Sunday, March 27, 2011

Technology and Utopia

I wanted to open this post by noting that I love Star Trek and am going to be using some of Darko Suvin's "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre" and Tom Moylan's "Scraps of Untainted Sky" to discuss and analyze the futuristic setting of this classic TV series and its sequels (on both the big screen and television). Fundamentally, Star Trek is unique for series from the 1960s in that it appears to sidestep past its major contemporary issues. Much of the readings for the week concern the political commentary possible in Science Fiction works and while Star Trek does incorporate these issues into its narrative, it does so by disguising it as alien.

In the 23rd century, mankind has moved beyond its own petty disputes on Earth over race, gender, and ideology (aka the 1960s) and thus both unified the Earth and joined it and human colonies to the United Federation of Planets. Quite frankly, it is this point in particular that turns Star Trek into a utopian piece as it makes very optimistic (yet desired) assumptions of the outcome of human endeavors over the 250-odd years separating the show's 1960s inception and its setting. Thus the use of actual, relatable humans as the protagonists allows this show the link to our contemporary world while the optimism forces a suspension of disbelief (as in the manner described by Suvin).

While the use of humans as protagonists allowed the audience to more effectively relate to Star Trek as a Science Fiction work, the inclusion of aliens ironically added to this relationship. The existence of sapient life with complex cultures, alliances, and principles is a central reality to the series but this very inclusion also allowed for broader creative opportunities for Gene Roddenberry and his crew. As is now common knowledge, in the original series, the United Federation of Planets appears to symbolize the West while the encroaching Klingon Empire paralleled the Soviet Union. However, the point is not that there is a parallel (as there are debates on Roddenberry's true intentions), but rather that instead of simply setting human problems in orbit, Star Trek made them issues of humans against various aliens, monsters, and secret/terrorist-like organizations. The utopian world of humanity is now set against the less-ideal worlds populated by Klingons and their brethren, allowing not only for the inclusion of an impossible-to-believe foundation, but also for the parallels to the present necessary for good Science Fiction. Tom Moylan described how literature and SF adopted the issues of the present to the their various settings and Star Trek is no exception. If anything, because Gene Roddenberry didn't specifically intend for these parallels, their existence in the series emphasizes the use of Science Fiction to address contemporary issues.

As a side note, Star Trek is unique in that there is only one truly fantastical technology, the transporter. In essence, the Enterprise herself is simply a space-faring exploration/warship while phasers are fancy guns, etc... While one could argue that the TV show was limited by a small budget and thus had to stick to creating technologies which mirrored those in the 20th century, in reality, there is a subtle brilliance to this connection across time. Star Trek is unique in implementation, setting, and technology in that all three contribute both to the "suspension of disbelief" and the necessary parallel(s) to the present so advocated by Darko Suvin and Tom Moylan. So while the viewer must learn to accept these new alien cultures and the technology of space travel, he/she does not have to fully detach from the present, but rather can view and extrapolate on the parallels between the Enterprise's adventures and our contemporary human world.


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