Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Return of Cold War Sci-Fi

by William S. Kowinski

This summer, TCM is showing some of the classics of what it calls "Cold War Cinema" as part of its "Future Shock" science fiction series. At the same time, producers of the fall season's sci-fi are talking the same language: of sci-fi stories responding to a sense of threat, engendered this time by 9-11, terrorism and warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Former Star Trek producer Brannon Braga, now executive producer of the upcoming CBS drama "Threshold," which is about a classic 1950s Cold War Cinema theme---invasion and subversion from outer space--- last week acknowledged that his show reflects the fear of terrorism that "must be in the zeitgeist...There's something in the blood right now. There can be no doubt that, even subconsciously, 9/11 is a thematic undercurrent in our show, for sure."

In a Media Week story by A.J. Frutkin, several other producers and analysts were quoted on ABC's "Invasion" and NBC's "Fathom" as also reflecting these anxieties.

This fear and uncertainty is also reflected in the upcoming Steven Spielberg version of "War of the Worlds," opening in theatres in time for the Fourth of July weekend.

What's especially fascinating about this mood is its grip on the unconscious. When the danger is past and the movies responding to it are outdated, it's easy to dismiss them as reflecting Cold War "paranoia." In fact it largely was paranoia, just as today's fears are: out of proportion to cause, and ranging much wider in search of enemy threats than the actual sources of danger.

Besides expressing fears, these sci-fi stories demonstrate how fears get translated and displaced into fantastic situations, both to tame them a bit, but also to give them voice when expressing the wrong kind of doubts might invite general disapproval, even charges of disloyalty.

Much of Cold War Cinema represents what I call the science fiction of unconsciousness: it simply expresses in different terms the fear and anxieties that don't or can't get expressed on their own terms. Will these new shows simply exploit these fears in similar if updated examples of the sci-fi of unconsciousness? Or will they apply the sci-fi of consciousness to these issues, the way that classic Star Trek did?

To help you answer that question for yourself, perhaps the following discussion of some of the films in the TCM series, and Cold War Cinema in general, will shed some light on what to look for in the new shows this fall.

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