Ideas may be bulletproof, but nobody’s tried plasma rifles

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Jesse Smith
    June 22, 2011 @ 5:16 am

    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).


  2. Wm Keith
    June 22, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    "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.


  3. Aaron
    June 22, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    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.


  4. talestoenrage
    June 22, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    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.


  5. Jesse
    June 22, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    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.


  6. Wm Keith
    June 22, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    "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.


  7. Mike Russell
    June 24, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

    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.


  8. Elizabeth Sandifer
    June 24, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

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


  9. landru
    July 11, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    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.


  10. Don Zachary
    July 15, 2011 @ 2:44 am

    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 πŸ˜‰ 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?


  11. 7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194
    July 17, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    "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:

    "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.


  12. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 17, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    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.


  13. forestofillusions
    August 4, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

    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.


  14. Kat42
    December 27, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

    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.


  15. Exploding Eye
    March 8, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

    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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