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.