Friday, 28 December 2012

Space Station Politics

Posted by Iona (Guest Blogger)

One of my favourite Lashings sketches is their Science Fiction and Fantasy Theatre. What
I love about it is that it's a barbed critique that nevertheless comes from a place of love,
of wanting these stories to be better. I don't believe that the intersection between social
justice activists and science fiction fans is at all coincidental: I think science fiction gives us
the promise of just that, of doing and being and becoming better – the future worlds and
other worlds where things will be different.

And in that spirit, science fiction on television has given us women and non-white people
who are pioneers. I love the old, true story of Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played
Uhura on the original series of Star Trek, being persuaded not to leave the show by
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jnr, because of the role model she offered to young black girls and
women. (Wonderfully, astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-African woman in space,
reported decades later that she had been inspired to follow Lieutenant Uhura to the stars.)

Alongside Uhura, there was Leia Organa, who was a princess and a rebel; then came Kathryn
Janeway, who brought a crew home safely from the edge of known space; there was
Dana Scully, who didn't want to believe because she knew. And then, Kara Thrace,
Sam Carter, Zoe Washburne and Martha Jones, who were not just heroes but also pilots,
astrophysicists, soldiers and doctors – women who excelled in whatever they chose. (For
a not-exhaustive, but fabulous, depiction of women in sci-fi on screen through history, I
recommend "Space Girl" by Charmax. And Zoe and Martha, who aren't white, strike that further blow. The promise of what's to come is neatly encapsulated in this line from an otherwise rather dispiriting
episode of Doctor Who:

"Imagine it, Adelaide, if you began a journey that takes the human race all the way out to
the stars. It begins with you." 

And Adelaide Brooke, who is the leader of the first human mission to Mars, merely nods: she
knows what she needs to do without the Doctor's help, or anyone else's.

These women play the role that they have always played: they inspire us to greater things.
There are several different versions circulating of King and Nichols' conversation, which in
itself is encouraging to me – the value of the story is such that it has become a fable, told
and retold accordingly – and many report Dr. King as saying, "Once that door is opened by
someone, no one else can close it again."

Is it only white men who can take us into the future? No, and that door cannot be closed

But this post is not about that, exactly. This is a piece in praise of those who build that
future, once we have reached it. Because it isn't just the first steps into a new frontier that
are a feminist act, although of course they are: it is also the building of communities that
dismantles kyriarchies, the structures of oppressors and oppressed. And when we speak of
wonderful things to one another, when we tell these stories, we take another step towards
this total dismantling.

There hasn't ever been a Star Trek captain who is neither male nor white, alas. But let's
take a moment to consider Benjamin Sisko, captain of the space station Deep Space Nine.
In the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who is a
cultured, deeply cerebral archaeologist-turned-starship captain, the star of Star Trek: The
Next Generation
and all-around good guy, meets Sisko, the new commander, to hand
over his new orders. We know Picard very well, by this point; and in his familiar intensity, he
comes off much the better next to the gloomy, uncooperative, positively un-Starfleet Sisko.
Sisko is recently widowed, not concerned with Starfleet's orders or its ideals, nor its lauded
hero standing next to him giving him those orders; he's more concerned with his son, Jake,
and how what remains of their family will survive this grim space station posting. Picard
leaves Sisko unimpressed, and vice versa.

Sisko's second-in-command is Kira Nerys, a self-confessed terrorist and freedom fighter. Kira
(her family name comes first), is a militia officer emerging from spending her life fighting
in the resistance against an enemy occupation. She was fighting battles, killing the enemy,
living as a fugitive, from earliest childhood – and now the resistance battles are over but Kira
is still fighting a war: against the Federation, against the Cardassians, against everyone and
everything standing in the way of her people's self-determination.

Neither Sisko nor Kira is a hero, nor a pioneer: they have not struck out, like so many Star
Trek and general science fiction protagonists do, into the great unknown. Neither has Susan
Ivanova, the woman who is second-in-command of another space station, Babylon 5 –
among the greater wars, Ivanova fights her own battles, born of her history, her family, her
identity as a Russian Jew – and neither is Elizabeth Weir, the put-upon commander of the
Pegasus base Atlantis.

What do they do, then, these people standing outside the dominance of white, male
television sci-fi? They build: they create and build communities, they step forth towards
a better world in the small things of daily life. In part I think this is a happy intersection
of two things: the television series format, the slow progression of a story week by week,
year by year, slowing their character development into almost real time, layer by layer to
a three-dimensional whole; and the space station setting, that by necessity must contain
and continue all its narratives and conflicts, rather than leaving them behind every week in
pursuit of new worlds to conquer.

Michael Piller, one of the writers for Deep Space Nine, commented: "Sisko was a
builder, a man who built things, stayed with projects, as opposed to the driver, the captain
of a starship who went off and moved from place to place." In "Explorers", the main plot
is about Sisko persuading Jake to help him build a replica of an ancient spaceship and fly it
together, but it's not just the building of the ship. The conversations that they have inside
the ship they built – about how Jake has resolved to be a writer when he grows up, how he
thinks his father ought to start dating again – are characteristic of their relationship and of
the show. Deep Space Nine is their home and it's where their families and futures are built.
In "Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang", Sisko's girlfriend, Kasidy, attempts to persuade him to take
part in a holodeck heist caper set in 1960s Las Vegas; Sisko is dead against romanticising the
past, noting that in the real time and place, "our people" would not have been allowed – in
other words, two non-white characters are talking about race, and disagreeing. That internal
discord, that plurality of opinion, is the key feature of a real community. The converse
situation where one character speaks for their entire group is tokenism rather than real

And it isn't just Sisko. Kira in her early twenties is learning for the first time how to live
as a civilian, how to live in peace. She's building her own life, day by day through work,
friendships, romance, the things that real people do. In "The Circle", following Kira's
unexpected loss of her job on the space station, she attempts to pack. Dax arrives to return

some hand cream that she borrowed; O'Brien comes to say he'll miss her; Quark comes to
try and throw her a leaving party; Odo wants to yell at her for leaving; Bashir comes along
because everyone else has; they argue, raise a ruckus, drive Kira visibly up the wall, and
when the religious leader Vedek Bareil comes to see her, she says, hugely irritated, for the
first time: "These are my… friends." It's a short scene that does a beautiful job of depicting
a woman who has built a life for herself without consciously knowing it: a life, a circle of
friends, a community. Kira will end up running Deep Space Nine and knowing its people
inside out, but the route she takes to get there, through romances and friendships (notably
with Dax; there is a running joke throughout the show about Dax's various attempts to get
Kira to have fun) is what is fascinating about her, that path from being part of a resistance
cell to running a community of free people, with no regrets on the way for anything she's

In a season 2 episode of Babylon 5, "There All The Honour Lies", various notable things
happen, but central to our purposes is that Ivanova is put in charge of the Babylon 5 gift
shop. This sounds like it will be hilarious and is, in fact, hilarious. There are teddy bears
with "Ba-bear-lon 5" embroidered on them. There are masks of various alien life-forms you
can try on. A number of aliens come and try on "human" masks, whipping them off in front
of a mirror with a flourish. And of course it's delightful, and a sharp piece of satire -
as anyone who has cringed at someone wearing a feather headdress or a sari as a
Hallowe'en costume may have noticed – but it ties into that broader theme. Babylon 5,
that "last great hope for peace", a space station on which aliens and humans live, work,
do business and learn together, is a fictional community that has a lot to say about real
communities: it has its gift shop, it has its leaders, its religions, its trades, its clashes,
its love affairs, its unions, politics and riots. From the starting-point of this community,
Ivanova is working to become a better officer, a better human being. Its doctor, Stephen
Franklin, another man of colour, fights his daily battles with those that stand in the way of
his Hippocratic Oath and, later, with his own addictions. And these are not the first steps
towards an unknown frontier, but they nevertheless are feminist, anti-racist story arcs.
They are about moving towards a science-fictional world where these battles are taken
as seriously and thoughtfully as the battle of the chisel-jawed white man against the alien

We don't yet live in a world of space station politics. Except, of course, that we do: most
of us live in small spaces, with other humans who are different from us, and some of those
spaces are inside our own heads. We cannot be women, or queer, or people of colour,
without knowing that we can be all those things at once, layer upon layer; we cannot live
in discrete blocks apart from one another, and we cannot live as communities of one. Me,
I love science fiction because of the worlds it opens up – and here's to Kira and Sisko and
Ivanova and Weir and all the quotidian heroes, the people like us in the places we hope to


  1. I think I'm in love with this blog post. (And I love that you mentioned Elizabeth Weir in here, as far as I'm concerned she doesn't get the credit she deserves.)

    1. Thank you very much! And she doesn't, does she - part of the reason I didn't stick a long time with the show was the constant perception they were wasting her potential.

  2. What I really like is the way that you have captured how these characters can be on the frontier of interaction and representation even in the more mundane of things. Ivanova in the shop, Kira adapting to life in a space station, or even Sisko's reluctant agreement to socialise with his crew in the 1960s simulation are those small things in a larger backdrop :)

    I've found a real reward in my personal experience of engaging with a local community group over the past couple of years, but I never thought that my intersectional background would ever be relevant to that, instead I just thought of it as compartmentalising: this is my community outreach, and this is my secularist outreach, and this is my mental health outreach...reading this post I'm rethinking that and I should see it all inter-related towards making a better world in all kinds of respects.

    Thanks for sharing this post.