By Fiona Moore

Recently, the question was raised on Lysator of whether or not The Syndeton Experiment is deserving of the label "Classic Science Fiction" which appears in some of the related publicity. While it is admittedly an innocent marketing gimmick (inasmuch as any marketing gimmick is ever innocent), the validity of the epithet is worthy of further investigation.

The phrase "classic" seems to be used in three ways with regard to sci-fi media productions. The first generally denotes sci-fi which in some way resembles what is deemd the "highbrow" end of sci-fi: the novels of H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and, more recently, John Wyndham and Philip K. Dick. As such, it is generally used to denote "thoughtful" sci-fi programmes, and generally literary adaptations, such as the BBC's 1981 "Day of the Triffids" serial. Secondly, sci-fi that is either based on or resembles science fiction of the so-called "Golden Age" of the 1950s pulps, with specific reference to the work of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke: in this sense, "classic" is used of productions such as "The Rocketeer" or "Starship Troopers." Thirdly, the word is used of science fiction programming made prior to the 1980s, an arbitrary cutoff date seemingly inspired by the relative dearth of new science-fiction, bar Star Trek, from about 1985 through 1996.

In the first sense of the word "classic,", The Syndeton Experiment does not stand up particularly well. In no wise is the play a literary adaptation, and, while the latter end of the story makes deliberate reference to Capek's highbrow-sf play "R.U.R.," in the person of Dr Rossum and his robot society, and deals with the themes of mind transference and dystopia much beloved of such authors as Wells, Orwell and C.S. Lewis, the themes are dealt with fairly superficially, and furthermore tend to jar with the rest of the production: it is possible--and indeed "classic," as witness the "Mabuse" films of Fritz Lang--to work in such chilling revelations as Dr Rossum's inadvertent genocide into a superficial romp involving larceny and brothel madams, but in the production as it stands these themes feel rather like something tacked on to give the story a depth it does not otherwise possess.

In the second sense of the word, TSE fares little better. The science fiction of the Golden Age is generally characterised by an emphasis on action-adventure and is notorious for lurid scenes and faintly unrealistic characters (especially female ones) and situations; in this regard, perhaps, TSE, with its superficial characterisation (particularly of women), lurid scenarios and occasional shoot-em-ups, could be said to qualify as "classic." However, the Golden Age was also a time when writers were expected to base their stories on hard scientific speculation, as in Asimov's "Robot" novels or Ray Bradbury's stories about computerised houses and Martian colonies; in the case of TSE, however, the science is largely pseudo (and even rather bad; as a recent review pointed out, it is highly unlikely for a new element to be discovered which would have the properties of syndeton), and not particularly speculative. Vila's mind-transference into a robot body could be said to fall within that remit, as the question of whether the human mind can be reproduced electronically is still a current one; however, this transference is not achieved by means of technology, but by the quasi-magical properties of syndeton.

In the final sense of the word, however, TSE can arguably be said to be "classic." While of recent creation, TSE is based within the sci-fi series "Blake's 7," which, by virtue of having been screened between 1978 and 1981, just barely scrapes into the "classic television" category. Furthermore, attempts have visibly been made to evoke other elements of "classic television"; the title evokes "The Quatermass Experiment," and Dr Rossum's robot society has vague echoes of similar plots in "Doctor Who" (for which Letts wrote and script-edited) and the film "Soylent Green." However, given that TSE bears very little resemblance to "Blake's 7" as screened on television (lacking its characteristinc gritty themes of rebellion and political struggle, and its sense of genuine psychological menace), and to the other sci-fi programmes and films mentioned, even this definition is in doubt.

In short, while the epithet "Classic Science Fiction" is indeed a misnomer when applied to The Syndeton Experiment, it can be said to be "based on classic science fiction." While there is in fact a connection between the radio play and some forms of classic science fiction, it must be admitted to be a tenuous connection at best.

Last changed on 21st of March 2003

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