Sci-fi courses boldly go to universes far, far away

Social Sciences, Fine Arts

- John Threlfall

(L-R) David Christopher is teaching “Star Wars: A Cultural History” (AHVS 392 A02) and Edwin Hodge is teaching “The Sociology of Star Trek” (SOCI 390). Photo: UVic Photo Services.

Looking to start an argument? Ask any group of science-fiction fans to name the best expanded universe: be it literary or cinematic, revolving around dunes or ’droids, there’s never any shortage of planetary expansion to debate. But when it comes to overall cultural impact, the two most influential remain Star Trek and Star Wars.

This fall, students can beam into both via Edwin Hodge’s returning “The Sociology of Star Trek” (SOCI 390) and David Christopher’s new “Star Wars: A Cultural History” (AHVS 392 A02). Yet before there’s any pop-culture elective eye-rolling, pause and consider that Star Trek debuted three years prior to the moon landing and inspired a generation of astronauts, scientists and educators—to say nothing of technological developments ranging from flip phones and iPads to 3D printers and virtual reality technology—while Star Wars transformed the way movies are made, viewed, distributed and marketed. But what specifically makes these sci-fi mainstays worthy of study?

From its inception, Star Trek was more than just another television show: its creator, Gene Roddenberry, used it to explore contemporary social issues as well as to advance a utopian vision of the future that was rooted in his own secular humanist beliefs.
Edwin Hodge, sociology PhD candidate

More than just the on-screen spectacle, Christopher—a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Visual Studies—also points to the off-screen impact of Star Wars. “Several critics have observed the way the 1977 release came as a welcome feel-good panacea to the disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate. And Lucas’s marriage of the ancillary toy market to his compelling mythical narrative was revolutionary.”

Christopher freely admits Star Wars profoundly changed his life when he first saw it at the “highly impressionable” age of seven. “The narrative simplicity, melodramatic structure, heroic characters, clear villains and sheer spectacle of the original film had an immeasurable impact on me, just as so many others in my age demographic.” (Perhaps more so, considering he was actually married in a Star Wars-themed wedding.)

Hodge is more attracted by the ideals presented. “Star Trek helps me believe that humanity can be better than we are . . . it presents a future where kindness, empathy, compassion, and respect for the Other are virtues worth embracing. I think we could all use a bit more of that.”

Not that both series are free of problems. “Star Trek’s treatment of race and gender is complicated,” he continues. “The franchise’s many series have been explicit that women and men are equally capable of serving in any role they wish . . . . on the other hand, [it] has a long history of sexualizing feminine characters and stereotyping non-white characters and cultures.”

Things aren’t much better in that galaxy far, far away. “The almost always white female characters are systemically reduced to damsels in distress . . . Jyn and Rey emerge as the primary narrative protagonists only when it had become conventionally safe to do so,” notes Christopher. “And the positioning of aliens . . . as either irrationally malevolent or painfully stupid reveals an identity politics that largely validates a white masculinist normativity.”

Yet Hodge points to Star Trek’s “prescriptive dimension” as an example of why it became a cultural phenomenon. “In most respects, I’d argue that popular culture is a mirror that reflects where society is, rather than where people think it ought to be . . . . but in the case of Star Trek, many of its ideals were not merely descriptive but prescriptive: Roddenberry—and later generations of show-runners, writers, actors, and directors—wanted to show a future where humanity had become more inclusive, more diverse, and more cosmopolitan.”

Christopher also feels the Star Wars franchise “represents only one example of widely distributed popular culture that offers much in the way of entertainment, spectacle, cultural analysis and social revelation, when taken as the culturally significant and historically specific artifact that it is.”

Given their fervent fan bases and indisputable longevities, both instructors believe there’s much to explore in both series. “The Vulcans have a saying: ‘Infinite diversity in infinite combinations,’” notes Hodge. “Understanding that in our own world is one of the most important elements of the sociological imagination, and a central component of this course.”

“I have always seen Star Wars as somewhat backward-looking, in a nostalgic sense, and Star Trek as forward-looking, in the sense of hope for human progress,” concludes Christopher. “On an emotional level, both are universes filled with hope and spectacle . . . on an intellectual level, they are both artifacts so compelling as to have generated significant discourses which interrogate their canons.”


In this story

Keywords: media, film, pop culture, teaching, art history and visual studies, sociology

People: Edwin Hodge, David Christopher

Publication: The Ring

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