Friday, October 01, 2010

Science Fiction Television as a Mirror, pt. 1

The Renaissance Poet and I are currently watching the full catalog of two old shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the seventh season of Buffy I was surprised by a conversation in which a teenager was talking about being scared that his brother was joining the Marines, because he might not come back. It was a somewhat jarring reminder that the show was no longer set in the 1990's, but was now post-2001 and now in the world of the never-ending War on Terror.

Such reminders are never necessary during Star Trek. One episode we recently watched, "The High Ground," served as little more than a debate about the merits of terrorism as a political tool, specifically referencing the Troubles in Ireland as well as obliquely inspiring comparisons to the Intifada in Palestine, both very much in the news during the late-1980's/early 1990's. Even though ostensibly set in the far future, The Next Generation's concerns are very much of their time.

I had a brief conversation on Twitter with The A.V. Club's (and anyone else who lets him talk about TV) Todd VanderWerff about this, since it's been on my mind and he starting talking about it regarding Millenium and The X-Files. His claim was that Millenium was very much a product of its times in ways that The X-Files was not, which I can't really dispute since I've never seen Millenium. However, I do agree that The X-Files is not as reflective of the 1990's as its premise would suggest. I think that in general on television, most science fiction (such as Star Trek) shows are very intentionally reflective of their societies, while speculative fiction (primarily horror, like Buffy or The X-Files) tends to be more timeless.

Examining the most important shows of the last three decades - Battlestar Galactica for the 2000s, Babylon 5 for the 1990's, and Star Trek: The Next Generation of the 1980's - each seems to deliberately hold up a mirror to the current events of their age.

In Star Trek it's fairly obvious. Every other episode, or more, is built around a moral or ethical statement. Those statements add up to an homage to the concepts of classical liberalism every bit as loving as the American Constitution or the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man." In one episode, a mind-reader uses his powers for personal and political gain, and he is starkly contrasted with Troi, who uses her mind-reading abilities for the good of society. In another, a planet applies to join the Federation and is rejected by Captain Picard on the grounds that they do not give their traumatized soldiers the right to be members of society nor the counseling they need to function within that society, in a scarcely concealed reference to American treatment of Vietnam vets. In one we watched just this week, Picard objects to aliens who seize him and others for experiments not merely on the grounds that kidnapping is wrong, but he specifically declares that it infringes upon the rights of the kidnapped.

Star Trek models late-20th liberal American beliefs. During the Cold War, the West explicitly advertised the rights of its citizens as a major benefit compared to the oppressive Communist regimes it was competing with. Yet it also committed its own crimes against its people and others in the Third World, and The Next Generation tries to make it clear that humanity has moved beyond oppression and hypocrisy, and uses others to show audiences the benefits of such ethical advances.

The end of the Cold War and the fall of Communist states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia changed led many Americans and Westerners to believe that capitalism and classical liberalism were inherently superior as well as the natural state of modern society. Babylon 5, set in 2258, shows a society instantly recognizable as very similar to modern American society, with the same kinds of ideals as well as flaws. Its the politics which are very reflective of the 1990's. The fall of Communism led to chaos in the geopolitics at the time, but also increased hope that international institutions like the United Nations and the European Union would lead to a better and more harmonious future.

Babylon 5 mirrors this state of international chaos and adds an epic space opera plot. Chaos arrives prior to the start of the series with the sudden rise of Humans as major players on the gala-political stage, followed by a foolish war against a more powerful group of aliens, the Minbari. During the course of the show's run, another extremely powerful ancient race of aliens starts meddling in the younger races' affairs, disrupting the balance of power.

B5's implied solution to all of this chaos is to institutionalize it. Put all the different factions in the same organization and ensure that that organization has the power to successfully resolve disputes. In case you miss the metaphor for the U.N., the commander of the station explicitly declares its Babylon 5 Advisory Council to be the galactic equivalent of "Earth's old United Nations" in the pilot.

Over the course of the show's run, the balance of power is dramatically altered, and the Babylon 5 Advisory Council is shattered, much like the toothless League of Nations. The greatest successes of the characters come when they bring the various alien races together in new, stronger alliances. An episode that shows events that occur far in the future seems to indicate that the Interstellar Alliance created late in the show's run becomes an important force for peace throughout the galaxy. Its military arm, the "Rangers," is fetishized throughout the show's run. The Rangers are given more and more power to resolve disputes and interfere with the international affairs of the various governments, and this is generally treated as a good thing. An unnecessary war breaks out when the Rangers aren't allowed to intervene in a situation. It's an homage to liberal interventionism.

Liberal interventionism, or the idea that it is good and right for more powerful groups and nations to try to fix problems in other countries to make those countries better, was at a peak during the 1990's. The Democratic President of the era certainly made the case for it at certain times (with disastrous results in Somalia), but it was the interventions that weren't made which came to dominate discussion. The Shiite rebellion in Iraq after the First Gulf War and its brutal repression by Saddam Hussein fed American guilt for the next decade. The shocking Rwandan genocide of 1994 also seemed to make a strong argument about the need for both a robust international system of resolving disputes and strong United Nations peacekeeping forces. On Babylon 5, this manifested as the Interstellar Alliance and the Rangers.

I don't think the liberal interventionism apparently espoused in B5 is accidental. After the show's conclusion, its creator and driving force, J. Michael Straczynski, worked on a comic called Rising Stars which also seemed to make a case for intervening when the cause is just - one superhero devotes his life to stealing nuclear weapons from every nation on Earth. However, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, a move favored by liberal interventionists but one which turned out to be a disaster, JMS seems to have changed his mind on the subject. In his next comic series, Supreme Power, a group of superheroes start to act as an American intervention force, but are told, essentially, "Yankee go home!" when they encounter a group of African superheroes. They also question their role as personalized instrument of American foreign policy.

The "War on Terror" and its Iraqi theater weigh even more heavily on the dominant SF series of the 2000's, Battlestar Galactica. Making the claim that BSG is a mirror to the politics of the decade is hardly controversial. In the first season, humanity, whose "Twelve Colonies" were structured almost exactly in the form of the American government and military, were attacked by implacable, totally inhuman enemies called Cylons who could take the form of humans. The focus of the early episodes was almost entirely on the difficult decisions that leadership had to make in the face of an existential threat. As if the parallels to the right-wing narrative about the War on Terror weren't obvious enough, then the episodes which specifically focused on hot-button issues like waterboarding, abortion, and the loyalty of critical media hammered it home.

Conservatives, believing that BSG was passing their ideological tests, loved it. Everyone else could admire the storytelling. But things changed in the third season, when humanity, oppressed by Cylon occupation forces, started using suicide bombers as a weapon in their war. Suddenly the politics didn't entirely match, and right-wingers howled betrayal at this plot twist. The certainty with which Americans believed that they were doing the right thing during initial stages of the War on Terror is reflected in Battlestar Galactica, but so too is the muddled mess of the actuality of the Iraq War and popular opinion of that conflict.

The most obvious counter-argument too all of this is that all science fiction is intentionally reflective of its society. I don't think this is the case, however. One of my favorite subgenres of literary SF are the epics from the 1980's and early 1990's, like Dan Simmons' Hyperion, C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station, David Brin's Startide Rising, Sheri S. Tepper's Grass, and Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. All of these novels have striking similarities that put them in a similar subgenre. They generally take place in huge, dangerous universes filled with multiple competing factions, and they focus on a small, specific part of that universe where those various tensions reach a flashpoint. In premise, they are similar to later TV shows like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but they don't demonstrate the focus on current events that TV shows do.

So why is this the case, and what makes speculative fiction shows so different? I'll discuss what I think the answers to those questions are in the second part of this post, hopefully later this week.


Harbour Master said...

Many SF authors are often trying to put forward questions (or worse, answers) about the society they live in so, I wonder, why would we expect their stories to be anything else but a mirror?

Roddenberry dressed the original Star Trek as his future atheistic utopia which he would use to address controversial issues of the time: he described it as his "trojan horse". This perspective carried on to the Next Generation unscathed (albeit with a counsellor, everything was about feelings in the eighties). He tried to do the same with Final Conflict but it seemed somewhat out of place there. After Roddenberry, it was clear the Trek team wanted to do something different - DS9 tried to go down the B5 route but I never really felt that was particularly authentic. It would take Ronald D. Moore another ten years before he could create the darker SF drama he wanted with Galactica. Voyager had all the Star Trek personality polished out of it; Enterprise never quite found its footing, the perfect future thing had gone out of style. No-one believed in Roddenberry's vision any more. I found this particularly poignant:

Babylon 5 is JMS' idea of peace through collaboration and diversity. Despite the show fully endorsing the power of the Rangers (and to some extent the Minbari), JMS didn't shy away from the great power/great responsibility dilemma of the Interstellar Alliance in the final series. In "And All My Dreams Torn Asunder/Movements of Fire and Shadow" Sheridan is rendered impotent by the very institution he had built. (Sidenote: JMS was vehemently against the war in Iraq at the time: Earth's easy fall towards fascist state was meant to be a warning that we shouldn't allow this to happen again: which had relevance to post-9/11 America. He said on B5: "Too little of TV these days is *about*'s all context, no subtext. This show is about a lot of things...but never in the mode of telling you what to think. We'll ask *that* you think, that you consider the world around you, and your place in it...but defining that is your business, not ours." (from

The X-Files is an odd one as I believe it incubated a mainstream interest in sci-fi action (far more than TNG) and conspiracy theories. It *created* culture as opposed to merely reflecting it; it also tapped into a distrust of authority, the government as master not servant.

Millennium operated on the 90s fascination with serial killers: perhaps it was Silence of the Lambs that kicked it all off, coming out at the same time as Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. Media has not quite recovered from the serial killing spree, the uber genius pulling the strings of his victims and police, and you can still see the residue in films such as Saw. (And this probably all goes back to the Zodiac killer who was given more credit than he deserved.) Then again Millennium is not science fiction and doesn't fall under your article's remit.

Now I have typed more than I thought I would and need to take a break. I only meant to type "Interesting article and I look forward to the second half - whenever you get round to it" but somehow the keyboard moved around a lot and made me type other words.

Rowan said...

Thanks for the comment - I was getting worried since the only person who'd talked about it with me was my girlfriend.

I agree that many SF authors do use SF as a mirror as well, but like I said in the piece, it's pretty much constant in SF TV, but not as common or overt in novels.

To be honest, I was never really a Star Trek fan, and part of the reason was Roddenberry's utopia. It never seemed particularly interesting or plausible. Good things can still happen with it, but I still think it's a weakness. That said, I agree that the reboot film was not the best way to go about it, as fun as it occasionally was.

Babylon 5 is a bit different, in that it's more personal for me. If I seem heavily critical of its politics and praise JMS's later stances, that's largely because the same thing happened with me. In the 90's, I probably felt like yeah, the UN/Interstellar Alliance were great ideas! In a sense, if I seem harsh on it, I'm also being harsh on myself.

Harbour Master said...

You're welcome! I couldn't resist replying to someone bringing up B5 as it just doesn't seem to do the internet rounds like Trek or BSG does. (Plus I also think Farscape was important and underwatched; much more human, an entirely different animal and has practically *nothing* to do with social points or issues. Well, almost nothing.)

My journey is different to yours but no less conflicted. I grew up on Star Trek the original and grew through TNG; I also read a lot of Asimov and early SF which filled me with hope about the future and thinking of science saving the world. B5 revealed that most of the SF I'd been exposed to was missing a lot of drama; I still enjoy TNG but I doubt I could watch another series that aped its style. These things are of their time and can be appreciated as such; they can't be remade now. (Thought experiment: Could the original Galactica *really* have been remade/continued now?)

B5 was great but I always had issues with its plot. For all the concerns about Sheridan getting too big for his boots in S4, S5 dumped that fear and embraced the idea that one man could be strong enough to resist the corruption of power. It did fall back on the old Good Guys Really Are Good crutch; the times were changing but it was a little too early for good guys to be that human, or antihuman Jack Bauer for that matter. BSG is probably the closest we've come to that, but even then Apollo is your archetypal hero and Adama is pretty close.

I guess the truth is, for all its epic darkness, B5 is still optimistic at heart, promising another kind of Roddenberry utopia in the end. Everybody can just get along, if we just stop the hating.

The SF that reflected a mood of optimism in the Trek era has shunted into a depressing one of pessimism and doomladen inevitability, transiting through B5 into BSG. I am reminded of Jim Rossignol's piece on "is this what you want to leave behind?"

Someone will start writing some upbeat SF again soon. We've just got to get through this credit crunch and fear of terror first. And global warming. And...

BTW, I have absolutely no memory of how I ended up here. It was through Twitter somehow.

Rowan said...

B5's treatment of its Patriarch is one its major weaknesses, I think. The S4 thread of Sheridan being too dictatorial is totally glossed over, or even negated, by the reveal that it had been set up by Bester. That was a massive disappointment - I wonder if it would have been better handled had S4 had room to breathe.

I never saw Farscape (or Andromeda) so I can't comment. Might get to them one day.

Odd that you'd show up here from Twitter - I mentioned it three weeks ago but have no knowledge of any retweets.

I'm in the middle of a massive Buffy retrospective, having finished the series, but I'll try to post the second half of this after that. No idea how long that'll be or take, though, like you, I started small and ended up with lots of words.