Set Your Cathode Rays to Stun(ning)

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I’m coming out … and I’m doing it on FLOW. I suppose that, in some ways, I’ve always known that I was a bit “different.” But the real signs started to emerge in high school, where I was frequently teased by other students. It was my taste in media, fashion, academic interests, and career aspirations that gave me away. Despite years of attempting to “project” otherwise, the truth is I am a bona fide flaming … nerd. What can I say, I loooove the sci fi, think space suits are sexy, enjoy reading about physics, astronomy, and mathematics, and desperately wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Not long after I “graduated” with my wings from Space Camp in 1984, I quickly earned the nickname, Astro-Ott. Although I hated it at the time, in retrospect, I think it’s kind of a clever pun. So, today, I proudly announce and embrace my nerd-dom. In that spirit, this column is about what I like to call, “The best damn three hours of television in the known galaxy.” That’s right, the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica.

Stargate Atlantis

Science fiction (not unlike myself in high school) frequently takes a beating from “popular” critics. When Stargate Atlantis premiered last season, New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan described the pilot episode as “tedious” and “dull,” adding that it is destined to become “nothing more than a relic of our own unenlightened time” (p. E22). Ouch! That hurts more than a Wraith bite or a Goa’uld Zatn’kitel Energy Pistol blast. Ok, I’ll admit that some of the criticisms of science fiction are well-grounded: the “science” is often not very scientific, the plotlines are as improbable as they are formulaic, the dialogue is filled with ridiculous techno-babble (though I am still determined to build a phase-converter), and the acting is frequently wooden. Heck, William Shatner owes much of his status as a cult-celebrity to his “unique” acting style. “So … perhaps it is …time … for us sci fi nerds to … activate … our own … self-destruct … buttons.” Not!!! No, instead, I’m going to try to make a few converts … and without the aid of my brainwashing device, the neural neutralizer. My love of science fiction is pretty simple: I believe that it stages contemporary social and political concerns in a manner that allows for critical self-reflection better than any other television genre.

Despite its spectacular spaceships, exotic aliens, and dazzling special effects, science fiction is about the present, and in particular, the social and political concerns of the present. Take Stargate SG-1, for example, a series that will soon surpass The X-Files as the longest running sci fi series in television history. The “Welcome” on the official SG-1 website reads, “Step through the Stargate with General Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and his SG-1 team of soldier-explorers as they travel instantaneously to other planets–meeting aliens, forging diplomatic ties, establishing trade … and best of all, kicking intergalactic-terrorist butt!” (See Stargate on SciFi). Sound like the foreign policy of any nation you know? The U.S. deploys its soldier-explorers (read: just soldiers) around the galaxy (read: globe), meeting aliens (read: anyone who is not an “American”), and kicking terrorist butt (read: sanctioning and sometimes bombing those who reject American ideology). By “staging” contemporary foreign policy in a fictional intergalactic setting, Stargate SG-1 allows us to reflect on the ways we name and respond to “cultural difference.” It raises questions about when and if we should become involved in the affairs of other worlds (read: nations). You may not agree with the policies of Stargate Command every week, but you can’t help but reflecting on U.S. policy as you watch.

Battlestar Galactica

Still not compelled to release your inner nerd? Let’s reflect for a moment on the Sci Fi Channel’s latest venture, Battlestar Galactica. This program is not so much a staging of current U.S. foreign policy as it is a staging of current U.S. fears about global politics. On the surface, the series appears simply to be a re-hashing of the short-lived 1978-79 series by the same name. Although both versions story a clash between humans and robotic Cylons, their narratives differ markedly. In the original series, the Cylons were obviously mechanical; they symbolized the fear of losing our humanity to technology (at a time of rapid technological innovation no less). In the new series, by contrast, the Cylons “look” human — a fact that viewers are reminded of at the outset of every episode. Describing the premise of the new series, Ned Martel writes, “The Cylon attack is sudden, in violation of a shaky truce, and perpetuated by sleeper agents. The eerie onset of cataclysm on the various planets … deliberately evoke[s] Sept. 11 horrors” (p. E10). In the new series, the whole of humanity is threatened by a few Cylon sleeper agents (read: terrorists and insurgents) who “look” human (read: but aren’t “really” human). Battlestar Galactica, then, is a symbolic “working out” of social fears, namely the fear that a network of not-really-human agents could suddenly and without warning destroy us and our world. But as Commander Adama (played brilliantly by Edward James Olmos) intones in the premiere episode, “We still visit all of our sins upon our children”–a statement that Martel interprets as a warning to viewers about the dangers of “colonialism or any paternalistic form of arming future enemies” (p. E10). Now that’s a message worth reflecting on–one that resonates, I hope, as something “more than a relic of our own unenlightened time.”

So, yes, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica do rehearse the tired conventions of science fiction. But chief among those generic conventions is the staging of contemporary social and political concerns. Star Trek storied the Cold War, The Matrix storied anxiety over simulation and network culture, and the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup stories contemporary global politics. So, I watch. Not because of some childhood dream of blasting into outerspace, but because I want to better understand how our culture expresses its concerns, fears, and feelings about the world and “our” place in it. And it is why I urge you to watch as well. As Captain Kirk might say, “Set … your cathode rays… to stun(ning).”

Heffernan, V. (2004, July 16). “Atlantis mystery is solved; Now, about the wormhole.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E22.
Martel, N. (2003, December 08). “The Cylons are back and humanity is in deep trouble.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E10.

Image Credits:

1. Stargate Atlantis

2. Battlestar Galactica

Links of Interest:
Alien Nation
Star Trek
Time Tunnel
Guide for Babylon 5
Famous actors in Sci Fi Hall of Fame
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Please feel free to comment.


  • A strange parallel

    I really like what Brian Ott has to say here. I am not a fan (or even a viewer) of any of these particular shows and have never been much of a sci-fi fan, but I notice a strange parallel between Ott’s arguments here and a point I have regularly made about South Park. Many folks want to write South Park off as vulgar trash for teenaged boys, but I have always appreciated the way that South Park’s creators use the show to comment on serious issues. So are Brian and I just trying to rationalize/justify our trashy tastes? Or is there something especially appealing about programs that both have a message and have fun with it?

  • Themes of terrorism

    When I wrote and submitted my FLOW column, I had not yet seen the 02/11/05 episode of “Battlestar Galactica.” That evening’s episode began with a human-“looking” cylon sneaking through security on Galactica and committing a suicide bombing. Again, if you’re interested in at least one attempt to represent/comment upon current global politics, I urge you to watch.

  • TV as social commentary

    While I am clearly biased due to the fact that the study of television is my career of choice, I think that Ott’s article highlights the wonders of the medium of television. Though I had my love affair with Sci-Fi, I am afraid to admit that it died many years ago. However, like Marnie, I can name several of my favorite shows from many different genres that do the same thing: that is to say, any show, if done right, is a great location for the working through of many of our cultural problems and issues. While lots of art forms do this, television can do this in a way no other medium can due to its relative immediacy and the fact that shows (unlike movies) can continue running for years, exploring hundreds of different topics. I hate when people brush off television programs as though they don’t matter, just because they are “factually unsound” or “teen drivel.” These cultural artifacts can show us so much more about ourselves than just about any other medium I can think of, particularly because they are broadcast all over the country and can be accessed by anyone at about anytime. I don’t think, as Marnie suggests that any rationalization/justification needs to be done about “trashy” tastes. We are all accessing the various social and cultural outlets we have to help us make sense of the world around us. That to me, is what television is for.

  • Sci-Fi and Real Life

    I really enjoyed this article, although I do not watch these shows mentioned in the article, I do love sci-fi! Shows like Roswell and the Twilight Zone have caught my attention since the first time I saw them on television. At the time, by combining stories of true events such as alien reports in New Mexico, I watched Roswell in fascination, in hopes to see how they presented real life events while keeping the audience in suspense, and keeping them coming week after week.

  • Gregory Stewart

    Response to Brian Ott Review

    Hello Professor Ott;

    In regards to your review of Battlestar Galactica, I am happy to see that I am not the only “geek”, other than my best friend Brian, and my college mentor, Professor Eller, that are helplessly addicted to the science fiction genre. As I read over your review of Battlestar Galactica (BG)—and was pleasantly surprised that we had come to similar perspectives regarding the show’s “exaggeration” and “extrapolation” (Le Guin) of cultural displacement. With the state of current political affairs, BG has taken the current atmosphere of cultural angst and re/deployed it effectively for the viewer to examine. The timely manner of both original and the latest incarnation of BG mirror the point of your discourse. In my case, I see the science fiction genre as a performance vehicle that allows popular culture, or Western-American culture in general, to “examine” and “extrapolate” the tribulations, taboos, of the present space-time construct—or “real world”. Furthermore, the performance vehicle of science fiction, allows the “extrapolation” to separate from the “mainstream” culture—I refer to this as “displacement”. As in your examples in your review of BG, you illustrated the parallels of BG’s alternative reality and mainstream’s current reality.Pesonal Side note—Reading your assessment from your paper on Counter-Imagination as Interpretive Practice: Futuristc Fantasy and The Fifth Element objectification of women can obviously be seen within BG. In that, although Starbuck has been seen as a cocky, overbearing rogue, who seemingly demonstrated her as masculine, her character has also been sexualized, and put at risk. Needing to be rescued by “Father” Adama, both figuratively and literally, her confession to the Father for forgiveness of his youngest son, then, later to be rescued by eldest son, his first, Apollo to find the lost “daughter”. This sexualizing of her character and others illustrates the need for seeing the “emotionality” of the women on the show. For instance, the character of Boomer and, the Lady in Red, Ceylon-number six (pardon me for overtly sexist remark)—Whoa baby! Have had their sexuality on full display, as an example Number Six represents “temptation,” and “corruption”; both on spiritual and secular level. Number Six’s represents “our own humanity”, in that, our duality (Joseph Campbell) or personal quest seeks “balance”. Boomer, on the other hand, reflects Western-American’s culture self-doubt, lost of self-confidence, and identity. She represents not only feministic vulnerability, but she also reflects the mainstream’s culture as well—end personal side note.At any rate, I find the use of religion within BG refreshing, instead of being secularized; they are illustrating the post-modern perspective, and placed it within a civil context (Robert Bellah). The creation myth of humanity and the Ceylon’s is “fascinating”. The differences of their “ideologies” similar yet different (as in Christianity and Islam) and has the “feel” (in the sense of knowing) of being familiar to the viewer. As Professor Eller and I have discussed, that “familiarity” is a necessary component of the science fiction genre. It, science fiction, cannot go too far into the extreme in order for it not be rejected. In order for displacement, validation, narration, and re/deployment (DVND) to be accepted, or “coded” (Levi-Strauss), the science fiction genre needs a component of familiarity and “normalcy”. Additionally, the science fiction genre aids our compulsion, or mania, if you will, to construct, to DVND a future construct—the need to set a path before us. Let me stop here, I could “speak” on this particular perspective for hours, considering this concerns my thesis that I am currently working on. One final point, I have noticed as I have done my research that, experiencing science fiction via television versus DVD is a completely different, to borrow your words, “texture”. This is what I mean, as a viewer, when we watch an episode, we are immersed within the reality of the narration, but it is then interrupted with commercials, shifting our reality to the mundane-ness of the “real world”. In one sense, this binds us to the “co-option” and “inversion” (Stallybrass and White) to the “hegemonic culture” as you have defined it. In another sense, it also distracts us from the message of the narration. Only through repeated viewing does the message seep into our consciousness. (Of course, commercials are geared toward a particular demographic, which aids the re/transmission of sexism and youth—a discussion for later). However, DVD’s on the other hand, allow the viewer, who I will now call the participant, to actively isolate themselves from “hemogenic homogeneity commercialization”. In essences, the participant can now feel the “texture” of the narration more succinctly. I cannot wait for BG to arrive on DVD—my appreciation of Babylon 5 (on DVD) and Star Trek (on tapes) grew immensely.

    FilmThe Fifth Element. Dir. Luc Beeson. Perf. Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman. Columbia/Tristar. 1997. TelevisionBabylon 5. Executive Producer J. Micheal Straczynski, Writer J. Michael Straczynski. Dir. various. Perf. Bruce Boxlietner. Warner Bros.—1994-1998.Battlestar Galactica. Executive Producers Ronald D. Moore, David Eick. Dir. Stephen McNutt. Writer Carla Robinson.—Mar. 2005 BibliographyLe Guin, Ursula, Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Book-1976Stallybrass, Peter and White, Allon, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, ed. Michael Lambek. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing-2002 NotesOtt, Brian and Aoki, Eric, Counter-Imagination as Interpretive Practice: Futuristic Fantasy and the Fifth Element. Originally presented at 2000 Film and Video conference at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Co March 17, 2000 emailed his draft copy from dated June 7, 2004. I found it very compelling, and I wish to thank him for letting me review it.

    Brian Penn and Professor David Eller, I wish to thank them for their contributions to not only my thesis work, but for tolerating me, while I hammered out the details of my work and being my guinea pigs.

  • Erica Wittliff

    Sci-fi from a Girl’s Perspective

    I have not always liked sci-fi. In fact, when I was younger, I absolutely hated it. I could not understand why my mom insisted on watching such a weird channel. Where were the cartoons and teen melodrama? But, as I grew older the Sci-fi channel slowly grew on me. About the same time that I discovered, I noticed Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver. Then, when I was in high school and started watching him on Stargate, I became a huge fan of Doctor Daniel Jackson played by Michael Shanks. Can you say hotties? Well, it was these two men that pulled me into my sad addiction to the Sci-fi Channel. Women’s Entertainment and the Oxygen Channel are not on my must-see-TV list like all the other girls that I know. If Stargate is on, then you can guarantee that I will be there with my eyes glued to the television set as if I was entranced. Don’t get me wrong. I really do not watch just for the beautiful men on Stargate. But, they are an added benefit. I think my real reason for watching more is the underlying social commentary. It makes sense that as I grew older, I began to like the Sci-fi channel more because I was able to see past the alien blasting and relate it to what is going on in the world around me. So, I guess in some respects the followers of the Sci-fi series like Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica really are not that “nerdy.” We are simply researching the “social and political concerns” of our present day. And, that would qualify the so-called “Sci-fi nerds” as simply intelligent and educated “geeks” placing us much higher on the geek hierarchy than those crazy Trekkies. :-)

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