We take it as a given that the human story is integrally woven into this world, our ecosystems, the land and the sea — planet Earth. When we leave the bounds of this planet we’re literally taken out of our element. Any story that takes place in space or on distant planets is a relatively new kind of story, a new kind of adventure.
Space stories go by many names: science fiction, space fantasy, space opera, voyages extraordinaires, parallel worlds, planetary romance stories, space westerns, the space quest, the first contact story — call them what you prefer.
Proto-space fiction has a long, but esoteric, history in literature. Amazing Stories popularised the mainstream space story during the 1920s with serialised fiction. One of those stories, The Skylark in Space, by E E Smith went beyond the time travel / inter-dimensional dream story (the hero waking up on Mars, for example), because it involved the creation of a space ship — the means of implementing interplanetary travel.
Interplanetary travel in the film world begins with films like Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902). This early film incorporated space travel and alien beings living on the moon into the story, but the mainstream space story in cinema really took off in the 1930s when pulp fiction serials and comic strips were adapted for the big screen with film serials like Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. These stories combined exploration and adventure, futurism and retro-futurism (harems, sword fights, and costumes from Ancient China). They were a fusion of influences, merging the ‘exotic’ with the swashbuckling high seas yarn, and the journey into a new land.
Flash Gordon is a classic example of the 1930s space opera. It involves a ‘rocket ship’ that travels across space to the planet Mongo, the discovery of non-human races, advanced technology, mind control, death rays (and other terrible weapons), and a grand power struggle between an Imperial ruler and subjugated peoples.
The visual look of the space craft in Flash Gordon fused a bullet with a bomb’s tail-fin. It was inspired by Art Deco streamlining, aeroplane design, and performance engines (the craft’s ‘exhaust pipes’). The costume design was out-of-this-world: sexed-up sports leisure wear, retro-futurism, the Arabesque, Imperial China, Ancient Roman, and Medieval European outfits. The inspiration for Mongol’s ‘breeds’ (as his subjects are disparagingly referred to) are straight out of Ancient Greek literature, half-animal beings, winged men, and lion people.
The story features Flash Gordon, an all-American hero who, along with his two earthling friends Dale Arden (feisty and beautiful) and Dr Hans Zarkov (nerd-in-space), help us to make sense of this strange world. Flash Gordon puts himself in danger to pursue justice, and saves Earth from the destruction at the hands of the tyrannical Ming. Flash caps it off by falling in love with Dale Arden.
The world of Flash Gordon is brought to life by the various ‘breeds’ of Emperor Ming’s subjects (‘world building’). Each tribe has their own distinct characteristics and lives on their own planet or city, which has a specific environment. Flash Gordon’s goal is to unite the squabbling factions against Ming. There’s a sense of good prevailing against evil, with Flash Gordon as the heroic saviour.
In Forbidden Planet (1956) a scientist and his daughter, and their robot (the only remains of an interplanetary expedition) are visited by a rescue team intent on investigating the mysterious disappearance of the expedition. This space story’s strong Freudian influence, its electronic soundtrack, and special effects created a more realistic, mysterious and atmospheric vision of life on another planet.
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the thinking person’s space story. It bumped up the realism of interplanetary space travel, taking it to new heights. It threw in questions about the meaning of life, space as the new landscape, and a psycho AI.
Star Wars (1977) returned the space adventure back to its roots, back to the original 1930s film serials. It had action, adventure, romance, a story with good triumphing against evil, drama, and more drama — possibly making it the definitive space story.
Since Star Wars we’ve had Dune (1984), which was something like an art performance in space (or at least an Independent movie in space), and space comedies Spaceballs, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Galaxy Quest. The 1980 remake of Flash Gordon was quite faithful to the original, but with a camp inflection. We’ve had the planetary romance of Avatar (2009), and John Carter (2012).
The space story has thrived on television with: Lost in Space, Battlestar Galactica (1978–1979 and 2004–2009), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), Red Dwarf (1988–1999, 2009, 2012), Babylon 5 (1993–1998), Stargate (1994–2011), Doctor Who (1963 onwards) and Star Trek.
The post-Star Wars space story continues with Interstellar (2014), which reaffirms the space story in a climate where NASA’s funding is being cut, where America’s boundless optimism has been clipped and people question the relevance of travelling in space. In Interstellar we get the global eco-threat facing Earth, which creates a new call to adventure, a brilliantly minimalist robot (with a sense of humour), and a tesseract in space that resonates with metaphysical implication. There’s still life out there in space.