focus on scientific disaster and catastrophe. In the past decade, a majority of science-fiction films revolve around scientific monsters to battle, wars to wage, or portrayals of the worst of humanity. Notable exceptions are films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Optimism is again considered naive or childish in science-fiction film and television.
There are a few television shows today that continue to carry the banner of Star Trek's optimism. As optimism is considered naive, unrealistic, and childish, children's cartoons form a bulwark of science-fiction optimism with such series as the Ben 10 franchise focusing on friendship and human potential. Live-action, primetime television has a few holdouts such as Doctor Who and the SyFy Channel's Eureka: a show about a city of goofy scientists who find ways to accidentally cause the near-destruction of Earth every week. This show is in the vein of Star Trek: The Next Generation because scientific problems and mysteries are met with scientific solutions instead of combat. Lessons are learned and human understanding deepens week by week.
An odd mixture of filmic science-fiction pessimism and Star Trek optimism is Fringe. The show is about an absent-minded professor, Walter Bishop, who has started the destruction of two adjacent Universes. He instigates this destruction by saving the ailing doppelganger of his deceased son Peter. The scientific calamity is brought on by good intentions but the result is invariable: two Universes die. A key aspect of the show is the potential of humanity and Peter's love for an FBI agent named Olivia Dunham. The terminus of this ongoing show is a lot like Q's experiment with Picard and the erasure of humanity, only much darker. If the Universes are to be saved, human potential must be realized and become manifest.
In recent years, science-fiction transforms into stories of scientific disasters threatening to destroy humanity. Humanity's hubris spawns its own downfall in film and television. It fights to survive against man-made disaster. This despairing attitude is part of a cycle in science-fiction that considers the cultural climate of its audience. Television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation remind audiences of the potential of humanity and the hope of science.
No pretentious philosophical discussion about scientific disasters in science-fiction is complete without a quote by Isaac Asimov: "... the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all." Science-fiction entertainment about scientific disaster explores the root of humanity. As the old adages claims, "disaster brings out the best in people."