Fiction has always been potent at revealing truths about reality that may otherwise have remained hidden. Often, it is able to do this by suspending audiences’ preconceived notions on the fiction’s subject; after all, only a representation of the subject is given. The fictionalization allows the creator to add their own perspectives on the subject discussed.
As illustrated by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes in his article “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of US Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, this is exactly what occurs in the Stark Trek episode “A Private Little War”. From its jungle setting to the role of proxy powers, this episode’s battle between the Klingon-backed Appellas to the federation-backed Tyrees, this episode echoes what actually occurred in the Vietnam War. In it, the protagonists of Star Trek visit a planet and discover that a native group on the island, the Appellas, has had a very recent and sudden advancement in their weapon technology (going from learning to forge iron to having flintlock guns), realize that this is due to intervention by the Klingons, the series’ primary antagonists, and thus in turn offer reluctant support to the other group on the planet, the Tyrees. In case it was not explicit enough that the federation protagonists represented the US, that the Klingons symbolized the USSR, that the Appellas denoted North Vietnam, and that the Tyrees exemplified South Vietnam, a conversation between two of the show’s protagonists, Captain Kirk and Spock, directly compared this fictional event to the Vietnam War, which is said to have happened in the futuristic, science-fiction universe in which Star Trek occurs. Ultimately, as Sarantakes explains, this dialogue and the episode were “designed to illustrate the morally ambiguous position of the United States in Vietnam”.
As Sarantakes assesses, “the only reason Star Trek could deal with the war was the program’s futuristic setting”. This is particularly important because the episode aired at the height of the Vietnam War itself; if it had dealt with the exact conflict outright, it would have been considered as political commentary, which may have severely hurt its reception. However, as fiction, the episode is still able to comment on the morality of American intervention in the war while escaping this scrutiny. After all, questioning the war’s morality is to question the government. Additionally, discussing the war through science fiction also increases the audience’s ability to internalize this message, as they are entering the discussion of the fictionalized conflict without their biases on its real-life inspiration.
This ability to introduce a perspective judgment-free is why so many creators return to allegory. Personally, my first encounters with allegory came mostly from the Harry Potter series. Of the numerous allegories present throughout the seven novels, the most obvious is the comparison of the antagonistic Death Eater Army to the Nazis, as well as their persecution of “muggle-borns” parallels the World War II persecution of Jews (and most other cases of mass persecution, in some form or other). By associating these acts with the fictional embodiment of evil, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling denounces their actions as well as the actions of their real-life counterparts. Although this allegory is historical, it still presents commentary on similar present and future acts. I know that I, for example, would not be the person I am today without having read Harry Potter at such a young age. After all, the lessons learned in fiction very seldom remain in these imaginary worlds.