Click to viewThe last time the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Gillian Anderson wore pants. There were two Star Trek series at once, which promoted women and minorities and looked at the dark side of the Federation. Cyberpunk reigned supreme. The future was a shiny place - but with dread lurking just beneath its polish. Now that the Democrats have finally scored another grand slam, are we going to see the return of sunny-but-questioning science fiction? Zachary Quinto sure thinks so. He’s been saying for months that an Obama presidency means the new Star Trek movie, where he plays the young Mister Spock, will be a huge hit. Because both the Obama campaign and the new Trek are about optimism and diversity. Space opera with a social conscience
Certainly, Bill Clinton’s first term represented a high water mark for the Trek franchise, which had been surging throughout the 1980s. The same month that Clinton took office, Trek launched its fourth series, Deep Space Nine, while The Next Generation was still on the air. Trek reflected Clinton’s upbeat attitude, with its sunny gadget-happy future. And both shows were aggressively diverse, including the first African American and female main captains. But Deep Space Nine also showed the underside, and occasional hypocrisy, of the Federation. And Voyager, launched in 1995, featured rebels against the Federation, the Maquis, among its main characters. When a juror in the Whitewater trial insisted on wearing her Federation uniform to court (see picture, right) it seemed only the logical extension of Clinton-era Trek-mania. In a way, both 90s-vintage Trek shows were about Americans going to the third world and confronting the limitations of American power, just as the U.S. was getting caught up in failed interventions in Haiti and Somalia. The other big space opera hit of Clinton’s first term, of course, was 1994's Stargate, where James Spader and Kurt Russell go to Planet Egypt. There are huts in the sand, and all the poor space Egyptians are oppressed by Ra (Jaye Davidson’s other big role after The Crying Game). Another future utopia with a major downside? Demolition Man, where the near-perfect world of San Angeles includes women who ask if you want to have sex with them. Supervillain Simon Phoenix explains: “The year is 2032 - that’s two-zero-three-two, as in the 21st Century - and I am sorry to say the world has become a pussy-whipped, Brady Bunch version of itself, run by a bunch of robed sissies.” Okay, sure, Demolition Man was greenlit and filmed long before Clinton became president, but it comments on the feminist, politically correct ethos that made Clinton president.
The white man deals with his evil side. Some of the biggest movies of Clinton’s first term involved a white dude confronting his secret doppleganger or bad side. You had The Mask, where a guy puts on a green mask and becomes a super-powered destructo-maniac. And The Dark Half, the George Romero-directed Stephen King adaptation about a literary author whose pulp-author pseudonym has become real and gone on a killing spree. And then there’s Multiplicity, where Batman star Michael Keaton literally meets himself - thanks to a weird process that creates an instantaneous adult clone - and has to deal with a more obnoxious, rougher-edged iteration who macks on his wife. Cyberpunk mindscapes and dark cities. The cyberpunk boom finally hit the movies during Clinton’s first term, with films like Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days and Virtuosity depicting noir-ish worlds where people interface with computers. It was the era when ordinary people were discovering the Internet, and the World Wide Web was booming, so the idea of “entering cyberspace” as a physical avatar popped up frequently in pop culture. This could be frequently cheesy - like in Virtuosity, where Russell Crowe’s crazy rampage in a virtual sushi bar leaves a whole bunch of cops with their brains turning into CG confetti: We’ll we see a cyberpunk comeback, or more shows and movies about virtual reality, now that the technocrats are back in charge? Hard to say - nobody’s as gee-whiz about the Internet as they were in 1993, but Ron Moore’s new VR-on-a-spaceship show Virtuality has a very mid-1990s cyberpunk feel to it. As for dark cityscapes and gloomy futures, movies like The Crow, Judge Dredd and 12 Monkeys all took place in futuristic cities that were overrun with crime and disease. This was the pre-Giuliani view of cities, which we still see from time to time, but maybe we’ll see more of the gritty underbelly of the inner city during an Obama administration?
Subversive TV On television, the biggest surprise hit of the Clinton era was the X-Files, which was also the president’s favorite show. (And new Obama advisor John Podesta brags that he earned the title “first fan” because he built a shrine to the X-Files in his office in the Clinton White House.) It was a subversive show in many ways - it reversed the traditional gender roles, with Scully being the logical one and Mulder being the intuitive, emotional one. It had the very Clinton-esque theme of trying to fix the corrupt and broken government from the inside. (“Reinventing Government” was Al Gore’s big initiative in the early Clinton years.) And the FBI duo spent a lot of time going to small-town America and discovering that things were a lot weirder, and less wholesome, than you’d expect - most famously in the episode where the redneck monsters have their mom under the bed and they’re having sex with her.
Small-town America isn’t wholesome, it’s not where the “real” people are, it’s just as weird as city life. Don’t believe me? Just watch one of the biggest cult hits of the Clinton era, David E. Kelley’s Picket Fences, which took place in the small town of Rome, Wisconsin - the only Kelley show not built around a workplace. Rome is crammed with as much freakiness as any big city. (Maybe more, on a per-capita basis.) While not a science fiction show, Picket Fences seemed to take place in an alternate reality where every mayor is a porn star or bandit, and everybody’s queer or polygamous. And then occasionally, you’d have episodes featuring spontaneous human combustion, or people having their kid cryogenically frozen. The underlying message always seemed to be: everybody’s weird in one way or another, so let’s not judge. Or something.
Another show which took on the X-Files theme of gender reversal was Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman. By putting Lois’ name first, the show’s creators wanted to signal that she was the intrepid adventurer and he was her sidekick. Of course, it broke down pretty quickly, and the show became more like a traditional Superman spectacle, before degenerating into a cheesy mess. Meanwhile, the biggest breakout hits among books included Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, about a young girl who receives a copy of the book A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which teaches her how to become a master engineer and super-ninja. And possibly the most surprising hit? Nicola Griffith’s Nebula-winning Slow River, about a duo of lesbian con artists who put on live sex shows in exhange for money for drugs, in a future dystopia dominated by hydroponic technology. Female action heroes have been on the wane since the 1990s, with only Milla Jovovich (and maybe Angelina Jolie) waving the standard. But could a more feminist, more sensitive Obama administration lead to the return of the woman who kicks ass (and her male sidekick?) Goofy aliens. Where have all the goofy aliens gone? I feel like there used to be a lot of goofy aliens, and nowadays it’s all zombies, mutants and vampires. Maybe an Obama administration will see the return of crazy-ass aliens, like the invaders in Mars Attacks and Independence Day, or the sex-mad, monster-breeding Natasha Henstridge in Species. Instead of paranoid allegories about terroirsm and scary Arabs, we had weird aliens who wanted to have sex with us, or who could be defeated using an Apple Mac. Here are a couple of pictures from the premiere of Mars Attacks, showing Tim Burton and “friend” Lisa Marie. It was an optimistic time!
All images from Getty Images, except for Whitewater juror image from AP.