Science Fiction, Politics and the Evolving Nature of Remakes

Though it might seem an ungracious thing to say, there’s a problem with being a science fiction fan nowadays: there are too many new books to read, and too many new shows and films to watch. Thank something, then, for summer holidays. When it’s too hot to be outside during the day, spending your time on a couch in an air conditioned room chipping away at your TBR and TBW piles seems less like a luxury, and more like a good use of your time.

One of the things I caught up on during my own summer holiday was the recent remake of that old Gen-Y favourite, Roswell (1999-2002). For those unfamiliar with it, Roswell is a high school-set science fiction drama concerning teenagers Max, Isabel and Michael, human-seeming aliens and the sole survivors of the apocryphal Roswell UFO crash of 1947. Rescued from the crash by adult aliens who later perished, they grew to maturity in archetypal stasis pods before breaking free as ‘children’ in the early-to-mid 1980s and subsequently being adopted into two different families. Aware of their alien heritage and burdened by the knowledge that they can only share their secret with each other, Max, Isabel and Michael are forced to both fit in as best they can and hide their real identities from the rest of the world. A larger narrative overlays their story—conspiracies, cover ups, shady government agencies, the typical tropes of ‘aliens amongst us’ narratives—but Roswell is really a fairly standard Bildungsroman, focusing on how they navigate teenage life and the road to adulthood.

While following many of the same beats as the original, the remake—Roswell, New Mexico (2019-2020)—makes changes both superficial and integral. Its narrative is action-driven rather than character oriented; Max, Isabel and Michael are now in their twenties; the tropes of ‘aliens amongst us’ narratives are the focus, with the lead trio’s struggle to fit in pushed to the background; some secondary characters are now either queer or missing entirely. The most interesting change, though, is that of Max’s human girlfriend/love interest, Liz. In Roswell, Liz is Liz Parker—a typical white American teenager of the time. In Roswell, New Mexico, though, Liz is Liz Ortecho—a Hispanic with US citizenship, whose father is an undocumented immigrant living and working in Roswell illegally. With the real Roswell only being a couple of hours from the Mexican border as the crow flies, this change not only makes a certain kind of logical sense—the omission of any Hispanic characters in Roswell is faintly ridiculous, after all —but also creates space in Roswell, New Mexico for themes and metaphors missing from the original, particularly of the political variety.

This emphasis on politics shouldn’t be surprising—after all, science fiction has always incorporated political elements. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every single work, as for every 1984 there’s a Max Rage: Intergalactic Badass! and for every District 9 there’s an Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. However, because one of science fiction’s main aims is to reframe the world we live in so that we can see it anew, the incorporation of political elements is barely surprising. Just look at the ‘classics,’ both old and new: H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Clare Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (2015). These works are praised in large part precisely because their creators melded science fiction and politics to unflinchingly examine the world at that point in time, and the same principle applies to the creators of films and shows such as Metropolis (1927), the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the original Godzilla (1954), the first Star Trek series (1966-1969), the original Robocop (1987), Alien Nation (1988), Babylon 5 (1994-1998), Idiocracy (2006), District 9 (2009) and The 100 (2014-). Most interestingly, many of these works emerged at a time when politics was dramatically reshaping the world and therefore occupied a prominent place in the public’s consciousness. To name but a few: The War of the Worlds was a response to the colonialist expansion of the British Empire, its aliens with their advanced weaponry and take-no-prisoners approach a stand-in for the British forces, and its release was a push-back against the generally unquestioned nature of this expansion; Fahrenheit 451 was a response to the USA of the 1950s, in which the infamous Joseph McCarthy lead a crusade to censor art, literature and even individual opinions and beliefs, and it unflinchingly examined just where such crusades might lead.

In light of the above, the emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico on political elements once again shouldn’t be surprising. After all, we are currently living in a period of almost unprecedented upheaval, unlike the era in which the original series was produced and released.

Roswell came out at a strange point in modern history—with the end of the Cold War occurring in the late 1980s and the ‘War on Terror’ beginning in 2001/2002, the 1990s were a period of relative peace and political, social and cultural stability in the Western world in general, and in America in particular, the likes of which hadn’t been experienced since the 1950s. This era had its problems, of course, but not in a way that compares to these two ‘wars’ or previous world-changing events like the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Oil Crisis of the 1970s, or the rise of the counterculture and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Therefore, the politics of Roswell—whose final season began airing not long after the 9/11 attacks that precipitated the ‘War on Terror’—are of the personal variety. It is a show about being a teenager, and focuses on the doubts, insecurities, contradictions and explorations typical of this phase of life. In other words, it is a show about working out who you are, your place in society and how you relate to the wider world. Identity and belonging are its preoccupations; in its case, ‘alien’ is a metaphor for the individual that doesn’t fit in (i.e. a typical teenager).

In stark contrast, the world today is experiencing a massive amount of political, social and cultural change—rising authoritarianism, the dominance of social media, rapidly growing inequality, climate change, illiberal democracies, these are part-and-parcel of contemporary life and foster a great sense of uncertainty at every level of society. Therefore, the emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico on political elements just seems right. As well, the change from Liz Parker to Liz Ortecho not only corrects a glaring omission of the original—48% of New Mexico’s population is now Hispanic, after all, up from 40% in the 1990s—but also confirms an unavoidable fact of life in Donald Trump’s America: the politics of undocumented Hispanic immigration. As much as certain rabid fans may decry the inclusion of this particular political element, if its creators had approached its narrative in any other way it would have been a blatant denial of reality for Hispanic people in America’s South-West.

This change of emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico isn’t unique. In fact, the creators of many science fiction remakes take a similar approach. While doing so is just one way of distinguishing their creation from the original, there is also a stronger factor at play—no political systems remain static, and the factors that shape the world in one era often bear no resemblance to those of the next. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that when I use the word politics, I don’t specifically mean its dictionary definition. Instead, politics encompasses the systems of power, privilege, law, legitimacy and morality that form and shape societies, which are established by governments and law-makers. Politics affects every aspect of our lives and is at least partly responsible for our position in society. It is cause of both the good and bad: racism, sexism, intolerance, inequality and injustice; as well as peace, prosperity, safety, security and welfare.

The Godzilla films are a fantastic example of the fluid nature of politics. Ever since its inception in the mid-1950s, the character has been remade so many times that it isn’t funny. In the 1954 original, Godzilla himself is a deliberate metaphor for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier. He is an inexplicable and devastating force from which there is no escape, and the film itself, filled as it is with scenes of urban ruin, radiation-burned victims and panicked crowds seeking shelter wherever they can, was a sombre attempt by its creators to come to terms with what had happened to their country.

Thirty years later, the political, social and cultural aftershocks of the bombs had become part of history, and yet had a new resonance thanks to renewed Cold War tensions initiated by Ronald Reagan in the US and Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR. In the middle of this febrile atmosphere and volatile environment arrived Godzilla 1985 (1985), a remake intended to reset the franchise, with a political emphasis focussed on these aforementioned tensions, the escalating arms race and the insanity of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Godzilla himself was no longer a metaphor for atomic weapons, but instead one representing the end-point of this doctrine and the ultimate consequences of an inability to work together for the greater good.

And then there is the more recent remake, released in 2014. Just like in 1985, times had changed in the thirty years that had passed since its last incarnation—the Cold War had ended, the arms race had slowed to a crawl and Mutually Assured Destruction was all but forgotten. Instead, a new political, social and cultural problem was shaping the world: climate change. Accordingly, the Godzilla of 2014 was a metaphor for the power and fury of the natural world, and the destructive potential we might unleash and bring down upon ourselves in our unceasing exploitation of it.

In effect, what these examples show are three different versions of the same story, from three different eras, with each steeped in the particular political, social and cultural factors that shaped the world at the time. However, they aren’t the only ‘set’ of remakes that do this.

Both the 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds and the 2004-2009 remake of Battlestar Galactica are responses to 9/11—the former is an examination of a world whose peace and prosperity is suddenly upended in devastating fashion, while the latter is predicated on the fear of the ‘fanatic amongst us’—whereas the originals were mostly viewed as mere entertainment with little depth or subtext. 1951’s The Thing from Another World was viewed in a similar way, but the 1982 remake, simply entitled The Thing, is a reflection on the creeping paranoia of the renewed Cold War tensions of the 1980s. And the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers refocussed the terror of both the ‘other’ and mindless conformity inherent to the original and directed it at societal institutions of the time as a reflection of the growing suspicion and distrust of these institutions during the Watergate era.

What unites these examples is not just their status as remakes, but also their status as either ‘classics’ or quality works of science fiction. Some are even heralded as being better than the originals, and this affirmation has arguably helped pave the way for the strength of the form—remakes are nowadays a mainstay of science fiction film and television. However, a remake doesn’t live or die on its remade status alone, and films such as the 1998 remake of Godzilla, the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives and the 2014 remake of Robocop are just a few of the many that were both critical and commercial failures. And while paling in comparison to The War of the Worlds and Battlestar Galactica et al., these unsuccessful examples are also united by more than just their status as remakes. In their case, though, what unites them is an almost complete abandonment of the originals’ status as political science fiction, in favour of simple action and spectacle alone.

And therein lies the lesson: Don’t ‘dumb down’ a piece of science fiction that once possessed depth thanks to its political elements, because these elements are often precisely what ensured its worth in the first place.

(Originally published in Aurealis #130, May 2020)

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