Friday, July 20, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part Seven: Conclusion)

Previous installments:
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Reviewing the Literature
Part Three: The Star Trek Universe (part one)
Part Four: The Star Trek Universe (part two)
Part Five: The Doctor Who Universe (part one)
Part Six: The Doctor Who Universe (part two)


"You cannot destroy an idea!  That future; I created it, and it's real!"
-         Benny Russell, "Far Beyond the Stars" (Behr)

In 1998 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine aired an episode called “Far Beyond the Stars” that transported us from the twenty-fourth century to the twentieth in a story about the power of the imagination.  This was a “fun” episode of Star Trek, one where the actors were able to parody themselves.  They also got to take off their makeup; alien became human again.  Human faces put on alien enemies, and they were still enemies, conquering imperialists turned policemen.  Human faces also put on alien friends, breaking down the wall between the fictional world of a space station and our own history, our own reality; stripping back the layers of spectacle to reveal what those of us critically engaging with sci-fi TV already knew: these are stories about us.  This was a story about a man named Benny, a Black American writer at a science fiction journal in 1950s New York City who writes a story about a space station.  He is writing about Deep Space Nine, and through his imagining it (and writing the story down), the station became a reality, with his words literally transforming into the actions taken in the universe we had come to know.
This was an incredibly complex, multi-layered story, at once looking critically at the racism of the United States and the exclusion/marginalization of people of color and women in science fiction writing (and perhaps science fiction television writing?), all while linking together the power of ideas, stories and the futures we create through them.  Quite bluntly, this was one of my favorite episodes of science fiction television, across franchises.  If any story I’ve ever seen embodied the idea that I started this project with (that our imaginings create our futures) it is this one; and powerfully so.  “You are the dreamer, and the dream” says Benjamin Sisko’s father/the mysterious street corner preacher (Behr), and we truly are always both.  We imagine the future we want to build, and we work toward bringing it into existence: through story, through activism, through teaching each other what matters about our past and present; and so we must imagine carefully and fully and critically.  You are the dreamer, and the dream.  It is this image that I want to leave you with.  It is this image, this idea, so eloquently put in this episode of DS9, which has changed forever how I view the stories I love.
In looking at where science fiction television was, how it represented people and the tactics chosen in story-telling, when I was a child watching Next Generation, in comparison to where it is now in Doctor Who and Torchwood (even with the missteps I see in the latest incarnations of both series) I am incredibly encouraged by the turn to more complex, nuanced, and “gray” storytelling.  There is immense potential in the model I see Davies using on DW and TW, and I hope the next generation of sci-fi TV writers takes it even further, pushing the boundaries into more structural critique and more explicitly re-centering marginalized people through their stories.  Indeed, if the response to characters of color being central, if still secondary, characters in the recent Hunger Games movie/book is any indication, there is much work left to do expunging the centrality and invisibility of Whiteness and overt racism in our communities.  I hope my analysis around the way Whiteness has functioned in TNG and Doctor Who will help others consider where the same is at work in their favorite stories (science fiction or otherwise), and that my analysis on the re-centering of stories will help us imagine more productive, justice-oriented ways to imagine and tell our stories.
This has been an incredibly personal journey for me, helping me to see both where my urgent sense of the need for social justice has in part come from, as well as some problematic ways of seeing and understanding the world that I internalized.  I hope it has been as productive for you, reader, as it was for me.  In exploring the political narratives of these shows I have attempted to put on display the way in which their stories  replicate and challenge kyriarchal structures of power, in the hopes that through understanding these dynamics fan-scholars can interrupt normative conversations in geek culture, teachers can liven up class discussion with examples of important issues played out for the students, and we can all encourage ourselves and each other (in whatever capacity) towards an ever more insightful critical media literacy that challenges the kyriarchal structures of power embedded in our fiction, our politics, our economic systems, and so on; because these narratives are indeed embedded in all facets of our social life, and they do contribute to the oppression of real people throughout the world.  We must resist.  From all sides, through all the means at our disposal, and particularly through those means wherein we ourselves have been most invested and wherein our talents lie.  For me, that is in stories.

“NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us
shoving at the thing from all sides
to bring it down”
-         Diane di Prima (Revolutionary Letter #8)

“Impermanent spirals embed themselves in asphalt, concrete, in dust. Slowly, slowly, they eat into the foundations of the structures of power. Deep transformations take time. Regeneration arises from decay. Si se puede! It can be done” (Starhawk)

Find my bibliography below the cut...


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