Radical futures re-emerging in mainstream science fiction

Scene from the final episode of <cite>Andor</cite> season 1. Source: Disney+

Scene from the final episode of Andor season 1. Source: Disney+

I’ve mentioned here before that back in the 1970s and 1980s there seemed to be a myriad of ideas about potential future societies in popular (mainstream/children’s television) science fiction:

hallucinatory hippy ideas mixed freely with social commentary and radical politics … packaged up by idealistic tripped-out writers and artists, and somehow … merrily handed over to the nation’s children to enjoy on our big, boxy, rented TV sets before teatime

And I have lamented before that contemporary popular science fiction (I’m thinking about television and films here, not literary science fiction) seems to be able to imagine nothing radical, just space capitalism. As recently as a couple of weeks ago I repeated this in response to a Twitter thread by Matt Colquhoun.

But strangely things do seem to be changing a little.

Much has been said about the Disney television series Andor, and I certainly rated it highly. It has very strong anti-capitalist and anti-colonial themes running through it, and it portrays a sometimes uneasy alliance between anarchist/revolutionary elements and more centrist elements from the middle/political classes.

I was reminded about my thoughts on Andor after watching the latest episode — Chapter 22: Guns for Hire — of season 3 of another Disney/Star Wars spin-off series, The Mandalorian. While definitely not the best-written or acted episode of this series, it seemed to depict a society reflecting a far-future version of Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, even adding that all political decision-making is done by direct democracy.

The Mandalorian has previously hinted that the New Republic (the galactic government set up by the Rebel Alliance following the fall of the Empire) seems to kill as many people through centrist bureaucracy and indecisiveness as the Empire did with Stormtroopers and force chokes.

Star Wars has always tended to push a vague anti-authoritarian agenda from the first film onwards, with the Empire very obviously being a cipher for the German NAZI regime — being anti-fascist was, of course, a safe mainstream consensual political position in the West when the first film came out in 1977, before the more recent re-emergence of extremist right-wing thought into mainstream politics — but Andor and the recent episode of The Mandalorian go much further.

Understandably some people have maintained that it is impossible that one of the most well-known capitalist corporations in the world could or would depict anarchism, or at least anti-capitalism, in a favourable light.

Here I think the words apocryphally attributed to Lenin — the capitalist will sell you the rope you’ll use to hang him — ring true. Corporations will happily sell us depictions of anarchism or socialism or any other anti-capitalist stance so long as they continue to sell, because they just see them as a product that gives a profitable return on the investment of creating it, rather than creative inspiration for real socio-political change.

I certainly don’t think Disney has deliberately planned a strategy of anarchist/anti-capitalist Star Wars spin-offs - I suspect it’s far more likely to be a free hand given to writers Tony Gilroy (Andor) and Jon Favreau (The Mandalorian) that will continue to be free so long as — ironically — it keeps bringing in profits for Disney.

Curiously Doctor Who, which throughout the 1980s ran with some fairly left-wing themes, seems to have moved itself in the opposite direction to a far more pro-capitalist and anti-revolutionary position.

In the 2018 episode Kerblam! which ends with episode writer Pete McTighe making Jodi Whittaker’s Doctor deliver a very un-Doctor-like speech where she says that the political/corporate systems aren’t the problem and it’s apparently just the fault of a few nasty people exploiting the systems (the “few bad apples” excuse that is always used to defend institutions and systems that enforce inequality by design).

I tend to think that the Sylvester McCoy era Doctor Who writers would have had the Doctor implement anarcho-syndicalism - or maybe just blow the place up in a manner far more reminiscent of Cassian Andor … or indeed Roj Blake.

Doctor Who aside, I’m obviously hoping that this increasing return to more radical ideas about possible future societies becomes a trend. Certainly I see pitches for such stories becoming much easier to get approved by corporate executives, simply by highlighting similarities with successful money-spinners like Andor or The Mandalorian.