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Dystopian TV Shows and Films: An Introduction

Dystopian settings have been a staple of speculative and science fiction for over a century. While Jules Verne was penning his tales of great feats of engineering, incredible new worlds, and the future of human expression and technology, H.G. Wells envisioned bleak scenarios of alien takeovers, the division of the human race, the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, and the dangers of genetic modification. A few decades later, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell wrote stories of oppression and destruction set in postwar, tyrannical regimes. High school students may not have appreciated their teachers’ efforts to introduce them to these cautionary tales, but as the apocalypse obsession gains steam, doubled with an uprising of dystopian and postapocalyptic TV shows and movies, one wonders what the demand for and popularity of these stories indicate about the American and British states of mind, and why science fiction in particular has largely shifted in the past twenty-odd years from triumphant tales of resistance to invasion (“Independence Day,” the latter two “Alien” films) and exploration of new worlds and species (“ET,” “Contact”), to despairing stories of crumbling societies (“V for Vendetta”), overwhelming paradigm shifts (“Children of Men”, “Minority Report”), and incredible biological (“28 Days Later”) and environmental destruction “(“Waterworld”). While not all of these films involve a major event of destruction, they all involve a complete change in the fundamental nature of the world, and, often, the revelation of underlying truths, which is the etymological meaning of “apocalypse” and the purpose of most speculative fiction.

As Rapturists secure post-Rapture arrangements for their pets, 2012 enthusiasts piddle away their savings in anticipation of the end times, and extremist conspiracy theorists stock their fallout shelters, anxiety about the apocalypse, whether or not it is followed by dystopia, makes for hot news, yet isn’t limited to the “nutjobs.” The popularity of what we might call “downfall news,” such as the now infamous Miami face-eating attack, and the constant stream of horrible stories involving rapes and murders, is plainly demonstrated even in sources as mundane as Yahoo!’s “Top Emailed Stories” feed. The fictional apocalypse and the chronicles of the days thereafter have broad appeal: children’s movies, “Wall-E” and the “Ice Age” franchise’s increasingly apocalyptic content, blockbusters like “2012” and “Battle: Los Angeles,” science fiction drama-thrillers such as “Gattaca” and “Daybreakers,” the endless stream of zombie apocalypse entertainment, the Katniss novels, and TV shows such as “Revolution,” “FlashForward,” “Terra Nova,” and “The Walking Dead.” Even the past season of “Dexter” and the current season of “Glee” involve characters who are Rapture-obsessed.

I would suggest that this prevailing interest stems not only from an urge to caution in an age where widespread environmental degradation and the threat of nuclear warfare are a part of the global reality, but an sense of disenchantment and isolation and the desire to experience a unity of humankind, even if through traumatic events. I have heard many critics complain that post-apocalyptic entertainment focuses on the trials of a small group of people, especially if they are all white/related/rich/etc., but this is done not only for production realities, but as a reflection of the viewer’s primary frame of reference…”What would I do? What connects me to this event?” In the end, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world needs to be accessible to the pre-apocalyptic, not-utopian viewer: a sense of cynic detachment can only be resolved through the catharsis of moral certainty and confident survival attained through this genre of fiction.