Action, conflict, and cool toys make science fiction appealing to kids. What kids generally don’t recognize is that science fiction is also a platform for ideas. When I was growing up, I wasn’t much interested in ideas, but I was a fan of spaceships, super powers, and other worlds. Little did I know that I was also being fed metaphors and allegories of social justice.
Looking back on my favorite films and TV shows from childhood, I am delighted to see how so much of it was social commentary disguised as science fiction. It went beyond the typical cartoons with ‘adult’ humor mixed in. The lessons I learned back then still resonate with me today. Three sci-fi cannons, in particular, stand out in my mind.
Star Trek (the Original Series)
Reruns of Star Trek were initially forced on me by an older brother. But it didn’t take long before I was hooked. It felt like an escape from the daily stresses of adolescence. Had I known that Star Trek was really telling stories about the Cold War, racism, and illegal immigration, I would never have tuned in.
Just the premise of Star Trek opened my mind. A post-racial, post-militaristic crew journeys through space and time, facing one adventure after another. An African-American communications officer, a Japanese-American helmsman, a Vulcan science officer – it all seemed plausible to me. When Kirk and Uhura kissed, I didn’t know how explosive it was.
Race and integration was a recurring theme in the Star Trek world. The most memorable episode for me is probably “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” in which the crew comes across a planet of half-white, half black aliens. Yet prejudice still reigned, because some of the aliens were white on the ‘wrong’ side of their faces. They were demeaned and subjugated by the aliens who were white on the ‘correct’ side of their faces. Even at my young age I knew this was ridiculous, but I was too young to understand how closely it resembled contemporary life.
Star Trek used the same treatment when it came to war and peace. Humans in this future world lived in the utopian United Federation of Planets. But far from home the crew of the USS Enterprise would encounter downright dystopian societies. All I knew is that the Klingons were the bad guys. I didn’t know they were also stand-ins for Russians or the North Vietnamese.
In one memorable episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” Kirk and Spock visit two planets that have been at war with each other for 500 years. It’s evolved into a kind of Cold War, in which the two sides don’t actually fight -- they leave the warfare to an ongoing computer simulation. But they do keep score and, even though the respective societies thrive in the absence of real war, they still sacrifice a certain number of citizens according to the simulation. Pointless, I thought as a kid and still do today.
Planet of the Apes
When I first watched Planet of the Apes, I don’t think I saw it as a commentary on race and class. I took it more literally, as a cautionary tale about the way we treat animals. But the theme of ethnocentricity surely seeped into my consciousness.
As the premise of the film turned human supremacy on its head, I found myself at times rooting against the protagonist. George Taylor was arrogant and pigheaded. But his captors weren’t easy to root for either. In an inspired commentary on class warfare, the apes were divided into their own stereotypes. The gorillas were big, dumb, and brutal; the chimps were intellectual and enlightened; and the orangutans were the wise elders.
By the end of the film my head was spinning, and not just because of its shocking twist. I couldn’t categorize the characters as good or bad, black or white. Instead I had to think about the morals of the story and their implications. That’s a lot for a kid to contemplate. Good thing the film was also exciting and fun to distract me from my lessons.
The Twilight Zone (the original series)
The Twilight Zone not only sneaked social commentary to teenagers, but also right past the censors. It touched on hot-button issues (prejudice, McCarthyism, nuclear holocaust) that the networks would never allow on their regular dramas. Of course, I was oblivious to all of this. I watched the black and white reruns as a sci-fi fan, not a civics student.
Looking back, though, I can see how powerful some of those old episodes are, even for a kid. The episode, “Third from the Sun” really blew my mind. In it, a military scientist resorts to stealing a government space ship so he and his family can escape an impending nuclear war. He knows of a peaceful planet already populated with people like them and he sets out to find it. The twist happens when it turns out that their destination planet is actually Earth! I remember thinking, “but Earth is not a peaceful --- ohhh.”
The threat of nuclear war looms again in “The Shelter.” Friendly neighbors turn against each other when they hear that a nuclear attack is under way. One of the families has a fallout shelter, which has been mocked by some in the neighborhood. Now everybody wants in and they nearly destroy the shelter before it’s announced that the scare was a false alarm. The neighbors will have to live amongst each other again and confront their actions. This episode brilliantly illustrates the paranoia of the times. In a post 9/11 world, it’s as relevant as ever.
And science fiction is as relevant today as it was during my formative years and long before. It will always be a refuge for social commentary. As long as there are controversies and clever writers, there will be morality hiding behind action, intrigue, and other worlds.