Recently I read a review of the Doctor Who season premiere that suggested the show is essentially creating an entirely new nonlinear form of storytelling. With all respect I think this is excessive praise, much like the folks who claim Ron Moore reinvented SF television. But whether or not you agree with this idea, I’m more interested in the critical subtext that insists any currently-fashionable genre permutation must be the best thing ever!
I love Doctor Who, and I trust that the show will eventually explain most, if not all, of the nonlinear moments the series premier gave us. But this nonlinear (i.e., WTF) quality of the episode “The Impossible Astronaut” is certainly nothing unique in SF, especially British SF that makes it to America. The first season of Space: 1999 is my touchstone for WTF, and that was done thirty years ago. In fact, for many years, when SF was being produced for fans but not by them, the attitude was most definitely, “It doesn’t have to make sense! It’s science fiction, they’ll swallow anything.” (An example: the unapologetic interview with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., included on the special edition DVD of 1980’s Flash Gordon. Semple, a veteran of the Adam West Batman TV show and the 1976 King Kong remake, seems astounded and a little insulted that anyone would expect him to take a subject like Flash Gordon seriously.)
So what’s behind this desire to overpraise whatever is currently popular? The need to instantly comment on and review things in the internet age is part of it, since these reviews are often written in the full flush of ardor following a new book/movie/TV show. More to the point, in many online critical commentaries there’s a definite urge to preach to the choir, which means that the critics mirror rather than challenge the enthusiasms of their readers (which, after all, is how you keep readers coming back). And ironically in an era when the great works of the past are more accessible than they ever have been, there seems to be a real need to establish that the Next Big Thing is also the Best Thing Ever (witness the lavish praise heaped on the reboot of Star Trek).
And that’s the opposite of real, thoughtful criticism. One purpose of critical evaluation is to remind readers that the Next Big Thing may not, in fact, be the Best Thing Ever. For example, Elizabethans experienced Macbeth as the Next Big Thing, but calling it the Best Thing Ever looks foolish when you realize Shakespeare wrote Hamlet three years earlier.
So whatever the Next Big Thing is, perhaps we need to wait until we have some critical distance before claiming it’s also the Best Thing Ever.