To Boldly Go with the Force: Popular Culture as Political Discourse

by Mindy Clegg

In recent years, social and political conflicts over fandom emerged into general public consciousness. Both Captain Marvel and the upcoming film Joker illustrate the point. Both films stirred contentious debates around gender this past year.But many who are either new to fandom or count themselves as casual fans might miss that these debates are not new. Speculative fiction has been generating discussion around contentious issues for decades. Sci-fi and fantasy genres excel at allowing the reader or viewer to engage creatively with politically charged ideas. A look at some of the earlier postwar franchises can be instructive in understanding the connection between political discourse and fandom communities, in this case Star Trek and Star Wars. Although fandom dates to much earlier in the century (the 1930s at least), the popularity of both franchises brought in new people and shifted the dynamic from a smaller, literary-based community to wider mass media fandoms.2 These franchises proved fertile ground for socio-political discussions. They also provide an excellent lens into the time periods in which they aired (today included). As such, I argue in this months’ essay that the two franchises represented diverging generational views and political paths to a better society. Both shaped how we relate to mass mediated speculative fiction and can help us better understand the political discourses of a given historical period.

The men who created these two franchises revealed their own political views through their work. Gene Roddenberry was a vet of the Second World War and a member of the LAPD before becoming a script writer for TV. He began writing for TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s, using his experience with the LAPD and his interest in westerns to create a career in the writers room. He soon pitched a new project based on his interest in both science-fiction and the Civil Rights movement. He called Star Trek a “Wagon Train to the stars.”

The show would have a racially diverse cast, representative of all of humanity. It was his expression of strong belief in secular humanism and mid-century Cold War liberalism as key factors in liberating humanity. Star Trek, perhaps better than any other show of the time, captured that “liberal consensus” zeitgeist of the postwar world. In doing so, he expressed a keen hope that the optimism of the John F. Kennedy presidency of the early 1960s would not fade out, but instead push humanity to explore its fullest potential—collectively, through robust institution-building projects.3

Star Trek originally aired on American televisions in 1966. It only got three seasons on air, but in syndication it proved to be an underground cult classic, leading to a strong fandom that included the writing of fanfiction, a cartoon series in 1973, films beginning in 1979, and a whole new set of related series in the late 1980s and into the early 2000s. Star Trek books and comics made it’s way onto book store and comic shop shelves. There are also several games (video, board, and role-playing games) available to fans. There is a more recent resurgence of Star Trek, with several new series appearing and planned in the coming years and the trade in books and comics continuing to flourish. An expanded universe has been forged over the years, in fact.4

Roddenberry consciously created a multiracial crew on the Starship Enterprise. The show sought to promote the concept of racial tolerance among its viewers by showing a peaceful and egalitarian multiracial crew of humans. Many saw it as doing just that. Actor Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lt. Nyota Uhuru, the accomplished and talented communications officer, was told by Dr. Martin Luther King at an NAACP meeting that her depiction of Uhuru was making a difference in the lives of young black women. This was a time when black women rarely had prominent roles on TV, much less in such powerful positions. When she told him that she was planning on leaving the show due to ingrained racism and sexism on the set, he told her that she couldn’t do that, given the positive role model she was for young black women. She even inspired the first black woman to go into space, Mae Jemison. Jemison would later go full circle, and appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. George Takai, who portrayed Lt. Hikaru Sulu, eventually also parlayed his acting work into activism. He’s advocated for a meaningful apology for Japanese-Americans interned during the Second World War, as his family had been, and later come out as gay and worked for marriage equality.5

Moreover, liberal ideals, such as free trade, diplomacy, democratic practices, equality, and opportunity mark the United Federation of Planets (and Star Fleet, the military wing of the Federation) as a liberal project. Human beings led humanity to the end of history working together through their social, political, and economic problems. Star Trek exists in a “post-scarcity” economy, meaning basic needs are no longer scarce. Ready access to food, shelter, culture and learning, and real freedom from oppression all mark the daily reality for Federation citizens. Strong institutions make that possible. The Federation and Star Fleet provide stability, access to the necessities of life, and even deeper meaning. Roddenberry’s vision is unabashedly a love letter to the institutions that make up mid-century America. Although Roddenberry would have been aware of the realities of the 1960s with regards to continued oppression of many Americans, he saw a path forward that preserved the best aspects of liberalism (democratic, but bureaucratic institutions that provide services for humanity) while the very real aspects of institutions that have historically been oppressive could be excised. Later series continue these traditions, even when they took darker turns. Deep Space Nine, which aired after the end of the Cold War (beginning in 1993), explored the after-effects of colonization, while still promoting the ideal of liberalism as being a meaningful way forward. The last three seasons dealt with an ongoing war that the Federation was fighting against the Dominion and Cardassians. War crimes, violence, terrorism, and culpability for such things were among other weighty issues that the show addressed. Deep Space Nine asked serious questions about some of those institutional structures, such as how they are protected. The show reveals the existence of the CIA-like Section 31 in one episode. In another Benjamin Sisko, the Captain of the station, engages in an act of fabricating evidence and then even signs off on the assassination of a Romulan Senator in order to get Romulan support in the ongoing Dominion war (considered one of the best Deep Space Nine episodes).6

Star Wars brings a very different and just as attractive message to the public imagination. If in the Roddenberrian future, institutions can be instrumental in freeing humanity to reach a greater and united potential, in George Lucas’ distant galaxy of the past, haphazard and power hungry institutions need constant watering of the tree of liberty, preferably by headstrong and idealistic individuals. Unlike Roddenberry’s greatest generation pro-institution argument for liberalism, Lucas questions the basis of that institution-centric liberalism. He came of age in southern California at a time when that liberal consensus started to come apart at the seams. He grew up racing cars in a semi-rural landscape dominated by the defense industry and then came to love film through independent film screenings held in a backyard in Silver Lake. He developed a love of foreign films that tended to question the social order, such as the French New Wave films. Lucas’ first foray into film-making came during his time as a student at University of Southern California’s film program with a short Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB (1967) a film about oppressive institutions, surveillance, and the push for greater freedoms for young people. He later turned it into a feature film in 1971, but had little commercial success with it. Humans live in an underground city where they are carefully monitored and regularly drugged. The lead character’s rebellion by leaving the city leads not to death, as he’d been warned, but to true freedom. His later films include the nostalgia-driven American Graffiti, his first box office success. He also co-founded the production company American Zootrope with Francis Ford Coppola, which would present a challenge to the classic Hollywood system and give creators more independence. He continued that tradition with his own production company, Lucasfilms.7

Of course, most people know him for Star Wars, his biggest contribution to American and world film culture. The film began as an attempt to make a feature film of Flash Gordon, a popular serial shown in movie theaters during Lucas’ childhood. The rights proved complicated to secure, so Lucas instead decided to reinvent the wheel with a new space opera. Star Wars was born. Much like Star Trek, this film would go on to have a long life as a film franchise. It is in fact the second highest grossing media franchise in the world (second only to Pokemon). In the process of bringing the ambitious project to the screen, he created new film-making techniques. The production of Star Wars and its sequels led to the founding of several spin off companies that still provide a variety of services within the film industry, such as THX, Skywalker Sound, Industrial Light and Magic, Lucasarts, and Pixar, many of which remain under the Lucasfilm umbrella, now owned by the Walt Disney corporation. The original Star Wars launched an entire media franchise. We stand at twelve films, eight television shows (many animated), countless books and comics, massive amounts of fanfiction, video games, RPGs (role-playing games), and even a theme park attraction. The Disney buyout of Lucasfilm most certainly expanded the already considerable reach of the Franchise.8

Despite no longer maintaining creative control of the Star Wars universe, Lucas’ philosophical vision looms large. Star Wars, although most certainly in space, instead functions much more effectively as a fantasy. The first three films, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi rely on unexplained technologies and mystical notions like the Force, a natural connective energy of the universe that a well-trained Jedi can tap into (although the prequel films included a DNA explanation for force sensitivity, as it’s known). As such, the franchise avoids the technobabble common in Star Trek. It relies more on less well-defined, almost magical forces that explains the power of the good guys (the Jedi) and the bad guys (the Sith, who enforce the Empire’s iron will). These films also retell the “hero’s journey”, an epic myth trope described by Joseph Campbell.9 Star Wars is set “a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away.” These are not earthlings, in other words. The characters we meet, like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia (his twin sister, though they were not raised together), Han Solo, Chewbacca, Yoda, and Obi-Wan Kenobi live in a vast, interconnected far-away galaxy, suffering under an oppressive empire. The common man chafes under the imperial yoke, with no hope to be found in a scattered and destroyed imperial Senate. Institutions disrupt instead of secure human freedom.

The prequel films (Phantom Menance, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith) tell the story of Luke and Leia’s father who embraced the Dark side, Darth Vader/ Anakin Skywalker. The more recent Disney produced sequel films (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker) explore the events that occurred after the end of the original series, showing a world where the gains of Luke and his companions have been seriously eroded. It saw the original cast hand over the story to a new generation. In all nine films, the lines between good and evil remain relatively clear. Rather than a unified, institutional, bureaucratic system securing human freedom, it is the actions of individuals coming together outside of any defined system that ensures right prevails. When there are attempts to build credible, democratic institutions in the Galaxy, they fall part and give way to more oppressive institutions. It’s a deeply anti-institution, anti-liberal consensus, libertarian vision of human freedom. That is indeed its charm for the fandom, that a ragtag group of talented rebels can overthrow oppressive regimes. Many of us love to identify with freedom fighters, after all.

Ultimately, Star Trek and Star Wars help us to better understand the shifting divisions over the course of the Cold War era, and indicate still existing divisions today. Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future for humanity rested upon the assumption that liberal democracy would lead humanity into a world where conquering the stars was possible. Much of that is down to Roddenberry’s generation having positive experiences with large, bureaucratic institutions. Fighting a war against an enemy that had committed rather clear-cut atrocities serves to enforce the idea that America, even when it misstepped, was on the side of right. Civil Rights events in the 1960s reinforced the idea that institutions could serve the greater good—a group of Americans coming together in a well-defined organization changed the direction of the federal government in relation to race. Meanwhile, the space race was on, and Americans were working to honor the promise made by President Kennedy about getting to the moon—an accomplished goal not long after Star Trek went off the air. For Roddenberry, a positive future for all of humanity could be worked out through liberal institutions, because he had seen those things himself.

Lucas, born in 1944, grew into his profession in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s where youth rebelled against the established order and specifically against institutions. In his own way, he participated in that by helping to change the Hollywood System giving directors and actors greater latitude to act independently of production companies. The ongoing counterculture, the war in Vietnam, and the revelations about the Nixon administration and how the federal government regularly lied to the American people on a variety of issues, found their way into the DNA of Star Wars. A young, orphaned Luke Skywalker could not depend on his father to lead him into manhood, and the institution that Vader (revealed to be his father in The Empire Strikes Back) represented sought to grind down any sense of individuality. But the son rejects the father (even while embracing Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda as father figures) and those repressive institutions he represents wholesale. Skywalker represents not only the heroes journey, but also a libertarian worldview common among the 1960s countercultural revolutionaries.10

Today both fandoms are shaped by the institutional worldview and libertarian worldview. Star Trek had a recent resurgence with a new series, Discovery and several more are planned, including a new series with beloved actor Sir Patrick Stewart renewing his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard from The Next Generation. Discovery has had darker themes (it has more in common with Deep Space Nine) but at the end of the day, that Roddenberrian faith in liberalism still informs the writing. Star Fleet and the Federation are far less perfect than they used to be in earlier series, but it’s still a force for good. Meanwhile, the First Order of the new Star Wars films still represents the oppression of large-scale, bureaucratic institutions. Rey, much like Luke Skywalker before her, emerges from the masses as a special individual charged with saving the Galaxy. Prior to the discovery that she is “force sensitive,” she is just an ordinary person. Her rival Kylo Ren doubles down on his embrace of oppressive institutions when he gains the opportunity to lead them rather than continue to break them down with Rey.

Whether all fans of each franchise interpret this culture the same as I am here is up for debate (and that’s part of the fun!). Any work of art is up for as many interpretations as there are people engaging with the work. First comes the entertaining aspect, especially when dealing with mass or popular culture. If one does not find enjoyment in a piece of culture, they are not going to embrace it. But the messages inherent in both also brings in an audience as well. The elevation of women and people of all races to positions of authority within an institutional setting clearly appeals to plenty of Star Trek fans, many of whom work within institutional settings (the university, the government, corporations). It helps them to feel seen and a bit more empowered and validated. Star Wars fans feel empowered by the messages of the individuals’ power to make change in the world. Luke’s and Rey’s journey resonates with those who feel oppressed by the institutions in which they live. Institutions within the modern world have indeed been a source of real world oppression. The First Order clearly mirrors a fascist regime and opposing that seems self-evident. But the perversion of democratic institutions described in the prequel movies seems less clear cut. Are all institutions subject to the same weaknesses? At the end of the day, it seems that exploring these real world issues through popular culture can help us all better understand the world in which we actually live.

Footnotes

1 The Mary Sue had some stories on Capt. Marvel regarding some of the nastier reactions to it: https://www.themarysue.com/captain-marvel-box-office-inclusive-films/ and Vox had a recent story about the pre-release reaction to Joker: https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/9/18/20860890/joker-movie-controversy-incel-sjw
2The science fiction and fantasy convention World Con goes back to 1939 for example, http://www.smofinfo.com/LL/TheLongList.html
3A good overview of Roddenberry’s life can be found at Memory Alpha: https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Gene_Roddenberry
4See https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Portal:Main and https://www.startrek.com/
5See the Memory alpha pages for Sulu and Uhuru and Nichelle Nichols, as well as their characters: https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Nichelle_Nichols https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Nyota_Uhura and https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Hikaru_Sulu https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/George_Takei
6On Section 31, see https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Inquisition_(episode) and on the Romulan Senator see: https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/In_the_Pale_Moonlight_(episode)
7On Lucas see: https://starwars.fandom.com/wiki/George_Lucas
8See https://starwars.fandom.com/wiki/Star_Wars and https://www.starwars.com/
9Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces, New York: Pantheon Books, 2008
10Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Steward Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006

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