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.