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Strange New World

SERIÁL – 11. září 2001: Meditations upon 9/11 and the War on Terror in British and American screen science fiction – ALEC CHARLES –

Český překlad článku naleznete / Czech translation here

Strange new world: Meditations upon 9/11 and the War on Terror in British and American screen science fiction

 

Abstract

As the Cold War influenced forty years of screen science fiction, so the shadow of 9/11 informs popular science fiction in the early twenty-first century. The destruction of New York has recurred in such films as The Day After Tomorrow, Cloverfield, War of the Worlds and I Am Legend. Like The Invasion, the latter pair reinvent Cold War fables – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds and The Omega Man – for the neoconservative age, while 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Jericho and the remade Survivors witness a resurgence in post-apocalyptic concerns redolent of Day of the Triffids. While Star Trek: Enterprise turned its franchise’s traditional liberalism into an exercise in jingoistic paranoia, Battlestar Galactica (another restored relic of the Cold War) has presented a much more ambiguous and problematic vision of democracy’s battle with fundamentalism. The reimagined Doctor Who and Heroes have advanced similar arguments against the totalizing pseudo-utopianism of the crusader or the jihadist and in favour of the establishment of a pluralist consensus.

Biographical statement: Alec Charles is Principal Lecturer in Media at the University of Bedfordshire. He is the editor of Media in the Enlarged Europe (2009) and The End of Journalism (2011). His recent publications include papers in Science Fiction Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television.

Contact: alec.charles@beds.ac.uk

 

 


CLASHES OF CIVILIZATIONS, WARS OF WORLDS

Political situations have often advertently paralleled and exploited those of fantasy space. Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan recognized the power of ‘science fiction’ concepts (from NASA to SDI) as rallying cries during the Cold War – just as the Soviet authorities launched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) as their response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) in a celluloid version of the space race. Today, Hollywood imagineers feature on the payroll of the Pentagon, and even Osama Bin Laden (known to be a fan of popular American culture)1 appears to have raided American blockbusters for his ideas: indeed he specifically seems to have been inspired in his apocalyptic plotting by Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honour – a story in which a terrorist crashes a civilian airliner into the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC.2

Slavoj Žižek has written of the events of 11 September 2001 as cinematic in their spectacular nature3 and Bin Laden’s particular debt to Clancy was acknowledged by CNN when, on 11 September 2001, the news station chose to interview the novelist as part of its coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center. As Michael Gove wrote in The Times on 12 September 2001: “the scenario of a Tom Clancy thriller or Spielberg blockbuster was now unfolding live on the world’s television screens.”4 Indeed the relationship between screen fantasy and the events of 9/11 was underlined, in the most extraordinary way, by the debut episode of Chris Carter’s X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen which, in March 2001, had depicted a terrorist attempt to fly a hijacked airliner into the World Trade Center.

Just as history echoes science fiction, there has been a similarly strong reciprocal trend for science fiction to reflect contemporary historical situations. As far back as H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) we have witnessed science fiction’s expressions of urgent geopolitical angst – in this case, concerns over the sustainability of imperial hegemony: “The Tasmanians … were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants … Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”5

Orson Welles’s 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds famously revisited Wells’s narrative to play upon contemporary anxieties about the imminence of world war, while Byron Haskin’s screen version of 1953 saw Los Angeles devastated in an enactment of prevalent fears of Soviet invasion and nuclear holocaust. Half a century on, with its ravaged cities, crashed jets and underground alien terror cells, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) has updated Haskin’s Cold War allegory as a fable of the War on Terror.

The scope of Spielberg’s adaptation recalls Wells’s insight that “this isn’t a war … It was never a war, any more than there’s a war between men and ants.”6 This is of course the reality of contemporary conflict: the current situation is one in which, as Tumber and Webster suggest, “militarily the USA is beyond challenge.”7 This sense of disequilibrium has been palpable since the collapse of the Soviet superpower in the early 1990s – and indeed since the first Gulf War (1990-91), a conflict which, according to Jean Baudrillard, was “won in advance … We will never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like.”8 More recently, Aijaz Ahmad’s depiction of the War on Terror has advanced uncanny echoes of Wells’s interplanetary war: “Such is the asymmetry of power in our time: those who rule the universe shall be victorious against … the most wretched of the earth.”9

Spielberg’s humans start off as the victims of a surprise terror attack (like the people of New York in September 2001) but they end up as casualties of an invasion by forces whose technological superiority mirrors the overwhelming military imbalance which characterizes the War on Terror – and thus come to resemble the citizens (and insurgents) of Iraq. What goes around comes around: the imperial power becomes politically equivalent to its former Tasmanian subject. Indeed when in Wells’s original novel a shell-shocked artilleryman envisages a mode of underground guerrilla warfare against the alien invaders, the scenario uncannily anticipates by more than a century the resistance in occupied Iraq.10

Spielberg’s film is one of several recent blockbusters which present the al-Qaeda attacks and the War on Terror as the defining topics of twenty-first century screen science fiction. Like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), I Am Legend (2007) and Cloverfield (2008), Spielberg’s War of the Worlds depicts the destruction of the postmodern American metropolis. Cloverfield is particularly striking for the way in which its visual style (exclusively performed through the lens of a hand-held camcorder) recalls the shaky news footage of 11 September 2001. As its director Matt Reeves commented (London Evening Standard, 1 February 2008): “When I looked at the footage of 9/11 on YouTube […] I found it remarkable that someone would think to take out their handicam or their videophone at that moment, even though they were imperilled themselves. And what you’d see in that footage is other people doing exactly the same thing.” Reeves identifies the disconnection from material reality which such networked citizens experience, a disconnection in contrast to which the absolute connection such subjects experience with the new paradigms of a hypermediated reality creates irreconcilable existential tensions. These tensions represent the epistemological equivalent of 9/11: a catastrophic upheaval unprecedented at once in its scope and in its absurdity.

Other films focus on the reactionary transformation of American society since 11 September. Set in Washington DC, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion (2007) revises the anti-Communist politics of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to imagine western pluralism transformed into a fundamentalist Utopia by forces which are at once alien and insidious: a world in which the violence of Iraq and Darfur are unknown – in which “there is no other”– and in which therefore “humans cease to be human.”

Even Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) draws timely parallels between McCarthyism and contemporary American paranoia; Chris Carter’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) makes a related point when it self-consciously juxtaposes images of George W. Bush and J. Edgar Hoover – while James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2006) envisages the Orwellian tyranny of a post-War-on-Terror Britain.

Superhero flicks have also examined America’s continuing moral crisis, most obviously the unambiguous depiction of the arms industry’s exploitation of the War on Terror in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008). Heralded by a poster displaying a burning city skyscraper, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) advances a similarly problematic perspective upon the crusade against an uncompromising and irrational terrorism in its representation of the twilit Utopia of the vigilante – a state of emergency in which civil rights are suspended and one which, the film finally emphasizes, must not be allowed to solidify into a new world order. Meanwhile, the opening of another comic book adaptation, Tim Story’s Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), sees an alien strike cause an aircraft to crash into a Manhattan skyscraper. The film goes on to critique extreme rendition: the torture of a terror suspect by U.S. agents at an isolated military base. Perhaps most problematically, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen presents an alternative history, a dystopian and apocalyptic vision of unending war and America’s remorseless struggle towards global hegemony. Like Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), Watchmen uses its opening title sequence to re-imagine American history in a deconstructive interpretation of the foundations of the nation’s rise to hyperpower.

The eponymous hero of Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane (2009) – a character who first emerged in Robert E. Howard’s pulp fiction stories in the late 1920s and who went on to appear in Marvel comic books in the 1970s and 1980s – is a religious fanatic who returns to England from doing battle in the land of the infidels to discover moral corruption at the heart of his homeland. A similar theme was elaborated in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) but was perhaps more overt in BBC television’s version of the same story which ran from 2006 to 2009. The BBC’s Robin Hood sees its hero, problematized by his crusading experiences in the Middle East, come home to find an England whose civil liberties have been undermined by an opportunist government: the Blairesque Sheriff of Nottingham denounces Robin Hood’s “to use terror and a weapon” and announces his plan to “to win hearts and minds” – as (in the words of David Butcher writing in the Radio Times, 21 October 2006) “he vows to uphold law and order in the face of terrorism.” Another retelling of a perennial English tale of derring-do – the BBC’s Sherlock (2010) – saw Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero transplanted to twenty-first century London. His sidekick Dr Watson – originally an army doctor wounded in the Second Anglo-Afghan War – has just returned from military service in Afghanistan, and, like Solomon Kane and Robin Hood, discovers the heart of darkness that lies back home. Yet, unlike Solomon Kane or Robin Hood, the BBC’s Sherlock rejects fantasy’s potentially clumsy and hackneyed strategy of political allegory in favour of a more direct narratological approach to the contemporary situation.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century screen fantasy’s exhaustive allegories upon the War of Terror at times seemed more a matter of convention than of argument. Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans (2010), for example, opens with the destruction of a towering state of Zeus – a reference at once to the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 and of course also to 9/11 itself: “they’ve declared war – war against the gods.” In response the gods launch a campaign of shock and awe against the insurgent infidels. But if Leterrier’s film intends to explore the moral ambiguities within its political allegory in any interesting or original way, it plainly fails to do so: it appears merely to be paying lip service to this allegorical fashion. Similar criticisms have been levelled against James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). As The Observer newspaper commented in its review of Avatar on 20 December 2009:

The best sci-fi is always allusive or allegorical. Avatar on the other hand is thudderingly literal and obvious […]. And while there isn’t the slightest chance of you missing the parallel [with] the U.S. invasion of resource-rich Iraq, the film’s evil military general character hammers the point home all the same, rallying his troops with a speech about ‘shock and awe’.

Yet perhaps James Cameron’s film manages more than merely another overt allegory of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Avatar, like the video game America’s Army, offers a vision of the War on Terror fought through the tools of virtual reality – one in which the avatars designed to capture the “hearts and minds of the natives” eventually overwhelm their users. The film’s hero discovers himself becoming his avatar: “everything is backwards now – like out there is the true world and in here is the dream […] I can barely remember my old life. I don’t know who I am any more.” As the U.S. marines – subverted to the mission of corporate America – adopt the tactics of the enemy, their commander announces that “we will fight terror with terror” – and Cameron’s hero chooses to surrender his old life and his old body in favour of the virtual and fantastical world in which he has found himself. The film elaborates the morally and ontologically paradoxical paradigms of western postmodernity, and in the end comes to reject them – and therein demonstrates the inevitability of their rejection.

Cameron’s hero’s subjectivity becomes at once liberated by and subsumed to the existential condition of his avatar, his colonial other. This idea is further developed by the 2011 Doctor Who episode ‘The Rebel Flesh’ in which bio-replicant avatars (like the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica or the replicants of Blade Runner) achieve consciousness and autonomy – and then attempt to eradicate their human originals.

RECONSTRUCTIONISM

These films invoke apocalyptic concerns that have lain dormant since the end of the Cold War. Similar anxieties are discernible in the CBS television series Jericho (2006-2008) and in the BBC’s Spooks: Code 9 (2008) – both set in the wake of nuclear terror attacks. While Spooks: Code 9 witnesses the obliteration of London, Jericho addresses the aftermath of what it dubs “the largest terrorist attack in the history of the world” – the nuclear devastation of twenty-three major American cities. Analogous end-of-civilization scenarios are witnessed in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007) – the latter film elaborating upon this theme to address issues of U.S. military brutality in the failed reconstruction of an occupied zone, the consequent spread of rabid extremism and the eventual exportation of terror.

Released just fourteen months after 9/11, Boyle’s original film of 2002 raises, and to some extent anticipates, urgent questions as to the establishment of a new world order in the wake of the unimaginable catastrophe that the modern world has brought upon itself. Its opening montage of news footage unambiguously places 28 Days Later in a present of urban conflict and ethnic unrest. The film’s naturalistic visual style, reinforced by its uses of digital video and held-hand camera, fosters a documentary feel which adds to that sense of immediacy. The virus which devastates Britain in Danny Boyle’s film is clearly symbolic of the rage which characterizes contemporary existence, a direct product of contemporary technologies, and specifically, as the opening montage suggests, of media technologies: as a chimpanzee – in an update upon the cinematic aversion therapy practised in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) – is hooked up to a vivisectionists’s version of CNN.

Boyle’s film presents a Britain in which the remnants of civilization resort to essentially uncivilized methods of survival. The military officers may still dress for dinner, but they will torture and starve their prisoners in an attempt to extract information from them. Indeed the film’s heroes come to realise that the horde of rabid cannibalistic zombies that was once the population of the UK has nothing on the savagery of the modern British army at play. It is not simply that the brutalization of society results from the catastrophe; it is also the film’s contention that the catastrophe has resulted from that long-term process of brutalization that has characterized this desert of the hypermediated real. As Christopher Eccleston’s Major Henry West suggests: “This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection – people killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection and the four weeks before that and before that as far back as I care to remember – people killing people. Which to my mind puts us in a state of normality right now.” Boyle’s grim vision sees the very last remnants of the organized state – the British military – become torturers and rapists, vicious totalitarians who execute their own kind and who have come to relish the slaughter. 28 Days Later and its sequel refute the possibilities of an eschatological utopianism, the founding of a New Jerusalem. Boyle’s brave new world reveals the absurd brutality of contemporary western civilization and therefore of any post-catastrophic attempts at its reconstruction. A similar situation is witnessed in the godless and inhuman absurdity of the post-apocalyptic world portrayed in John Hillcoat’s 2009 screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of 2006, The Road: “Whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.”

A 2004 poll conducted by Newsweek magazine suggested that 55 per cent of Americans believed in the literal truth of the Rapture, the aerial gathering of the Christian dead to greet Christ on his return. The War on Terror appears to have capitalized on, and reinforced, this resurgence in religious fundamentalism, and popular screen science fiction has explored the role of this phenomenon in the reactionary agenda. Set in a post-apocalyptic Wild West, the Hughes brothers’ film The Book of Eli, for example, offers an ambiguously evangelical perspective upon the Mad Max scenario – that series of dystopian films which in the last decade of the Cold War imagined a world devastated by the then-impending holocaust, and which has been revived in the twenty-first century for a fourth outing. Gary Oldman’s villain in The Book of Eli attempts to deploy a restoration of Christian faith as, in his words, “a weapon aimed right at the hearts and the minds of the weak and the desperate.” A latterday George W. Bush, Oldman’s warlord of sees religious fervour as a crucial tool in the fulfilment of his reconstructionist ambitions: “People will do […] exactly what I tell them if the words are from the book – it’s happened before and it will happen again.” This religious extremism does not, however, represent only the possibility of post-war reconstruction; it appears also to have been, as Denzel Washington’s protagonist suggests, “the reason for the war in the first place.”

These visions refer us back to the eschatological science fiction of the opening years of the Cold War – Richard Matheson’s novel of 1954 I Am Legend (which inspired film adaptations in 1964, 1971 and 2007) and John Wyndham’s novel of 1951 The Day of the Triffids – inspired by The War of The Worlds ((Langford, Barry (2000). ‘Introduction’ in The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham). London: Penguin, p.viii )) and adapted for cinema in 1962 and for television in 1981, and again in 2009. They also recall the BBC’s Survivors (1975-77), another account of a post-apocalyptic world – a series remade (like The Day of the Triffids) in 2008 for a post-11 September generation.

These fantastically cataclysmic tableaux are somewhat more optimistic than, say, the harsh realism of Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983) or Mick Jackson’s Threads (1984). Like the Christian apocalypse itself, they delineate a purged world ripe for reconstruction: they represent, in Fredric Jameson’s words, “a Utopian wish fulfilment wrapped in dystopian wolf’s clothing.”11

One recalls in this context Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of two of screen fiction’s most celebrated responses to 9/11 – Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006) and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006): “they want to read the 9/11 catastrophe as a blessing in disguise … This utopian perspective is one of the undercurrents that sustain our fascination with disaster movies: it is as if our societies need a major catastrophe in order to resuscitate the spirit of community solidarity.”12 Jameson and Žižek’s interpretations expose a post-catastrophic utopianism which we might also observe in Tony Blair’s declaration on 2 October 2001: “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.”

Blair’s geopolitical opportunism anticipates the denouement of the Hollywood adaptation of Douglas Adams’s The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) which flourishes a utopian Earth built to replace the planet obliterated by the Vogon demolition fleet. This cathartic reconstructionism adheres to H.G. Wells’s argument in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) that “without the sufferings of these generations men’s minds could never have been sufficiently purged of their obstinate loyalties, jealousies, fears and superstitions; men’s wills never roused to the efforts, disciplines and sacrifices that were demanded for the establishment of the Modern State.”13 Wells’s Modern State is, after all, founded upon a century of war and plague which has annihilated half the human race.14

However, Wells’s totalitarian visionaries, like those neoconservatives bent upon building a new world order in the wake of 11 September, might do well to remember the eventual despair of Lionel Verney, the sole survivor of a world also ravaged by war and plague, an idealist who finally comes to recognise the futility of his own utopian ambitions, in Mary Shelley’s seminal work of apocalyptic science fiction, The Last Man: “I smile bitterly at the delusion I have so long nourished.”15

A similar scepticism as to reconstructionist fantasies can be seen in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (2008), a television series which portrays a world overtaken by zombies – witnessed from the perspective of the inhabitants of the Big Brother house. Brooker’s series depicts a contemporary society of mindless zombies drawn to the Big Brother house; a devastated society whose short-lived survivors enumerate the landmark achievements of their culture as celebrity magazines, junk food, popular television and social networking and commercial websites: Heat, Nuts, Zoo, McDonald’s, Nando’s, EastEnders, Doctor Who, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Amazon. As the Big Brother contestants survey the post-apocalyptic landscape, one asks: “Does this mean we’re not on telly any more?”

SCIENCE FICTION TV IN THE USA

Much of the popular television fantasy and science fiction broadcast in the United States since the attacks of 11 September 2001 advances problematic perspectives upon the imposition of a new world order. Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005), Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), Lost (2004- ) and Heroes (2006- ) each in their different ways scrutinize human responses to sudden and devastating terror attacks upon the modern democratic metropolis.

A restored relic of the Cold War (like The Invasion, I Am Legend and The Day of the Triffids), the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2003- ) presents a vision of democracy brought to the brink of destruction by an apocalyptic attack, struggling to survive a fanatical religious war within a political atmosphere of partisan infighting, and led, incidentally, not by a President George but (apparently in honour of his First Lady) by a President Laura.

Yet Battlestar Galactica blurs the moral absolutes on which it is founded to the extent that, by the start of its third season, political roles have been reversed and the heroes themselves have become the insurgents. The programme’s moral compass refuses to settle: as its protagonist suggests in the 2007 episode ‘Razor’, “history will have to make its judgments” – echoing Tony Blair’s allusion in March 2006 to “the judgment that history will make”.16 By relocating itself from the apparent future to the distant past, the finale to the series suggests an innate cyclicity of violence generated by religious difference, while at the same time offering possibilities of release from the inevitability of that cycle through consensus and ideological compromise. The very final sequence of the series, set on present-day Earth, suggests however that this cycle has not in fact been broken. In the opening episode of Caprica (2009) – a prequel to Battlestar Galactica – a young woman on a world wrought by ethnic tensions is killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a monotheistic, fundamentalist and extremist religious cult. Her father’s attempts to memorialize her – to concretize and externalize her memory – at first through her reconstruction in a virtual world and then by transferring that reconstruction into the physical world set off a chain of events which leads towards the virtual extinction of human civilization.

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) depicts similar cycles of intolerance and violence, bringing Apartheid into the era of Guantanamo Bay in its account of an internment camp for alien refugees in the townships of Johannesburg. Alan Ball’s True Blood (2008- ) explores such issues in its chronicle of the conflict between the population of vampires who have “come out of the coffin” into the glare of public controversy and such reactionary and xenophobic forces as the militantly evangelical Soldiers of the Sun who seek to annihilate them. Michael and Peter Spierig’s film Daybreakers (2009) presents an equal and opposite perspective on vampire-human relations. In a world in which the vampires have taken control, the survivors of humanity have – according to the vampire propaganda – been “offered the chance to assimilate. They refused. Therefore they are the enemies of the state.” Once more, in this age of totalizing war, you are either with us or against us.

J.J. Abrams’s Lost also explores the nightmarishly problematic nature of such attempts at reconstruction in the wake of the defining catastrophe of the age – the plane crash which opens and initiates the series echoes those which provoked the War on Terror. The new world, a post-historical, teleologically bankrupt desert island, on which Lost’s survivors discover and attempt to reconstruct themselves, reflects that “desert of the real” with which both Žižek and Baudrillard have equated the contemporary condition of endless, pointless war, ungrounded in reason or historical logic.17

Abrams’s Fringe – a series whose first episode also opens with a plane crash (as indeed does its thirteenth) – projects the absurdity of that metaphysical desert into the recognisable reality of contemporary America, discovering that the overwhelming terrorist threat faced by Homeland Security comes not from outmoded religious perspectives but from emerging technological paradigms. Fringe is something of a reworking of The X-Files, but one whose villains are neither supernatural nor extraterrestrial but corporate profiteers and (to quote from the series’s seventh episode) “terrorists” who “traffic […] in scientific progress” as two parallel worlds – two parallel civilizations – clash and collide. In the closing shot of the final episode of the first season we see a vista of the parallel New York – one in which the twin towers still stand.

The surreal realm of desolation and isolation explored in Lost can also be witnessed in the 2009 reimagining of the 1960s Cold War fantasy The Prisoner, in which a New Yorker – an electronic surveillance expert – discovers himself in a surreal new world, a village at the heart of a desert, a domain as inescapable as Facebook, the global village which is at the same time the desert of the real – Abu Ghraib meets Disneyland. This post-historical protagonist cannot access the past; his memories are fragmentary and incoherent. The last thing he can remember is an explosion in New York. After the devastation of 9/11 only the absurdity of this hypermediated reality and its simulacrum of freedom remain: “there is no New York. There is only the village.” The village suffers a permanent condition of heightened paranoia in which everyone lives in fear and in which such fear is publicly perceived as “guilt in disguise”. Everybody distrusts everybody else, and everyone spies on each other, even parents on their children – and vice versa. This surveillance society founded upon a self-sustaining state of terror offers overt contemporary parallels: the West has reinvented the strategies of its abstract enemy in order to apply them not only to that imaginary other but also to its own populations. In The Prisoner’s village, names have been replaced with numbers: humanity literally has been digitalised. The series opens with the death of an old man known only as 93, recalling perhaps the crash of United Airlines flight 93 on September 11 2001. Since that date, contemporary history has become as digitalized as the village, converted into a sequence of numbers: 9/11, 7/7. This is the monolithic reality of the globalized village in a time of virtual terror. Like the uncompromising neoconservative vision of the new world order, the village is as totalistic and incontrovertible as its demographic mathematics: “There is no out. There is only in.” The series’s opening episode ends with a vision of the twin towers in the heart of the desert, a mirage of a lost world, a faded paradigm which can no longer be reached. In the programme’s fourth episode cracks begin to form in the reality of the village – actual cracks, holes in the ground on which the village is built. Beneath the surface there is absolutely nothing, a void. This truly is Baudrillard’s depthless desert of the real. The village is, as Baudrillard (citing Borges) might have it, a full-scale map of the real designed to map directly over the real until the real recedes and the map becomes real, the only real at least which remains, and eventually (as history diminishes) the only reality that there has ever been.

The Prisoner’s unreal village is a shallow dream, the simulacrum of, as its custodian explains, a “new world” invented to replace the pain and complexity of material history – because “the world is not a pretty thing when you look at it too close. We fell in love with atrocity. We make pornography and call it news. Daily dose of horror.” Like the BBC’s Life on Mars (2006-2007) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010), The Prisoner imagines an escape from contemporary reality; but, like the Matrix films (1999-2003), it addresses at once the unsustainability of the illusion and, conversely, the threat that the illusion may become overwhelmingingly real, may become the only reality left to us. The final horror of The Prisoner, its final revelation, is that in its closing episode the series’s protagonist, the village’s lone voice of resistance, the eponymous prisoner himself, becomes the gaoler, the born-again zealot and custodian of its pseudo-utopian illusion.

Media science fiction has always attempted to reflect contemporary events, as well as to predict future trends. The non-interventionists policies celebrated by the original series of Star Trek (1966-1969), for example, echoed contemporary disillusion with the Vietnam War. During the immediate post-Cold War period, Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) depicted the achievement of peace between the Federation and the Klingons’ evil empire – after the latter had experienced its own Chernobyl, an accident that destroys its main energy production facility. In its later seasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) promoted a post-conflict agenda of liberal non-intervention, using a covert mode of public diplomacy to bring about (in parallel with events in East and West Germany) the reunification of Romulan and Vulcan societies. By contrast, the Star Trek franchise’s Enterprise (2001-05), which debuted a mere fortnight after 9/11, adopted a more militaristic and interventionist approach to alien civilizations: Captain Jonathan Archer’s fundamentalist foes – the Suliban Cabal – mirrored Kabul’s Taliban in their attempts to annihilate democratic modernity and impede our heroes’ crusade to construct a neoconservative universal order. The programme’s third season concerned the aftermath of a massive terrorist strike on the Earth, while its fourth and final season climaxed with the establishment of an interstellar version of the Coalition of the Willing – dubbed the Coalition of Planets. It is possible that the cancellation of Enterprise after four seasons may have signalled a growing distaste among American audiences for its particular brand of jingoism.

It seems no coincidence that the return of the Star Trek franchise to the big screen in 2009 presented a sequence of catastrophic events which quite literally rewrote the course of history. This film was directed by Lost’s J.J. Abrams, and starred Zachary Quinto, an actor better known for his role in another science fiction epic which explores the aftermath of 11 September.

While Enterprise’s heroes embraced mainstream political perspectives, the protagonists of other contemporary science fiction series have assumed more ambivalent positions. This ambivalence may be seen not as compromisingly liberal or pluralist, but as radically so – in an era in which ideological absolutism has so often demonstrated its dominance. One series that has strived to forge such a pluralist consensus is Heroes, a show which in its political stance (and crusading ambivalence) in many ways represents the televisual equivalent of Barack Obama. Like Alan Ball’s True Blood (2008- ) and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), Heroes reflect a situation in which liberal tolerance and militant paranoia vie to dominate a world rocked by a catastrophic paradigm shift. Its debut episode depicted a solar eclipse over Manhattan, one echoing the momentary yet momentous eclipse of American hegemony in September 2001, as the smoke from the twin towers blotted out the sun above New York. Heroes argues that the only way to prevent a further devastating attack upon Manhattan, and its aftermath – a dystopian future witnessed in its twentieth episode – is for the hawks and doves of domestic politics (as embodied in the brothers Nathan and Peter Petrelli) to cast aside their ideological differences and sponsor an international consensus.

As their names suggest, Nathan represents an Old Testament spirit of uncompromising justice, while Peter offers a New Testament vision of redemption through understanding. In the words of another character in the series, this juxtaposition of “brother versus brother [is] almost biblical.” Peter is also confronted with Zachary Quinto’s villainous Gabriel Gray (aka Sylar): both have the ability to assimilate the powers of others, but while Peter uses empathy, Gray employs the most violent means to achieve his ends. Gabriel is named after the angel of the Christian annunciation, the angel also who revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad; but whether Sylar represents Dubya or Osama is left ambiguous. In fact it is Heroes’s Mr Linderman who represents the most dangerous form of extremism. Linderman is an idealist who believes that a cathartic catastrophe will conjure his vision of Utopia. His is the totalizing pseudo-utopianism of the jihad or the crusade, a fundamentalism echoed in Heroes’s second season by Adam, a megalomaniac who attempts to release a plague to purge the world; and in its third season by Peter and Nathan’s father, the supremacist and ideologue Arthur Petrelli – and ultimately by Nathan himself.

Heroes is not unique in contemporary television science fiction in its urgent warnings against such extreme solutions. Across the Atlantic, similar issues have been explored in the new series of Doctor Who.

DOCTOR WHO

The original run of Doctor Who (1963-1989) offers a reflection of the social and political changes in Britain between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (the day before its first episode) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (the year of its last). Two months before the programme’s debut Harold Wilson had invoked a new Britain forged in the “white heat” of a technological revolution; exactly a year after its final story Margaret Thatcher had resigned. Its first two decades charted the diminution of traditional Britishness (in the figure of William Hartnell, an Edwardian gentleman battling Nazi-like Daleks but at the same time coming to terms with the contemporary Britain of popular music, nightclubs and miniskirts), the swinging sixties (in the form of Patrick Troughton’s anti-establishment protagonist) and the increasingly visible self-serving pettiness of military, political and bureaucratic authority (which constantly frustrated and infuriated Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of the Time Lord). From the late 1970s the appearance on Britain’s TV screens of the BBC’s rival (and resolutely anti-imperialist) science fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) and Tom Baker’s ever more anarchic portrayal of the programme’s protagonist – as well as Britain’s dire economic situation (which could hardly have accommodated the prospect of global supremacy) – prompted the programme to satirize its own roots in a post-war nostalgia for imperial times. Simultaneously, however, its repeated emphases upon the Edwardian and Victorian eras – in its costumes, storylines, settings, mannerisms and patrician perspectives – revealed an intransigence and a decadence which were ultimately to prove the series’s downfall (in its original form). Eventually, in its final decade – during the years of Thatcher’s Britain (and in parallel to the Thatcherite call for a restoration of British influence) – the original series of Doctor Who succumbed to an incongruous, unconvincing and fatal nostalgia for Great-Britishness and for its own glory days.18

However, upon the franchise’s extraordinarily successful revival in 2005, the new Doctor Who signalled a renunciation of its obsession with the past. It was self-consciously contemporary, set in a land of leather jackets, housing estates and New Labour politics, and overtly resolved upon “getting the tone right for the twenty-first century”.19

One very visible aspect of Doctor Who’s latest incarnation is its exploitation of London landmarks. Science fiction’s use of architectural reference points – as at once glamorous and grounding, spectacular and mundane – can be witnessed in films ranging from King Kong (1933) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) through Planet of the Apes (1968) to Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998). BBC Television’s premiere science fiction series The Quatermass Experiment (1953) had climaxed in Westminster Abbey, and Doctor Who’s original series had, from time to time, employed similar settings: Daleks paraded through Westminster in 1964, an evil supercomputer took up residence in the Post Office Tower in 1966, Cybermen crowded outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1968 and occupied the grounds of Windsor Castle in 1988, and dinosaurs overtook Trafalgar Square in 1974. The new series has, however, pushed such architectural allusions to their saturation point: a Nestene beneath the London Eye; the Sycorax shattering the Gherkin (Norman Foster’s iconic glass tower in London’s financial centre); Cybermen in Battersea Power Station; the 2012 London Olympic Stadium emptied by the Isolus; the Webstar decimating Oxford Street; a major London hospital transported to the Moon; and both the Slitheen and the Master assuming the reins of government in 10 Downing Street. The roof of Buckingham Palace is skimmed by the Starship Titanic in ‘Voyage of the Damned’ (2007), and the entire building is obliterated in ‘Turn Left’ (2008) – while in ‘The Next Doctor’ (2008) a Cybergiant attempts to lay waste to Victorian London.

To some extent this interest in London landmarks can be explained by a concern for global sales – in that the uniquely (stereotypically) British character of the series may account for the programme’s international success. Mark Bould sees this emphasis on the old, new and future features of the London skyline as blending nostalgic melancholy with optimism about “modern, global Britain”.20 However, we may imagine another, more urgent rationale behind this fixation: the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and of 7 July 2005 in London. The series explores the perceived privileged status of its sites as terrorist targets – most obviously when in ‘Planet of the Dead’ (2009) the wrecking of a London bus offers an image hauntingly reminiscent of 7 July 2005 and when, in ‘Doomsday’ (2006) and ‘Daleks in Manhattan’ (2007), aliens attack the twin towers of London’s Canary Wharf and the Empire State Building in New York – York – or when, again, London and New York are attacked in ‘The Stolen Earth’ (2008). These sites stand as ambiguous memorials for New York’s Ground Zero, with the series constructing epitaphs that re-enact the events of 9/11 in an architectural prosopopoeia.

In ‘Aliens of London’ (2005), a Slitheen spaceship crashes into Big Ben. This outrage has been staged in order to provoke a third world war: when the Slitheen take control of Downing Street in an attempt to launch a preemptive strike against an illusory extraterrestrial threat, their leader (in the guise of Acting Prime Minister) announces that “our inspectors have searched the sky above our heads and they have found massive weapons of destruction, capable of being deployed within forty-five seconds.”

The programme’s head writer Russell T Davies has commented that, although these attempts at “quick satire” may be “hardly profound”, he believes that “the ‘massive weapons of destruction’ reference … satirises a politician on TV about needing a war; men have died for that, are dying now”.21 In a genre that generally prefers its politics at the level of analogy, Davies’s Doctor Who often proves uncharacteristically direct in its political references. Indeed, series director Graeme Harper has even reported that the portrayal of the villainous creator of the technocratic Cybermen was based in part on Donald Rumsfeld.22

When, for example, “Homeworld Security” forces detain civilians in ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ (2008) – prior to a chemical weapons attack on New York, London, Sydney, and Tokyo – the allusion to modern internment tactics is made explicit in a reference to Guantanamo Bay. At the end of ‘The Christmas Invasion’ (2005), when Britain’s Prime Minister orders the destruction of the defeated and retreating Sycorax spaceship, David Tennant’s Doctor threatens to bring her down with just six words: “Don’t you think she looks tired?” At the time the British press recognized the scenario as an allusion to the sinking of an Argentine cruiser during the Malvinas Conflict, but also as a more contemporary reference to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s own appearance of increasing exhaustion. Indeed, the programme’s head writer Russell T Davies has commented that “there is absolutely an anti-war message” at the heart of this episode.23

In ‘Midnight’ (2008) the paranoia which envelops a hijacked travelcraft does not evoke the heroism of the passengers of United 93 (or for that matter of the ferry passengers in The Dark Knight) so much as the xenophobic hysteria of the United Kingdom’s tabloid press – as its passengers, faced with an unseen threat, conspire to cast the programme’s alien hero to his death: “He just turned up out of the blue … like an immigrant … he hasn’t even told us his name … we should throw him out … get rid of him now.” The following episode, ‘Turn Left’ (2008), presents a dystopian alterity in which London has been destroyed by an alien strike. The resulting state of emergency witnesses the triumph of a military authoritarianism which leads inexorably towards the establishment of detention camps for immigrants, and a resurgence of racist nationalism: “It’s the new law. England for the English.” This is an alienated, but uncannily familiar, Britain, a militarized police state of refugees, unemployment, street crime, home repossession, deportation and internment.

By the start of the new series of Doctor Who the protagonist’s home planet has been annihilated in an apocalyptic conflict referred to as the Time War. In its second episode, ‘The End of the World’ (2005), the new Doctor Who depicts the eventual destruction of the Earth in a solar fireball. The following year, and again the year after that, the programme presents a reconstructed New Earth—and the city of “New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New York.” The series offers the possibility of reconstruction, of the creation of a new world order, of the survival of civilization after the holocaust, after 11 September and the War on Terror – after the destruction not only of the Earth but also of the protagonist’s own planet. Yet, as its interminably new name suggests, New York’s relentless reconstructions imply a sequence of catastrophic annihilations that echo the endlessness of the War on Terror itself.

On 23 June 2007, the Doctor’s arch-enemy (and fellow Time Lord) the Master (John Simm)  became the Prime Minister of Great Britain – only to be defeated by David Tennant’s Doctor (in broadcast terms) the following Saturday. In between those two events, on 27 June, Tony Blair relinquished the British premiership. This coincidence of dates underlined a point about the United Kingdom’s political leadership that the British press noted at the time: as The Guardian reported on 26 June 2007, “Tony Blair may be leaving office, but he will be remembered by fans of Doctor Who … after being immortalised … as the Time Lord’s evil nemesis.” It seems difficult to see the John Simm’s hypnotically charismatic Prime Minister as anything other than a palimpsest of the presidential premier Blair: The Sun newspaper announced that “Doctor Who’s creator … admitted … the Master is partly based on Tony Blair”.24 Indeed even The Daily Telegraph recognised the similarity between Simm’s Master and Tony Blair.25

Simm’s villain attempts to rebuild a lost empire, to appropriate the protagonist’s role as the saviour of humankind and of his own people. Yet his vision is absolutist and uncompromising: his plan to reconstruct the detritus of his own lost civilization creates a dystopia redolent of other attempts at postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The programme’s spin-off series Torchwood, expressly targeted at an adult audience, has been afforded an even greater licence than Doctor Who to explore the underbelly of this darker universe. ‘Sleeper’ (2008) depicts the interrogation, torture, and execution of a member of a cell of alien suicide bombers – while the following episode, ‘To the Last Man’ (2008), sees the protagonists knowingly send a young soldier to his death, while reports from Iraq play in the background on TV.

In Matt Smith’s second episode in Doctor Who’s title role – ‘The Beast Below’ (2010) – the time travellers discover Starship UK, a space-going British colony fleeing an Earth ravaged by solar flares. The craft is borne through the cosmos on the back of an interstellar whale, a benevolent creature enslaved and tortured in order (literally) to provide a dynamic for a post-apocalyptic British society. The analogy and its moral message are clear: a Utopia founded upon the oppression of an alienated other perpetuates an eventually unsustainable police state whose superstructure develops the very characteristics projected by that superstructure (as a justification for its acts of oppression) onto its oppressed base. Such efforts aimed at the perfection of the social superstructure invisibly and incrementally engender the beast, the leviathan, above.

UNTIL THE END OF TIME

This account of the ideological focus of popular film and television science fiction may seem somewhat at odds with the genre’s reputation for adolescent escapism. Is screen science fiction, then, a site of futuristic and fantastical imaginings, or of contemporary politico-historical commentary? In his celebrated study of utopian and dystopian science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson suggests that “our most energetic imaginative leaps into radical alternatives [are] little more than the projections of our own social moment and historical … situation.”26 Or, as Freud wrote at the end of The Interpretation of Dreams: “By picturing our wishes as fulfilled, dreams are after all leading us into the future. But this future, which the dreamer pictures as the present has been moulded by his indestructible wish into a perfect likeness of the past.”27

From H.G. Wells to Douglas Adams, science fiction has traditionally offered itself as an allegory or satire upon urgent contemporary concerns; but it may be that, at the extremes of history (when history is at its most extremely historic, or when history is at its own extremes, at its borders with the fantastical, the post-material, the virtual) the fantasy space itself becomes almost indistinguishable from the historical – in that history’s intensity historicizes its fantastical counterpart, or in that history’s near post-historicality blurs into the fantastical. History is always, of course, at its own extreme: the present is the very edge of history; and, insofar as this is always inevitably the case, science fiction offers an only-slightly-less (or only-slightly-more) real vision of that extremity in its own most extraordinary (and thereby inherently mainstream) renditions.

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  1. Boof, Kola (2006). Diary of a Lost Girl. California: Door of Kush Multimedia. []
  2. Clancy, Tom (1994). Debt of Honour. London: HarperCollins. []
  3. Žižek, Slavoj (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, p. 15. []
  4. Gove, Michael (2001). ‘America wakes to terrorism by timetable – and the darkest national catastrophe’ in The Times, 12 September 2001. []
  5. Wells, H.G. (2005b). The War of the Worlds. London: Penguin, p. 9. []
  6. Ibid, 152. []
  7. Tumber, Howard, and Webster, Frank (2006). Journalists Under Fire. London: Sage, p. 49. []
  8. Baudrillard, Jean (1995). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, p. 61. []
  9. Ahmad, Aijaz (2003). ‘Contextualizing conflict: the U.S. “war on terrorism”’ in War and the Media (ed. Daya Kishan Thussu and Des Freedman). London: Sage, p. 19. []
  10. Wells, The War of the Worlds, pp. 157-8. []
  11. Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, p 384. []
  12. Žižek, Slavoj (1998). Violence. London: Profile Books, p 155. []
  13. Wells, H.G. (2005a). The Shape of Things to Come. London: Penguin, p. 141. []
  14. Ibid, p. 228. []
  15. Shelley, Mary (1985). The Last Man. London: Hogarth, p. 340. []
  16. Jones, George (2006). ‘Blair: God will judge me on Iraq’ in The Daily Telegraph, 4 March 2006. []
  17. Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real; and  Baudrillard, Jean (2005). The Intelligence of Evil. Oxford: Berg, p. 27. []
  18. Charles, Alec (2007). ‘The Ideology of Anachronism: Television, History and the Nature of Time’ in Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who (ed. David Butler). Manchester: Manchester University Press. []
  19. Russell, Gary (2006). Doctor Who: The Inside Story. London: BBC Books, p. 20 []
  20. Bould, Mark (2008). ‘Science Fiction Television in the United Kingdom’ in The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader (ed. J.P. Telotte). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 224-25. []
  21. Davies, Russell T (2008). The Writer’s Tale. London: BBC Books, p. 36. []
  22. Harper, Graeme (2007). Calling the Shots: Directing the New Series of Doctor Who. Richmond: Reynolds & Hearn, p. 144. []
  23. Bishop, Tom (2005). ‘Doctor Who takes anti-war stance’ in BBC News Online, 13 December 2005; and Byrne, Ciar (2005). ‘Dr Who saves the Earth (and joins the protests against the war in Iraq)’ in The Independent, 13 December 2005. []
  24. Nathan, Sara (2007). ‘Simm’s Master based on Blair’ in The Sun, 26 June 2007. []
  25. White, Jim (2007). ‘Did Doctor Who do it for you?’ in The Daily Telegraph, 2 July 2007. []
  26. Jameson, Fredric (2005). Archaeologies of the Future. London: Verso, p. 211 []
  27. Freud, Sigmund (1991). The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Penguin, p. 73. []

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