Science fiction and the military go together like ham and lima. Why is the military or military-style organizations used so frequently in this genre? I think there are two really good reasons for it. The first is that the military provides a structure to build stories around. Whether used as protagonist or antagonist, the military has rank, organization, and protocol that will add an element to the story.
The second is that the military has all the cool hardware. They get the guns, the armor, the fighter planes and the bombs. This is a little bit more primal, but if you want something blowed up real good, you know who to call.
For better or for worse, though, I often compare what I’m seeing in the movies and on TV with my own experiences in the military. I was in the US Army for three years from 1989 to 1992 and in the reserves for three more years after that. Not a long career, but a proud one nonetheless. My service gives me a little insight as well as the opportunity to joke that I was kicked out of the Army for the good of the country. Ah if only that weren’t true.
So I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some of my views on different armed forces depicted in science fiction. This list is not complete, how could I possibly recall every single instance of a combat unit being utilized in the genre? As always, feel free to chime in with your comments.
Star Trek The Original Series
On one hand, Star Trek really blows it by having the Commanding Officer, the Executive Officer and the Chief Medical Officer always go down to the planet. Every single episode featured something very dangerous and deadly down there and every single episode featured the three most important guys on the ship going down and confronting it. On the other hand, this was the late Sixties and America was in the middle of the Vietnam War. Gene Roddenberry contended that ST TOS was a “Wagon train to the stars” and as such, being the strictest of militaries must not have been his intention. You have to give them a little leeway for having the Big Three go all the time, they were the stars and the show was built around them unlike ensemble casts in more modern shows.
Star Trek The Next Generation
The Next Generation doesn’t fare quite as well. The series creators made a point of letting us know that the Captain wasn’t allowed to go on the away missions, so what do they do? They send the second most important guy on the ship instead. You can follow the same premise as TOS where Starfleet is more of a science and exploration group than a strict military navy (Scientists with photon torpedoes!), but they still send the XO and senior officers for all of the missions. They really should have maybe one lieutenant and a squad of enlisted do this, which is something they did explore a bit and finally giving it more consideration in Enterprise with the addition of MACO’s.
Space Above and Beyond
I could not get into this show at all. I know it had its fans, but it just didn’t work for me on so many levels. This show premiered right when I was in the reserves, so the military was fresh in my mind and I thought that they really blew it from the get go. First, they brought in R. Lee Ermey to do a lamer, PG version of his drill sergeant character from The Boys of Company C and Full Metal Jacket and it was so watered down that it completely pulled me out of the story and forced me to feel bad for Ermey (which I shouldn’t have, he got his paycheck, right?). Then the main characters, who are all fighter pilots, are sent on a grunt mission to retrieve a drone and they misidentify the Ramones song being played by it as “The Pink Floyd.” That pulled me out of the story again and though I tried to watch a few more episodes, the damage was done. I’m not even going to comment on the characters’ non-regulation haircuts. In space, no one can send you to the barber, I guess.
The new BSG, on the other hand, really gets it. There is a huge distinction between what the characters’ roles are; there are people who man the stations, Viper pilots, Raptor pilots, and enlisted maintenance crew members. Adding the Raptors was a nice touch because with its electronic warfare, AWACS, and SAR capabilities, it gave the Galactica a unique ship to compliment the Vipers. We also get to see the maintenance crew fleshed out more than you see elsewhere. It takes a lot of manpower to keep one aircraft airworthy and these ships are no exception. Additionally, they liberally use military terms like CIC and CAG which they don’t even define. They just jump right in using them and if you don’t know what they mean, it’s up to you to figure it out. The only thing that gets me is that they’re not from Earth (bear with me) and yet they use these Earth terms an awful lot. But I say if you buy into the story and that adds a dimension of military realism, let it fly, right?
The Colonial Marines on Aliens are right up there, too. They look like a squad of tough as nails troops and they use weapons that you could imagine would be in the not-too-distant future. They interact with each other like Marines would and use phrases and terms that sound like what a Marine in space would use. Frosty, for example, is a phrase they use to mean “stay alert” or “keep it together” and though I am not sure if the USMC actually uses this, to me it definitely sounds like they would. The characters are all uniquely defined as well, you get the cherry lieutenant who flakes out when the stuff hits the fan, the crusty old sarge, the cool professional that takes over when he becomes the top of the chain of command, the tough guy who turns into a whiny bitch when he gets in over his head, and all the others. Sure, they’re pretty much stereotypes, but they’re well characterized and believable in their roles. Oh yeah, this movie also serves as an allegory for the Vietnam conflict where the superior weapon technology and all the best training available doesn’t mean squat against an overwhelming force fighting on its own terms.
That’s five of the many, many different depictions of the military in science fiction and it only scratches the surface. I haven’t even mentioned Earth Defense Directorate, the Mobile Infantry, the Peacekeepers, or the Empire, let alone countless cartoons including everything from G.I.Joe to Robotech.