The subtitle of the Science Museum’s exciting-sounding exhibition is all too accurate. It’s set up as a journey in space, where you queue to board an interplanetary craft and are guided through the bowels of the ship by an onscreen talking head. But it takes you to the “edge” of imagination only in that it lets you dip a toe in the marvellous worlds of sci-fi without ever truly diving in.
The show so wants to be fun that it refuses to engage with its subject, in case it does our poor heads in. Science fiction is as old as modern science, if not older: what are Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for flying machines if not medieval sci-fi? Cyrano de Bergerac, in the age of Isaac Newton, wrote a space fantasy called A Voyage to the Moon. By the 19th century, the genre was being forged by Mary Shelley and her successors. All we get of this history are two books by Jules Verne and HG Wells in a glass case, alongside an incredibly familiar still from Georges Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon. Later, you can see Boris Karloff’s huge tattered suit from Bride of Frankenstein.
No opportunity to look deeper into the nature of sci-fi goes unspurned. There’s an imposing model of the creature from Alien, its body an unsettling compound of the organic and metallic, with a growth from its head the shape of a sperm whale’s spermaceti – but you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s film and its sequels, right? What would be more insightful might be an exploration of how this image of alien life was based on the surrealistic science fiction art of HR Giger, and how he pioneered the idea of “biomechanical” hybrid beings. No such luck.
So much effort has gone into the design, the exhibits are an afterthought. A model of the USS Enterprise? Seriously? They don’t even go into The Next Generation – Picard and Data are perhaps too highbrow. It’s touching to see the late Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura costume. But fans of any given franchise will find their favourite is dealt with in a frustratingly superficial way. Prefer Star Wars to Star Trek? If so, you may want a bit more of it than Darth Vader’s helmet.
This assumption of total naivety is grating. Am I being unfair to a family-friendly exhibition? Yet, as Steven Moffat argued when he was Doctor Who showrunner, it’s adults who get confused by complex sci-fi. Kids love it. Unfortunately this exhibition is more like Chris Chibnall era Who, patronising all ages equally. The premise that we’re on a big space ship being prompted by a super- intelligent alien who takes a humanoid appearance is fine, but it’s done without acknowledging that we haven’t just internalised sci-fi with our mother’s milk, but parodies of it, too. If anything the ship reminded me of Red Dwarf, the onscreen face like its gormless computer Holly.
The inspiration clearly comes from escape rooms and immersive experiences, but of course it doesn’t doesn’t have the budget for the actors and effects to make that work. In the last analysis, you’re in a museum, not at Comic-Con. As pop theatre, it’s too slow and clumsy. As an exhibition, it’s glib.
Where it does score better is as a fresh look at contemporary technology. Cyborgs are becoming a reality. Advances in prosthetic limbs and other bionic body parts are changing human nature itself, the curators suggest, making science fiction a living reality. Social media star Tilly Lockey discusses her hi-tech hands and argues that we’re entering a cyborg utopia. This is fascinating stuff, a refreshingly optimistic antidote to apocalyptic dread.
One of many interactive exhibits allows you to try out a “real” version of Star Trek’s warp drive that might work – in theory – by using an immense mass to distort space-time. You don’t move, space and time do. And at the end of this voyage, you find yourself on the spaceship’s observation deck, looking down on our fragile earth.
Yet there’s nothing here to take you into the golden age of sci-fi writing, no attempt to introduce Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin or Ballard – although their books are in the gift shop. That tradition deserves a much more ambitious and nuanced survey. Instead, we find out there’s a Marvel character called Iron Man. He was played in a series of films by Robert Downey Jr. You never knew that? Well, this might be the sci-fi exhibition for you.
Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination is at the Science Museum, London, until 4 May.