FASCISM SPREADS TO THE STARS
Half an hour of thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery's Season 1
Sometimes it feels like concepts are too strange for science fiction to grapple with. Whilst it is, as a genre, primarily a means of commenting on our present via star-studded metaphor, it is also a way of dreaming; of describing a world not as it is, but as it could be, by letting our wildest imaginations run free. What could the world be if it things were different? If what we take for granted as part of everyday life could be changed?
Star Trek, as a series, is often read as optimistic about a kind of future socialism; about peace, a United Federation of Planets, a world without wage labour or hunger, of relative freedom; whilst shows have progressively unpicked this and fitted in weaknesses, ugly facets and corruption under the guide of realism, it still holds as a kind of generalised backbone when compared to other large science fiction worlds; compare, for example, the binary black-and-white-ism of Star Wars, where peace only ever comes from military victory, by spaceship or by laser sword.
But it would be unfair to describe it as purely about the good of Socialism. The Original Series of Star Trek is easily readable as about the cold war; it shows humans of different accents and nationalities working together, crewing a ship together, against regrettable allegories for fear of the other, countries and peoples reduced to alien avatars - the Klingons as the USSR, the Romulans as the PRC. These are not new readings of the series; to describe the Federation as an idealised model of the future of NATO / the EU is a path well-trod.
My point is that the series, like many science fiction shows, has been a mirror of our own thoughts and hopes about the world we find ourselves in. An idealised one; minus the cynicism of some of its contemporaries, at least for a few incarnations.
Alas, the 21st century is different to the 23rd-24th Century. I am saddened to find many science fiction shows embracing the same sickness that takes much of the world by storm; fascism spreads to the stars.
The first season of Discovery opens with un-commented-on war crimes in episode 2 (specifically around both the Treatment of the Dead, and the Search for & Collection of the Dead). It proceeds to consistently up the justification for the disregarding of procedure, regulations, and laws; the justification to do terrible things in war. The kind of language used gets unnerringly familiar to anyone who's grappled with the communications and social media used by fascists, neo-nazis and the like; defendable, seemingly reasonable statements about protecting our borders, defending our colonies, our children, everything we hold dear. See this, from the penultimate episode of season 1:
Our very existence hangs in the balance.
The acts of violence committed against us are the acts of a foe without reason, without honour.
And they will not stop coming after us in the hopes of destroying everything that we hold dear.
These are desperate times and they call on us to do more than merely protect our people, defend our borders.
Starfleet is confident that Captain Georgiou is uniquely qualified to get you there and to do what needs to be done.
These words are not from the enemy, not even from anyone ever identified as a villain; they come from a Starfleet admiral, who is meant to stand for something different. Yet she calls on a leader in Captain Georgiou - the deposed Emperor of the explicitly (they call it out in the show!) fascist Terran empire, the antithesis of the Federation. The fourteenth episode sees the show embrace the unique qualifications of Captain Georgiou to secure victory, with language uncomfortably close to the Fourteen Word slogan(s) favoured by her real-world counterparts. Her plan is genocide of the enemy home planet; the show takes mirth in letting her run free with little check, describing her enemy as a cancer, as animals without homes. Past a bit of wordplay, it does little to counter these epithets, it does little to comment that this is entirely, utterly wrong. Instead, its placement merely suggests that this kind of leader is what we truly need in desperate times; that this is what the ruling forces of the Federation have deemed appropriate.
Episode 15 sees a ten-minute climbdown, from the brink of genocide to... setting the fascist leader free, and no followup. The Federation leaders who OK'd the plan hold their position, seem to do little more than a cursory moment of navel-gazing. Characters who recognise that these leaders agreed terrible things do nothing to challenge it. Fifteen episodes of climbing rhetoric, built on and built on, dismissed with a wave of the hand at the end. Thank you, Michael Burnham, you did the right thing and we can all feel good about that.
It leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
The retreat from fascism into a better world is not a hand-wave; it's not a single person showing the light and we all fall in line, forgetting our atrocities. The finale talks about personal redemption, but only insofar as a personal quest via Mindfulness or therapy for Depression does so; not the societal redemption that we need to clear this justification, this addiction. This addiction we have to being unable to imagine a show that does not base itself around war, around the grittiness and the Bad Things We Must Do.
I thought, when we find out that Captain Lorca, who has been responsible for much of the upping-the-ante onboard Discovery, is actually a villain from the Mirror Universe - well, how incredible a turning point that could have been, with the Discovery working to undo their own shifted overton viewscreen. I thought for a moment they might have brought Georgiou back as a redemption plotline; even a humorous fish-out-of-water scenario. Instead, she sees no karmic retribution for her attempted actions, and the Federation sees none for its embrace of her proposed solution. The discovery of Lorca as a fascist is forgotten after a single scene, and we forget about the dead's actions in the world as we accept the dead themselves.
How do we address this? How do we look at what amounts to a little under 12 hours of turning the dial on Acceptable Atrocity and call it resolved with a ten-minute fix?
Can we imagine a future where we don't need to show the atrocity in the first place? Can we skip the war, and have 12 hours of dismantling extreme solutions and desperation? Of rebuilding? Can we imagine a world where diplomacy is not only the first, but the best course of action?
I fear there is a cynicism in science fiction beyond Discovery, where all we can imagine is that given the choice, humanity will always turn to war. That we will always turn to defending our factions, our peoples, against dehumanised Others with increasingly desperate means, due to suspicion, due to borders we draw in the stars. I fear this, because in a world where the Powers That Be talk about the threat at our borders, the risk to our way of life, and the military strikes that this threat must surely demand, I see only familiar messages in this kind of science fiction. The danger of fascist thinking is that we accept it in our entertainment, we accept it as an undercurrent, and we start to build it into our own work because we assume that's just how the world is.
Science fiction is a place where we can dream about how the world should be. I am disappointed by having to justify 10 minutes of a dream with 12 hours of cynicism, with 12 hours of grimdark war. I wish that undoing this was as simple as it is at the end of this season; that a single person's actions can undo the rot, that we can sweep it under the carpet and be done with it. But if we keep writing it into our fiction, we give it credence, and our fiction remains reality.
Peace, one day,