Worlds turned back to front: the politics of the mirror universe in Doctor Who and Star Trek
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AbstractIt is a curious parallel that unquestionably the most successful science fiction television series to emerge from the UK and the US both began in the 1960s, endured lengthy hiatuses, oscillated between mainstream and cult appreciation, and both currently revel in their cross-media commercial appeal. Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-present) and Star Trek (1966-9), through their lengthy broadcast histories, might be used to chart any number of cultural shifts in their host communities. Far from being abstruse and introspective creations of geeky fandoms, both have been central to the popular culture of their respective societies – Matt Hills noted that ‘for much of its cultural life Doctor Who has actually occupied the mainstream of British television programming’ (Hills 2010: 98); John Tulloch’s and Henry Jenkins’ examination of science fiction audiences make it clear that in creating Star Trek Gene Roddenberry evinced a ‘desire to reach a mass viewership and a desire to address the burning social issues of the day’ (Jenkins and Tulloch 1995: 7). Popular television in general has always been a prime site for the exploration of pressing social concerns (Williams 1974: 58), and science fiction is also often politically engaged: Hassler and Wilcox point out that ‘[p]olitical science often addresses many of the same questions as those raised in science fiction…the role of the state…the nature of the just society’ (Hassler and Wilcox 1997: 1). Doctor Who and Star Trek are both notable for openly or covertly addressing the distinctive social and political problems faced by their respective societies. Star Trek returned to the question of the Vietnam War’s legitimacy multiple times (Franklin 2000: 131-50), ‘and other episodes were commentaries on race relations, feminism, and the hippies of the 1960s’ (Reagin 2013: 2). Under Russell T. Davies’ revival Doctor Who continually referenced the ‘war on terror’ (Charles 2008), but the ‘classic’ serial also engaged with contemporary British politics: the Sylvester McCoy series were openly anti-Thatcherite (O’Day 2010: 271-8), while in the 1970s under producer Barry Letts many Doctor Who serials dealt with environmental issues and their politics (Orthia 2011: 26-30). The disparate political engagements present in Doctor Who are generally anti-authoritarian, and the Doctor ‘has consistently … [the] liberal-populist role in criticising “sectionalist” forces of “Left” and “Right”, and in rebuking the “official” and the powerful’ (Tulloch and Alvarado 1983: 52). This pragmatic politics, however, was not available to Star Trek, which ‘was created as a style of social commentary, intent on criticising America in the late 1960s during a period of extreme social and political turmoil’, and therefore wrestling with the contradictions between the philosophical absolutes of American exceptionalism and ‘manifest destiny’ (Geraghty 2007: 72).
JournalJournal of Popular Television
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