Science Fiction as Political Commentary

Cold War and containment rhetoric had an immense impact on popular culture. Not only did the ideology of the time inadvertently permeate different types of media, but those in media also actively chose to comment on many of the controversial issues facing the country. Science fiction, a widely consumed form of entertainment, was the one of types of popular media that could easily inquire the government’s motives and rightfulness without being placed under heavy scrutiny or rejection.

Star Trek, a 1960s television series set in the 23rd century about a space mission to discover new civilizations across the universe, used allegory as a tool to comment on the United States’ foreign policy and role during the Cold War. For example, in the episode “Errand of Mercy,” Captain Kirk and Doctor Spock, representing the Federation, find themselves attempting to save what seems to be the hopeless world of Organia from invasion by the evil Klingons and their dictator. The Organians refuse Kirk and Spock’s help on the grounds that they do not condone violence. To Kirk and Spock, the pacifist, calm, and less than technologically advanced Organians appear to be nothing but simpletons who do not know how to protect themselves. However, when Kirk and Spock finally do confront the Klingons, despite the Organians’ wishes that they do nothing, the Organians use their advanced mind power to prevent the two sides from actually fighting. Thus, both the Federation and the Klingons are outpowered by the Organians, whom neither party had previously respected. As Sarantakes points out, this means that “Federation representatives were to avoid interfering in the natural development of less developed societies, generally interpreted as those lacking the technology to travel in space. This principle was anti-colonial in nature and an acknowledgment of the limits to power, even American power.” At a time when Americans were decided whether or not intervening with democracy in countries that had no such concept, this episode was especially powerful. It encouraged people to think that even though small, third-world countries seemed unintelligent to both communists and Americans, perhaps they did not actually need to subscribe to either form of government.

Star Trek is not the only science fiction piece to comment on issues facing America. In the book Brave New World,  Aldous Huxley criticizes the rapidly rising consumerism culture in the United States by presenting an alternate world (the same method employed by the writers of Star Trek) where drugs, sex, and pleasure run amuck at the cost of developing real, personal relationships and experiencing real feelings.

As these two examples show, science fiction is a powerful tool in political commentary because of its ability to present the audience with an alternate universe that serves as a reflection of what their world might actually be.

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