Sunday, May 16, 2010

But let's look first at the contexts: Star Trek and Firefly exist in very different universes. Star Trek is set in a 23rd and 24th century where faster than light travel is common, and so are planets populated with intelligent alien species. Firefly is set in a 24th century without warp drive and without aliens. At some unspecified time in the past, the Earth got "used up," and spaceships left for a distant solar system. They must have been "generation" ships, where generations of people were born and died before their descendants reached this other star system. Which is a large one, with lots of planets and many moons, and that's where all of Firefly takes place.

The rocket technology looks fairly mechanical, but it has to be far in advance of what we have here now. And those ships brought with them "terraforming" technology, that transformed planets in decades (which according to today's terraforming theory, is very fast, though not the "instant" sort seen in Star Trek II.) But in s/f terms, that lends a certain credibility to the cowboys in space premise, based loosely (Whedon says) on the period after the Civil War. That's in some ways an unappetizing idea--turning the defenders of slavery into freedom fighters, and the suggestion (made anonymously on Wikipedia) that the Reivers are based on American Indians is just disgusting and racist. But otherwise, it's not a bad s/f premise.

In some ways, it's got similar roots to the original Star Trek--both started out partly with the idea of a pioneer anthology, Wagon Train to the Stars. And both apparently discovered in short order that they had great stories in the crew as continuing characters, and in their relationship to the character of the ship itself. (In fact, they both centered on the loyalty the crew members had for each other, even with some internal treachery.) Plus there was something of the cowboy in Kirk, and a lot of the frontier adventures in the original series Star Trek.

But the key difference is the Alliance v. the Federation. Is the Federation impossible? Is it possible for humanity to become "better people" without genetic manipulation and drugs? Some don't believe so--even at least one former Star Trek writer. (Nick Sagan had a character in one of his novels perform such an artificial manipulation in order to get people to get along. When I suggested that wasn't necessary, people could become better on their own, he didn't agree, but did say his father Carl had agreed with me.)

Let's start with placing this question in terms of the two story universes. The discovery of warp drive and the almost simultaneous discovery of intelligent aliens, following years of chaos and war, made a profound difference in Star Trek's 22nd century. That all these immense changes over time could change how humanity sees itself, seems at least credible. After all, some humans already know things that would help humanity get a grip. Moreover, the Vulcans helped guide Earth in its transformation.

In the Star Trek universe, a united humanity could transform Earth with the help of technologies that made eradicating poverty and disease a lot easier than it had ever been. And even the nations of Earth in the Firefly universe unite to go into space--that's why characters who speak English curse in Chinese. The two superpowers merged to form the Alliance.

But beyond the integrity of the concepts in their respective story universes, there is what Star Trek became: which was in important ways the test of an idea: if humanity is to survive, it has to get better. So how can it get better? What would that look like? Star Trek is an exploration of those possibilities.

Technology helped, but Star Trek's Federation also rejected technologies of control that the Alliance embraced: specifically genetic manipulation and drugs that alter mind and behavior. Basically what made the Federation different was that it had learned from the past mistakes of Terran empires, where exploration--often, by the navy-- was just the advance scouting party for exploitation and invasion. That's what the Prime Directive was all about: the right of all species to live, and, as Captain Picard said: "We are not invaders. We are explorers."

It that possible? Can humans modify their behavior by deciding to do so? Well, some would say that's exactly what civilization is for. That's what being a conscious social species entails. And that is what development as a civilization and a species means: that we learn from past mistakes, that we even learn how to judge our own motives and impulses, and decide on the basis of knowledge and principle.

Our nature as humans contains violent impulses, greed, cruelty, anger, lust for power, selfishness. People think of that as human nature, even as animal nature. But humans--and a lot of animals--would not survive without cooperation and nurturing, as well as compassion, loyalty, altruism and empathy. That's human nature, too, and what gets expressed is often a matter of character but also social support, and what the culture approves and honors. Clearly these virtues exist in the Firefly universe--many bind the Firefly crew.

It's a valid observation--and a valid dramatic premise--that humans are prone to go overboard in whatever direction, and so some visionaries delude themselves into a need for perfection, especially in their terms, which leads them to abuses and terrible tyranny--all in the name of their ideal.

But a society that has recognized past mistakes and encourages itself to become better--that's also a valid dramatic premise, and in Star Trek it has proved to be an inspiring one. That Star Trek creates what some people call a Utopia--a perfected society, a definition that's been imposed on the term--is a common charge, alive through repetition more than evidence. There are plenty of problems and problem people in the Federation, according to actual Star Trek stories. It is hardly perfection. It is however a Utopian project in the sense that it attempts to model a better future. And given the pickle we're in, there's not much point in modelling a worse one.

Firefly itself models a future in which some people become better than their worst impulses, with a sense of frontier morality that's as genuine as frontier justice, especially in the courage and loyalty and love that the crew has for each other. Given the probable chaos in our future (which is also part of the Star Trek 21st century future), these are good models, too. In some ways they are contrasting visions, but in other more important ways, not so much.

I don't expect hardcore Browncoats to see it that way. The gun-toting individualist may be attractive but beyond metaphor it's also in danger of being the fetish of the deluded. It's easy to make fun of Star Trek's championing of alternatives to violence, though TV and movie thrills consideration usually dictated otherwise. On the other hand, it was and is courageous, and more practical, more sane.

The dissing of Star Trek by Firefly and its fans itself seems a little shortsighted. The Serenity featurettes have both Whedon (in a more carefully nuanced way) and an unnamed fan exult that Firefly was a cancelled series that became a movie! How amazing! When has that ever happened!



liminalD said...

Good points.

I'm a fan of both Trek and Firefly/Serenity, and I always saw Firefly as a critique of Star Trek and the philospohies that underpinned it. I don't think it was particularly original in doing so, however, DS9 itself was giving a glimpse into the shady side of the Federation a few years earlier, TNG gave us a bit of X-Files style administrative intrigue right back at the start of its run, and there has been plenty of criticism from other sources too.

I was reading over some of my old sociology texts a month or so ago, and stumbled on some some introductory Marx and was instantly reminded of Star Trek. The pervasive notion in Star Trek that technology liberates and equalises is very reminiscent of the older Marx, the Federation has a distinctly utopian socialist look and feel to it (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Trek was born of the 60s) and it certainly speaks to the noblest virtues and aspirations of Western society. But I can't help feeling that Trek doesn't pay enough attention to differential power and marginality - I really would have liked to have seen more made of the Maquis storyline, more recognition of the assimiliationism that the Federation was occasionally charged with and that certainly seems a fair criticism at times. Perhaps this is why the Borg were such a good foil for the Federation - they were the mirror, as Moriarty was to Holmes. I always felt Trek was at its most powerful and compelling when it was brave enough to criticise the characters and assumptions it otherwise took as given (Picard as irrational Moby Dick bent on revenge rather than rational, noble hero, for instance). I'm sure others have argued this more cogently elsewhere than I have here, Trek deservedly receives much rich, in-depth analysis as one of *the* defining cultural myths of the late 20th/early 21st century.

It's hard to comment on Firefly/Serenity at the same sort of length because there simply wasn't enough of it to comment on. We don't know how it would have played out - the film was really an exercise in darwing out and tying up the loose narrative threads. It's very well-written and entertaining, particularly the dialogue, but as I've said, the criticisms it none-too-subtly directs at Star Trek are not entirely unprecedented. It champions a messy, violent marginality, it offers us a vision of virtue in deviance and disobedience, and certainly in these times of imperialism, prescribed conformity at the expense of individual liberty and global awareness that's a good thing. Whedon isn't saying that the aspiration toward progress isn't good, only that it mustn't be imposed from without.

I'll leave it there because I've rambled on, but as you said, the fundamental difference between the two franchises is one's optimism about the future and inherent nature of humanity and the other's relative pessimism. I submit that there's a legitimate place for both, that they form a dialogue about the future, about power and progress, individuality and conformity, and ultimately, human nature.

Anonymous said...

George & Brad in Bed which profiles the relationship between actor George Takei (Star Trek's Captain Sulu) and his husband and lifelong partner Brad Altman. The two recently married after being together for twenty-one years.

As an homage to John Lennon & Yoko Ono's "bed-in," filmmaker Jessica Sanders conducts the interview in a rather unusual setting.