American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate, and Beyond

By Blank, Trevor J. | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate, and Beyond


Blank, Trevor J., Cultural Analysis


American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate, and Beyond. By Jan Johnson-Smith. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. Pp. 308, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations.

Jan Johnson-Smith, a senior lecturer in film and television theory at Bournemouth University's media school in the United Kingdom, has provided a much-needed analysis of science fiction television through an examination of the narrative and visual patterns that the genre has produced. Science fiction television has spawned legions of fans and clearly occupies an important niche in American culture, and Johnson-Smith takes on the ambitious task of sorting through the multitudes of applicable media content in American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate, and Beyond.

Johnson-Smith opens the book by introducing the science fiction genre to the reader and simultaneously acknowledging that defining the genre has been a contentious matter amongst "sf" fans. In fact, this very debate will likely determine many readers' sentiments about the book. Johnson-Smith is cautious to group shows such as The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits with mainstream science fiction television. Instead, she places much greater focus on shows like Star Trek, Stargate SG-1, Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond, and Farscape, a choice which may alienate fans (no pun intended) and scholars looking for a broad overview of the genre.

The opening chapter does a fine job of exploring the historical context of science fiction, paying homage to speculative literature and science fiction's role in the history of developing ideas about the future. In her discussion of metalinguistics and neologisms, Johnson-Smith notes that different approaches to science fiction such as satire and parody, as evidenced in films like Brazil (1985) and Galaxy Quest (1999), respectively, "offer comment upon our own world through metaphor and extrapolation, with utopian or dystopian visions of alternative realities" (30).

The book caters to the interests of both fans and scholars alike, which is problematic at times. In Chapter Two, "Histories: The American West, Television, and Televisuality," Johnson-Smith provides a lengthy discussion of how science fiction television redeveloped themes from Westerns to create "a new frontier." This is not a new development for scholars, but Johnson-Smith's cumulative approach will appeal to lay readers. Indeed, Johnson-Smith continually revisits this theme throughout the book, arguing that the Western mythos stems from an innate desire for exploration, thereby contributing to the allure of science fiction television. The book often reads like a dissertation, which it was in a previous incarnation, and those familiar with the correlations between the Western and other genres may feel quite distracted by Johnson-Smith's overzealous "name-dropping" of films and television shows to contextualize her arguments.

Clearly, the highlight of American Science Fiction TV is Johnson-Smith's coverage of Star Trek, perhaps the most important and influential American science fiction program of all time. Johnson-Smith discusses the representations of gender and race in the series, which again is not exactly groundbreaking, but is nevertheless enjoyable to read and yields some interesting observations. For example, Johnson-Smith points out that Star Trek has been considered by some critics to be "naive" and even racist for envisioning a white, American-led future. Intriguingly, she also notes that the infamous interracial kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols on the original Star Trek series, while brave, occurred while both characters were forcibly under the control of an alien power, "so it can be viewed alternatively as a clever plot device with positive intentions, or as a less constructive expression of inter-racial [sic] relations, and a myriad of positions in between" (82).

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