Being Iconic In Science Fiction: an article by: GF Willmetts.

To look at Science Fiction films and TV series, it’s hardly surprising that it has a history of iconic vehicles, robots, aliens, etc. A whole industry of model-making and toys has been made out of them and even retrospectively. Certainly, the re-makes of the likes of ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet’ vehicles have never bettered the originals. In fact, the live 2004 film of ‘Thunderbirds’ was darn right disgraceful with all the added windows.

At least with the CGI animated ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ an attempt was made to update and make the vehicles more usable even if they were slightly more overlapping as to what they could do but at least they explained their plausibility much of the time, except with FAB ONE. I mean, where did they hide the airlock when underwater?

Of course, another way around it is simply give new versions of the spaceship as with the Enterprise in ‘Star Trek’ and its film series. It’s still the iconic shape, just with more detail and lights, showing the evolution of model effects. The same applies to the Klingon and Romulan spacecraft, although in both cases the changes were for the better. A lot of the time, you might not even notice the changes, as witnessed by the TARDIS in ‘Doctor Who’ where there has been numerous blue shades and even ‘T’s made out of the windows. You don’t destroy the classic shape, outside and in, where it is bigger.

Of course, there are hybrids, little reminders to connect the original Gort in the 1951 ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ to the 2008 version even if so much else has been changed from thoughtful to action. The same also applies with the two versions of ‘Robocop’, but the original still rules as witnessed by adverts using it in the UK. Can you remember the latter version? Me, neither. The original just looks more robotic. Must be the way it moves.

Then again, there is some development matching our own reality. We didn’t have the sleek rocket with wings when we went into space. Instead, a multi-stage rocket to cope with the amount of fuel needed to beat the Earth’s gravity into space. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had NASA advisors and its space shuttle wasn’t that far removed from the real space shuttle 13 years later. Whether a real manned space trip to Jupiter space will resemble the USS Discovery in any way we’ll have to wait and see. Certainly, such a vessel will be built in space and never likely to land on Earth and possibly have a centrifuge to have a place with some level of gravity. Practical necessities.

An interesting comparison is with ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ that it used real NASA footage of the space shuttle and Skylab to match reality, moving on only in the latter seasons with Steve Austin on a space mission away from Earth, although we didn’t really see the spaceship in flight in season 5 ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. It’s only with the season 4 and 5 two-parters ‘Death Probe’, we really see the problems of budget.

With ‘The Bionic Woman’ 2007 remake, rather than mirror the original Jaime Sommers mechanical tech, the use of nano-tech, still way beyond what we could create today and less probable that we would believe in it. In our own reality, we are slowly moving towards human-looking limbs capable of imitating the organic, albeit not nuclear-powered. Nano-tech is going a step too far for believable.

It should hardly be surprising some technology keeps parallel with our reality. Early computers were shown to the public as a lot of whirling tapes and flashing lights and then coughing up an answer, showing nothing of the programming involved, mostly because to the general public it looked arcane and mysterious. The ‘UFO’ 1971 TV series is a good example of that. Going back to 1966 and ‘The Italian Job’, you would have to wonder how the replacement tape was programmed.

In ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ (1970), a massive computer system and yet its creator has to get someone else to type in messages to it until the machine itself designs a vocal box, oddly jumping head to our century. Really? Well, not too surprising, after all, the HAL 9000 from the 1968 film, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had already led in that direction. Computers were seen as big machines that only a few could program. We know better today and many people have at least some elementary programming lessons.

Of course, from 1973, computers were starting to invade the home although it would be another decade before they many people had them and were programming for themselves. A lot of mystique went at that point although not everyone turned into programmers. It took Hollywood a while to catch up as computer size shrank abruptly. In fact, you can date many shows by the size of their computers and mobile phones. It’s a good manoeuvre from computer companies to get product placement even if their software is fictious.

In comparison, the evolution of the humanoid robot went all over the place, depending on the budget. ‘Metropolis’ (1927) set the standard with then chameleon-like Maria robot. It wasn’t until Robbie in ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956), that we had a memorable robot for all the right reasons and built at the right price and looked like how we would imagine a robot to look. AI and robots also went hand-in-hand. Then again, why should we be surprised.

A robot is, after all, a walking talking computer. Human-looking robots or androids came around a lot earlier. After all, it was a lot cheaper on the film budget. You can look up a list of these on-line although oddly it neglects Robert Cult’s character Trent in the ‘Outer Limits’ 1964 Harlen Ellison story, ‘Demon With A Glass Hand’. Androids were invariably cheaper than robots and only little bits of their insides needed to be shown to show they weren’t human. Mind you, with the lights showing inside Command Data’s head when he had broken skin from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, you would have to wonder why these lights didn’t show through the skin. However, as iconic images, few have been turned into models compared to robots.

This is side-tracking from the point. I doubt if designers said to themselves, that they would create something iconic. Memorable perhaps. Even unique. Homage to things from the past but also to avoid direct copyright infringement. There was only one Robbie the Robot after all. There is also the matter of budget, although you would have to ask which Marvin the Paranoid Android from the 1981 TV series and 2005 film versions of ‘Hitchhikers Guide To The Universe’ is the most popular amongst its fans, although the latter sphere-headed version is supposed to be closer to how Douglas Adams imagined him.

The elevation into iconic depends on popularity and even then, that might be limited to the fans of the TV show or film. When you consider the popularity of ‘Stargate SG-1’, how many of you can remember the Earth or alien spaceships from the series? There are some model kits but I suspect mostly to the fans and not instantly recognisable outside them. When it comes to the likes of the USS Enterprise or TARDIS, even non-SF fans can instantly recognise them, showing they transcend their source. It isn’t just down to that. The same applies to specific aliens like the Vulcans, xenomorphs, predator hunters and so forth.

The could also be said in our reality for the likes of the Loch Ness Monster – still thought to be a plesiosaur, yeti/big foot and the grey aliens, with some of them being reinforced by the likes of ‘The X-Files’. Certain images get caught in the public imagination. It’s almost as though the human memory needs something iconic to hold on to. There’s a certain amount of repetition into it as well. Consider how many times ‘Star Trek’ is shown on TV and yet if the likes of ‘Babylon 5’ was given a similar treatment more people would remember their spacecraft, especially that of the Minbari and Vorlons. Even so, when there is a single-seat spacecraft used from the space station, it is likely to be immortalised by being named after the Starfury.

As we know from adverts, repetitive films and series on TV, enforced in the TV mags sinks into the collective minds. The non-SF fan might recognise the mothership from ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ but less so with the Nostromo from ‘Alien’ and the Sulaco from ‘Aliens’, mostly because we don’t see so much of them. In comparison, the space vehicles from the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy are used throughout strengthened their position. All of which is helped by the repeat showings on TV and fan following.

It does bring up a problem of what can be done next or how things can become iconic. With so many characters, they become something of a melting pot these days and so, too, do the vehicles with fewer becoming significant enough to get into the public consciousness. Then again, with so many digital channels, the number of people watching any show has somewhat diminished that effect might be lost. Likewise how many new SF shows can go off exploring in space without being compared to ‘Star Trek’. Even ‘The Orville’ has embraced than ignored the connection.

Obviously, popularity has a lot to do with becoming iconic but is helped along repetition. Even so, you would think bearing in mind the availability of fibre optics, someone would have come up with a commercial CE3K’s mothership model kit by now. It isn’t as though lit model kits are a new thing anymore.

Becoming iconic is helped by merchandising, even if it’s only resin garage kit and whether a model manufacturer can figure paying for a licence and making a profit can balance the books. Unlike standard car and ship model kits, with genre models there is at least a known fanbase and even if they are not all model-makers, many will buy the kit(s) simply because they are there. Even so, the current high prices of just released kits might deter some but as an unmade investment ten years or so down the line, there can be a significant profit margin as the fan base grows.

Even so, this still doesn’t explain why not all vehicles or robots from genre shows become iconic. Considering the popularity of all of Jim Cameron’s films, you would have thought Deep Core One from ‘The Abyss’ would have become a model kit but although it is a significant part of the movie, its mostly from the interiors than the exteriors. You see more of its blueprint in the Marvel comicbook adaptation. The same also applies to the Seaquest submarine. You see more with the model kit than what was seen in the murk called the TV series.

As seen with the Enterprise, it isn’t a complex design that enthrals, one only has to look at the Liberator or Scorpio from BBC’s 1978-81 ‘Blake’s 7’ to realise that or maybe its those weird globby things.

Doing things out of the ordinary from looking like traditional cars applies to the Tran-Am KITT from ‘Knight Rider’, although failed with its successors that relied on CGI to the DeLorean from ‘Back To The Future’. Of course, all the other Knight Rider cars relied on CGI to turbo-jump not do it for real. No wonder the Rider fans have made so many lookalike cars.

Looking at pretty helicopters, Airwolf was certainly more attractive than Blue Thunder. Modifying a full-size Bell-222A to resemble it again is probably beyond most fans’ budgets, let alone fly it.

A brief note on aliens .In the days of Don Post masks, there would have been ones made of the aliens. Alas, he died in 1979 and no one followed him as far as I know. Mask making for the public not the grave although there’s been some superb cos-players. Getting distinctive aliens pre-dates Spock with the 1963-65 ‘The Outer Limits’ providing a range. Then again, so did UK’s ‘Doctor Who’ and probably why the Daleks got us spellbound by not only being menacing but not humanoid.

Putting my thinking head on, I did wonder why the amnesic pen from the ‘Men In Black’ films never became merchandise and then I forgot all about it.

It’s more amazing how many SF films are supplemented by merchandise and its only films like ‘Gravity’ or ‘Arrival’ that haven’t so far. Well, outside if tee-shirts and then I had to look it up. I suspect that’s just as prevalent outside of our genre.

Things can also be confused when older films suddenly get model kits when the likes of Mobius get interested in them hence the rockets from ‘When Worlds Collide’ (1951) and ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1958). Oddly, no one wants a triffid. Must be the sting or an aversion to plants. That’s botanophobia in case you were wondering and too idle to look up.

Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way and should be looking at series that haven’t had iconic vehicles or robots but I can’t really remember any or, at the time of typing, been done yet.

Saying that, I had a deep think again and the following SF films have had minimal merchandising, at most tee-shirts and badges: ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ (1976), ‘Starman’ (1984), ‘Cocoon’ (1985), ‘Enemy Mine’ (1985), ‘Alien Nation’ (1988), ‘Sphere’ (1998), ‘District 9’ (2009) and ‘Chappie’ (2015). ‘V’, the original 1983 TV series did have a Sirian coming out of his mask but nary anything related to ‘Alien Nation’ (film 1988 and TV series 1989-1990), which had a much longer life. Of course, a lot of it depends on the studio wanting to sell merchandising rights as much as merchandisers thinking they can make money off it but it took a lot of thinking as to some of these must surely have been on the list. It isn’t as though any of the above don’t have a following, just nothing iconic associated with it.

I should point out that I might not necessarily want to buy spaceships and whathaveyous from any of the above. I am looking for examples that haven’t become icons that have got into the public eye. Would there be a need for them to be? Would it destroy or improve the film had there been? Certainly, we need more than a spaceship looking like a flying saucer. Apply your geek memory to some of the above where that applies. A lot also depends on what is important to producers and directors that they want to say about their films. Merchandise does extend a film’s lifespan even further than a DVD/blu-ray/streaming life.

In many respects, Science Fiction and its grey cousins, fantasy and horror, are the genres of iconic imagery. The only reason I haven’t covered the other two is largely because I’m not sure if I’ve seen all of them. With horror, undoubtedly its masks and models. With fantasy, role playing games seems to have taken much of the models.

With SF TV series being spread over so many shows these days, the chances of showing an icon is less likely to happen. SF films are a different matter although nothing has struck of late.

Have there been any truly uniconic spaceship or robot or alien lately? Undoubtedly as much of it is in the eye of the beholder before reaching consensus. Some, especially early robots, are truly atrocious purely because of the small budget spent on them.

There is one thought to end on. Have we seen the last of iconic spacecraft, robots, aliens or whatever you define as iconic? Are there any shapes we haven’t thought of or improved upon? A lot depends on the material that comes out and whether designers can come up with something truly different that stirs the imagination and the desire to want that piece of merchandise.

Being iconic is a matter of reaching the public eye and what they like to behold and that’s always impossible to judge.



© GF Willmetts 2021

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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