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History of TV: Studying sci-fi with ‘The 100’

May 13, 2021
3 min read time

It’s been a while since we’ve gone dark in this space, so we’re going there this week with The 100. What I love about sci-fi so much is its ability to deal with real-world issues through the filter of otherworldliness. The moral and ethical lessons are aplenty in the genre and as such, in The CW’s beloved post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama that ran for — wait for it — 100 episodes, from 2014 until late last year.

Exploring Earth, the final frontier

In the speculative future of The 100, space is a little been there, done that. Earth is the unexplored territory our group of misfit youths are headed toward. Like Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) says in the pilot, “The ground: that’s the dream. Reality sucks.” Reality is that a nuclear apocalypse devastated Earth 97 years ago, and remaining humanity resides on the Ark, a space station orbiting the planet — on which she is a prisoner. But naturally, as technology tends to do, the Ark is starting to fail and our juvenile delinquents are sent to Earth to a) give everyone aboard the Ark one more month of life support, and b) find out if the planet is habitable again. Turns out it is, and they’re not the only ones on it.

What follows is seven seasons of some relatively familiar fare: two-headed deer and other creatures of that ilk thanks to decades of radiation exposure, factions with differing ideals and agendas locked in power struggles, human experimentation, questionable artificial intelligence, plenty of love stories to ship, and eventually, exploration back out into that final frontier — space.

The 100 was a roller-coaster ride from the start. Actions were based on instinct and immediate in nature. There wasn’t time to breathe or debate, because nearly everything was life-or-death. The fight was neverending because there was always a new one on the horizon. While that level of action can make for good television, it can also be indicative of this crazy-paced life we've all become so accustomed to.

Metaphors galore

Every character believed they were acting in a way to “do better” than those before them, and often in opposition to those around them. Aside from creating constant conflict, it could be the perfect metaphor for life. While we’re not exactly struggling against possible extinction every minute... aren’t we in a way, though? The very real human fear of death is what propels technological advances, ideologies, and irrational behavior — all evident in The 100.

But there’s also its antithesis: the persistence of hope, even in darkness. The original space station is called the Ark, the final season setting is Sanctum, both with religious undertones that give an immediate sense of what the creators (pun intended) of the show are going for here. The premise of The 100 is humanity’s shot at ultimate redemption. The planet was (mostly) wiped clean, these kids are (mostly) free from their parents and past mistakes with a fresh start possible. Characters were allowed to evolve and grow, instead of being boxed into hero or villain — here’s looking at you, John Murphy (Richard Harmon). Life isn't clear-cut right or wrong, it's in the gray area that we find meaning.

While the characters in The 100 explored the unexplored, the show itself did occasionally present itself as a lesson in what not to do:

A cautionary tale

When writing genre television, it can be easy to fall into tropes. While there’s something to be said for revisiting the tried-and-true in terms of a built-in audience, it’s worth noting there might be something deeper. Isn’t that the catharsis of writing; to examine the themes and questions about humanity that we just haven’t collectively figured out yet? The 100 presented many: fear of the unknown, youth stepping into their own as new adults, identity, political power struggles. However, the detriment can be if we don’t realize we’re writing certain tropes at the cost of groups that identify as different than us, even an inclusive message can be undermined. 

In retrospect

The 100 struck a chord with its target audience; it got the conversation started in ethics and shipping preferences alike, and racked up many an MTV nomination for “choice” pretty-much-anything-that-mattered category. The show was as bold as its characters, making choices such as killing off beloved characters while introducing a constant slew of new ones. It evolved each season, and the fact that it lasted as long as it did as a genre piece is a testament to the writers room, led by showrunner Jason Rothenberg.

Watch all seven seasons on Netflix, or read Kass Morgan’s series on which the show is loosely based (Bellarke fans may fare better here) for a sense of how IP converts across media.

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