by Jeremy Shepard
In this age of nerddom gone wild, it’s easy to be overcome by the constant dopaminergic rush of shiny new objects. There are attractive people cosplaying on all the major entertainment avenues, complete with the slightly geeky-twist on token soap opera drama. Unfortunately, the majority of this new wave of fandom is just as vapid as the vanilla media it replaced.
Jimmy is still pining over the girl that he just can’t get because she likes Gary, but now Jimmy can teleport. Awesome. Thanks for the tremendous contribution to quality content, CBS/NBC/CW/Netflix/whoever. We all went to high school, and as much as everyone loves the occasional guilty pleasure of reliving their younger days, we need to stop rewarding the exploitation of our media.
The power of science fiction, and to a slightly lesser extent superhero and fantasy genres, is its ability to dissociate people from their current circumstances. It can give hope to the hopeless, provide perspective to the bigot, and unite strangers in a shared interest they would have never otherwise discovered.
The quintessential vehicle of important science fiction that reached mass audiences is, of course, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Star Trek isn’t important because it has spaceships and anthropomorphized aliens. While its techno-babble inspired many a young child to take up a career as an engineer or scientist, the heart of the show was always the big issues it tackled. Here on Earth, people are literally ready to kill each other because they pray in different ways. Others are treated differently because their skin colors don’t match. And let’s not even get into the cluster-fuck that is discrimination against those who don’t fall into traditional gender roles.
That’s why science fiction is so powerful. The downtrodden can glimpse a future where they are treated as equals, their intrinsic worth as sentient beings placed ahead of any superficial differences which the current environment discriminates against. The xenophobe who was raised to believe other cultures are inferior can see the ridiculousness of such a belief by watching the Enterprise visit an alien planet where such ideas are taken to the extreme. And perhaps, most importantly, science fiction can provide a family for many of us who just never quite fit into “normal” society.
That’s why we shouldn’t celebrate this societal surge into fandom. Yes, it’s awesome to see decent content reaching a wider audience (and being available to all of us), but it also means the watering down of important issues. Commentary is getting sacrificed for entertainment.
In good science fiction, entertainment is the vehicle for commentary, not an end in itself. One needs to look no further than the brilliant re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica for a prime example of real social commentary wrapped in real sci-fi drama. Doing true sci-fi/superhero/fantasy is hard work, but it’s important we insist it be done. The worst future that could happen is an exchange of old meaningless media with flashy, space-age versions of the same.
That’s why Star Trek matters. Why Battlestar Galactica matters. Why Doctor Who matters. As one of the few remaining shows that is about something bigger, It should be celebrated and cherished. It’s about hope, about the innate goodness and power of ordinary people, and their ability to change the course of the universe. The Doctor doesn’t recruit superheroes, he needs normal people with normal issues to help him. He doesn’t use brute force and a gun, he has two hearts and a screwdriver. And the fact that he will soon be a she is exactly what we should hope would happen. Because science fiction should remind us that everyone is important, everyone has something to offer, and our differences are meaningless on a universal scale.
The medium is too powerful to waste it on another superfluous high school drama. We should all demand better.