(In the grand tradition ofJohn Van Sickle’s Grand list of Overused Science Fiction Clichés, the Grand list of SF clichés, Things I learnt at the Movies, and Not So Grand Cliché List, Jackie Speel is here to make her own contributions to literature – and what not to do – at MuseHack. An earlier version of this was available on the now vanished Cucklebarr Times.)
As is pointed out elsewhere it is as much the manner in which stories are presented, and the amount of imagination involved that distinguishes the good or workable story from the bad. (Tongue in cheek interpretations, and explorations of how the situation in which ‘the standard plot device’ might logically occur/be resolved can work if deftly done.)
Include as many as possible of the following
One lead hero
Description: Humorous, handsome, intelligent, capable at whatever he does, natural leader, one minor and endearing flaw, one distinctive characteristic, right even when apparently wrong. Can always resolve problems, even when outside his areas of specialisation and whatever situations the crew have got themselves into. Has elements of an authorial wish-fulfilment character. Nobly pursues duty, abandoning any hope of long-term relationships (though the option is rarely presented, or, if it is, pursued).
One chief sidekick
Description: May disagree with lead hero, but normally to latter’s benefit. Has specialist skills, which may develop in unusual directions as the series develops, and which appear and disappear as needed for particular episodes. Stated long term plans (if any) are never pursued, or align with the lead hero’s. Is not allowed to become a fully developed alternative leader, even when lead hero is unavailable, or where operating within own areas of competence. May also have elements of authorial anti-hero etc wish-fulfilment: may have lost a lover tragically.
One comic relief
Description: Often male, lazy, weak, and frequently gets into trouble from which has to be rescued, and never learns how to avoid such situations. Skills (such as possessed) intermittently used. Occasionally comes out with ‘advice’ or ‘background knowledge,’ some of which is useful. Jokes can be spotted several lines in advance.
One ‘intelligent’ female
Description: Wears costumes (and accessories) well – this includes unsuitable footwear for rough terrain (does not trip). Clothing has ‘automatic all terrain self-cleaning while wearing’ treatments. Signs of intelligence – loves lead hero (or, very occasionally, chief sidekick), speaks up for comic relief when latter in major trouble, can come out with as many as three words of more than one syllable in a row. Skills possessed rarely fully used, and almost never takes on leadership role. Rarely given memorable lines or central roles in an episode.
One ‘resident alien’
Description: Standard two arms, two legs, head at the top, nothing too expensive in terms of special effects. Particular abilities manifest occasionally – which may include being taken over by hostile aliens (of same or different species). Any aspects of alien nature (eg extended hibernation or specialist food) not entirely compatible with host crew rarely referred to: does not require any part of the spaceship to be modified to particular requirements etc.
Comes out with ‘wise sayings’ or provides comments on intrinsic flaws and capacities of the rest of the group – but rarely recommends ‘great authors/TV-programme-equivalents/music etc’ from home. May provide comic relief by misunderstanding a situation, or occasionally provides a plotline through ‘development’ of intrinsic aspects, which have no other long term effect on character or series. Rarely tries to invite similar (or indeed other) aliens on ship, or acts as captain.
Subsidiary characters (crew)
Includes Specialists, Background People and Cannon Fodder. The latter two groups are generally interchangeable. Tend to only appear when specifically needed, and otherwise disappear chameleon wise into the background. If promoted rarely get to enjoy it: infrequent moves in/out of main ship.
One chief enemy
Description: Reason for animosity tends to be personal. Appears to be a direct descendent of the baddies in children’s cartoons, and equally incapable of dealing with/eliminating the heroes. Plans, however carefully thought out, are repeatedly thwarted, however many specialists etc the chief enemy has access to. Successes arise by accident rather than through capacities and plans. If in an official capacity rarely demoted (or worse) for repeated failures. Rarely ‘merely a competitor/rival’ for particular resources etc.
Description: attracted to hero/chief sidekick: would prefer chasing them to getting rid of them. Wears unsuitable footgear and exotic clothing. Devious – but plots come to nothing.
Tastes of the chief/female enemy tend to be peculiar/over the top (but rarely placed in context).
Enemies of alien origin
Description: Often humanoid (see ‘resident alien’), energy fields, blob creatures, or robotic: rarely show much visible variation. Alien enemies tend to be intent on world/regional/galactic domination (which may include destruction of humanity). Do not possess redeeming features, and are not responding to activities from heroes’ culture’s activities (or any other regional equivalents).
Aliens generally are rarely involved in non-violent forms of interaction (trade wars, TV- or film- equivalent rating wars, cultural/religious/trade etc promotion, alliance creation etc) apart from recruiting the occasional double agent (always thwarted). Plans often have a negative impact (frequently deliberately so) on humans.
As the rulers/superiors of the various military and other leaders implicitly suspect the loyalty of the troops they command, these are not taught to shoot accurately. In most cases the troops – even in areas where they are likely to encounter opponents – can be outwitted by simple tricks. No attempt to pursue economic, cultural or other dominance (even if cheaper/more effective). Generic opponents do not form alliances (with each other, humans, etc) against third parties or otherwise act tactically.
Includes one ‘unreconstructed caveman’ (Jarvik in Blakes 7, Grignr in The Eye of Argon etc), and one female who, despite being a top professional is remarkably soppy. Sentient robots, androids and computers do not have their own agenda (apart from those which wish to destroy or subordinate organic life as being irrational) and cooperate (including with their creators) only under sufferance.
Characters whose paths cross the hero(in)es’ do not need to have story/lives extending outside the episodes in which they occur.
Sidekick/neutral/single episode/occasionally present aliens
- Look as if they have escaped from props department’s fight with some discarded children’s toys (with an eye to marketing rights). Exact form (as with enemy aliens) related to how much time the aliens appear on screen and ingenuity of makeup department (ie as many left over cosmetics as can be put on the actor), props department or CGI unit given resources available.
- Neutral aliens do not have their own plans and patterns of trade, cultural development etc. Religion, philosophy and other cultural aspects are irrelevances.
- There are no minor interactions – sports matches, exchange of [television/film equivalent] programs, books, music, ‘tourist trash’ etc, and there is no need for translators.
- Always expect to speak human languages, and conform to human patterns of activity, but never demand the reverse.
- Never invite humans to join their wars/research/other activities that are not connected to the narrator group’s activities.
- Aliens are either ‘all good’, ‘neutral’ or ‘hostile’ as a group, rather than a mixture, and do not display genetic variation.
- Humans are never bystanders (innocent or otherwise) in interactions between different alien species.
One ship for heroes
- Looks more impressive than it is. Tends to fail at inconvenient moments, but is usually capable of escaping any danger (usually at the last moment).
- No relevant spares are carried, and the concept of jury-rigging is unknown – except for ‘escape from plot-device-disaster’ constructs, which are not retained for future use).
- Has a range of single-use (or more accurately single-episode/story) functions.
Ships belonging to heroes’ enemies
Despite being the latest models, with all modern technology, they are incapable of catching/destroying heroes’ ship. At most they are capable of damaging Innocent Bystanders’ ships and property. And exploding decoratively.
Tend to explode or be traps.
Ships’ cabins, corridors, and formal work areas in general rarely have background objects – art, directional signs, personal items, ‘items picked up in a car-boot sale equivalent’, promotional posters etc.
Few if any ships have ‘health and safety notices’, first aid notices and equipment, fire extinguishers and similar objects where they might be expected.
Rebels and others
- Rarely have a political agenda (see Lenin).
- Are always the ‘good guys.’
- All rebel groups are in harmony, rather than jockeying for power or pursuing their own various agendas.
- There are no regionalist groups, sectional-orientated parties, political (or other) extremists and similar.
- When the rebels take over they are good as administrative politicians, and are capable of converting career civil servants to promoting the new regime instantly.
Survivors of the old regime quietly retire or carry out their duties despite the change of regime. (Specialists will probably continue in their jobs regardless. Many administrators will be loyal to whoever pays them and allows them to get on with their own activities). Nobody from the old regime will obstruct the development of the new system, or actively seek to restore what used to be, becoming rebels against the regime. Nobody ever wishes to return to the old way of life for any reason.
- Criminals are disorganised, and there is no co-operation with the lead group.
- There are no neutral groups, who wish to be left alone by all sides (see the Clubmen in the English Civil War, the Greens in the Russian Civil War etc) or who have intents that at totally at odds with other groups.
- Single and double agents and similar are always sent to ‘Earth grouping’ by enemies, or unmasked by hero-group, rarely the reverse or operating on behalf of third parties.
- Dictators and dictatorships come into existence without a backhistory and leave no after effects once overthrown.
- Are always visited in good weather, either during daylight hours or at night: never at dawn/sunset, or during periods of weather that might damage the cameras recording the series/give rise to excessive insurance premiums/does not occur in the locality of the author, their viewing, or the books they have read.
- The crew are not interested in having a change of scenery from ships, to see (notable) natural phenomena and historic sites or museums, or otherwise going to locations that might be difficult to film/obtain as stock footage/be accessible for home viewing for author’s research. They do not check out recommended restaurants and other activities.
- Geographical, atmospheric and other phenomena peculiar to the planet are not consistently applied, and do not have any visible effect on visitors or inhabitants, plants and animals etc. All planets are Earth-like: bizarre local phenomena do not have any visible effect (apart from occasionally thwarting the heroes).
- Local genetic development and the consequences thereof are not considered. (Signage for species which can see outside human visual range; corridor and stair structure, telepaths having a telepathic component to their name etc)
- Specific environments tend to resemble whatever happens to be reasonably near where the series is being filmed or stock footage which can be hired and is not too obviously back projection (really bad series ignore even this last). Written series use cliché description.
- Planets viewed from outer space tend to resemble painted backdrops or billiard balls.
As with spaceships even in situations where they would now (21st century) be appropriate there are no examples of ‘background literature’ – the equivalents of holiday, events and other posters, health and safety notices, fire exit signs etc. Nobody ever has a TV-equivalent guide/airport novel/study book (on their reading device) etc to hand
Appears to come from the ‘please steal me’ bins outside second-hand shops, and left over props.
Art, music and other cultural stuff
- Rarely appears.
- When it does it tends to include school art show rejects, anything that can be covered with whatever paint there is too much of, props from period drama etc.
- No famous artists, musicians etc need be referred to, and no artwork is given a point of origin.
- Military command headquarters do not contain relics, images of famous battles or spaceships etc (see local military museum for types of objects). There is no municipal art, nor, in strong-government regimes, dictatorship art.
- The ‘narrative characters’ are totally indifferent to artistic, musical and other cultural pursuits.
One sentient computer
- Ships’ computers tend to fail at critical moments.
- There is never any need to upgrade, acquire new programs and components etc.
- Sentient computers: often container full of components. Even when it does not appear to be working for the lead hero.
- Never lack ‘obvious’ components or suffer from program incompatibility etc.
- Occasionally attempts humour/is teased/goes wrong/gets taken over for no obvious reason.
- Does not aspire to be ship’s captain or other role or promote ‘sentient construct rights.’
- Computer viruses, scams and the rest of the nuisances that plague the modern world do not exist.
- All computers are completely compatible, regardless of where they originate or the desire to use non-standard equipment/programs to render activities obscure to everyone else etc.
- Illnesses will always be life threatening, and, where required for Plot Drama, not treatable by standard ship’s medical equipment, and will be cured at the last moment.
- Injuries, however sustained and however serious, will cause no long term damage or visible change. (The episodes can thus be screened in any order, and saves on make up/props fees.)
- The crew are otherwise always healthy, and never suffer from minor diseases or injuries such as would be expected in Real Life or on a working spaceship and visits to assorted planets.
- All characters speak ‘Galactic/Federation/Regional etc Standard’ with ‘middle class/cultured accents’ except when ‘generic stereotype’ (including class accents) required. This includes the military, ‘kooky groups’ and persons from ‘three bus stops after the back of beyond.’
- Species of non-terrestrial origin will speak G/F/RS perfectly, and not require translators/the use of their own language in preference. The grammatical structure and idiom of their own languages is identical to G/F/RS, and they rarely have to mention objects, life forms, or concepts that only have local descriptives.
- There are no local words/dialects/languages, archaic/anachronistic language survivals, argots etc. (Local populations will develop the language of their time of settlement, and also have to describe purely local objects.)
- Where ‘offensive language’ is permitted it is often used to divert attention from plotholes and poor scripting, and is normally either identical to swearing of the 21st century or the result of ‘random Scrabble hand’/‘cat typing’.
- Is never a problem.
- Nobody discusses pay rises, tax rates, inflation, the bizarre cost of certain things when they go to planets and similar.
- The ship always carries sufficient cash to cover crew members’ needs, in all the currencies that they are likely to encounter (that is, if they are required to pay for anything at all). There is thus no need to visit Bureaux de Change, get ripped off or otherwise have money problems.
- There are no traffic fines for Space Travel Code violations (including spaceport parking) and similar unexpected payments and inconveniences.
- Nobody ever gambles away all their possessions/needs a bridging loan etc.
- Discussed rather than put to the test, and there are no indications of where the boundaries are (‘time saving hints’ for someone working on a project, pointing out the ‘obvious mistake’ etc and similar borderline cases).
- No consideration if the society is manifestly unjust, behaving in a manner likely to lead to its destruction and similar cases where intervention might be justified.
- There is no ‘Disaster Relief and other Emergency Clause’ in operation (whether or not applied in practice).
- At what point does the NiD cease to operate – or does it exist at varying levels?
- What happens if a community observes incomers/makes use of industrial espionage/demands the latest technology?
- Local communities do not possess technology etc the visitors wish to acquire which comes into conflict with the NiD.
- Often work against the crew. If detectives do seek the crew’s help it is to solve blatantly obvious problems or to set the crew up.
- The crew are never asked to help because they have particular expert skills, or can be seen as neutral in a complex political or social situation (and they will normally #go away again# – which in some situations would be their most useful aspect.).
- Depends upon market: can range from non-existent to ‘plothole/gap-in-story-filler,’ in which case it will be unimaginative or tabloid press ‘oo-er’ type.
- Sprogs, STIs, combinations other than standard m/f positions, and other complications will be ignored. (The first two also tend to be ignored in fanfic.)
- Alien relationships will be equivalent to human or totally bizarre plothole filler rather than evolutionary/culturally probable.
- And similar additions – particularly with a plausible back-story – never occur.
- One per episode/story – the viewers/readers might get confused otherwise. There will be few references to events and storylines occurring in other episodes/stories (so that they can be seen/read in any order).
- Moral dilemmas will be resolved neat and pat for the obvious solution (rather than several equally (in)valid solutions).
- Formulaic plot structure.
- Characters whose paths cross the hero(in)es’ do not have plotlines that extend outside the episode(s) in which they appear. The hero(in)es rarely feature as bit-players in other characters’ stories (the exception being some multiverses and similar multiple-point-of-view constructs).
- Rebels and similar never consider planting spies among those they are fighting, despite the occasional presence of spies amongst themselves.
- At least one episode will end with a variant on ‘But, dear viewer/reader it was all a dream/reconstruction/internal story etc.’ (There being no hints that this is the case during the episode). Or – the plot within a plot having been completed, it does not affect characters’ behaviour/the course of events.
- Incapable of helping themselves until Hero(in)es happen to pass by and resolve the matter. It is beyond their capacities to hire specialists (including those in the group around which the series is based) as soon as the problem becomes apparent, rather than wait until disaster approaches. This includes Wise Mystics and other advanced groups.
- Some ‘persons appearing to be helpful’ are not, and vice versa.
- If the locals are baddies, their plans are foiled, occasionally managing to inflict a minor scratch.
- ‘Wise mystics’ and other stock characters appear regularly (see ‘Overused Science Fiction Cliché’ list for more examples).
- Hero(in)es do not charge (standard or cowboy rates) for their work, or expect services in return.
- Everybody, from Wise Mystics to incapable locals are duly if not excessively grateful for the minimal help given them.
- The organisation ‘Scientists in Self-Imposed Exile Unlimited (Incorporated, headquarters in Tax Haven X) and are in full operation, and members are perfectly happy to give their prized inventions and possessions/useful advice to any passing visitor – unless allied with The Enemy. Such devices are never designed to ‘automatically cause damage’ to common enemies of narrator group and scientist. (The members of the body Wizards in Hiding operate a similar group of policies.)
- Applied intermittently: when plot requires it. Ignored when not required.
- Sloppy attention by author to key elements of scientific detail.
- Aspects of science which would be common knowledge at the time are explained in depth for the benefit of the reader/viewer, while what is in effect obsolete technology from our present is not.
- Heavy reliance on ‘innovative and untested devices.’
- There is only ever one piece of equipment for a particular task, not a range of models, of which some are more useful/preferred etc.
- Logical consequences of particular equipment choices are not considered – whether necessary future technology (eg faster than light drive, teleports, food and clothing creators), or everyday equipment which can be assumed to carry on from the present.
- Things which exist now, being practical items are replaced by over-complex equivalents.
- There will be no upgrading (or desired such) of equipment, malicious intervention in computer programs etc.
- Despite some areas of technological research being heavily circumscribed or banned, there will always be persons researching them who can be found immediately if required.
- Technicians developing cutting edge technology tend to flee without much planning, rather than exploiting their discovery commercially (patents, companies etc).
- See science.
Religions, political doctrines and similar
- Do not exist in the period/society in which the series is set – apart from the occasional Wise Mystic who dispenses sage advice or useful information, ‘primitive natives’ who indulge in practices bordering on the unpleasant, or religions which involve human sacrifice (visiting hero(in)es being preferred), fanatics, oppressive priests and a tendency to stifle development etc.
- Nobody requires time off for religious ceremonies and festivities, invites hero(in)es to enjoy such events, or acts in accordance with their religious (or moral/ethical) beliefs.
- There are no ethical/cultural debates.
- Sparkling imitation wood-substitute.
- Even when this totally ruins the willing suspension of disbelief.
Final plot twist
- Flagged intermittently rather than developed – unless a totally unexpected cop out.
- All species, inhabited planets etc use the same calendar, positioning system etc, rather than ‘galactic/regional standard’ and local (with all the possibilities for confusion, deliberate or accidental, arising thereby).
- Series generally
- All major characters introduced in first episode (or possibly second) – book or TV series (unless direct replacement).
- Nothing significant occurs outside the shown episodes/written stories: ideas too useful to waste. Besides, having major events referred to might give fanfic writers basis for writing better stories than occur in the series itself.
- No attempt to explain inconsistencies between episodes/reversals etc.
- Skills and abilities etc of the characters (and features the spaceship) appear in only one episode, and are never referred to again.
- If the group occupies a planet or system there are more things of interest in the locality than seems geographically plausible – especially as they are usually only visited once and are never presented in relationship to each other.
- Most characters’ skills/abilities are under-exploited in general.
- Bad guys have no redeeming features – and are not capable of performing heroically or being positively assessed by those among whom they work.
- No problems are left unresolved (unless plotholes/cliffhangers).
- Lead characters and significant others who go away (for whatever reasons) are not referred to again, and are replaced. It is not considered necessary to deliberately recruit specialists – chance will ensure that ‘the right person, with no ties’ will always turn up, usually in the first place visited.