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10 Common Clichés in Science Fiction

by Sophia Davies

Ever been watching a movie or TV show and been able to predict exactly what the characters would say and do before they say and do them? The bad news is you’re not psychic, and the other bad news is that whatever you’re watching has fallen into the trap of using well-worn clichés in place of writing nuanced and quality plots and dialog. Science-fiction is not exempt from this problem; in fact, the genre is probably the guiltiest of all. In the hands of a talented writer, a cliché can be turned on it’s head, subverted, or made to seem fresh again, but in most cases clichés are a sign of lazy or unimaginative storytelling. Science fiction provides endless opportunities for new and creative plots, yet somehow we are forced to revisit the same ones again and again. Here are the most common clichés in science fiction. Not all of them are bad; some are just overused.

1. Technical jargon that makes no sense used to explain plotholes
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Techno Babble certainly has it’s place in science fiction, but substituting an intelligent plot for unintelligible gibberish does not make for quality programming. Nearly every sci-fi show is guilty of doing this at one point or other, but some writers think all they have to do is throw in a polarity reversal and run a level 3 diagnostic and BAM!, a science fiction masterpiece is born.

2. Reset button

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This deus ex machina is very common in Stephen Moffat’s era of Doctor Who. There was literally was a Big Friendly Button that undid everything that happened in “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS”, and the entire plot of “The Day of The Doctor” centered around undoing a major event that has shaped the entire series. The big red button resets the plot from an earlier point, usually as a way to avoid any lasting consequences. When done well, it is used to help us learn about the nature of memory and reveals more about the characters (Fringe). When done poorly, it is a means to escape a dead-end plot or allow characters to go through life-changing events without experiencing any repercussions.

3. Non-scientific, magical science

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When the writers can’t find a scientific enough explanation for what they want to do, they don’t scrap the idea; they do it anyway and justify it with “coz science, that’s why.” This problem is very, very common in Doctor Who. Star Trek Into Darkness is also a perfect example, with Captain Kirk being resurrected by magic blood. If the writers want to use magic, they should try the fantasy genre, or the science fiction/fantasy genre (most fantasy shows have elements of sci-fi). Leave pure science fiction alone.

4. Dystopian, post-apocalyptic future

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Every other sci fi book, movie, or TV show is now about a post-apocalyptic wasteland where people have to carve out a brutal living after a virus/zombies/aliens/advanced technology/super weapons/volcanoes/vampires/unicorns/the flying spaghetti monster wiped out most of the population and ended civilization as we know it. Apparently there are endless ways to end the human race, and writers seem to think we need to know every last one of them. Come on guys, show some originality.

5. Evolution used to explain crazy fast, almost magical changes in human biology (e.g. gaining superpowers)

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How many times have you heard “we’re the next stage in human evolution” in superhero or science fiction works? The answer is way too many times. The producers and writers either lack a basic understanding of how evolution works or they realize that most of their audience does.

No, you’re not the next stage in human evolution. Evolution involves tiny, gradual changes over long periods of time. Humans don’t suddenly become psychic or develop superpowers overnight. That is not how evolution works. Read a book.

6. Aliens that look or sound exactly like humans even though they are from distant planets

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A species which had no contact with ours and evolved on a completely different planet millions of light years from our own would not look like a human with slightly different facial features and an unusual skin tone. I’ve seen people at Walmart that look more like aliens than some of the ones from Defiance, Doctor Who, and Star Trek. The truth is that we can’t even imagine what a creature from another world would look like, but the odds that they look anything like us are so slim as to be nonexistent.

7. Romeo/Juliet except with aliens/humans, robots/humans, humans/genetically superior advanced race of humans, humans/cyborgs, etc.

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Can’t tell which one is the human and which is the alien in the above picture? See the previous cliché. Don’t even get me started on Star Crossed, the most ridiculously soft sci-fi to ever disgrace our TV screens. The entire show is based on the Romeo/Juliet cliché, which is so done to death as to be nearly unbearable to watch. If one more robot or alien falls into a forbidden romance with the human who taught them how to feel, I will smash my TV. No, I won’t. I’ll write an angry email. Nope, too much effort. I’ll write an angry tweet. Perfect!

8. EMOTION IS BAD

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Spock was the original emotionally suppressed alien, and it was great. Since then, “emotion is weakness” has become the battle cry of Cybermen, Daleks,The Observers, and nearly all robots ever. “Emotion is weakness” is not an inherently bad concept, but it’s been rather overused, and is often a way for the warm, caring humans to demonstrate their supposed superiority over the cold, unfeeling aliens.

9. Paradoxes are no big thing

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Paradoxes are the single biggest obstacle, besides impossibility, to real life time travel. Yet in movies and TV shows they are often either ignored or explained away with a throwaway line that doesn’t really explain anything. The mini-episode of Doctor Who called “Time Crash” is a major offender, as is the entirety of Doctor Who.

10. Humans are super-duper special

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I don’t care what the movies say; we could not defeat alien invaders possessing vastly superior intelligence and technology with the power of the human of the human spirit. In almost every show or movie involving aliens, we are somehow better than everyone else, be it our pluck, courage, morals, or just general awesomeness. No need to explain why we are better, our super-duper specialness should just be apparent to everyone, and if they don’t see it, then they are the bad guys.

The bottom line is that writers should use clichés sparingly and creatively. Reverse, subvert, avert, do whatever you want with the cliché, just don’t rely on it.

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1 comment

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Jillian Hall March 19, 2014 - 7:29 pm

Doesn’t Doctor Who and the Daleks predate Spock? I think it is weird to accuse them of using a cliché when they predate Star Trek.

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