People admired George Lucas’s original Star Wars (That’s A New Hope for you whipper snappers out there!) because the Millennium Falcon was, shall we say, “gently used,” and dust coated everything on Tatooine. Even the cantina, despite having a jazz band, looked like a dive bar. I’m surprised Luke and Obi-wan’s shoes didn’t make noise from walking across sticky spilled beer on the floor.
The universe looked like people lived there. Compare that with George Lucas’s previous science fiction film, THX 1138, which made 2001: A Space Odyssey seem grubby by comparison. Star Trek also had that problem up until Deep Space Nine. The abandoned Cardassian station was dark, did not look clean, and even sparked in places. Babylon 5 took it a step further. Some sets had junk piled off to the side or along the walls. Despite the video game graphics that haven’t aged well, B5 definitely looked like a place where people lived.
That’s the difference between the scifi of old and the more recent (as in since 1990). Before Star Wars, everything was shiny and clean. Even Battlestar Galactica, which was essentially an apocalyptic space opera. Instead of Vancouver getting nuked and the pre-invasion Colonies looking like someplace you might have been, everything in the Lorne Green version looked like Studio 54. Even the Cylons. And this carried on to Glenn Larson’s next trip among the stars, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Of course, we were 25 years beyond Yeager breaking the sound barrier. Everything, even with nuclear war staring us in the face (maybe especially because of it), needed to be shiny, clean, optimistic. Witness the 1979 version of the starship Enterprise. You could literally eat off the transport pads. Well, after they cleaned up from Commander Sonak’s death. The Klingon cruisers, normally giving the impression of rust and long use in later movies, resembled a backroom at a Holiday Inn. Flash forward to 1984, and Commander Kruge’s Bird of Prey looks like it not only has a few kellicams on it, but the odometer’s probably turned over a few times. One could say the same for the Enterprise, only Ricardo Montalban shot it up.
By the time we get to Babylon 5 and Farscape and Firefly, lived in becomes the rule, not the exception. It might have hurt the Star Wars prequels as Lucas leaned. Farscape gave us the messy interior of a living starship, which made some of it Muppet-created characters more believable. Firefly had the pretense of a Western, so naturally, everything is dusty, muddy, or simply primitive. Plus, they made the interior of the Serenity cluttered, dark, and not necessarily clean. (And despite that, you couldn’t help but fall in love with Kaylee.)
Early on, in the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, as well as the scifi thrillers of the 50s and 60s, everything had to be clean. We were more optimistic at the time. Plus, the sets were obviously sets. Silent films and early talkies had no concept of location shooting, camera blocking, etc. Yes, there were exceptions. The original Birth of a Nation, some of Hitchcock’s first movies, and so on. But watch the first Frankenstein with Boris Karloff. Basically, it’s a stage play with a camera pointed at it. Even when more elaborate movies with sophisticated angles, special effects, and sound came about, the pulp serials had roughly the same production values as the Three Stooges shorts. Less so, as studios made money off the Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. Those had to be shot old-style because the performers all brought their vaudeville backgrounds onto the set.
In the 1950s and 1960s, we needed clean sets because this was the future, dammit. Like Donald Fagen would later sing, it was the age of 90 minutes from New York to Paris. Everything needed to be shiny. But eventually, one had to pull the audience into the movie. After all, FTL is still a tough nut to crack. As of 2022, there is a solid theory of how warp drive, that which powers Star Trek, can work, but its author admits there’s a lot of handwavium that needs to be replaced with real-world science. It’s more a research blueprint than a practical guide on commuter flights to Alpha Centauri. Plus, ray guns are becoming less and less of a factor in scifi. JJ Abrams reimagined the phaser as something firing plasma pulses, though Strange New Worlds brought back disintegration as a form of death.
To bring audiences closer to the action, things needed to be dirty, scuffed, slightly broken. The fantastical had to look familiar. On the later Battlestar Galactica, Caprica looks like Vancouver, and not the Vancouver of tourist brochures. The parts used for planetside filming look like Yourtown, USA, or Anywhere, Canada. And even now, the newer Star Treks, mainly Strange New Worlds and Picard, look like the 23rd and 25th centuries are showing eveyday planetside settings as opposed to what the TNG cast called “Planet Hell,” those godawful soundstages where the “sky” was a pink wall about twenty feet behind the cast with Price Is Right scenery in the foreground. (Well, Picard went back to 2024, two years or less from now. Bad example.)
People want to live in the story, even if it’s Mad Max. It’s not enough to put on a stage play anymore. Soundstages are great for interiors, but unless you have some really good CG and a props department with mad skills, it’s not going to cut it anymore.