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The Smell of Fascism in the Morning:
Stargate, cop shows and the real world



 
 

I was thinking about fascism the other day. Specifically, I was thinking about why this political philosophy that most of us would claim is so anathema to our way of life is, nonetheless, happily embraced and encouraged and, yes, even romanticized in our fiction.

You see, I was watching an episode of the new science fiction series, StarGate: Atlantis, which is a spin-off from the surprisingly enduring TV series, StarGate: SG1. I usually like to see a few episodes of a TV series before I post an official review, but so far I'm reasonably enjoying the new series.

So what does this have to do with today's topic? The premise of the series is that a team of civilian and military personnel are stationed in another galaxy, cut off from earth. In the third or fourth episode, a scientist has an argument with the series' heroine -- the civilian head of the group. During the disagreement, the heroine informs said disgruntled scientist that this is not a democracy and if he crosses her again she would have him marooned on an alien planet -- in other words, in order to win an argument, she "pulled rank", and, worse, threatened him with almost certain death. At another point in the same episode, when some of the primitive inhabitants (with whom the earth characters share the planet) request permission to perform a kind of last rites ritual for their comrade who is in a perilous situation, the heroine refuses: not because it would interfere with her team's own efforts to rescue said character, or anything practical like that, but because she feels it's fatalistic and clashes with her philosophy.

These scenes were not crucial to the episode. No, they were included for their own sake. To establish, for lack of a prettier word, a certain fascist ambience.

And fascism, in this context, is supposed to be pretty cool.

Would the episode's writer, Brad Wright, really want to live in an environment where dissension is threatened with death? Would the actress playing the heroine, Torri Higginson, really want to exist in a reality where right and wrong was determined by the capriciousness of one individual? Probably not. But clearly they felt it makes great story telling. Obviously, the audience is expected to identify with the heroine, and we're supposed to think, "Wouldn't it be cool if I didn't have to take guff from anybody? If I just had to bark an order and it was obeyed?"

And this is hardly an isolated case. Science fiction TV shows in general tend to embrace a certain draconian fascism, often setting stories in military or quasi-military milieus. And the underlining theme fueling many a contemporary police series -- where the para-military cop hero is often presented as being at odds with weak-kneed civilian overseers, conniving politicians, whiny civilians and that epitomization of Deviltry, the Free Press -- is decidedly fascist in nature, where the subtext is, wouldn't life be easier if only people with guns were allowed to make decisions for us?

Some of the reasons for this are simply narrative. It can make for a dramatic scene if the hero can turn on his challengers and simply bark a few orders and shut them up. Kewl! We're meant to think. You tell 'em, boyo! It's supposed to indicate the power and the strength of the hero. Which is funny, because it actually conveys the opposite. The "powerful" hero is the one who can win through the logic of his or her ideas, the persuasiveness of his or her argument...the weak character is one who throws up his hands and simply shrieks, "I'm in charge! I'm in charge! Nyah! Nyah!"

The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas, as someone once said (it may've been H.G. Wells...but I think it was Malcolm McDowell playing Wells from Nicholas Meyer's screenplay in the minor SF classic, "Time After Time").

Ironically, I seem to recall in the original 1960s Star Trek TV series, that when Captain Kirk pulled rank, or started barking orders, it was intended to be a sign of weakness, a sign that he was losing control of the situation, and of himself. It was meant as a bad thing, a character flaw. Clearly, times have changed. One can see by how much simply by comparing the 1970s SF series Battlestar: Galactica, and its shaggy haired heroes who dreamed of life beyond the military, with its 21st Century remake, and its crewcut drones who seem to live for nothing outside of being fighter pilots, and where disagreeable characters are condemned without so much as a trial.

Part of the appeal of fascism is, presumably, the old cliche that it's efficient, that it makes the trains run on time. Viewed in that context, democracy is seen as a nice indulgence, but not practical, certainly not if you're establishing a colony at the far end of the universe as they are in StarGate: Atlantis. But, of course, there's more of mead than of meat in such a view. Fascist regimes tend to be woefully inefficient...that's why they're fascist, because they can't maintain popular support through merit. Nazi Germany, which is cited as an example of the efficiency of a fascist regime, was just the opposite, a nation whose short-lived economy was floated by cooking the books and the artificial stimulus of a war -- and it collapsed within a few years, while its democratic foes are still around. Democracy may be messy and frustrating, but it's more effective. The richest, most powerful nations on earth tend to be democratic.

The other appeal to fascism is that democracy is just a lot of work. In our weaker moments, we all can imagine that it'd be nice if we could just absolve ourselves of responsibility, to leave it to others to think for us. We'd all like to hide behind the excuse that we were just following orders. And people seem to have an inherent desire to blindly acquiesce to perceived authority. I remember watching an old British movie from the 1960s, "The Lost Continent", in which a boat sinks in the Sargasso Sea and the castaways encounter descendants of pirates also marooned there for generations (or something like that -- it's been a while). In one scene, one of the castaways challenges the hero -- the captain of the sunk boat -- and the captain does the usual barking of orders, I believe even threatening to kill the man, because, he is, after, THE captain, and not to be questioned. The catch here is that the only reason the castaways were in their predicament was because of the criminal and negligent actions of the captain...and yet in the minds of the filmmakers, the captain was still to be blindly obeyed (and that's ignoring the fact that, once his boat sunk, he was technically the captain only of Jack and Shit...and Jack was at the bottom of the ocean -- to paraphrase Bruce Campbell). Instead of recognizing that the captain had lost all moral and, probably legal, authority, the filmmakers believed he still deserved blind loyalty. If I were on a boat that sank, and I discovered it was as a direct result of the captain's criminal and negligent actions, I wouldn't feel he deserved any respect whatsoever.

Ironically, embracing democractic values in a science fiction series (or any genre) can make for better drama. As noted, characters operating in a draconian, fascist system actually seem weaker, smaller than characters who can thrive in an environment of free discourse. As well, it forces the writers to be more creative, as the character must rule through reason, rather than oppression.

So what's the long and the short of it all? What does it matter? Well, the danger is that if, in our fiction, we allow ourselves to be seduced by notions that fascism is a good thing, we can find ourselves too willing to accept it in the real world. It's troubling that there are those in the current United States of America administration who are musing about the possibility of "postponing" the up-coming election -- and yet that seems to be raising nary an eyebrow among the media or the public. What? One of the most powerful democracies on earth is casually talking about suspending the lynchpin of democracy -- the free election? And no one is concerned!?! Yoikes!

I'm not saying that's the fault of StarGate: Atlantis, or Brad Wright, or Torri Higginson. But shows like that are a little too quick to justify things that are not justifiable. And never should be.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Sept. 14, '04

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