He Said, She Said: Violence in Genre
by Steve Johnson and Michelle Erica Green

Is There Too Much Fighting On Our Shows?


I admit it; I like war stories.

While realizing that real war is bad with a capital BAD, war movies, war games and war stories are endlessly fascinating to me. Violence has a real place in fiction; not everywhere, to be sure, but when people are under stress or in danger, often violence results. It's a little hard to be interested in people who, if their backs were to the wall, wouldn't come out swinging in defense of something.

Then, too, we moderns have to put up with a lot of blatant injustices we can't do anything about. In science fiction, we can imagine ways we could deal with these problems decisively and dramatically, which often means violently. This is good; catharsis is the purpose of drama, saith the Greeks who got a lot else right about the theatrical arts.

I just plain like violent adventure stories. That makes me a bad person, but I have a lot of company. Lots of those people watch genre TV.

We watch it ANYWAY, because most depictions of war on TV stink. I'm confining myself to science fiction here; there isn't really any war on fantasy series, just raids and armed robberies. If I wanted to see that, I'd move to Washington, D.C.

Take the recent Dominion fiasco on Deep Space Nine. The whole Star Trek universe is armed and at each other's throats, finally behaving like recognizable governments instead of assemblages of angels robed in love, and what's the big resolution? The Prophets of Bajor win the war for us because they like Sisko. And by the end of the show, everything is back to normal.

Excuse me? Yeah, the Greeks believed in deus ex machina, but in this point they were wrong. Bring in the Prophets at the last minute and you cheat the audience. How are we supposed to care about anything on DS9 now? We've got evidence that as soon as it gets really scary, some left-field solution will fix it all up in a shower of phantasmagoria and platitude.

That ain't drama. That's cheating. Makes you want to bust Rick Berman's head with a two-by-four.

And people wonder why I like violence.


Steve, please! If you're going to beat up Rick Berman, do it over something which could cause real social problems, like the ongoing maltreatment of women on Star Trek or the reduction of complex, interesting characters to lowest-common-denominator macho stupidity. I might have to put the impulse to beat up the executive producer in that category, too, since he's merely reflecting a much more pervasive set of entertainment irresponsibilities. I get really nervous when people suggest dealing with the blatant injustices of the modern world through violence; people tried to deal with the blatant injustices of the ancient world that way, and caused more problems than they solved.

I draw a distinction between war stories per se and violence as a dramatic device. Obviously, in a war story, there's going to be violence - onscreen or implied, even in an episode which consists of nothing more than two characters discussing a battle in the distant past. It doesn't make me happy that we see so much of that on genre television, but I understand the need for it. Violence breaks out over issues we need to work through, and I'd rather see them worked through on television than on an actual battlefield. The Dominion War is an excellent example: I'm pretty strongly pacifistic, but when it comes to alien invasion forces taking over my universe and enslaving my people, where diplomatic solutions have failed and my past enemies have once more allied themselves against me, it's pretty obvious why defensive measures quickly escalated into all-out conflict.

While it may have been dramatically anticlimactic to have the Prophets interfere in the war, however, it was an excellent solution to the escalating violence, same as ending the Shadow War was on Babylon 5. Much as we needed to explore the issues leading up to the fighting, we did NOT need to see the fighting itself. We see far too much of that as it is - on the news, on cop shows, on our own streets. Shots of phasers firing and broken warp nacelles don't have any real dramatic impact, and diminish the notion of all the lives lost. We need to see actual bodies for real impact. But we see bodies all the time - even on Voyager, which has no way to get replacement crew. Yes, people die violently, but the more television takes that for granted even in idealized versions of the future, the more immune we all become to it and the less we work to stop it. I don't ever want to start taking war for granted as a part of life.

Ironically, what we don't get enough of on science fiction shows is the common violence that goes on unremarked in our world, and that I don't expect to go away in some ideal future any more quickly than they've gone away in the past several thousand years. Nobody ever smashes a bulkhead in rage against a dumb Starfleet decision, nobody ever punches out a fellow officer for making a casual racial slur like humans make against other species all too frequently. Nobody even mentions child abuse, domestic violence, or rape, but those horrors have been around for centuries, and aren't just going to disappear when we all trade in our money for replicator credits and our trash cans for recycling units.

I don't want to see all science fiction television become as dark as The X Files and Millennium, but if we're going to deal with violence, I want it to be focused and purposeful - not fighting for the sake of drama, but to remind us of why we'd be better off keeping it on our television screens and out of our lives. There are experts who would argue that that's impossible, that what's on TV shapes our reality, but I don't believe that; the problem is how the violence is handled. If television is going to give me a war, it damn well better have a good reason, just like our government damn well better have.

This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.

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