Michael Burnham, Poe Dameron and the Decline of the Maverick Hero

Science fiction has always been the genre of the maverick hero and occasionally, the maverick heroine. Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, Kirk and Spock, Riker, Worf, Kathryn Janeway, the Doctor (“Fine chaps, all of them” – and now a fine lady, too), Apollo and Starbuck, Commander Cliff Allister MacLane, Perry Rhodan, Miles Vorkosigan, Devi Morris, Sirantha Jax, Jim Holden, Breq – for all of those characters, orders were merely suggestions, to be ignored or creatively interpreted, if necessary. They went their own way, did what needed to be done and most of the time, they pulled it off, too. Occasionally, they got slapped down by their superiors, but mostly they got a pat on the shoulder from Admiral Ackbar, Commander Adama, Aral Vorkosigan, Colonel Wamsler and General Villa, Brian Caldswell or a random Starfleet admiral and were gruffly told, “Well, you did ignore orders, but you saved lives and the Rebellion/the Federation/the Fleet, so well done.”

Hell, Commander Cliff Allister MacLane of the patrol cruiser Orion himself put what seemed to be science fiction’s guiding principle into words, when he told off his navigator (“astrogator” in Orion lingo) Atan Shubushi, who had been out in a shuttle broadcasting an energy ring to mimic the Orion‘s signature, while the Orion crew was off investigating a cosmic oddity and ignoring orders as usual, and in the process managed to drain the shuttle energy so much that he nearly got himself and communications officer Helga Legrelle killed. When MacLane and the Orion crew rescues them just in the nick of time, MacLane tells Shubashi: “Why didn’t you just switch that shit* ring off? Don’t just blindly follow orders, but think for yourself!”

As I’ve mentioned before, I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that Raumpatrouille Orion is my science fiction lodestar in many ways and that “What would Commander MacLane do?” is the question by which I judge other science fiction characters. And MacLane very clearly tells Atan Shubashi and the audience not to blindly follow anybody’s orders, including his own, but think for themselves. I think that’s a good principle to live by.

And I have to admit that science fiction’s celebration of people (and the occasional alien or robot) who go their own way is a part of what drew me to the genre in the first place. I never particularly cared for following rules and doing what everybody else did myself, so the maverick heroes and heroines of science fiction appealed.

What is more, due to our sorry history, not blindly following orders, but questioning what you’re told is considered a good thing in Germany. At least those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s were actively encouraged towards independent and critical thinking (honestly, this was a top-level educational objective at the time) and also told to question everything, though teachers usually weren’t happy, if you started questioning them. We also learned – from history lessons as well as movies and documentaries – that “I was just following” orders was not an excuse, when the orders were blatantly illegal, and were also presented those who did not follow orders, but quietly or openly defied or reinterpreted them as heroes to admire and emulate. What is more, TV was full of postwar movies about WWII and – less commonly – WWI, which sharply contrasted ordinary soldiers with heartless officers and officials. Two of the best of those movies – Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (1959) and Wir, Wunderkinder (1958) – also show how those ordinary grunts never catch a break and are still struggling in postwar Germany, while the nasty Nazis often just continued as before. In both movies BTW, the nasty Nazi gets his comeuppance at the end.

I should probably talk about Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor) a bit. It’s not even remotely science fiction, but trust me, it will be relevant later on. Rosen für den Staatsanwalt begins in the last days of WWII, where a young soldier, Private Rudi Kleinschmidt (Walter Giller), is sentenced to death for the terrible crime of stealing two tins of chocolate (it’s this brand of chocolate BTW, which is still available) by the cruel military judge Wilhelm Schramm (Martin Held). Luckily for Private Kleinschmidt, an air raid interrupts his execution by firing squad and Kleinschmidt manages to escape, while pocketing his signed and stamped death warrant. Fast forward to the late 1950s: Kleinschmidt is still struggling, while working as an itinerant salesmen of novelty articles. Meanwhile, Wilhelm Schramm, the military judge who sentenced Kleinschmidt to death has risen to the post of head prosecutor in postwar West Germany. He also insists that he was totally never a Nazi, not at all. When Kleinschmidt and Schramm meet again, Schramm immediately feels threatened by this man who should be dead and who could expose his totally not a Nazi facade. Kleinschmidt has no intention of exposing Schramm, but Schramm uses his position to harrass him mercilessly anyway. Eventually, things come to a head, both men face off again in court and Kleinschmidt produces the death warrant signed by Schramm. Schramm’s career is destroyed, while Kleinschmidt gets together with the woman of his dreams (not a housewife type, but a selfmade businesswoman).

Rosen für den Staatsanwalt is a great film and you should absolutely watch it. Luckily, it’s available on YouTube. It still resonated when I first watched it sometime in the 1980s and it must have resonated even more with audiences in 1959, because there were a lot of Wilhelm Schramms in positions of power in postwar West Germany. And unlike in the movie, even exposure did not stop them, as this real life Wilhelm Schramm proves.

So in short, I’ve been very much primed to love the maverick heroes and heroines of science fiction who defy orders, if necessary, and do their own thing, though I don’t love them for the same reasons American readers/viewers do. And this is also why I am troubled by the fact that the maverick hero/heroine seems to be under threat in recent science fiction.

The three biggest science fiction franchises of our time, Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who, all featured maverick heroes in their original incarnations. Star Wars, at least the original trilogy, is the story of a rebellion against an all powerful, oppressive regime. Its heroes are people (as well as Wookies and droids) who defy that regime, who choose to join the rebellion, even though it would be safer to just go along with the system and trust in her privileged position (Leia), to stay at home and become a moisture farmer (Luke), to continue smuggling, while staying under the Empire’s radar (Han). Star Trek is the story of a spaceship and its crew exploring the unknown and grappling with ethical dilemmas for which the laws and regulations of the Federation don’t always have a clear answer and even if they have one, it’s not necessarily right. Doctor Who, finally, is the story of a man who runs away from the all-powerful Time Lords, because he can no longer tolerate their passivity and their refusal to intervene when there are lives, planets and whole civilisations to save. All three franchises firmly come down on the side of the maverick hero/heroine who is willing to ignore orders and convention in order to do what needs to be done.

All three franchises are also currently having new installments out at the same time, which hasn’t happened in more than thirty years now. So far, the Doctor is still doing his own thing, though it remains to be seen how things will develop, considering he only just regenerated into the first female Doctor. However, both Star Trek and Star Wars have taken to condemning the order-defying, rule-breaking hero/heroine, which is a complete reversel from what these franchises usually offered us.

Spoilers for Star Trek Discovery and The Last Jedi under the cut:

Let’s start with Star Trek first. I have written at length about Star Trek Discovery and Michael Burnham, so here’s just a short summary: Michael Burnham, human orphan raised by Vulcans, joins Starfleet, rises to first officer aboard the USS Shenzhou and seems to have a stellar career ahead of her. All this changes, when the Shenzhou runs into Klingons for the first time in ages. Michael, who is not entirely objective, since Klingons killed her family, insists firing on them at once, because that is what Vulcans supposedly do. Captain Georgiou, however, wants to talk to the Klingons, which causes Michael to turn against her mentor and surrogate mother and mutiny against her. The mutiny goes nowhere except that Michael knocks out Captain Georgiou with a Vulcan nerve pinch for about sixty seconds. The Shenzhou never fires on the Klingons, Captain Georgiou recover and Michael lands in the brig. The Klingons, who are evil xenophobic isolationists in this version of Star Trek, attack anyway, Captain Georgiou dies, the Shenzhou is destroyed and the Federation finds itself at war with the Klingon Empire and loses eight thousand Starfleet personnel in the first few days, because Starfleet is fucking incompetent. And because Starfleet can’t just admit that they’re fucking incompetent, they find a convenient scapegoat to blame for everything, namely Michael. She sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal that is only slightly less farcical than the one at the beginning of Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (though Michael no more started the war with the Klingons than Rudi Kleinschmidt stealing two tins of chocolate lost the war for the Nazis) and sent to a labour camp (because the supposedly post-scarcity society of the Federation is apparently based on slave labour). Later, she is forcibly conscripted by Captain Gabriel Lorca of the super-secret research vessel Discovery. Initially, everybody treats her horribly, because they all believe the Federation’s propaganda that Michael is responsible for starting the war (Michael even believes this herself), but later on several of the characters come around, in one case literally via a personality transplant. However, Michael still isn’t pardoned, while several white male characters in Star Trek Discovery (and one rubberhead) ignore orders with impunity and do things such as blowing up their own ship and killing off the entire crew that are much worse than anything Michael ever did. In short, Star Trek Discovery is set in a nightmarish dystopian version of the Federation as imagined by Wilhelm Schramm, if he’d ever watched Star Trek (though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have. Too American for his refined Germanic tastes).

Some people are bothered by the way the Federation is portrayed in Star Trek Discovery and by the many disparities with established Trek continuity, but remarkably few are even remotely bothered by what happened to Michael and the excessiveness of her sentence which comes close to the military tribunal at the beginning of Rosen für den Staatsanwalt. Indeed, lots of people, including those otherwise critical of Discovery, dislike Michael and are completely okay with sentencing someone to do slave labour for the rest of their lives for the crime of a single nerve pinch that caused no permanent harm. Apparently, everybody has also forgotten that Michael’s foster brother Spock nerve-pinched plenty of people during the original series and the movies, including Starfleet personnel and superior officers. He nerve-pinched Kirk himself at least twice. In fact, I’ve also seen people claim that Michael got off lightly and that she should have been executed. I suspect these people would also watch Rosen für den Staatsanwalt and believe that the prosecutor was the hero.

Star Trek Discovery seemed to improve in the past few episodes before the winter break and I will hold off my final judgement until season 1 is complete. What is more, Star Trek was always a franchise focussed on members of the establishment, even if the establishment was a supposedly egalitarian utopia. And Starfleet, for all their talk about exploring and going boldly where no one had gone before, were always an official, state-sanctioned military organisation. Not to mention that we got hints before that the Federation is not really the utopia it likes to pretend it is.

But surely the other big science fiction franchise, the one focussed on a group of plucky rebels fighting an oppressive regime, still has room for mavericks who ignore orders and break rules and still somehow manage to save everybody and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This is Star Wars, after all, the franchise of science fiction mavericks, created by the man because of whom I came across the word “maverick” for the very first time**.

So I watched The Last Jedi. And I enjoyed the film – with the same reservations I have about all of the Disney produced Star Wars films. I love the new diverse cast of Rey, Finn, Poe and now Rose as well as Jyn Erso and her multicultural crew from Rogue One and I love the fact that Force powers are not just for people from noted bloodlines anymore, but also for nobodies (and remember that Anakin was as much of a nobody as Rey and that kid from Canto Bight, when Qui Gon and Obi Wan found him), but I’m not all that happy how the new movies have basically turned the heroes of the original trilogy as well as the rebellion itself into complete and utter failures. I understand why they made the choices they did. After all, they were lucky enough that the entire cast of the original trilogy (with obvious exceptions such as Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing) were still alive when The Force Awakens started shooting, so I understand why they wanted to bring them back. But personally, I would have been happier, if The Force Awakes and The Last Jedi had been set 100 rather than 35 years after Return of the Jedi (similar to what Simon R. Green did with his Deathstalker Legacy series) and Kylo Ren was a more distant Skywalker/Solo descendant.

Still, the movies are what they are and so we once again (since the New Republic was not just a failure that failed to adequately address the First Order, but also managed to get itself completely wiped out by them) follow a small and plucky group of rebels fighting against a seemingly all-powerful oppressive regime. At the start of the movie, the Resistance is on the run, mercilessly pursued by the First Order which can conveniently track them through hyperspace and picks off rebel ships one by one. Coincidentally, for those who complain about the new magical hyperspace tracking device, remember how the first Death Star was able to track the Millennium Falcon to Yavin in A New Hope via a tracker hidden onboard of the Millennium Falcon? Presumably whatever the First Order is using to track the Rebels in The Last Jedi is an updated version of that technology.

Poe Dameron is not all happy with how things are going for the Resistance. And therefore he decides to do something about it and orders a bombing run on the First Order’s forces, without consulting with the Resistance leadership first (and for those who complain about bombers in space, there were bombers in the original trilogy, so space bombers are a thing in the Star Wars universe). The mission goes disastrously wrong, all bombers are destroyed and all crews die and only one bomber even manages to deliver its payload. Whereupon Poe gets dressed down and demoted by General Leia Organa herself.

Shortly thereafter, Leia is nearly killed in battle in an “Okay, so that’s how they’re writing out Carrie Fisher – uhm, wait a minute, no, she survived.” moment. Since she is incapacitated, a new character, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (played by Laura Dern), takes command of the Resistance fleet. Arkady Martine says in her appreciation of the character that Amilyn Holdo seems to have wandered in from a completely different movie and indeed my first thought when I saw Holdo and her purple hair on screen (and note that though the Star Wars universe has clearly made great advances in hairstyling technology, they don’t actually seem to dye hair, at least not in colours not found in nature) was “Okay, so that’s what became of the moonbase staff from UFO.”

Coincidentally, one aspect of The Last Jedi that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is how many callbacks to other 1970s filmic science fiction director Rian Johnson managed to sneak into The Last Jedi. Nowadays, the original Star Wars a.k.a. A New Hope is often seen as a singularity, which seemingly burst onto the scene from out of nowhere, forgetting that it is still part of the filmic science fiction tradition of the 1970s. Rian Johnson, however, sneaks in references to some of the immediate predecessors, successors and contemporaries of the original Star Wars. Amilyn Holdo and her glorious purple hair are straight from the live-action Gerry Anderson SF show from the 1970s such as UFO or Space 1999 (and coincidentally, Brian Johnson who did the effects for Space 1999 also worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). And of course Amilyn Holdo is played by Laura Dern whose father Bruce Dern starred in the 1972 science fiction movie Silent Running. The desperate chase through space evokes Battlestar Galactica (both the original and the remake), while Canto Bight recalls both the disco/casino planet from the pilot of the original Battlestar Galactica and the pleasure world of the domed (and doomed) city from Logan’s Run.

Poe Dameron does not get on any better with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo than he got on with General Leia Organa. Because Holdo’s strategy in dealing with the First Order seems to consist of running away. Running away, however, is not something Poe Dameron does and therefore he comes up with a plan to disable the First Order’s tracking system, allowing the Resistance to escape. And so Finn (who actually does try to run away, knowing a doomed cause when he sees one) and Rose are sent to the pleasure casino world of Canto Bight to find a legendary hacker who can disable the tracking system. However, Finn and Rose don’t find the hacker they’re looking for and the hacker they do find, a guy called DJ, played by Benicio Del Toro, promptly sells out the Resistance to the First Order. To make matters worse, Holdo actually does have a plan – she just neglected to tell anybody except Leia about it. And since Poe has no idea what Holdo is planning, he decides to stage a mutiny against her. He is about as successful as Michael Burnham was in her mutiny, since Leia recovers just in time to shoot down the mutineering Poe with a stun gun. Holdo finally reveals her plan, which is to lure the First Order to a former rebel base on a planet called Crait. Except that Poe’s meddling and Finn and Rose’s actions on Canto Bight have accidentally exposed that plan to the First Order – oops. Cue a huge battle, in which Holdo heroically sacrifices herself to take down the First Order flagship, most of the Resistance is wiped out nonetheless and only a handful manage to escape.

Now unlike Michael Burnham in Star Trek Discovery, who was actually right (provided one accepts that Vulcans of all people would shoot first at Klingons – but that’s not the craziest claim Star Trek Discovery has made) and who is not responsible for the many things she is blamed for, from getting Captain Georgiou killed and the Shenzhou destroyed to starting the war with the Klingons and causing the deaths of eight thousand members of Starfleet, Poe Dameron is actually wrong throughout the movie. He is completely and tragically wrong and actually does indirectly cause the deaths of a whole lot of Resistance members who might otherwise have survived. And indeed, there are already people calling for his summary execution in the comments to this io9 post celebrating the character of Amilyn Holdo. Hey, I think I saw Poe pocketing two tins of chocolate in the galley of the Resistance flagship, too.

Now I can see what Rian Johnson was trying to do with the Poe/Leia/Holdo plotline. He was trying to deconstruct the trope of the male maverick hero who is always right and is telling Poe (and through him the audience) to listen to women, particularly older women, because they might just know something that the hot-headed young man does not know. Now that’s not a bad message at all and indeed, I have seen many people, particularly women, praising it (here is one example by Heather Rose Jones). However, I have issues with the way the Poe/Leia/Holdo subplot was handled, because it makes all three characters look bad. For though Poe’s plan was ultimately a disaster, it was not a bad plan at all. It could have worked, too, if Finn and Rose hadn’t run into DJ and enlisted his help. And while Leia and Holdo’s plan was not a bad plan either, would it have killed them to share it with their people? Would it have killed them to say even as much as, “We know it looks like running away, but trust us, we have a plan”? Especially since there is no real reason not to share their plan with their people such as a traitor in their midst. Nor is it the Rebel/Resistance way not to explain their plans to their people – indeed, the original trilogy contains plenty of scenes of Rebel leaders explaining the battle plan du jour to fighter crews and other Rebel personnel (and to the audience).

What is more, The Last Jedi – and to a certain degree Rogue One – make the Rebellion/Resistance seems like the sort of sticklers for hierarchy and order following that they never were portrayed as in the original trilogy, even if they borrowed their honour ceremony choreography straight from Leni Riefenstahl.

Now I was fascinated by Star Wars long before I got to see the actual movies (which were not easy to see in Germany in the 1980s, if you didn’t have a VCR and access to a video store – and my parents considered both a waste of money). So I built up my own image of Star Wars assembled from magazine clippings, trailers, comic books, a making of documentary and later the novelisations of the original trilogy before I saw the actual movies. In most cases, the movie version superceded whatever was in my head, but sometimes the version of Star Wars that existed only in my head persisted even after I’d seen the movie. And this was the case with the way I imagined the Rebellion worked. For you see, my Rebellion was an egalitarian and non-hierarchical organisation where pretty much everything was decided via the members taking a vote. And indeed the Rebels in my Shattered Empire series, who hold lengthy debates and votes on everything including which brand of toilet paper to use, are pretty much what I imagined the Star Wars Rebellion to be like.

Now I had a very good reason for imagining the Rebellion as a basis-democratic organisation. Because this was what my teenaged self viewed as the ideal way to run a political organisation. Now I’ve stated before that fighting against an oppressive system is SF catnip to me and indeed once was so important to me that it was part of my personal definition of science fiction. This is also part of the reason why Star Wars spoke to me so much. Because the original Star Wars trilogy with its story of a boy from a small town in the desert where nothing ever happens who wants nothing more than get out of there and who hates the oppressive system he lives in, a system that teachers, guardians and the media doubtlessly told him was a great place to live, even though the cracks were more than apparent, was born from the anger of the man who created it, another boy from a small town in the desert where nothing ever happens, who wanted to get out and who could see only too well that the system he lived in was not the perfect place that teachers, parent and the media painted it as, but that it was rotten and just plain wrong in many parts and that things could be so much better. George Lucas’ anger at the US of the Vietnam and Watergate era pretty much permeates the original Star Wars trilogy, so much that it radiated halfway across the world and struck a chord in another kid from a small town where nothing ever happens (not in the desert, though it might as well have been) who also wanted nothing more than to get out of there and who could also see that the system she lived in, a system everybody told her was such a great place, actually could be much better. George Lucas’ Empire was the US of the Vietnam and Watergate era, his Emperor was Richard Nixon. And my Empire was the West (and later unified) Germany of the never-ending leaden Helmut Kohl era. And no I’m not saying that either the US of the Nixon era or Germany of the Kohl era were truly like the Empire, cause they weren’t, just that they felt stifling and oppressive and that there were so many things that could have been improved. Plus, Kohl came to power through a coup of sorts (at least, that’s the way it felt at the age of eight, when I didn’t realise that his predecessor wasn’t any better) and then just sat there and sat there and sat there in office like the proverbial immovable object. I was a very politically interested teenager and very much much wanted to get rid of him, except that I couldn’t even vote. And I wanted to vote so very, very much, probably because I assumed that if I and other teens like me could vote, we’d kick out Helmut Kohl. Okay, so that probably wouldn’t have worked, but it still hurt not to even have a say, because we were supposedly too young. It still bothered me to be forcibly unified with a very alien country without anybody getting a vote (probably because they knew or suspected that the answer would have been ‘no’ in the West), just because some old men thought those people were our long lost compatriots.

So the Rebellion I imagined was a Rebellion that let its people vote on everything, because I wanted to have a say in how things were run so very much. Of course, there is no indication on screen that this Rebellion ever existed, but there also is no real indication that it didn’t. Because we simply don’t learn very much about how the Rebellion is organised, where its leaders come from and how they were selected, etc… in the original trilogy. What we can glean, however, is that the Rebellion doesn’t seem to care for the past of its members, since they accepted Han, Chewie and Lando (and Luke for that matter) without any questions, and that it doesn’t much seem to care for its members following orders, since hardly anybody ever does. Luke, Han and Chewie go against Obi-Wan’s initial orders to stay put and go off to rescue Leia. Luke switches off his targetting computer against explicit orders and uses the force to blow up the Death Star. Han explicitly tells off some Rebel commander and rides out into the icy night on Hoth to rescue Luke. Leia defies evacuation orders and stays on Hoth until Han literally drags her out. Luke does not fly to the Rebel rendezvous point, but goes to Dagobah instead, and later defies Yoda and Obi-Wan to go to Bespin and rescue Han, Leia, Chewie and C-3PO. I’m pretty sure none of the Rebel leaders ever authorised the mission to rescue Han from Jabba and Luke goes against orders, pleadings and common sense and surrenders himself to Darth Vader to bring his father back to the light. None of these people ever follow orders and yet they pull it off every single time.

And this is why seeing the Rebellion/Resistance in general and Leia in particular suddenly turning into sticklers for hierarchy who issues orders and don’t even bother to explain them bothered me so much. When Leia dressed down and demoted Poe, I thought, “Okay, so that’s who you are now, Leia? Someone who insists on hierachy, orders and the chain of command? No wonder Han left you.”

Now unlike Michael Burnham’s arc in Star Trek Discovery (where we have a bunch of white and mostly male people dressing down a woman of colour at every turn), Poe’s arc in The Last Jedi is not actively offensive, since here we have a hot-headed ace pilot, a typical Star Wars character, rebelling against the authority of two older women who actually do know better than he does. Though it’s interesting that both Poe and Michael mutiny against older female authority figures (Philippa Georgiou in Michael’s case and Leia and Amilyn Holdo in Poe’s) and that Michael explicitly does not try to take down Gabriel Lorca and Saru, at least not so far, though both are actually awful commanders, unlike Georgiou, Leia and Holdo. But then, Gabriel Lorca is a white man and Saru, while alien, is a sort of honorary white man played by a white actor.

And while I have no idea what Star Trek Discovery is trying to do except a badly thought out redemption arc for a character who doesn’t need one (but then I strongly suspect that the Star Trek Discovery producers have no real idea what they’re doing either), I can see what Rian Johnson is trying to do with Poe’s arc. I just don’t think that it works. What is more, unlike Star Trek Discovery, the Disney Star Wars films also give us a positive example of a character who chooses not to follow orders that are blatantly wrong and illegal in Finn, the Stormtrooper conscript turned rebel (and Rogue One does something similar with Jyn Erso and her crew). And I suspect the whole Poe/Leia/Holdo plot wouldn’t have annoyed me quite so much, though I still wouldn’t have liked it, if it hadn’t come so hot on the heels of Star Trek Discovery with its dystopian Federation, incompetent Starfleet and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt worthy mutiny plot. But seeing two of the three biggest science fiction franchises on the planet going from “the maverick hero/heroine is always right” to “follow orders and be a good little soldier” in the space of three months was truly striking.

What is more, given our current world political situation, I find the message of “Conform or else…” that these stories send – though I’m pretty sure it’s not the message Rian Johnson wanted to send and who the hell knows what the Star Trek Discovery people are thinking? – extremely problematic. Yes, I know that the US has a problem with extreme and toxic individualism and that this is the lens through which many Americans view Poe’s arc in The Last Jedi, but my lens is different. Because here in Germany and not just here, we are increasingly hearing voices that call for less individualism and more conformity and social cohesion, because apparently those of us who insist on individualism and diversity are leaving those people who live lives of conservative conformity behind and thus force them to vote AfD and become rightwing extremists or some such thing. Like the UK after Brexit and the US after the 2016 presidential election, we have been inundated with thinkpieces and profiles about whiny white people who just want the world to be as it was in some idealised past that never was and this is why they were forced to vote for Brexit/Trump/the AfD. It’s not because they are racists, xenophobes and homophobes, you see, it’s because the rest of us – those they call the elites, even though many of us actually earn less than many of them – are just so in their face with our individuality and don’t want to conform to their idea of what a real German/American/Brit is like.

What is more, pretty much every culture page of every newspaper and every cultural program on TV felt compelled to discuss this book by a sociologist who believes that today’s elites and middle classes are being much too individualistic and that we must enforce more conformity, lest the lower middle and working classes feel compelled to vote for the AfD. Here is one example and here is another – there are many more. Honestly, for a while it seemed as if you couldn’t open a newspaper or switch on a cultural program without being confronted by that bloody book. To be fair, I haven’t read the book itself and the author’s point may well be more differentiated than the fairly crude summaries pushed by the cultural press.

There is also the “Leitkultur” debate, which rears its ugly head every couple of months, when some politician (usually, but not always conservative) calls for common values which everybody who lives in Germany supposedly has to accept. Why our laws don’t suffice and what those common culture and values supposedly are no one is quite sure. Shaking hands and exchanging germs is often named, as is not wearing burqas (because burqas are such a huge issue in Germany that I’ve never even seen one in the flesh). Occasionally, someone starts blathering about Martin Luther’s Bible translation (non-Christians apparently can’t be Germans now, never mind that very little of the modern German Bible we are familiar with is actually based on Luther’s translation) or Goethe and Schiller (apparently, you can’t be German either, if you haven’t read them, not to mention that Schiller was very much a non-conformist himself). In short, it’s a stupid concept and a stupid debate that nonetheless refuses to die.

So in this context and viewed through this lens, it is obvious why I find it deeply troubling that even Star Trek and Star Wars now come out in favour of conformity and following rules. Even if that’s not the message they want to send – and I’m pretty sure that it’s not the message The Last Jedi wants to send, though I’m not sure about Discovery – that’s the way it comes across.

And yes, I want more awesome older women like Philippa Georgiou, Leia Organa and Amilyn Holdo in positions of authority in science fiction. But I also want science fiction that allows misfits, mavericks and non-conformists of any age and gender to thrive, that allows a character to do what they think is right without getting punished for it, often way out of proportion for whatever wrong they committed. And I definitely never want to see a science fiction version of Rosen für den Staatsanwalt as anything other than a clear dystopia.

*Yes, this is the first time I know of that the word “Scheiße” was uttered on German TV in adjective form, 15 years before Horst Schimanski burst onto our screens.

**In the late 1980s, I assembled a collection of movie books and backissues of Starlog Magazine, all found at the wonderful Dutch used book chain De Slegte. It was in one of those books or magazines – I don’t remember which one – that I came across the phrase “George Lucas is a movie maverick”. I had no idea what the last word meant, so I looked it up. Amazingly, I actually found it, too. And the ancient English-German dictionary that had once belonged to my great-uncle defined “maverick” as “cattle without a brand” (which would have been the sole definition in 1902, when the dictionary was published). This left me very confused and I thought, “So George Lucas is cattle without a brand? But that makes no sense at all.”

This entry was posted in Books, Film, TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.