Science Fiction as Allegory: How Star Trek is a Social Critique

Nicholas Sarantakes discusses how the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” is an analogy to US foreign policies during the Cold War period. The Enterprise and Captain Kirk are thrown into an alternate dimension where they encounter an evil version of themselves and of the Federation. While the Federation in their original universe advocates peaceful contact with other cultures, the anti-Federation is bent on violent imperial actions to subjugate other cultures. The good version of the Enterprise is what the Star Trek writers aspire for US policy to be abroad. As Sarantakes puts it, “The message of the episode is that a democratic country like the United States is different from and better than its autocratic rival, the Soviet Union, and that U.S. foreign policy should reflect these merits. If the United States fails in this regard, it is no better than any other world power.” It is a reminder that in the Cold War the United States is the good guy, and the USSR the bad guy. In addition, it adds the critical point that if the United States strays from this idealized version of foreign policy, they can become the bad guys.

Science fiction and fantasy writing has an opportunity to critique cultural ideologies in ways that most other mediums do not. As Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry remarked, “Today in TV, you can’t write about Vietnam, politics, labor management, the rocket race, the drug problem realistically.” It is very difficult to have realistic and critical material approved, and sell, in a typical market. If deep-rooted cultural beliefs are directly challenged, people are likely to shut down and ignore the message. With the same message steeped in a fantasy world, it becomes less a direct attack on people and more a medium for those people to reevaluate that belief. Another example of science fiction that tackles social problems is the X-Men comic book series. The X-Men are “mutants” shunned by the rest of society, and often must deal with hatred and bigotry. These comics created an allegory to the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for racial justice and equality in America.

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2 thoughts on “Science Fiction as Allegory: How Star Trek is a Social Critique”

  1. I definitely agree with your observation that setting up a fantasy world lends itself well to serving as a medium through which the writer can communicate controversial or perhaps readily attacked stances on a particular issue. It is interesting to note that even science fiction, despite its greater flexibility in delivering a polemical message, must still walk a fine line if it wants to avoid severe backlash for not being politically correct or for proving to be all too offensive.Even for some of these Star Trek episodes, the scriptwriters had to fight with the studio producers to get the plots on air based on the political environment at the time. If the message of the fantasy plot crosses into the territory of being too obvious, then the same amount of opposition (as seen against more concrete and direct news articles, for example) may arise.

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  2. I think your example of the X-Men as a societal criticism with regard to the treatment of minorities is extremely relevant and true. While I have not read the comic, I have seen the movies and, in them, the issue of discrimination is definitely one of the overarching themes throughout the whole franchise. The main characters’ primary objective in each film and their everyday lives are always intertwined with having to deal with ‘regular’ people’s attitudes towards them. Considering the scope and the global presence of the comic and the film franchise, I think that X-Men have successfully conveyed criticism and spread awareness of racial injustice throughout the world.

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