Brave new worlds (and a Dalek or two) at the Science Museum's latest blockbuster.
Imagine you're in the Future Zone of the Crystal Maze. But instead of fiendish escape room puzzles and crystal rewards, you have some of the most iconic treasures of film and TV to explore. That's the vibe at the Science Museum's new exhibition, Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination.
This is a show with more twists and turns than a space basilisk, as we emerge from our shuttle pod and explore the corridors and antechambers of a curatorial labyrinth (or starship 'Azimuth' to maintain the exhibition's conceit). The whole set up is somewhat theatrical, but packs plenty of substance to balance the style.
The first few rooms offer a constellation of props and costumes from blockbuster sci-fi, easing us in with the familiar. Many of the A-listers are here: a Dalek or two, a model of the Starship Enterprise, the alien from Alien, Darth Vader's actual genuine mask. Like a flight through an asteroid field, the hits keep coming.
But as our trek progresses, subtlety and substance settle in. The imagined aliens lie low for a while, giving more room for human stories and historic artefacts. The curators have done a particularly good job of weaving in exhibits with Black and Asian connections, which feels refreshing in a genre traditionally dominated by white Western perspectives.
The show is at its best when it displays real science alongside the movie stuff. Gene editing technology slips in beside GATTACA posters; a model of the Cheops exoplanet-hunting telescope hovers over displays about alien worlds. One of the stasis pods from Prometheus sits alongside information about therapeutic hypothermia. Famous cyborgs (including Vader) are stowed beside medical prosthetics. And so on.
The interpretation is excellent. Explanatory labels and background information will satisfy an adult audience, while a deliberately glitchy, pretend AI called ALANN, who pops up in every room, should keep the kids informed and entertained. Touchscreens include a chance to fiddle with a warp core, and a playful look at the Drake Equation (which estimates the number of technological civilisations in the universe).
Inevitably with such a vast topic, the exhibition is defined as much by what's missing as what made the cut. Wherefore art thou, Terminator, Blade Runner, Avatar, Dune, Jurassic Park, [insert 1,000 other possibilities]? But, of course, there's only room for so much and you'll have to buy the exhibition catalog for a more thorough treatment. The one thing I really missed was material on the origins of science fiction (besides a tiny display of old books), which might have helped set the scene. That's probably a separate exhibition in its own right, though. Also, I really wanted a walk-through TARDIS. Why can't I have a walk-through TARDIS?
After a fairly bleak room on dystopian futures and catastrophe (including a warped metal cup salvaged from Hiroshima) the show ends on a more optimistic and peaceful note. The final room incorporates a huge high-definition view of the Earth from orbit, as though we're looking down on the planet from a space platform. It's a curious choice to end an exhibition of strange new worlds with a look at the familiar, old one. But it's also perfect. As TS Eliot famously said: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination is at the Science Museum — now extended until 20 August 2023. Standard entry price £20. Oh, and look out for the many 'easter eggs' dotted throughout the show.