When AMC announced its new pop culture docuseries, Visionaries, at the Television Critics Association 2017 summer press tour, the network made it clear that these explorations of genres and media would be informative, but informal—expansive, but specific to whatever prominent filmmaker or producer was at the helm of a particular installment. Director James Cameron’s taken that to heart for his Story Of Science Fiction, which debuts tonight with a look at aliens (including his follow-up to Alien) and alien invasions. In this six-episode survey of the genre, which has increasingly found mainstream acceptance, Cameron seems very aware of his own cinematic contributions, and equally eager to work them into his onscreen conversations with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and Guillermo Del Toro.
And why not? Cameron has made some truly great sci-fi movies (Avatar notwithstanding), and if anyone else were heading up a discussion of the genre, they’d undoubtedly devote a segment or several to the creator of the Terminator franchise. As he notes during a chat with Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Skynet” is synonymous with “robot revolution.” There’s no denying what Cameron’s contributed to the genre, and there’s a certain joy in seeing him geek out with Lucas, who had to be cajoled into participating, and Spielberg. But Cameron also clearly struggles with relegating himself to the role of interviewer, frequently interjecting, often with references to his own oeuvre. The personal touch is to be expected—just look at the mission statement of the docuseries, and the title of this installment—but it sometimes prevents the viewer from gleaning new info from his subjects. You also get the sense that he could have covered some of those thoughts in voice-over, or in intros to the episodes.
At least Cameron’s effusiveness is shared by everyone involved in the show, whether they’re sitting across from the host on the spartan set, or doing talking heads for the producers. The Story Of Science Fiction gathers creators, critics, actors, authors, and directors from every corner of the genre, along with scientific consultants, to weigh in on its most prominent aspects and themes. Each episode has the same structure, combining dozens of interviews with snippets from the movies and TV shows discussed under the banners of alien invasions, monsters, artificial intelligence, and dark futures. Stars like Keanu Reeves, Sigourney Weaver, Will Smith (who says he’s been “chasing Star Wars” for his entire career), and Zoe Saldana—the latter of whom’s quickly become a sci-fi mainstay, with roles in three franchises including Avatar—are all featured in multiple episodes. The focus is less on chronology than pertinence—at times, it borders on free association. Cameron and Spielberg will start off talking about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, which gives way to Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer explaining how he adapted Ted Chiang’s “Story Of Your Life,” which then leads to an ersatz panel on the goals of science fiction, complete with archival footage of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein.
The end result of all this research and collaboration is accessible and surprisingly cohesive, full of touchstones that sci-fi newcomers will easily recognize, e.g. The Matrix, Guardians Of The Galaxy, etc. There isn’t a ton of new info here for well-versed fans, outside of watching some of the genre’s preeminent filmmakers praise each other and reveal the movies they considered directing that ultimately went to one of their peers—Cameron tells Spielberg he originally wanted to make a scarier Jurassic Park, for instance. But the host and co-executive producer has stated that The Story Of Science Fiction was made for the neophyte, and not those who have gathered in chatrooms to compare Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica, or analyze the latest episode of Westworld.
But one important aspect of The Story Of Science Fiction that’s mostly missing from these six episodes is any real consideration of the future of the genre. Cameron has acknowledged in interviews promoting his docuseries that the genre remains “stale, male, and pale,” which is why the show includes multiple interviews with award-winning fantasy and sci-fi author Dr. Nnedi Okorafor, and acclaimed speculative-fiction authors Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin. But they’re not on the show to discuss their own oeuvres so much as to weigh in on the work of their predecessors. Cameron recently expressed concern that real-world advances are inhibiting innovation in the genre, that “the people emerging are just the best stylists. Because there’s not that much that you can say that’s profound now that hasn’t already been said.” He said right now “the question is how do you package it, how do you make great characters, how do you tell good stories.” That’s a surprising lack of forward-thinking from the man who’s envisioned technological advances going very wrong, who’s also looked out at the current landscape and deemed it still too cluttered with white, male creators. But then, this is Cameron’s Story Of Science Fiction, so maybe it’s just his way of making room for others to add new chapters.