Monday, April 5, 2010

From Space Exploration to Time Travel

While attending a panel on time travel this weekend at the National PCA/ACA Conference in St. Louis, a panel that at one point was so boring that I prayed to time travel to the end of it, a fellow audience member asked a question that has had me thinking since: what are we to make of the professed shift from science fiction narratives centering around space exploration to those centering on time travel?

Of course, this shift is not comprehensive. A presentation by Korcaighe Hale examined the selection of historical events in three time travel shows ranging from the later 60s to the early 90s, but with shows like Lost and Flashforward dominating the airwaves and others centered on exploration, like Enterprise, incorporating elements of time travel into their mythologies, it’s not hard to argue
that this shift has taken (or is taking) place. But what reasons could there be?

One person acknowledged that as we learn more and more about our universe, about how unlikely it is that we will ever be able to leave our solar system, such stories of exploration no longer have real traction. I suppose this is true to some extent, though it’s not as if a show like Star Trek took the science all that seriously and viewers didn’t seem to have big problems with that. I have another idea, but as I am severely ignorant of much of science fiction and its discourses, I am going to argue through the prism of Trek and let my argument be judged as in/adequate based on such a decision.

Why did the public so engage with the space exploration narrative central to Trek in the late 60s and through syndication in the 70s? Coming out of the policies of brinksmanship in the 1950s, where the Eisenhower Administration moved to contain communism within the Soviet Union, it seems to me that a show about a peaceful (military) explorers spreading a message of human rights and a celebration of the individual would have some traction from a purely patriotic standpoint. It allowed the viewers of that era to identify the positive intentions of their government separate from the unpopular policies by which they were implemented.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need to spread the message of anti-communism was no longer necessary, and as a result, the sort of space exploration narrative eventually lost its traction as well. Sure we had The Next Generation going strong through 1994, but even the popular Deep
Space Nine abandoned the exploration format in order to tell the story of a Federation trying to broker peace in a rapidly changing galactic landscape, arguably analogous to the state of the world after the fall of the Soviet Union.

We now live in a world where we aren’t threatened with death every day, on a societal scale at least, and thus we can relax from spreading our message and take time to appreciate the differences between us and others by studying how we got here. And thus the time travel story resonates, for we can go back and see what choices shaped our society, how different (and the same) people were in the past versus today. And we forecast what will happen to us in the future along these same principles.

I’m not even sure I totally buy this, but it seems a framework for a larger discussion can begin here. It’s even possible that I will be presenting a paper on this topic at next year’s conference, but before I get ahead of myself, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, perhaps contextualizing this argument within the greater scope of science fiction literature, but certainly offering your own takes even if they blow my hypothesis out of the proverbial water.


Steve said...

I don't know if I agree that time-travel has suddenly become more prevalent in sf-- it's really only true if you restrict yourself to televised sf. (Which, I thought, a distressing number of papers in the sf&f track at the PCA/ACA did.) Before he wrote The War of the Worlds, after all, H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine.

I feel like it has indeed become more prevalent in televised sf, though, I think, and most contemporary time-travel shows seem to restrict it to contemporary times: FlashForward, Lost, even Quantum Leap. (Hm, but not Doctor Who or Primeval.) I see two potential reasons: it makes it less obviously sf, which is what a lot of genre shows do of late, and it is cheaper on your budget. But even traveling through all of history is cheaper than going into space, as it requires no custom-made props, costumes, or sets.

But I would agree that we're no longer "worried" about space in a way that we once were.

(That paper on FlashForward really ticked me off.)

Jonathan Polk said...

I've gotten a few responses that make the reduced cost argument, but I find that to be a glib answer. Surely one could produce an space exploration show of similar quality with the budget of Lost or Flashforward.

Even if I were to narrow the argument to look at only televised sf/f, if as you suggest the shift has occurred primarily in that medium (you would know better than me), it still seems that my points remain valid, which seems to be your thought as well.

On reflection, perhaps I am more interested in the shift away from space exploration that the (possible) shift to time travel, though presenting it that way seems only half an argument. It might also be interesting to explore why the creators of contemporary sf/f downplay those traits in order to market their show to a wider audience.