How I Came To This Crazy Conclusion...
The freelance writing business takes you on some unexpected adventures. Over the holidays I was doing research work for this one client regarding the political leanings of corporations, which included punching the names of lots of companies into the site Open Secrets.
It's a strange world there. In the first place, there's some debate as to whether corporations should be meddling in politics on the financial level at all.
But beyond that, the logic behind corporate political donations is baffling. Many of them donate near equally to both Democrat and Republican parties, basically saying "We don't care who wins, we just want to make sure we have a friend when they get in."
- Wal-Mart - Lately donates to both parties with a pronounced Republican lean, but during the Bush, Jr. administration went all in for Rs.
- Target - Went all in for Republicans during the Bush years and well into Obama's first term, now leans slightly Democrat since Trump took office.
- Whole Foods - Mostly Democrat supporters, but notice every primary election year they toss some to the Republicans as if to say "no hard feeling, hey?"
- Trader Joe's - A consistent Democrat supporter, with a curious blip of Republican interest during the Hillary/Trump primary.
It makes you marvel at who's making the decisions in these companies and what their logic is. It also brings you to the conclusion that companies have political leanings and therefore doing business with them is a passive political act, even when all you want to do is buy a damn can of soup and be done with it.
It's more obvious when, say, an oil company donates to Republicans; gotta fight those Greenpeace kids before they set up solar panels and windmills everywhere. But what's so political about selling food?
Nevertheless, you end up with a political split between Wal-Mart and Target shoppers.
Now, this idea tickled my imagination and got me to wondering: What other franchises have a non-obvious political leaning? And one dichotomy came crashing through my mental architecture immediately, giving us the subject of our thesis.
Star Trek: A Progressive Liberal Universe
We start with, of all people, Lucille Ball, the mid-20th-century comedian of I Love Lucy fame. Most Trekkies know that her company Desilu Productions gave the green light to Star Trek when nobody else would, albeit Ms. Ball at first had no idea it was science fiction. To put a fine point on it: Star Trek was the hardest "hard scifi" show television had ever been seen on TV so far. Desilu studios stood by Star Trek right through Mr. Spock, transporters, rubber-forehead aliens, and all, even as they were forced to sell out to Paramount.
The original Star Trek was a daring show which had many progressive firsts:
- A racially diverse cast - At a time when racial tensions were high, the show depicted people of all walks of life working together on one crew in harmony. No less than Martin Luther King Jr. commended actress Nichelle Nichols for staying on the show.
- The first inter-racial kiss shown on TV.
- "Woke" story-lines - When other scifi series were escapist fare, Star Trek ripped both the US-Vietnam War and the Cold War right from the headlines into plots.
- Heavy social messages - Some anvils were a little too heavy even for the devoted fans, such as Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, with a half-white/half-black alien and a half-black/half-white alien dishing commentary on civil rights.
"We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity," says Captain Picard.
President Obama never uttered the exact same line, but he might as well have. Star Trek deliberately states that money is no longer a thing for the human race.
The invention of the almighty replicator ended the time of scarcity; Starfleet is a Socialist paradise of everybody working towards a common good. The show even freely holds up species like the Ferengi as a broad parody of Capitalism.
Case made? Case made.
Star Wars: Forever Looking Backward
Star Wars is a little less obvious on the political spectrum.
The franchise has found itself backed into something of a corner, in order to differentiate itself from Star Trek. But we do have some tells as to Star Wars' political leanings:
- Religion is more important - The chief story focus in the Star Wars universe is the Jedi council. Basically, high priests.
- Science? What science? - Star Wars has never been about the scifi. It has always been a romanticized heroic magical fantasy set "a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away."
- Violence solves all the problems - It's right there in the title: Star Wars.
- The Rebels are the heroes - The oppressive, authoritarian government is the bad guys. Big government bad, independent rogues good, sound familiar?
- Star Wars wasn't socially progressive at first - Why look, it's a bunch of white people. Most of them male. In fact, Star Wars has never been a universe to shy away from racially insensitive characters.
- In the original trilogy (New Hope, Empire, Jedi), there was exactly one black human with a speaking role: Lando Calrissian - apart not exactly ringing with progressive characterization.
In fact, Star Wars has found itself wedged into such a corner lately that when it tries to open up and be more progressive, its fan base objects. It's useless to tie George Lucas into the direction of Star Wars; sure, he had his picture taken with Obama, but Lucas hasn't had any more role in the ultimate direction of Star Wars than Gene Roddenberry eventually had over Star Trek. The fans get their say, and Star Wars has to bend to them.
And no matter how much Big Brother George Lucas tries to retcon his motives the way he retcons EVERYTHING, Star Wars originally started out as a revival of Buck Rogers space opera flicks from the early days of serialized adventures. Gene Roddenberry wanted to show us a better world.
George Lucas wanted to make a buck.
The Forced Dichotomy And Its Effects On Popularity
We can see both the best and worst consequences on both franchises today. Both of them are hobbled by the expectations of their fan bases.
Star Trek suffers from the Utopian problem: Boredom.
Perfect societies that want for nothing don't lend themselves to many good stories. No one character stands out much in more recent Star Trek entries, because how invested can we be in the job of somebody who doesn't need a job at all?
What stops all these people from sitting at home getting stewed on Romulan ale and playing video games all day, letting the Borg invasion be somebody else's problem? What happened to self-interest in Star Trek, is it just bred out of humanity?
To create any kind of plot in the Star Trek universe, you need to create conflict, which usually comes down to solving the problem of some aliens we just met on a planet we just discovered or dealing with some negative space wedgie. But politicians and scientists are the heroes of the Star Trek universe, and so that conflict gets resolved with one thing:
Everything in Star Trek is Federation policy this, Prime Directive that, technobabble something else, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Blah blah blah blah BLAH BLAH BLAAAAAAH! There's a good reason Star Trek's first movie got nicknamed "The Motionless Picture."
Star Trek didn't start out that way. The original series had Captain Kirk, the studmuffin who solved most of the episode's problems with his fist, and the rest by making out with space babes.
But it was forced to become more politically polarized with each series installment. By the time of The Next Generation, it would be nice to just once hear "Oh, the hostile alien is jamming our scanners? Hey, Worf, what say you grab your bat'leth, beam down, and kick its ass into the next season?"
Meanwhile, Star Wars has much more liberty story-wise.
While not specifically beholden to anyone ideology beyond "stick to the light side of the Force and things will work out," it gets to pick up new characters and send them on new adventures willy-nilly. Big exciting space battles and sizzling lightsaber fights, give the fans plenty of that and they're usually happy.
The downside for Star Wars is that a big sprawling adventure epic franchise eventually runs into the problem of not really being about much of anything at all. The slapdash universe-building and constant retcons lead to canon wank. It's all action, as opposed to all talk. I mentioned previously that the Star Wars franchise is riddled with irritating silliness and cliched triteness.
POINTLESS ACTION! Zap, pow, whiz, bang, we don't give a damn as long as something is fighting something else up there on the screen.
Along with that, Star Wars is a universe where there are clear good guy heroes and bad guy villains, so stereotyped that it literally coined the term "space opera." Which is why it has characters who keep rebuilding Death Stars no matter how many times they get blown up.
Star Wars hurts if you think about it a little bit; Star Trek hurts because it thinks too much.
Where They Stand Today
Well, Star Wars is certainly not hurting for fandom. There are many more movies in the works, and this year marks a whole new Star Wars themed wing added to Disneyland.
Hey, Disney, how's your campaign contributions?
Oh, heavy Democrat favor, that's surprising given Walt's leanings. In fact, it makes no sense. Disney is a huge corporation that benefits from heavy copyright control of its intellectual property.
Disneyland's home beat of Orange County California is one of the most conservative places in the nation. "What a progressive female role model," said nobody watching a Disney movie ever.
Disney, double-you-tee-eff are you doing? You're as liberal as the NRA!
Meanwhile, it has been a long time since we even got a Star Trek movie, hasn't it? Star Trek, while still maintaining a fandom, fights for relevancy these days. The new Discovery series is in search of an identity. Star Trek is, we hate to say it, stagnant. What is wrong with this picture:
Wait, I know, it's two people TALKING! They are not holding weapons. They are not running. Things are not happening. The costumes have changed a few threads from The Next Generation, but outside of that, you couldn't tell this scene from an episode thirty years ago.
And Star Wars could be finally finding some space to move into that void. Look here:
One of these is a newly-elected progressive socialist-conservative congresswoman, and the other is a kick-ass scavenger from Jakku. There's room for Star Wars to march forward with the times yet!
But come to that, if we're talking about politics in scifi series, there's really only one series that has the last word: