On the Importance of Beds in Science Fiction

Humans spend about a third of their lives sleeping.  Quality of our sleep may vary, but we are creatures of comfort, and prefer a good sleep over a bad one.  This may sound self-evident, but apparently, it’s not always so.  While some science fiction movies and TV shows allow their protagonists to sleep well, others don’t.  This has a great impact on the overall feel of the story.  I believe that the quality of beds in science fiction stories is of greater importance than the quality of spaceships, range of blaster rifles or inventiveness in alien costumes.  Sleep overrules them all.

Presently, we have three Start Trek shows on TV: Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and The OrvilleThe Orville starts with the series protagonist, Captain Ed Mercer, coming home and finding his wife cheating on him with an alien, in their bed.  Picard sees the titular character having a bad dream.  He wakes out of it, in a comfortable bed in a mansion house overlooking a vineyard.  Discovery begins with the main character and her mentor walk across a desert planet.

Over the course of the series, the themes from the opening scenes prevail.  The Orville shows the regular life of the crew on board of their ship.  They change to pajamas before going to bed, sleep well, and there are even scenes of couples in conversation in bed.  Captain Piccard likes his bed and study so much that he recreates it on a holodeck of his current ship.  In Discovery, the beds and sleeping habits are just as barren as the desert: the beds are hard slabs with a pillow, barely wide enough for the characters to lie on their backs, in full uniforms.  That can’t be too comfortable…

But let’s expand further: Star Trek: The Original Series didn’t have all that comfortable beds, either.  They looked futuristic but didn’t seem too important as there were only fleeting views of them.  The Next Generation, on the other hand, gave beds much more attention.  They seem soft and comfortable, and they almost have their own personality with various flowers and decorations at their headboards.  Other series treated beds with a degree of realism.  The new Battlestar Galactica series featured beds you could possibly have at home, with pillows so comfortable I almost fell asleep just looking at them.  Babylon V, with all its alien races, had beds suited to each race, all of them reflecting the difference of the races.  From movies, I’d like to highlight 2001: A Space Odyssey.  For most of the movie, the beds are uncomfortable slabs in the hallway of the space craft, reminiscent more of hospital trolleys.  The final act, however, takes place in something akin to a hotel room with a wide, comfortable bed being the centerpiece.  More on that movie later…

There appears to be a correlation between the quality of sleep in various shows and the overall tone of the show.  Those shows that have comfortable beds seem to focus on the humanistic aspects of their futuristic worlds.  Picard is a deeply humanistic show: it shows the doubts and failings of its titular character, as well as the consequences of his previous hubris, and how these consequences are haunting him to the present timeline.  Many other characters have complex relationships with Picard, and digging into their common past is at least as entertaining as following the main narrative.  The choice of a very old-fashioned and comfortable bed, and Picard’s reluctance to abandon his comforts even in space, reflect the psychology of the main character and his interaction with others.

The Orville, The Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica treat beds as parts of life, and make them comfortable because, well, people like comfort.  The characters on their shows feel like people you could meet on the street every day, but instead they are thrown into a futuristic scenario.  You, the viewer, could easily be placed into any of these shows, and you’d act similarly to the characters already there, given the same inputs: a light-hearted romp around the space, high adventure exploration, or war, respectively.

Discovery features beds and sleeping habits that are highly unnatural to people.  Consequently, most viewers can’t subconsciously identify with the characters on the show.  The protagonists come across as automatons: cold and uncaring, solely goal oriented.  They are just another piece of furniture, filling the screen while we watch a show that’s not about people, but full of allegories, and high social and technological concepts.

Personally, I feel that the choice of beds and sleeping habits in all those shows was deliberate.  Basic comforts are so ingrained in our psyche that we subconsciously color our perception of the characters.  There may be many other elements that do the same: for example, in literature Becky Chambers greatly humanizes the characters in her Wayfarers trilogy with exquisite descriptions of various meals her protagonists enjoy.  Food tastes can’t be portrayed that well on screen, so beds serve to establish the central theme of the narrative.  (This is not to confuse it with the color palette, which establishes mood.  For example, both Battlestar Galactica and The Orville portray realistic people in the future, but the cold and dull color palette in Battlestar Galactica establishes the mood as grittier and darker of the two.)

There are a few works, however, where the choice of beds actually carries the story.  Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such work.  Kubrick is known to be obsessive about his sets and actors, and not a single item is placed randomly.  This is doubly true in this movie, where most sets are clinically clean and rather barren.  For most of the movie, the astronauts live abroad the spacecraft Discovery One.  There is a central corridor, which features cryo chambers and beds, which looks and feel more like uncomfortable trolleys in hospitals.  The astronauts are mere tools, helping to propel and steer the space craft on its journey to Jupiter.  They are, just like the characters in Discovery, goal-oriented automatons.  In the final act, however, the main protagonist is given a luxurious room with a wide bed as the centerpiece.  There, he evolves into a higher being, the star child.  The astronaut has completed (and survived) his journey and has become human again.  He is accorded basic human comforts.  And the star child becomes highly humanistic: zooming back to Earth and creating a new dawn for mankind.

The average viewer will not consciously notice the quality of the bed in a movie or TV show, unless it plays a major plot role.  However, the bed and the characters’ sleeping habits are an excellent indicator about the level of humanity the show wants to portray.  You should be cognizant of the beds you see.  They play a much bigger role in science fiction than you may realize.

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