A little over a year ago, we lost my grandmother, Merle Crawford. She was a quirky and jovial lady. The kind of person who could meet anyone at a grocery store and turn a chance encounter into a meeting between old friends. You can read a bit more about her life in the obituary I wrote for her in the Mountain Democrat, the local newspaper for Placerville, California.
One thing that I often mention about my grandmother is the impact she had on me as a geek. While I certainly watched a lot of genre programming as a kid,1 there are two things that led to my passion for SF/F (and related genres):
- My mother giving me VHS tapes of Star Wars. The ones with Leonard Maltin’s interviews with George Lucas at the front.
- My grandmother’s insistence that I watch certain programs.
So to celebrate the massive influence my grandmother had on my life in a very specific way, here’s a list of 5 SF/F/M (for mystery) movies and TV shows I love because of my grandma:
1. Enemy Mine (1985)
Enemy Mine is one of those films that probably hasn’t aged well but still holds a special place in my heart because Dennis Quiad and Louis Gossett Jr. are just…perfect. My grandmother loved it, I think, because of its very obvious allegory for racism in the U.S., which she witnessed as an immigrant from South Africa. It would be fair to say that my grandmother had complicated feelings about the end of Apartheid. I think there are two major reasons for this: First, she grew up in a white household that didn’t support Apartheid. Second, she moved to the U.S. before Apartheid had ended, and so her experiences of home came through occasional conversations with relatives and even less frequent trips home; she stopped going back in the 2000s (I think) because, from her perspective, it just wasn’t safe for her.2 These experiences probably turned her on to SF/F programs that tackled issues of prejudice and hatred.
To this day, I consider Enemy Mine to be an incredible film that doesn’t really pull punches when it comes to its message. Yes, it’s about prejudice and American racism. Yes, it’s about war and hatred for others. But it’s also a story of fatherhood, love for people who aren’t like us, and survival. Maybe my grandmother made me watch it because she hoped I’d learn lessons from it. If so, it worked. If there’s one thing my grandmother tried really hard to instill in her children and grandchildren, it was respect and love for people. I won’t claim to be good at it, but you can certainly pin some of my desire to see a more equal world on my grandmother’s clever film choices.
2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Look. I know that Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982) is largely considered to be the best Star Trek movie of all time. Hell, it’s considered one of the best science fiction movies of all time. But my first Star Trek wasn’t Wrath; it was The Voyage Home.
There are two things you need to know about this film’s influence on me:
- The Voyage Home was solely responsible for my childhood obsession with whales (humpbacks in particular).
- The Voyage Home is probably the only film other than Star Wars to seal my fate as a science fiction nerd.
My grandmother, as it happens, loved this film because she thought it was hilarious (it is) and because I think she was always more of a Trekkie than anything else. She grew up in the era of the original series, and I imagine she saw the hopeful vision of original Star Trek as something to aspire to. Today, we are much more critical of that vision (as we should be), but for my grandmother’s time, it offered something that probably had a lot of personal value as someone who truly loved people: hope. Plus, Spock wearing a towel on his head makes it really hard not to laugh, and my grandmother loved a good laugh.
3. Alien Nation (1989-1990)
You’re probably sensing a theme in the selections on this list. After all, Alien Nation is yet another obvious take on civil rights and racial issues in the U.S. The opening episode even goes so far as to feature Sikes, the head detective played by Gary Graham, standing on top of a car shouting at a group of human parents about why segregating schools is a garbage idea. In a lot of ways, Alien Nation is not subtle. That is except in the slow change of Sikes, who goes from being the scifi equivalent of your racist white neighbor who tolerates your existence but really doesn’t want to be your friend to being someone who, while imperfect, really tries to accept and respect people.
Needless to say, these were ideas that my grandmother probably experienced (as a child) in South Africa from her admittedly privileged position; they were also certainly ideas that came up while she lived in California. Alien Nation is not just a narrative about Jim Crow through the metaphor of aliens; it is also fundamentally about refugees and immigrants, and it’s not a coincidence that the show is set in Los Angeles or that the aliens (called Newcomers) arrive as refugees / laborers (an idea that District 9 would borrow for a more gory take from an explicitly South African perspective).3
In a lot of ways, my grandmother was deeply disappointed with what happened to the United States after 9/11. Alien Nation was a show that tried to tackle the darkness of the past to remind us about who we could become if we ignored history. Sadly, we became precisely what Alien Nation often vilified.
4. Columbo (1971-2003)
I confess that I have yet to watch every episode of Columbo. By the time I was born in 1983, my grandma was re-watching this show in syndication. And it’s only recently that I’ve started getting the collections so I can watch everything.
That said, if there’s one thing my grandma loved to watch on a regular basis, it was mystery shows. Back in the day, there wasn’t much quality SF/F television, but network TV in the U.S. had mystery television on lock. My grandma devoured shows like Murder, She Wrote and Matlock. When she discovered the wonders of Netflix, she spent a lot of her twilight years consuming every murder mystery show (especially the British varieties) she could.
Columbo, however, was a staple. I think my grandmother always liked the kind of bumbling detective act, especially as it was brought to life by the late and great Peter Falk. Columbo was like Monk, but iconic in a way that few shows ever have the fortune to become. Oh, and it was good. The show basically popularized the inverted detective story in TV (the audience knows who committed the crime and watches to see how they will get nabbed by the protagonist), and Falk’s performance was both amusing and delightful. Truly, the show was a phenomenal piece of work, and I still love it to this day. All because of my grandma.
Also: you can thank my grandma for my love of shows like Law & Order. Without Columbo, I’d probably still be watching cartoons. To be fair, cartoons are awesome!
5. Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001)
It’s another show about mysteries and murder and other detective-y things. Except Diagnosis: Murder, as the title suggests, involves a doctor and his son (played by the great Dick Van Dyke and his actual son, Barry Van Dyke). I have a lot of fond memories of watching this show as a kid, lying at the edge of my grandmother’s bed. In fact, I have a lot of fond memories of Dick Van Dyke, which made picking a Dick Van Dyke thing for this list really difficult. So I went with the memories.
The thing about mystery shows is that they share so much in common with the kinds of programs my grandmother liked. Alien Nation is about police detectives who solve various crimes, all on the backdrop of the integration of two completely different cultures. Star Trek IV involves a bit of its own kind of cosmic mystery mixed with espionage and comedy, but with spaceships and whales. Even shows like Quantum Leap, which my grandmother absolutely adored (I think because she wanted to marry Scott Bakula), featured mystery narratives.
Diagnosis: Murder fits right into all of that, and it is one of those shows that encapsulates a lot of the childhood I had when I was with my grandmother. While there’s a lot to dislike about my childhood, the influence my grandmother had on me will always be present, especially through the shows and movies she shared with me (and through the messages she imparted through them). You might call it “wholesome” content or just “good stuff with good lessons.” Diagnosis: Murder tried to bring back some of the family friendly flare from shows my grandmother grew up on, and so it’s no surprise that she gravitated to it so easily. And it should be no surprise that I would still love this show to this day.
So there you have it. There’s much more I can talk about, but I’ve got re-runs of Columbo to watch…
What favorite shows or movies did your grandparents shove into your brain? Tell me in the comments. I’m curious!
- Let’s be real. A lot of programming for kids is genre TV by default. G.I. Joe and TMNT are both SF/F. Dinosaurs is fantasy. Winnie the Pooh is fantasy. Most Disney films are fantasy. DuckTales is SF/F. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and The Secret World of Alex Mac and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are SF/F. A lot of programming for kids also falls under the mystery umbrella. I just don’t think I ever thought about genre when I was a kid. Looking back? It almost seems inevitable that kids born in the 80s and 90s would turn out to be unintentional SF/F nerds in the 2010s. ↩
- I still remember her telling me that her relatives lived in a gated community or compound with guards armed with AK-47s. She was also told, apparently, not to go out without a man at basically any time of day. So, yeah, I can see why she had complicated feelings about the state of her home country even while she despised the institution that, I think it’s fair to say, led to those conditions. ↩
- As far as I know, my grandmother never saw District 9. I suspect she wouldn’t have liked it because she did not like graphic violence in film. ↩