The Final Frontier Within: Dystopian Genetics and Cyberspace
Starting in 2003 and still in play is the turn in sci-fi television from exploring the final frontiers of outer space to the internal frontiers of genetics and digital networks. As for the former, the Canadian show Orphan Black (2013–2017) starred Tatiana Maslany as a series of clones created by the Dyad Institute. These clones, who are scattered across the world, slowly discover themselves over the first season or two, and agree to band together to discover who is out to kill them. The main character is the English punk Sarah, who witnesses the suicide of one of her clones, a cop named Beth, in a subway station. She decides to impersonate her.
There are numerous threats to the clones’ well being: Beth’s boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce), who is really a plant by Dyad; Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer), the Neolutionist spokesman of Dyad; the evil clone Rachel, who works for Dyad; and the murderous Ukrainian clone Helena, who has been brainwashed by a religious cult into think that cloning is sacrilege. This show rarely strays from advanced technologies, and presents a model of civil society where anything goes as long as you have money and power. It also buys into the intersectional fantasy that most straight white men are corrupt or evil, but at least balances this with plenty of evil women.
On the other hand, Channel 4’s Black Mirror (2011-now) presents a world about 15-minutes into the future where contemporary or advanced technologies create an episodic series of dystopias where one or more new devices ruin people’s lives. Most episodes simply amplify the technologies we’re already addicted to in our daily lives — cell phones, computers, video games, social media, virtual reality — to see their impact on the lives of the episode’s characters. For example, in 1.3 “The Entire History of You”, Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell) becomes obsessed with replaying audio-visual recordings made by the “Grains” implanted in his and his wife Fee’s (Jodie Whitaker) heads, leading him to tracking down her infidelity with the slimy Jonas, and the fact that he may not be the father of their child. The episode imagines a society where everyone is always recording everything that happens around them, unable to forget past slights and painful experiences.
In 3.1 “Nosedive”, the culture is addicted to a Yelp-like personal ratings app that determines your status and access to goods, which turns most citizens into superficial conformist clones. Those who refuse are socially cancelled, or in extreme cases imprisoned. Charlie Brooker’s series confirms Michel Foucault’s notion that a Panopticon may be an efficient method of surveillance, but it’s crippling to the human spirit.
Finally, the best sci-fi series of the naughties, Battlestar Galatica (2003–09), combines these two themes. In the opening mini-series, 12 human colonies named after zodiac signs are attacked by the long-absent Cyclons, sentient robots who have developed a way of replicating human beings almost perfectly (though they only make 12 models). Fleeing the devastation, a rag-tag fleet of civilian ships lead by what we assume is the last surviving battlestar, the Galactica, seeks out the 13th colony, Earth.
Commanded by the gruff Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), this aircraft carrier in space survived by not being networked to the fleet, and thus avoiding a computer virus that allowed the Cylons to disable the other colonial warships. Packed full of hotshot pilots such as Adama’s son Lee AKA Apollo (Jamie Bamber), Starbuck (re-envisioned from the 1978 series as female, played by Katee Sackoff), and Boomer (Grace Park), the colonials are on constant watch for the enemy within — Cylons posing as humans, of which there are many.
Though there is an element of discovery, the weapons are contemporary (guns, missiles and nukes), and the politics dystopian and conspiratorial. It was the perfect series for post-9/11 America. The last vestiges of Adama and President Roslin’s (Mary McDonnell) liberal sentiments are tested over and over, as in “Pegasus” when a second battlestar appears captained by the ruthless Commander Cain (Michelle Forbes). The crew of the Pegasus regularly torture Cylon prisoners for information, refusing to acknowledge them as sentient beings, as part of the savage war against the “toasters”.
Identity Politics and the Collapse of Liberal Utopianism
Somewhere around 2013, a relatively new political ideology swept across university campuses, leftist political parties, and the mainstream mass media. It has different names, though I’ll call it “intersectionalism”, or simply woke politics. It claims that Western societies are racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic patriarchies where people are divided into groups bitterly fighting for power, some of them oppressors, some of them oppressed. Individual identities, thoughts, and actions no longer matter. If you were in a victim group, you should be given wealth, status and power; if you were an oppressor, you should accept your collective guilt and atone for your group’s past sins in some sort of quasi-religious ritual. Though some refer to it as “liberalism”, it has no concern for traditional liberal values such as freedom of speech (see Twitter for evidence), as it cancels its enemies through social media hate campaigns and takes a supremacist rather than an inclusive approach to sexual and racial equality.
Woke ideology has spread like a virus throughout sci-fi television since 2017, when Jodie Whitaker became the first female Doctor on BBC’s long-running series Doctor Who, and the stories ramped up the social justice themes started in Peter Capaldi’s run on the show. Rather than fun explorations of weird alien species and worlds powered by an inclusive romanticism, the show became a preachy series of moral lessons for recalcitrant toxic males.
The social justice virus metastasized rapidly throughout the casting, scripts, and direction of Star Trek: Discovery that same year. For the first time a Trek series focused on a single character, Michael Burnham, a Mary Sue-style “strong black woman” who can do no wrong, despite staging a mutiny against her captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and starting a war with the Klingons in the opening episode. She is eventually charged with her crimes, but is let off by Star Fleet to help them win the Klingon war she started. Burnham is continually praised by her crewmates, despite being arrogant and insufferable and making huge mistakes. She is an intersectional fantasy.
To make things worse, until Anson Mount’s Captain Pike appears in season two, all the straight men on the show are either quickly killed off — Admiral Anderson (Terry Serpico) in the opening battle, a mansplainer named Connolly (Sean Affleck) in the opening episode of season 2 — or turn out to be villains — Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) is a surgically altered Klingon spy, while Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is a violent neofascist refugee from the mirror universe. The Klingons 3.0 seen in the series are given a bizarre orc-like appearance whose mantra “Remain Klingon” is an admitted dig at President Trump.
This banal allegory will have all the staying power of acid-washed jeans. Gone is the canonical view of the Klingons as honour-bound warriors: they are now a thinly-veiled allegory for white nationalism. To make things worse, Burnham becomes the narcissistic center of the whole “red angel” time-travel plot in the second season, since the universe isn’t big enough to contain her ego, though she saves it anyways.
Added to the magical politics of the show are magical technologies, devices that not only destroy the Star Trek canon, but make no narrative or scientific sense. Chief among these is the Tardigrade drive, which hooks up the ship’s engines to a giant bug which allows it to instantaneously travel to anywhere in the known universe, powered by mushroom spores, moving through an inter-stellar network of fungus roots. Besides wrecking Star Trek continuity and any sense of exploring a distant frontier — which is, after all, only a bug-jump away — it turns out that CBS probably stole the idea of a spore drive from an indie video game developer named Anas Abdin, whose 2014 game Tardigrades contains not only characters suspiciously similar to Burnham, engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Dr. Hugh Cubler (Wilson Cruz), and Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), but an almost identical spore drive.
This idea of magical technology is repeated in the current (2020) series Star Trek Picard, from a similar production team headed by Alex Kurtzman. So far we’ve learned about androids made entirely of flesh that can leap like Superman through the air, a forensic machine that can scan a room for past events, a magical Borg gate that can transport its users anywhere in the galaxy, a set of brass knuckles that can repair machines with the power of imagination, and the fact that an entire artificial brain can be re-constituted from a single positron. Picard continues the post-millennial theme in popular culture of preferring magic to science, in keeping with intersectionalism’s rejection of the biological basis of sex, the structural basis of grammar, the logical basis of philosophy, and the market basis of capitalist economics.
The writing in the show is once again sloppy — Admiral Picard is somehow held responsible for the loss of millions of Romulans after their sun goes supernova, despite the vastness of the Romulan Empire and fleet, and the fact that the rescue fleet being built on Mars is destroyed by rebel sentient androids. Set against Picard’s feeble and guilt-laden character are a series of strong women — the super-powered android twins Dahj and Soshi (Isa Briones), the Star Fleet security chief Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), the ever-whining Raffi (Michelle Hurd), the sinister Romulan agent Narissa (Peyton List), the brilliant scientist Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) — only partly alleviated by Santiago Cabrera’s suave and funny Captain Rios. Once again it’s a rogue ship theme, this time with the mission of saving a single android. No final frontiers or inclusive liberalism here.
To end on a positive note, the best sci-fi series of the last decade is The Expanse, like most of the superior post-1995 sci-fi series filmed in Canada. Though it does make most of the villains white males, it returns in part to Star Trek’s inclusive liberalism on the bridge of the Rocinante, with a nice balance between the visionary captain James Holden (played with dignity by Steven Strait), the thuggish Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), the charismatic Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and the warm and sympathetic “Belter” Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper).
In it, our solar system is divided between a United Earth, the Mars Congressional Republic, and the rough-and-ready inhabitants of the asteroid belt and outer colonies, who form the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA). All are threatened by an alien “proto-molecule”m which takes over the Eros station and travels to Venus, where it creates a stargate that is launched toward Uranus. The science is realistic in terms of gravity creation, space travel, and weaponry, although the actions of the proto-molecule are mysterious. Though at heart a return to the rogue ship theme, there are hints of utopian dreams in the Martian attempt to terraform the planet, the OPA’s attempt at independence, and the urge to explore new worlds now accessible through the alien-created stargate. The Expanse represents a firing of the retro-rockets on sci-fi television’s crash into woke dystopias. Stay tuned for more.
This essay was originally presented at a science fiction club in London, Ontario, Canada.