PORTALS IN 1990s TV SCIENCE FICTION
Looking back over the probably psychotic amount of TV science fiction I watched growing up in the nineties, one thing that stands out in retrospect as especially prevalent is the image of the blue vortex. Three of the series with which I spent a significant amount of time heavily featured vortexes and, perhaps more peculiar, those vortices were consistently blue or bluish-white. Sliders (1995-2000) saw Quinn Malory and friends hopping through a portal across infinite parallel dimensions; Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) and its 1994 cinematic precursor used a network of the eponymous devices to travel all over the galaxy, and Farscape (1999-2003) saw an astronaut gobbled up by a wormhole, shot into an alien part of the universe, and subsequently pursued for the secrets of his vorticular experience.
Science fiction has a long history of technologies of long-distance travel, of techniques that muster the alien worlds or races requisite for its narrative vicissitudes. Add to that the development of the traversable wormhole in the theoretical physics of the late eighties and early nineties, and it’s perhaps no surprise that pre-millennial TV science fiction has a penchant for burrowing vortices. But why were they blue?
Blue light is a staple of TV sci-fi. Casting an otherworldly glare, it can be futuristic, like the light from electric screens, and alien, anomalous, like the selfsame-coloured Smartie. The sky is blue, and our vortices give flight; poised in mid-air, swirling like wind, like the vengeful tornado in Twister (1996), these tunnels fly you to other worlds. As Rebecca Solnit points out in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, blue is the colour of the distance, of the far away.
Yet these tunnels are water and not air; while, technically, they might be made of light or space or nothingness, it’s liquid we see used again and again to represent the vortex. The chaotic rippling of the threshold in Sliders is made good in the upturned paddling pool of Stargate, the explosive activation of which is a perpendicular diver’s plunge. By the end of Farscape’s four seasons we see a beautiful, vibrantly azure oceanic whirlpool against the backdrop of space: nothing more, nothing less than water.
The allure of the ocean—its beauty, and its unpredictable violence, its force—matches the allure of the vortex. Like Poe’s Maelström, whose chroniclers “cannot impart the faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene”—or, better yet, the whirlpool in his MS. Found in a Bottle, a descent into which sees the protagonist arrive on an otherworldly, timeless ship manned by ancient and godlike figures. Dangerous and dazzling, the attraction is not just gravitational; it’s erotic, it’s the mystery of the other side. If that other side is oblivion, then more to the point.
Focussed to a point, the vortex demands attention. Compelling, damning, like the accursed spiral shape that haunts manga serial Uzumaki (1998-1999). Like a hypnotist’s disc— writ large as the time portal in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)—it sucks you into its maw.
Hop back to 1979 and we have two brooding, compelling vortices in two quite different science fiction features: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and The Black Hole. The former is a glorified sex scene, seeing the swollen-headed Enterprise (captained by the conquesting patriarch Kirk) penetrate at length the folds of the vaginal-sounding V’ger, a massive, sentient spacecloud— which also happens to be blue.
Blue language, blue movies; in his essay On Being Blue, William H. Gass writes of sex writing “What a page before was a woman is suddenly a breast, and then a nipple, then a little ring of risen flesh, a pacifier, water bottle, rubber cushion.” The sentence is itself a vortex; mellifluous, transmogrifative, it coaxes us, as Gass continues, “to drain through the cunt”.
In The Black Hole we encounter a ship locked on the outskirts of that titular orifice, which swirls, menacingly, ever in the background of both the story and the shot. Celestial in scale and divine in might, this fierce force of threat and destruction suits well the Christian overtones of the film. It’s also blue—until things go sour and the blue hole becomes a hell hole—like the hellmouth under the high school in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series (1997-2003), or the Stargate-like portal to a dimension of pain porn aboard the Event Horizon (1997). Elemental, infinite, wrathful; the vortex, God, the sea.
While those two vortices from 1979 might share qualities with those of the 1990s, there are some fundamental changes to observe. For one, the earlyish computer-generated effect used to portray the watery holes of the nineties is identifiable to any sci-fi fan: abstract enough that its relative lack of sophistication raises no eyebrows, a virtue is made of looking equally out-of-place against most any backdrop. Finding its ancestry in the animated column of seawater in The Abyss (1989), we might also point out the lauded special effects of Terminator 2 (1991), which saw Robert Patrick’s shapeshifting villain transform as a mercurial pool of metal. Jump ahead to the processional wormhole of Donnie Darko (2001) and we can note another recurring image: the gelatinous intrusion-into-space, the anti-vortex.
Another difference is the scale of the vortex; while the colossal outer space maelstroms of the 1970s saw mankind incidentally pinned, like an ant’s head, to the periphery of God’s great orifice, the portals of the nineties tended to be physically smaller, explored by individuals or small teams—the apotheosis of which might well be Quantum Leap (1989-1983), in which the body-hopping protagonist became himself a portal of blue light, glowing around his perimeter like a celestial cookie cutter at the commencement of each leap.
So too had we tamed them with technology: bound by the ring of the Stargate, remote controlled in Sliders, and mastered to one’s will in Farscape, the premillenial vortex had become manageable, mobile, deployable. No longer elemental furies, these portals (while occasionally misbehaving) reflected the increasingly portable, individuated real-world consumer technology of the nineties. Technology was advancing quickly, but it was yet to delimit us into useful users; it was the early days, and so much was futurological fantasy. The net was wide, but we were surfing it—and these sci-fi shows, with their manageable little wormholes, were adventures, explorations, ever beginnings.
Alex Niven has written specifically on the prevalence of the image of water in 1990s popular culture. While focussing primarily on the “whirlpools of guitar noise” in the grunge-inspired music of the decade, in his book Definitely Maybe he also cites the “swathes of immersive clothing” alongside various water-themed Hollywood blockbusters and a proliferation of aquatic cover art as typical of the nineties, highlighting equally an orientation toward collective experiences like “the sports stadium, the rave, the beach.” What Niven terms the ‘oceanic sensibility’ of the 1990s for him reflected the initial optimism and sense of abundance behind the (apparent) success of neoliberalism and globalisation. “Between the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001,” Niven reflects, “it was just about possible to believe in the illusion that humankind had entered a better, more prosperous phase of its existence.” Like its little vortices, in the nineties “Wars seemed to be getting shorter and more localized.” Borders between worlds became traversible or nonexistent, as capital became a universal language and capitalism a truth.
So where are we now? Well, for one, I don’t have nearly as much time to throw to the black hole of TV science fiction. One of the longer-running shows I have stuck with, however, is Fringe (2008-2014)—a series in which vortices appear as sinkholes, as environmental symptoms of an imminent end of the universe, as the show’s two previously parallel dimensions lurch toward collision.
Haunting its five series, this anticipated endtime is the result of human meddling; the spectre of a tired world, so worn as to appear to barely hold together, it mirrors our warping of the physical world by unsustainable industry and consumption, our depleted resources, and the economic fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Larger, unbound by machine, the vortices of Fringe grow out of control; even, they represent a lack of control. There’s not really very much the characters can do about them, as they render entire portions of the world uninhabitable.