The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Battlestar Galactica cast
Battlestar Galactica has introduced viewers to a science-fiction universe that is compelling but far darker han anything seen on Star Trek. (credit: Sci-Fi Channel)

Worthy of survival

There has long been a link between science fiction and spaceflight in general and the American space program in particular. As numerous historians, writers, and others have noted, early written science fiction, like the works of Jules Verne, influenced people like Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun to pursue the development of space technologies. Some of the current entrepreneurs sponsoring upstart “NewSpace” companies have admitted that they were influenced by science fiction as well. This relationship has not always been a positive one, however, as the flights of fancy possible in the pages of a book or on the silver screen have also created unrealistic expectations among the public and even among government decision makers. Space exploration has proven harder and more expensive than most science fiction writers have imagined.

Of all of these ties, the most important has probably been the influence of Star Trek on the American space program. There are clearly obvious connections—for instance, the first Space Shuttle was named Enterprise after lobbying by fans. However, the more complex and unquantifiable influences are probably more important. There is a significant correlation between the show’s fans and interest in spaceflight, or more generally, interest in science and technology. Quantifying this correlation is not possible given the limitations of social science, and certainly its effects have been exaggerated. But many people who work for NASA or in the space field have said that they were first inspired by Star Trek, and there is no reason to disbelieve them. To be fair, this group undoubtedly represents only a small fraction of the show’s fans, and it is also possible that many of these people were already inclined to be interested in both spaceflight and science fiction. But the connection exists, and was even explored in a tongue-in-cheek manner in the documentary How William Shatner Changed the World, which demonstrated that many scientists and inventors were indeed inspired by Star Trek.

Many people who work for NASA or in the space field have said that they were first inspired by Star Trek, and there is no reason to disbelieve them.

But televised science fiction has changed significantly in the four decades since Star Trek first premiered as has written science fiction. The current vanguard show, Battlestar Galactica, has been described by various magazines and newspapers as one of the best shows on television. It has received accolades for its complex storylines exploring modern social and political issues. Battlestar Galactica has fascinating characters, solid acting, movie quality special effects, and better stories than Star Trek ever had. Despite all of this, it is unlikely that Battlestar Galactica will have the same kind of influence on the American space program that Star Trek did. In fact, it is unlikely that any modern day science fiction will have anywhere near the influence that past examples of the genre have had. The reasons have to do both with the way that science fiction has evolved, and the way that American society has evolved as well. The rift is certainly widening, and it may be permanent.

Boldly going into the final frontier

When the original Star Trek premiered in September 1966, it was a qualitative leap in the portrayal of science fiction on television. In fact, Star Trek was better than many movie science fiction of the time as well. Although it is popular among television critics these days to criticize the show for its “cheesy plywood sets” or William Shatner’s scenery chewing, compared to other science fiction shows of the time, Star Trek represented a significant improvement in both style and content, despite being produced on a relatively modest budget. Today’s critics also fail to recognize that Star Trek significantly raised the standards for both TV and movie science fiction that followed it. Aliens in rubber suits and flying saucers were no longer acceptable, and even looked ridiculous after Star Trek raised the bar.

Similarly, the show’s multi-ethnic and multi-national cast was unprecedented for its day, even if it seems somewhat dated now (with the white American in charge and the black woman answering the phone). Many of the stories in the show’s early years were written by some of the best science fiction writers of the day, and over its three years on the air, Star Trek show tackled many complex social issues such as the war in Vietnam, racial prejudice, and the Cold War.

Trek was in many ways typically American. It was utopian in outlook. Technology could occasionally go wrong, but it was not malevolent in itself.

Many fans have said that the appeal of Star Trek was that it presented a positive future at a time when the world was undergoing significant upheaval in the form of war and social strife. But Star Trek also premiered at a time when the space age was still less than a decade old. The United States had been flying humans into space for a little over five years and was then in the midst of a moon race with the Soviet Union. Trek was about exploring and learning and expanding outward. Admittedly, most of Star Trek’s fans were not exposed to the show until the 1970s, after it had been canceled. Many more were only exposed to the latter iterations starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation in the late 1980s.

Trek was in many ways typically American. It was utopian in outlook. Disease—even headaches—had been eliminated by the 24th century, and Trek’s irascible Doctor McCoy considered surgery to be the equivalent of butchery. Currency was no longer necessary. Weather could be controlled. Trek had a gee-whiz approach to technology, often resorting to some technological solution to whatever predicament that the crew had gotten itself into. Technology could occasionally go wrong, but it was not malevolent in itself.

Enter the shadows

That optimistic era has now passed. Both the space program and science fiction started to change by the late 1960s. Written science fiction became more cynical. Various authors, responding to the Vietnam War, started to view technology as something that could be wielded by oppressors against weaker opponents. Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers, which many critics labeled as militaristic or even fascist, spawned many books, like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, reacting to Heinlein’s apparent glorification of the military.

Televised science fiction also became darker and more cynical. The most notable example was The X-Files, with its view of vast conspiracies and dangerous aliens and other forces. But Star Trek also spawned a number of shows that consciously sought to be anti-Trek, sometimes written by fans of the show, or even people who used to be associated with the franchise.

The most notable early response to Trek was the 1990s series Babylon 5, which adopted a multi-year story arc that was in direct contrast to Trek’s episodic, fix-everything-in-the-last-five-minutes format. Babylon 5 lacked the positive, utopian vision of the future that prevailed in much of Trek. The humans were simply one race among many, virtually all ruled by corrupt leaders. Technology was no longer the solution to problems. Exploring new frontiers was not the primary thrust of the show, and in fact was rarely mentioned at all. Instead, the show’s stories centered on diplomacy, maneuvering for advantage, warfare, courage, and survival. Character development was far more important to Babylon 5 than it ever was in any of the Star Trek spinoffs. Many fans of Babylon 5 were hooked the instant they saw one of the show’s spaceships flip over and fire at an enemy as it flew past. Trek was never known for its Newtonian physics, and Babylon 5 seemed to be saying that space was a different environment, not like Star Trek.

However, Babylon 5 was not the type of show that could inspire people to pursue space or technology careers. Space was a vast, interesting backdrop for the stories and the characters, but the characters—even the aliens—faced essentially the same problems as we do today, albeit on a grander scale. On the other hand, Babylon 5 was clearly influenced by the space program, most notably in the way that colorful Hubble Space Telescope images served as the backdrops for its space scenes. Whereas Babylon 5 was more realistic in its depiction of Newtonian physics, it went overboard in its portrayal of a colorful interstellar void.

Babylon 5 lacked the positive, utopian vision of the future that prevailed in much of Trek. The humans were simply one race among many, virtually all ruled by corrupt leaders. Technology was no longer the solution to problems.

Several other shows have been consciously anti-Trek as well. The short-lived series Firefly depicted a future 500 years hence that was essentially the Wild West, complete with horses, cowboy boots, and poverty. Exploring strange new worlds was not a goal, and there were no aliens or phasers. The goal is survival, and rather than a noble Federation keeping the peace, the heroes were faced with an ominous Alliance that they sought to avoid. Technology was unreliable, and usually the most sophisticated technology was only available to the rich and powerful. In Firefly humanity had developed the final frontier, and found it an inhospitable place. Although the show developed a devoted fan base, it’s hard to argue that it presented an optimistic vision of the future.

Worthy of survival

Which brings us to Battlestar Galactica. Galactica started as a 2003 miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, and was then picked up as a series. The third season premiers on October 6. The show is a reimagined version of the late 1970s show of the same name. But other than the broad outlines, it bears little resemblance to the superficial and silly original. Galactica focuses on the plight of the survivors of twelve human colonies who have been decimated by an attack by the robotic Cylons, who were created by the humans and rebelled decades before. The survivors are led by Commander Adama, captain of the Galactica, and President Laura Roslin. Both were initially at odds over what was best for the survivors, but gradually came to respect and even care for each other over the course of the series.

Galactica is dark. Nobody is squeaky clean or a cookie-cutter character like early iterations of Star Trek, and even the most admirable person can have bad traits and habits, or even fatal flaws. Some of the humans are barely better than the Cylons. The brilliant scientist Gaius Baltar, for instance, unwittingly aided and abetted the Cylons in their genocidal attack on humanity, and later gave a Cylon a nuclear weapon, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of survivors. He has concealed his guilt from the humans, but may be clinically insane, as he suffers from visions, and the torments, of a beautiful Cylon woman.

Galactica’s producer is Ronald D. Moore, a former producer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore has made no secret that many of the things he does on the show are a direct reaction to his previous experience working within the strict confines of Trek. He wanted to do away with characters who never evolved and episodes that ended with everything back where the story had started. Rather than having a chief engineer spout off some technobabble dialogue and press a few buttons to save the ship, Moore had an officer bang on a valve with a wrench, and then suffocate to death after saving his crew. Rather than the Enterprise, which was always portrayed as the flagship of Star Trek’s Federation, the Battlestar Galactica is old and worn out and headed for decommissioning when it is caught up in the final struggle to save humanity.

Battlestar Galactica is not about exploring new frontiers. It is about survival and the things humans will do to survive. But as Moore has said, it is not merely enough to survive: one has to be worthy of survival. The show has explored some of the darker aspects of warfare, such as torture and the dehumanization of the enemy—something that is supposedly easier when the enemy is not even human to begin with. Like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica has used its science fiction setting to explore current social issues, most obviously the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. Its stories are powerful, poignant, challenging, and often brilliant.

But Battlestar Galactica, despite its brilliance, is unlikely to inspire future generations of scientists, engineers, astronauts and entrepreneurs like Star Trek has done. There are many reasons for this. For starters, it is dark. It does not depict technology in a positive light. Humanity has developed a technology that has led it to the brink of destruction. The show’s message is more about introspection than bold action.

Boldly going… where?

Star Trek, and the early American space program, existed in a sort of golden age. Both existed when it was possible to be unquestionably optimistic about the future that they promised. The early space age was central to the Cold War and occupied an important place in American society. But today space is a niche activity, a discretionary activity that can be cut at the whims of a politician.

Battlestar Galactica is not about exploring new frontiers. It is about survival and the things humans will do to survive. But as Moore has said, it is not merely enough to survive: one has to be worthy of survival.

Similarly, the original Star Trek was not a popular show, but at the time there was no cable or satellite television or Internet or video games to compete with the big three networks. The original series during its first run attracted at least five times the audience that Battlestar Galactica does. Galactica, like other televised science fiction—and the American space program—represents a niche product reaching a small audience.

As a colleague and former Star Trek: Enterprise producer has noted, Star Trek and the American space program reinforced each other’s vision of the future, playing off the popular American mythology of the frontier and the belief that the good guys could triumph over the bad guys. Space exploration no longer has the positive cachet for Americans that it once had. Astronauts have died, and space no longer represents the bold and limitless frontier that it was early in the space age. Even popular and positive visions of the future and spaceflight are unlikely to be received without skepticism by today’s public.

What does this mean about the role that science fiction in general will play in influencing the American space program? That remains unclear. One possibility is that dystopian visions of the future will have a negative effect upon space exploration. Science fiction may still have a positive influence on those already inclined to view spaceflight in a positive manner. But one thing is certain: the future clearly will not be what it once was.