The recent Dr Who New Year's Day episode got me thinking about an issue in contemporary science-fiction that isn't often talked about, and no, I'm not talking about gender diversity or what should or should not happen involving Chris Chibnall et al*.
Aside- I'll add that I'd rather be seeing the back of Chibnall than be losing Jodie Whittaker, and leave it at that.
No, what I'd like to talk about in this post is something I'm going to call Divergence. (Title drop!). In order to ground them, and make their characters and setting relatable, many 'genre' shows like to make the world they are set in recognisably 'ours'. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Elementary or Dr Who, shows (and for that matter stories in other media, such as books and plays) will drop in references to real-world history and/or culture. Joss Whedon is well-known for his habit of doing so, for example. At the same time, there are certain things about 'our world' that tend to have to be changed. Stories with international stakes usually need to feature figures in government, and it's rare that those figures, if they feature in the story, are their real-world selves. For example, Revolution of the Daleks (ROTD), the Who episode that sparked this piece** features a politician who does not exist in real life becoming the UK PM.
As is often the case with this sort of dodge, if poked at too hard this can cause a lot of problems. To give a simple example, one of the better one-off jokes in the recent incarnation of the Doctor was a brief discussion of whether or not they were Banksy. But the Banksy of the Doctor's world is clearly not going to be the Banksy of our world, since he riffs hard on UK politics which we've already established are different, at least in some details.
Of course Banksy is not the elephant in the room that brought me to thinking about this topic, although he's possibly spray-painted one on a wall somewhere. No, I'm thinking about everyone's favourite ogre at the moment, Covid-19. In ROTD, the Doctor arrives back on a 2020/1 Earth that has a Dalek problem, but is mercifully completely devoid of another, much smaller, unwanted invader. This is doubly noticeable because recent Who episodes have, with varying degrees of subtlety,*** addressed topical concerns such as climate change and microplastics. This version of Britain circa January 2021 has no face masks or social distancing, and there're no hand-sanitisers to be seen.
It's not hard to understand why. It's almost impossible to imagine the Doctor arriving on an Earth stricken by the plague we currently face without doing something about it. Whilst they do seem to have a policy of not intervening in our internal problems- we never saw the Doctor intervene in the Cold War, for example- we would find a situation where they ignored their Companions families being stricken by a deadly disease hard to stomach. Likewise, trying to tell the ROTD story with Covid as a backdrop simply wouldn't have worked. Instead, the writers chose to take the simplest way out of the problem- i.e., completely ignoring it.
Aside- I should add that Jodie Whittaker's "you've got this" message from an under-stair cupboard was possibly her Doctor's finest hour, in my opinion.
Of course this has its own problems. Sci-fi's ability to raise questions often depends on its relatability. It's already a tough sell to explain to people how the adventures of an immortal alien time-traveller might be relevant to our lives- it's even harder when soap-operas and medical drama shows are tackling Covid head-on, or at least not pretending it doesn't exist.
In part, this is a problem with any show ostensibly set in 'our world' that runs for any length of time. Who has long struggled with the apparent amnesia of the human race when it comes to Daleks or Cybermen****, the former having invaded the planet on multiple occasions and even outright stolen it once. One show in particular that had a similar issue was Stargate SG-1, which had the US Government as the sole possessors of alien technology, before later sharing it with the other members of the UN Security council, even as real-world politics shifted in such a way that said sharing would be almost unthinkable in real life.*****
Although we do at least know what the SGC's logo might look like.
Meanwhile, even more fantastical shows like Buffy or Stranger Things eventually tend to escalate their plots to the point where the supernatural shenanigans start to affect their world in ways that push it away from our own. Pop culture, so important for keeping both shows relatable to our world, would inevitably start to change as more and more evidence of vampires, demons and Demogorgons****** began to leak into the public consciousness.
Some creators deal with this problem in other ways. The films of Quentin Tarantino, for example, are generally considered to exist in a shared universe, one where pop culture's importance was magnified by the death of Adolf Hitler in a movie theatre and Japanese airline seats have katana-holders. The recently-controversial Cyberpunk 2077 makes it clear from an early stage that its timeline diverges from ours well before the 2013 setting of the earliest pen-and-paper versions of the original RPG. My own books, which I swear not to mention again in this post, feature a character from a possible future of a world 'much like our own' and I remain coy about the exact year in order to avoid my 'futuristic' technology suddenly looking retro.
In general, then, for the prospective storyteller there are a few approaches we can consider. If our story is low-stakes, being told primarily on a personal level, we can easily use the real world as our setting and not worry too much about it. In general, however, the more the stakes rise and the more that our stage broadens, the more we need to be concerned that as our story continues, it will begin to diverge from its setting. A story with implications for the highest level of government, for example, might well soon start to force the world's politics to diverge from those of our own, changing who wins elections or even potentially who is alive to contest them.
Certainly, these sorts of concerns are among a myriad of reasons why I chose to set [that which I said I wouldn't mention again] in a fantastical world greatly different to our own. For any storyteller planning to be in for the long haul, it may well be worth deciding to make the break early on, rather than being forced into it by events.
* Depending on your view, this may or may not include rusty farm implements and bodily orifices, or the Order of the Garter. It's fair to call Who fandom 'divided' at the moment.
** and not at all the low number of hits my site has had recently.
*** Varying between 'nod and wink' and 'brick to face whilst screaming at 120 decibels'.
**** Either that, or the water treatment plants of the planet all have a 'retcon' dispenser pump.
***** Fun thought experiment- imagine Donald Trump receiving his first briefing on the Stargate program and learning that the USA gave the Russians and Chinese the technology to build space battlecruisers.
****** Plural inaccurately used without apology.