In the realm of television, science fiction is a peculiar genre in that it asks for a level of active participation from its audience. In particular, it needs the audience to use its imagination in order to assist in the setting. That requirement varied greatly over time as special effects have become more sophisticated, allowing for the most amazing CGI sequences to exist not only on the big screen but the small screen as well. Of course, superhero stories come to mind. But this role of active participation is most prominently seen in stories that require a tight set where the outside world is far different than the one we live in today.
Of course, the classic sci-fi series Star Trek comes to mind. Filmed decades ago, the original Star Trek series was able to depict stories in space by filming on a set representative of their spaceship. Meanwhile, models and special effects were used to show outside the ship and give the illusion that the characters were actually flying through space. Fast forward to today, where that same illusion is used to similar effect in the show Snowpiercer. The story goes that a perpetually moving train is used to keep humanity alive when the rest of the world has frozen over. Although the special effects have come a long way since Star Trek’s time, the general idea is the same. The characters are filmed on a set that represents the interior of the train while, primarily, CGI is used to show what is occurring outside the train. The end result: an illusion that the characters on a set are actually inside a train with a post-apocalyptic world passing by them on all side. But this tactic can be used for anything from an underwater submarine to a traveling time machine.
Special effects and filming techniques have obviously come a long way since Star Trek. In those days, audiences had to use their imagination a fair bit to buy into the illusion that the characters were in the void of space. With Snowpiercer, the audience doesn’t have to work as hard as the CGI is very impressive. But it’s interesting to compare the two shows and see the similarities in how science fiction is presented. The audience obviously knows that these worlds are fiction. The crew of the Enterprise isn’t in space just as the passengers on Snowpiercer aren’t in a frozen wasteland. But by filming real human characters in between sequences of special effects, the audience is transported to their respective universes where the sci-fi genre is alive and well.