The last time the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Gillian Anderson wore pants. There were two Star Trek series at once, which promoted women and minorities and looked at the dark side of the Federation. Cyberpunk reigned supreme. The future was a shiny place â€” but with dread lurking just beneath its polish. Now that the Democrats have finally scored another grand slam, are we going to see the return of sunny-but-questioning science fiction?
The main thing it lacks is a contrast between sci-fi under Bush with sci-fi under Clinton.
First of all, let’s be clear that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a product of the Reagan/Bush Snr years: there were only one-and-a-half seasons under Clinton; its optimism was entirely driven by the ending of the Cold War. DS9 and Voyager are authentically Clintonian and they took the franchise down a much darker path than their predeccessor. TNG’s two greatest contribution to Star Trek were the rich development of Klingon culture and, of course, the Borg. The former was a rather more optimistic look at Middle Eastern culture than would ever have emerged post-9/11 while the Borg is of course influenced by communism (although these days, anxieties about assimilation of the individual would no doubt be presumed to be anxieties about Islam).
DS9 and Voyager by contrast gave us ideas about living in a divided society. Both Bajoran and Human societies have their culture wars. The Bajorans are also “good” arabs (Bajor = Kuwait/Saudi Arabia) while the Cardassians are the mean old Syrian/Iranians. Meanwhile, with the humans, Trek was able to explore what was increasingly becoming a divided USA, the Maquis being all but cheerleaders for Ruby Ridge and Waco. You could easily imagine B’Elanna Torres blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building.
How does all this contrast with Star Trek in the Bush Jnr era? I’m not the first to observe that Enterprise was the Bush Doctrine in Space. Captain Archer even resembles Dubya. In the first series they seemed to stumble from one major diplomatic incident to the next. The Xindi were as transparent an analogue of Al Qaeda as you are ever likely to get. As for the fourth season… well, I couldn’t tell you because I had given up by that point.
The main difference between Clintonian sci-fi and Bushian sci-fi is that the latter is far more miserablist. Dare I say that doesn’t necessarily make it bad? In Buffy we had a superhero learning that life was hard, while in Angel we had a vampire discovering that superheroics is equally complicated. Both have in spades something which all too often Star Trek lacked: drama. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica may be darker than the original, but it is far superior.
And while in the post-9/11 world we may have lacked the spectacle of Independence Day, we still have hope. Children of Men is about as dark a film as you can get outside of Schindler’s List, but its ending is far more emotionally uplifting than any 90s cheesefest managed to deliver. As I wrote in my Watchmen post below, entropy is a key theme in 90s sci-fi, but there is always some measure of hope, and that leads to a pretty mighty payoff when it is made to work well. Think the ending of Sunshine or the flashes of hopefulness during the darker points in Spider-Man (1 & 2 – the less said about 3 the better, sadly).
How will this change under Obama? Well, the io9 article cited above already points to the new Star Trek film and its return to a 60s ethic. But the transition film, thinking about it, may yet end up being The Dark Knight. Characteristically Bushian in its darkness, the film is riddled appeals to hope and optimism. In a year characterised by elections, one of its key motifs (borrowed from The Long Halloween) is the election slogan “I believe in Harvey Dent” – Obama might have used that one. There surely can be no doubt that this theme about how the hopes and dreams of the people can be embodied in a single good man (even if it is a blond, white man rather than a dark-haired, mixed race man) was tapping into the same undercurrent that Obama’s campaign was also taking advantage of. It ends with not only The Joker defeated, but The Batman recognising the best thing he can do is disappear. The time of madness is at an end.
So, we can probably expect a period of greater optimism in our science fiction. Let’s hope they don’t get too carried away however and shut down their critical faculties. Bush may not have done much for world stability, but he’s been a gift for sci-fi.