Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 9 (2001, Star Trek, Neil Armstrong [Including Foot])

(15 comments)

In the White Wolf roleplaying game Changeling: The Dreaming, the point in the 60s that is flagged as being the zenith of hope and dreams and beauty is the moon landing. I adore Changeling, and am actually writing this blog entry in between preparing to start running a new campaign of it, but really, what rubbish.

For one thing, as we've already seen, the idealistic aspects of 60s culture were inexorably tied to political liberalism, to an extent that Doctor Who, by embracing a psychedelic aesthetic, lodged a politically liberal approach at the heart of what it does. It is in no way the case that liberalism ended in 1968, but the fundamental shift described in this entry was that political liberalism shifted from being in the ascendency to being on the defensive.  Which means that the idea that any culminating event in the realm of hope and utopian ideology happening in 1969 is fundamentally ludicrous.

And indeed, the moon landing was no darling of the 1960s left-wing, with the usual refrain being some observation about throwing money away in space when there are so many problems here on Earth. Certainly nothing coming out of the Nixon administration had anything resembling a claim to 1960s utopianism.

So what was the moon landing, if not one of the high points of the utopian 60s? By and large, it was a dead end. The reality turned out to be that space is enormously expensive and lacking in all practical value. The moon wasn't our first step into space - it was our last one, with no realistic plan in existence over forty years later to even return there, little yet to push on to Mars or elsewhere. Why? Mainly because there's no visible point. No cost-efficient way of gathering any materials from foreign worlds exists or appears to exist. No life or habitability appears to exist. And after a point that's right around Mars we rapidly reach a point where we are putting people in capsules for obscenely long amounts of time so that they can walk on rocks no more habitable than the last uninhabitable rock they walked on.

In other words, all visible evidence regarding any point in space that we can get to suggests that we are alone and would be spending massive amounts of money for nothing other than the sake of getting there. As long as this remains the case - and there's no particular reason to think it's changing at any point in the near future - space travel will never be a major priority of any organization with the money to accomplish it.

If we're being honest, the moon landing is a military victory in the Cold War more than anything. We should rewind a bit, actually, and look at how we got to the moon. Mostly, it's Hitler's fault. In all seriousness, as Neal Stephenson points out, the use of rockets for space travel mostly comes down to the fact that Hitler was oddly obsessed with the things and happened to have (before he destroyed it by driving all the Jews out) more or less the best science program in the world. And so rocket technology advanced considerably.

Once that had already happened, rockets became handy things to strap atomic weapons to. If you happened to have, as the US and USSR both did, obscenely deadly weapons of mass destruction that you really didn't want to be near when they blew up, rockets were great for this. Since accuracy is not a massive issue with a hydrogen bomb, the fact that rockets were crap at accuracy was no particular barrier. And since the US and USSR were both decked out with high quality Nazi scientists (indeed, Eisenhower is supposed to have remarked, when asked why the USSR was ahead of the US in the space race, "their German scientists are better than our German scientists.") who were, by dint of their last projects, all very good at rockets, they developed rockets.

Space, then. Here's the thing. It's not very nice to show off your rocket technology by nuking people. And so the US and USSR had to, in order to thump their chests and proclaim their superior ability to blow things up, find something that quietly implied their blowing-up ability while not actually engaging in unfortunate and likely apocalypse-producing acts such as blowing up major metropolitan areas in horrific nuclear holocausts. The obvious choice was space travel. And so to the moon we went in what was basically a nice, sanitized PR proxy for the arms race.

In practice, that's all the space race was. A high profile public relations front for the business of preparing for the slaughtering millions of civilians in the Cold War, dressed up in patriotic bunting. And once the agreed upon goal had been reached and the US reached the moon, that was basically it for the space race. After that, space served precious little purpose. We went through the motions of Mir and Skylab, Soyuz and Shuttle, but it was by that point something else, and it's hard to be surprised now as manned spaceflight steadily peters out. Even if it does come back in a private form - indeed, even if we return to the moon or make it to Mars - the fact of the matter is that space travel has no visible future except as a richer and more eccentric version of climbing Mount Everest - something people with a lot of money do to satisfy their thrill-seeker urges.

Which brings us to the other key aspect of the space race. The thing that was not so much what was happening as what a particular segment of the population - namely those interested in science fiction - imagined to be happening. The space race we dreamt of, as opposed to the one we had. For where we are in history, there are two key texts. One, like the moon, actually postdates where we are in Doctor Who by a fair margin, at least in England. The other is actually a fair bit older, but I somehow never got to it when we were dealing with it coming out, so we'll have to do it now.

Let's start there, actually. Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 is an odd film largely because of its strange fusion of an extremely hard SF attitude with an exceedingly wide-eyed mysticism. In some ways it's hard to see how these were meant to fuse, though as with so much of 1960s science fiction, hindsight is our enemy here. Arthur C. Clarke belonged to the classic golden age of science fiction movement in the US. This is the John W. Campbell-assembled school of writers who made their name in the American science fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction - Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and the like.

The thing about this movement is that there was an odd juxtaposition to it. These were mostly (though not entirely) writers who were very serious about science. The sorts of people who these days would post on Less Wrong and talk very passionately about secular humanism. But in the 1940s and 1950s when they were writing, there was, to be blunt, a much more spiritual dimension to rationalism than is normal today. Science was viewed as an ideology that could bring about productive social change so that if we organized the world around scientific principles, it would be a better, more rewarding place. And nowhere is that clearer than Arthur C. Clarke, who tended to combine hard SF, a detached, emotionless writing style, and a continual sense of mysticism. This was not a contrast, but rather a logical combination. Science was depicted as mystical because science was where we would find the enduring truths that would save humanity.

(You can see echoes of this all over early Doctor Who, where the usual shorthand for "This is a sensible person that the Doctor can attempt to reason with" is that the Doctor and the person in question both recognize each other as scientists. Even into The Underwater Menace, this is the operating assumption when the Doctor meets a scientist - we're meant to be surprised that Zaroff is off his rocker there, because he's a brilliant scientist and those are supposed to be sane, reliable people.)

Under Kubrick's direction, the mystical elements of 2001 were boosted considerably. Lengthy sections of what we now sarcastically refer to as "space porn" in which spaceships move with languid beauty through the stars served, in this film, to stress the degree to which the machinery itself was an object of sublime awe. But this is nothing compared to the 20 minute dialogue-free opening sequence of 2001 featuring a bunch of monkeys experiencing a great leap forward because of a mysterious black obelisk from space. Nor to the equally bizarre space acid trip at the end of the film (a sequence that is the direct inspiration for the title sequence of Doctor Who that appears in season 11 and remains until season 17).

It's worth being specific here. It's not just that 2001 pushes a spiritual dimension of science. It pushes a spiritual dimension to space. This isn't entirely surprising. As the famed piece of dialogue from our other main text today says, space is the final frontier - the place that is left for mankind to go. If spiritual fulfillment has not been found on Earth, it must come from the stars. And so we got the image of the starchild, already discussed in relationship to Vicki, and persistent all the way through the early glam rock days of David Bowie in the Pertwee era.

The other myth of space, of course, is Star Trek. Perpetually the comparison point for Doctor Who, the first thing we should say about Star Trek is that at the time in Doctor Who we're writing about, nobody on either show had ever heard of the other. Star Trek made its UK debut in the gap between seasons six and seven of Doctor Who, and Doctor Who didn't make it over to the states until long after the show ended. Once we get into the Pertwee era of Doctor Who and into the Next Generation era of Star Trek the influences between them fly fast and furious, but right now the shows are actually completely independently developed science fiction shows. So when we make comparisons between 1960s Doctor Who and the original series of Star Trek, we're making raw comparisons between the iconic sci-fi television of the US and UK.

I say comparisons, but actually, there aren't very many. For all that Star Trek features a similar premise of "the ship arrives somewhere and there's trouble," the shows are diametric opposites for the most part. The biggest difference, of course, is their relationship with military power and colonialism. At the end of the day, Starfleet is unambiguously a military organization, and the mission of the Federation is unambiguously a 23rd century version of empire building. Sure, the Federation is enlightened, scientific, and democratic, but then again, so was the British Empire - a pinnacle of reason bringing enlightenment and civilization to the darkest corners of the world. Which is to say, no empire is built by people who are short on self-belief.

At the end of the day, the basic structure of Star Trek is not, as it was pitched, Wagon Trail to the stars, but rather Master and Commander in space. It is a show about loyalty, valor, and the chain of command. And if we're being honest, Star Trek is an embodiment of a particular American anxiety following World War II - the realization that they missed their chance to be an empire. And so in Star Trek an international crew in which Americans are firmly in charge discovers that there's no end of new planets to explore, and that America can finally have its vast empire in space.

(Again, in contrast, pretty much whenever Doctor Who gets into galactic empire territory, it's a trainwreck. More or less every single empire we ever see humanity have goes completely wrong. This is because Doctor Who was written in a country that had an empire and watched it go completely wrong, whereas Star Trek was written in a country that never had one and was frankly jealous over it.)

The place this is clearest is probably in the classic episode "The City on the Edge of Forever." Acknowledging that Harlan Ellison disliked the version of that episode that actually aired, and that his complaints were specifically about its treatment of pacifism, the most significant thing to note about "The City on the Edge of Forever" is that its end message is very obviously that the anti-war movement risked destroying the planet. Putting, as it did, a story in which a vaguely hippie pacifist in the World War II era nearly destroys the entire future by letting Hitler win out during the Vietnam War protests leaves very little room for ambiguity. Ellison was, as I said, furious about this change, but let's be honest - what did he expect? He was writing military science fiction. Of course it turned anti-pacifist. What else could it possibly do?

The space race, outside of its militaristic dimensions, largely fell between these two stools of spiritual enlightenment and empire building. The latter of these, of course, was a better fit for the militarist dimensions of the space race, but on the other hand, for any country that wasn't the US, the idea of the American empire in space was a bit of a non-starter.

But in practice, as I said, space was empty. And continues to seem so. Neither narrative was right. And the period of Doctor Who we're looking at was, in many ways, the last time it was possible to be optimistic about space without seeming just a bit silly. Once the moon landing goes off, all that's left is the slow decades-long deflation of a particular dream of science fiction.

Not that space ever leaves science fiction - or Doctor Who for that matter. After all, the last episode to air was about a big space battle around an asteroid with lots of humans running around. But over time those images have stopped being images of the future and become images of themselves - images that, like the archetypes of Tolkien-esque fantasy, resonate more as tropes of a genre than they do as images of what we might someday become. (And of course eventually we'll deal with the film that ensured this transition, Star Wars.)

The end point is summed up by one of my favorite moments of Joss Whedon's science fiction series Firefly, in which one character expresses skepticism of the existence of psychic powers, calling them "science fiction stuff." At which point his wife remarks, "Honey, you live on a spaceship." Some people objected to this joke, viewing it as anachronistic. And perhaps it was. But on the other hand, it's a surprisingly cogent comment on the nature of our futures. Space travel, even in a world where it exists, seems more like science fiction than reality.

Sadly Apollo 11 is not for sale, nor is Neil Armstrong's foot, but Star Trek: The Original Series (US, UK) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (US, UK) are both out on DVD, and would love for you to buy them from those links. They turn out to be big fans of the blog, despite being films and thus inanimate objects without eyes to read it with. And so they think you should financially support the blog.

Comments

Jesse Smith 5 years, 11 months ago

I really enjoyed this essay. I'm not sure I ever thought of it this way, but I think you've correctly identified the point where science fiction turned from being "speculation about a possible future" into a specific type of genre adventure.

Even in Doctor Who, I see a sincerity (as in, "minus the aliens, this is a reasonable expectation of our future") in things like "The Moonbase" or "The Seeds of Death" that is missing from later stories. Even something like "The Waters of Mars" that seems quite plausible as a possible future with its NASA-like trappings, only really seems so because there's little truly futuristic about it. The technology seems current rather than 50 years in our future (even the news reports just look like a BBC News website circa 2009).

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Wm Keith 5 years, 11 months ago

"they missed their chance to be an empire".

Really? Was this a genuine popular sentiment?

America's Manifest Destiny must have seemed somewhat imperial to the nineteenth century inhabitants of the Wild West, the Philippines, Panama, Cuba, Hawaii, Alaska, and so on.

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Aaron 5 years, 11 months ago

Yeah, that's a good point Wm Keith. America had an empire, it's just that all the nations it took over (Cherokee, five tribes, Tulalip, etc) weren't considered nations at the time because of racism. Plus, of course, all the ones Keith mentions.

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talestoenrage 5 years, 11 months ago

Well, America did have an empire and imperial ambitions....but we were late to that party by the time we started, and had developed a very large group of people who loudly denounced the very idea, let alone our actual practices in places like the Philippines. I'm not sure I'd argue that we were actually jealous of the British Empire as a nation, especially since (unlike Britain in the 1800s) we had contiguous land mass we expanded into long before we started looking at unconnected areas to take over. But the Knights of the Golden Circle, at least, were eyeing a lot of land for the expansion of slavery.

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Jesse 5 years, 11 months ago

You're in danger here of confusing liberalism and radicalism. The Moon mission may have taken place under Nixon, but it was a product of the Kennedy administration, and it fit snuggly with the rhetoric and politics of New Frontier liberalism. That includes the military side of the Moonshot: Kennedy, like Truman and LBJ, was a Cold Warrior -- indeed, they could put a picture of Kennedy next to the phrase "Cold War liberal" in the dictionary. (If they were being cheeky, they could put in a picture of Captain Kirk. As Paul Cantor pointed out in Gilligan Unbound, the ideology of Star Trek was basically the New Frontier in space.)

The New Left was less impressed with the Moon mission, and by 1969 the New Left's doubts were beginning to seep into mainstream liberalism. But the vision that was being doubted was a vision at the core of American liberalism around the time An Unearthly Child first aired.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 11 months ago

"late to that party by the time we started"

Later than Spain, Portugal, Britain or France.

But earlier than Germany.

In terms of the territorial focus being on expansion into the continental landmass contiguous with the main body of the country, the westward expansion of the American polity has more similarities to the (considerably earlier) eastward expansion of Russia.

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Mike Russell 5 years, 11 months ago

Even now, with our subjugation of the Middle East over oil, our repeated interference in Latin America, treatment of Palestinians in Israel as the new Native Americans, etc., America has an empire. It's just taboo to say we have one.

I do like your contrast between Star Trek and Doctor Who, and you make more superb points in your Seeds of Death post.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 11 months ago

America's relationship with empire is indeed much more complex and tortured than people give it credit for. :)

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landru 5 years, 10 months ago

Star Trek, to me, always had a feeling of military, but the kind of military that an American would idealize (i.e., a fantasy one.) The original Star Trek always emphasized the need for command structure not for battles or conquest, but for sheer survival. I suppose that's why later iterations of the series seemed terrible and safe.

America has in its own heart struggled with Empire. Adams struggled with this throughout his political career as did Lincoln. Others believed in manifest destiny. In many ways, Star Trek's 3 main characters always maintained the shows internal philosophy of a balance between heart and mind.

Just some burble.

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Don Zachary 5 years, 10 months ago

Coming late to the party but, ooh, that’s harsh. I wasn’t born when the Moon landings happened either – a few years later – but I always got the feeling that it was welcomed as something a lot more about hopes and dreams than you place it, and far more Kennedy than Nixon. Yes, Kennedy was a Cold Warrior, but he was also an image of hope and made it seem something exciting and noble… And Nixon, after all, pretty much closed down the space programme. ‘Any culminating event in the realm of hope and utopian ideology happening in 1969 is fundamentally ludicrous’ – what, even if it had been started by liberals a decade earlier? It suddenly turns to cheese because a Republican takes over at the last minute? You’re very either / or, aren’t you? Wasn’t one of the unifying things about the Moon that those of us who like looking into the stars and those of them (as you might put it) who liked putting one over on the Russians both loved it?

Certainly, growing up in the UK in the 70s and 80s we were taught what a wonderful thing it was. Not least by the Dr Who Annuals, which were full of starry-eyed (ahem) space features.

Maybe some of that was cos we didn’t have to pay for it and you USians did ;) But ‘we can’t spend money on the Moon / the arts because it should only be on everyday things’ always seems grim and philistine. But again, maybe the British explorer stereotype (and Doctor Who) are keener on climbing Mount Everest and the American stereotype more on exploiting it.

Not saying the British didn’t exploit – but, like Kennedy’s PR, it made us feel better about ourselves to think we did it for its own sake, and some of us did believe it.

On the other hand, with Mike Russell’s comment. The Republicans strike me as ‘exploit but don’t commit’ empire-builders: go in, smash the place up, take what you want, complain when anyone tells you to take responsibility and ‘you break it, you bought it’. As in The Sun Makers, though, is a vast economic empire still an empire? Yes, and lets you skimp on the admin. Can see your point about Star Trek’s comparative utopianism but, yeah, you’re right, the Doctor doesn’t wear a uniform and carry a gun. Or work for anyone.

Maybe seeing what you’re not going to like about UNIT, yeah?

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 5 years, 10 months ago

"the idealistic aspects of 60s culture were inexorably tied to political liberalism"

Good lord, no! As I've mentioned before, the idealistic aspects of 60s culture were an emphatic rejection of political liberalism as being essentially political conservatism with a nicer face. Remember what the president of the SDS had to say about liberalism:

http://tinyurl.com/6p4mxo

"a particular American anxiety following World War II - the realization that they missed their chance to be an empire"

Is this an alternative-universe story? Because last time I looked, the American empire in the real world was pretty enormous.

On a completely unrelated note: any comparison between Doctor Who and Star Trek has to mention Ian's use of the Vulcan nerve pinch in "The Aztecs" it's the law.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

In response to each of the three points:

1) Much of this is picked up in the Seeds of Death post, in which American liberalism is split into Kennedy-style New Frontier liberalism and the anarchist/psychedelic liberalism that Doctor Who, by this point, had ended up closer to. But more broadly, and responding to a couple other points you've made, yes, clearly the election of Nixon did not result in an immediate cessation of the youth revolutionary movements. But it was, I think, still effectively a lethal blow. For one thing, it revealed the same essential lie that much of the left realized after handing the Presidency to Bush in 2000 by voting for Nader - that as distasteful as the "liberal" candidate may be, the degree to which handing power to the right is a disaster outweighs that. It shifted the cultural landscape from something that the idealistic 60s culture didn't like to something that actively hated the idealistic 60s culture and wanted it to die. Which is, I think, a major event in the transition from hippie-style idealism to punk that occurs over the course of about a decade here.

2) I'm generally of the view that "empire" in the classic British colonial sense is the wrong metaphor for America's power. Having missed the opportunity for imperial power, America developed something else. Rest assured, it's not a thread that's been dropped. Just one that's going to take a bit of a nap. Though Hulke will rouse it soon.

3) Then I defy the law, given that it's basically impossible for Star Trek to have influenced Doctor Who pre-1970 and impossible for Doctor Who to influence Star Trek prior to the motion picture. In practice, the earliest points of meaningful influence for each were much later.

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forestofillusions 5 years, 9 months ago

This was a great read as a huge fan of both Doctor Who and Star Trek and someone in the field of science and technology studies. One thing I was curious to see absent from your overview here though was mention of the German program Raumpatrouille Orion, which premiered the same night as the original Star Trek and bears some superficial similarities. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that show in light of the events of 1966 and what was going on in the world and on television elsewhere (especially in regards to the other two sci-fi shows).

Also, I’m not sure how far you plan to go with this history, so perhaps you’re already planning to touch on this, but I would be interested to hear your views in regards to some of the later Star Treks, particularly Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and its spiritual successors Andromeda and Battlestar Galactica, alongside events of the late-80s and 90s and rising trends in contiguous science fiction (perhaps in conjunction with what was going on with the Virgin New Adventures novels and early Big Finish plays). I’ve always felt that DS9 served as a rather brutal and laudable deconstruction of the New Frontier liberalism theme that ran quite clearly through the series in its earliest incarnations, showing the hypocrisy and thinly-veiled imperialism built into the core of the Federation. Ultimately the series, to me, often deals quite explicitly with how while the beliefs the Federation *espouses* (equality, pacifism, etc.) are admirable and worth pursuing, the Federation *itself*, as an institution, doesn’t have the most outstanding track record in actually living up to them and may in fact be totally incapable of doing so by definition.

In the end, the Federation of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seems a very different one to that shown in the original series; essentially an aging, faltering empire of ideology in everything but name faced for the first time with direct challenges to its self-appointed moral and ideological superiority and unable to properly respond. To me, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was more about re-evaluating the franchise at its very deepest and showing the questionable ground upon which it was originally built: A steadfast rejection of self-aggrandizing Neo-Imperialist dogma as a method to achieve the famous Star Trek buzzwords and a reaction to the notion that the “American Empire” itself was on its last legs and what the legacy of that way of thinking might be.

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Kat42 5 years, 5 months ago

I can see your point about Star Trek and Dr Who not influencing each other and you are probably right, but I wonder if you have considered that they were playing it in Canada. The main reason I started watching it was because my mom remembered watching the black and white episodes when she was a kid and decided to turn it on for nostalgia sake while I was in the room.

This seems something worth thinking about because we are right next door a lot of Canadians ended up being part of American productions. They obviously had Canadian actors on Star Trek, I'm pretty sure they had writers at least from time to time too.

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 2 months ago

I'm going to be a frightful pedant here and point out that Kubrick's movie wasn't an adaptation of Clarke's book - the two were created at the same time, and in partial collaboration. Kubrick gave Clarke notes on his manuscript, much to Clarke's annoyance.

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