Pop Culture as Commentary; the Author’s Intent

In Nicholas Evan Sarnatakes’ “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, the thesis is that the original Star Trek series was written as a criticism of U.S. foreign policy, in contrast to the prevailing assumption that popular culture mirrors public opinion. Instead of simply analyzing the episodes, Sarnatakes largely focuses on the intermediate scripts and the process of production, which often demonstrate the authors’ intent of writing political criticism into the story.

For example, in his analysis of “A Private Little War”, Sarnatakes waits until the very end to unveil the plot of the broadcasted episode, as the episode itself appears to offer hesitant support of American intervention in the Vietnam War. However, the origin of that plot suggests a different motivation for the episode. Don Ingalls, a friend of the show’s creator, had submitted a story outline that included a “gratuitous and fairly severe critique of the U.S. military establishment” in the form of allegory: the main characters, representatives of the Federation (symbolizing the United States), land on a jungle planet (symbolizing Vietnam) where they learn that the Klingons (symbolizing the Soviet Union) had been providing one faction of the less-developed natives with weapons. Following the script of the Vietnam War, in order to assert their power, the Federation begins supplying weapons to the opposing faction. Using this framework, Ingalls critiques the idea of the war by demonstrating the flawed logic behind it through inconsistency in the characters’ conversations, and further attacks the military establishment through Kirk’s actions, holding troops accountable for the destruction, regardless if they were acting under orders.

On receiving the story outline, the makers of the show liked the idea, but felt that there were plot holes, missing details, and problems with the overall message that needed to be addressed. Ingalls struggled with the revision, and felt betrayed when his friend, the creator of the show – Gene Roddenberry – took over the writing of the script, molding it into a more ideologically and perhaps artistically acceptable piece that offered lukewarm praise of the U.S. military action in the war.

While I don’t disagree with Sarantakes’ conclusion that this episode was meant to critique the war, I’m slightly skeptical about this approach. Even if the creators heavily considered criticizing the war during the making of the episode, isn’t what the public sees – and what the episode is – the final work, where decisions are made to write it to support the war? Is intent any more important than the content itself?

Perhaps this method of analysis is useful for shedding light in other areas, but it’s very likely that decisions that changed the message were made in order to popularize the show, just to conform to public opinion. As Sarantakes explains, science fiction is a powerful medium for political commentary as it’s very easy to allude to current political situations, but it’s also very easy to get past the commentary-averse television networks since it can be argued that the “commentary” is just a story taking place in a fictional world. However, it can also be argued that the plot in many science fiction works easily align with public opinion, because the ideas could seem more easily acceptable to the general public, boosting the work’s popularity.

I mentioned the video game, Portal, in a previous blog post. While it’s not high science fiction, it can easily fall under the umbrella, as it occurs in a futuristic parallel world, offers a conflict very different on the surface than current political or military conflicts, and has a huge focus on technology currently not even close to being developed. In my previous post, I analyzed how the game, which came out in 2002, was an allegory to subversion of a containing body, where Chell, the player’s character, faces off against GLaDOS, a superintelligent AI in control of a research facility in which she is determined to keep Chell as a test subject. I’d also touched on how the portrayal of female characters was quite revolutionary considering their roles in other video games at the time.

Chell, in her orange jumpsuit, force-absorbing “knee replacements”, and undetailed facial features, is hardly the highly sexualized side character of many other games, and in any case, as Portal operates in first-person 3D, the player doesn’t see much of her – except through portals. Again, she uses a weapon that does not kill, unlike her chauvinistic counterparts in other first-person shooters, to defeat another woman with supreme power. At least in the first game, there are no male characters – even the turrets, robots built to automatically target and shoot humans, speak in a creepily squeaky, but obviously feminine, voice.

At the time of the game’s release, feminism wasn’t as prominent of a topic as it had been at times in the United States. While the containment culture reintroduced as a result of 9/11 did not quite have the same effect on the views of the nuclear family, Portal, just by classifying itself as a first-person shooter, intends to offer quite a bit of interesting feminist commentary. “Intends” – the commentary itself is quite subtle, since it takes some thought to recognize the importance of the genders of the characters, and much of the symbolism is hidden in elements only noticeable upon replay. However, even so, I contend that the game still definitely does comment in regards to the issue of gender roles, since these elements do appear in the final release, and are what the public (and perhaps a scholar or two) have available to do their own analysis and theorizing around.


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