Although science fiction has been a mainstay on television since the mid-twentieth century, the genre has been consistently critical of television's power to brainwash the masses. Here are the classic anti-TV tales from science fiction.
While there are dozens more stories I could have included in this list, I've focused here on the classics - both well-known and obscure. You'll immediately see a few interesting themes emerging. Nearly all anti-TV science fiction condemns the tube for its power to stupify, but some kinds of television are evil more often than others. Topping the list is reality TV, which is generally treated as the most menacing form of entertainment. The other kind of TV that comes in for the greatest criticism is news. Always, the news is failing to deliver on its promise to give us uncensored access to what's really going on - either the news has been coopted by corporate interests, or it has become propaganda rather than truthful information.
Without further ado, welcome to the dark little world of the small screen.
Modern Times (1936)
We begin with this classic Charlie Chaplin movie made during the Great Depression. Modern Times is set in a near future where hapless factory workers are given orders from their boss' giant face on TV screens - this movie was made before most people had TV in their homes, so here the TV screen is a large and invasive control device, rather than small and insinuating mind controller. Like nearly all of Chaplin's films, Modern Times is silent - except when the boss barks at them from the TV screens to go faster. Chaplin's Little Tramp character is later victimized by an automated food machine, mashed up by giant gears, and pursued by the police - but nothing seems more disturbing about this future than the moment when he tries to enjoy a cigarette in the bathroom and his boss' face pops up on the TV telling him to "stop wasting time!"
One of the most influential books of the twentieth century, George Orwell's 1984 is about a near-future industrial fascist dystopia. Everyone's home contains a telescreen, a TV that can't be turned off. It broadcasts 24-hour propaganda and also serves as a surveillance device that watches everyone constantly. Like the TV screens that loom over Charlie Chaplin's character, watching every move he makes, the telescreen symbolizes total loss of autonomy and privacy. Television equals oppression.
Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
The dark tale of a "fireman" whose job is to burn books, Fahrenheit 451 is about a 1984-ish dystopia which is ruled by the military-entertainment complex. Most people spend all their free time participating in interactive soap operas designed to distract them from questioning the system. Books, which might inspire them to question their passivity, are banned completely. This is one of the few SF tales to condemn television for pacifying people with fiction, rather than with sensationalized news or reality TV.
Released at the height of television's hold over the world, just before the dawn of the personal computer age, Network is an ambivalent, near-future story of a downsized news anchor who goes nuts on the air - and becomes a sensation. The movie deals with the very realistic problem that many networks faced at the time, which is that news shows were losing in the ratings while mindless game shows and other trash captured millions of eyeballs every night. Network traces the fall of a great news anchor and the rise of a young TV executive trying to convince the network to boost ratings with violent reality shows about terrorists and crime. Somehow, their paths intersect when the anchor loses it on the air, delivering a deranged speech and promising to shoot himself. It's like the news has suddenly become her reality TV dream, and she gives the former anchor his own show where he can rant as much as he likes. Until he starts ranting about how evil TV is (see clip). That's when his suicide threat starts to sound like a good proposition.
One of the things that's great about Network is that we see how thin the divide between news and sensationalism really are. And we also get a chance to peek inside what people of the 1970s feared most about TV's future - a future that actually came to pass in the reality TV and talk show infested tube of today.
Network also raises an important question that many other anti-TV stories deal with. Why is reality TV so evil? It's partly because reality TV turns surveillance into entertainment, but also because it encourages people to look at each other as fictional characters. Either way, human life is devalued.
Afraid of what TV is doing to your kids? That's exactly the fear Poltergeist preys upon with its tale of a cute little girl kidnapped by evil ghosts who speak to her from inside a television set. Though the TV itself doesn't play a big role in this movie, there's a good reason why we all remember the iconic image of a little girl speaking to evil creatures inside a snowy TV screen.
A David Cronenberg mainstay released in the early days of videocassettes and cable, Videodrome is about a conspiracy to turn TV watchers into mind-controlled slaves. A tiny cable company starts broadcasting snuff video (yes, reality TV again), which they've secretly saturated with the "videodrome signal" that causes anyone watching to hallucinate and become vulnerable to mind control. Max, who runs a cheesy UHF station, unwittingly tunes in the videodrome channel while looking for more exciting programs to air. As he slowly descends into madness, Max imagines (or does he?) that people are inserting videocassettes into his body that reprogram his mind and turn him into an assassin. It's all somehow connected to an evil optics company, and an underground organization that has turned television into an object of worship. I think we all know where Cronenberg is going with this: Television controls you in ways you may not be aware of. Also, at least in Max's case, the question of whether watching violent sex on TV will turn you into a violent person is answered with a definitive yes.
Max Headroom TV series (1987-88)
Like Network, Max Headroom is set in the newsroom of a major TV network in the near future (20 minutes into the future, as the show's tagline informed us at the beginning of every episode). But unlike Network, Max Headroom's grim, cyberpunk future offered us a lot of hope about the future of good investigative journalism. Edison Carter is a star reporter with two problems: one, Network 23 is always on his ass about ratings; and two, he has an alter-ego named Max Headroom, created in a brain download accident, who lives inside the world's computer network and says snarky things with a strange electronic stutter. Fighting for journalistic integrity, Edison tries to uncover injustices while Max (sort of) helps out by snooping through electronic data or saying the impolite things that are on everybody's minds. Joining Edison in the fight to rescue the news format on television is an underground punk TV station, as well as Edison's producer Theora and the station's geek, Bryce.
Truman Show (1998)
Perhaps the harshest condemnation of reality television ever filmed, this quiet movie is about the seemingly-perfect life of a man named Truman. Who discovers, after living almost half his life in a sleepy town with a beautiful wife, that his entire existence is a lie. He's the star of a reality TV show that is the most popular series on television. The town he loves? A set inside a huge, climate-controlled dome. His wife? An actor whose gushy conversations about household cleaning products begin to make sense once he realizes she's advertising sponsors for the show. Should he suck it up and continue living his perfect, fake life, or battle the ultimate power - the showrunner - to find freedom in an uncertain real world he's never seen?
What's interesting about this film is that we begin to see a criticism of reality TV from the inside, looking at how it destroys the people within these shows as well as the audiences who consume them. What does it feel like to have your life mangled into fiction? It hurts at a level deeper than the emotions. This is the ache of violated morality, too.
Doctor Who has aired a number of episodes that could be called anti-TV, two of which are aimed specifically at reality TV.
In "Vengeance on Varos" (80s), a planet keeps its population pacified by broadcasting deadly games on TV that real people participate in. The Doctor stops it, but nobody learns their lesson. The liberated population still clambors for more TV. (A similar ending crowns Truman Show, where the Truman escapes the set and his show goes off the air - but then everybody scrambles for something else to watch.)
In "The Idiot's Lantern" (00s), an alien parasite enters TVs through their antennae, then sucks people in and steals their faces and brains. A classic throwback to the Fahrenheit 451 critique of TV, which is simply that the medium is stultifying.
"Bad Wolf" (00s) is also about reality TV. The Doctor and companions find themselves on a giant satellite where people participating in game shows and a Big Brother-esque show are killed when they lose. Fittingly, the Daleks arrive to underscore how bad everything is. In other words: The only thing worse than reality TV is a hoarde of fascist robots who want to exterminate you.
The Signal (2007)
This violent indie conjures up a TV apocalypse packed with creepy humor. After a Videodrome-like signal gets broadcast on local TV and via mobiles in an Atlanta-esque city, people become intensely violent. Essentially, television has unlocked their basest desires, which they can no longer prevent themselves from acting on. Wives murder husbands, sports fans murder each other, and one frightened woman must try to escape without getting chopped up or eaten. Here television is just one of many media that we see distorting people's minds and making them bloodthirsty - mobiles and computers deadly carriers of the signal too. But the message is as old as Videodrome and VHS tapes. What you watch is altering your neurology, and not in a way that's good for you.
Dead Set (2008)
A British miniseries, Dead Set is about what happens when the only people who have escaped a zombie plague are the actors on Big Brother's closed set. Like many zombie flicks, the point of Dead Set is that humans are often worse than the brain-eating undead. This show also brings us back nicely to 1984, the book that inspired the title of the wildly-popular reality show Big Brother, which is all about surveillance and punishment. Dead Set is about a world dehumanized by television: The people who lap up Big Brother have turned into cannibalistic monsters, and the people who star in it are as empty as the dead. When surveillance is entertainment, reality TV is fiction drained of all imagination, and news is just a degraded version of reality TV, we might as well just be eating each other's brains.