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Civil Wars: Reinventing America in Science Fiction Television

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NEW GENRE TELEVISION this week included the return of CW’s Arrow, an adaptation of DC’s character Green Arrow, the alter ego of Oliver Queen, a billionaire turned vigilante, like Bruce Wayne’s Batman. Green Arrow, visually associated with Robin Hood, tends toward a leftish defense of the working class and poor, whereas Batman, particularly in his Frank Miller incarnation popularized by Nolan’s films, is further to the right and focuses more on punishing the guilty. Last season saw the rebirth of irresponsible playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Arnell) as a vigilante called The Hood, returned to Starling City from mysterious and arduous exile to condemn various industrialists who have “failed this city,” predominately through acts of economic corruption. Oliver worked from a list given to him by his about-to-die father, and he is motivated as much by a desire to avenge his father’s betrayal by these former allies as by a sense of responsibility to other economic classes. A grim character, Oliver/Arrow is willing to kill in pursuit of his agenda, and the season concluded with his failure to prevent the destruction of the city’s poorest neighborhood, the Glades, by a device invented by another wealthy industrialist who blames his wife’s death in a street crime on the entire underclass from which her assailants came. Although the depredations of the single-minded pursuit of profit were the target of most weekly stories, in its first season Arrow tended to validate Oliver’s vigilantism and to ignore the contradictions of his own privileged position.

Season two opened with some intriguing changes that emphasize the entwined questions of economic and social justice, but also suggest that CW’s Arrow might covertly be as much a defender of class hierarchy as Nolan’s Batman in the controversial The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Following his failure to prevent the destruction of The Glades, Oliver returned to his island exile between seasons, and in his absence a group of the disenfranchised have taken up the Hood identity and begun to attack the elite, again blaming an entire class for the death of loved ones because they (rightfully) associated the destruction of The Glades with the wealthy (Oliver’s mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson) is on trial for her part in the conspiracy). In the first episode, this group attacks Oliver, as head of Queen Industries, using his own slogan, and kidnaps his sister, Thea (Willa Holland), reasoning that they can make Moira suffer loss just as they have by killing her daughter. Needless to say, Oliver arrives to save the day, capturing rather than killing the vigilantes, whom he leaves for police who are surprised by the new capture rather than kill method. Oliver no longer wants to be The Hood, he tells his allies. This reinvention is intriguing and bodes well for Arrow to remain fresh rather than just repeat with variation the same stories and themes each week. A new arc about control of Queen Industries, threatened by hostile takeover, and the addition of Summer Glau to the cast as Isabel Rochev, Oliver’s corporate adversary, is also promising. Yet it is concerning that the series quickly castigate vigilantism as soon as the underclasses take justice into their own hands, and I worry that too much of this season’s energy might be spent defending Oliver’s wealth rather than Glades’ denizens. The episode concludes, after all, with Thea reconciling with her mother, no longer the vocal defendant of The Glades she was when it began.

The polarization of Arrow’s world into wealthy vs. working classes is part of a prevalent theme in contemporary sf television, the reinvention of America via struggle between competing agendas. In Starling City it is corporate restructuring (Rochev) vs. corporate responsibility (Oliver); in the CW’s new show this week, The Tomorrow People, it is an X-Men-esque struggle between those with genetic mutations, “homo superior,” vs. regular homo sapiens, defended by geneticist Jedikiah Price (Mark Pelligrino), who plans to suppress and wipe out these mutants. A grittier reboot of an 1970s British show1(973-1979), The Tomorrow People got off to a rather banal start in its origin-story tale of Stephen Jameson (Robbie Arnell, cousin to Arrow’s Stephen Arnell) learning that his strange sleepwalking is not a sign of emergent psychosis but instead the “breaking out” of his powers of telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation. He chooses to go undercover as an agent of government organization Ultra, dedicated to containing the Tomorrow People, secretly working for the mutant underground resistance. Most of the concepts in the series are taken from the original, but they seem even more derivative because in the interim both The X-Men franchise and Jumper (2008) have thoroughly worked over the idea of a marginalized yet super-powered minority being persecuted by a fearful majority. As The X-Men have shown, this motif can be put to powerful effect to explore the discriminations of racism and homophobia, but thus far The Tomorrow People has failed to understand this metaphor’s potential. It is challenging to take seriously the idea of handsome and athletic Stephen as a victim of any schoolyard bullying, although the episode stages one such confrontation with all the cliché it deserves. The original Tomorrow People hid their abilities fearing the reaction of normal humans, and used their powers to fight evil, local and extra-terrestrial alike. Ultra is an invention of the reboot, another sign of the palpable contemporary sensibility that America has fragmented into irreconcilably different groups, whether the fault lines be economic, embodied ability, or ideological. It is always a delight to see Mark Pellegrino on the screen, and he is particularly compelling as a villain, and so I hope The Tomorrow People can raise its game next week.

Fractures based on ideological difference are evident in the other series as well, all of which in one way or another stage a civil war between competing visions of America. On Sleepy Hollow, renewed this week for a full season run, Judeo-Christian good vs. evil continues to reinterpret the American Revolution, and this week we learned that the Boston Tea Party was merely a “diversion.” I continue to enjoy the series’ moody atmosphere, charismatic leads, and da Vinci code gadgets, but its retreat from politics into mysticism is frustrating. Person of Interest advances its narrative arc about Root’s ideal of machine intelligence producing a utopia elusive to fallible humanity. Agents of S.H.I.E.D., also renews for a full run, marking the first Whedon series to get such network support since Angel, struggles with questions about whether government containment of technology is really less sinister than leaving it in the hands of individuals, and included a wonderful opening sequence featuring a working-class instead of dark-suited agent.

But the most interesting sf television this week was the latest episode of Revolution. I was delighted to discover, against my expectations, that the series did not play out some version of The Walking Dead siege but instead quickly dispatched with sinister cult figure Titus Andover and moved on to the much more disturbing image of US forces arriving to rescue our protagonists from Andover’s berserker hordes. This final sequence was effectively staged and filmed, ensuring that although we are grateful that the troops intervened just as Miles (Billy Burke) was about to be defeated by superior numbers, and undoubtedly in time to save Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) from dying of her wounds, we nonetheless feel more dread than relief as the episode ends. The newly introduced Patriot forces both manipulated Andover to attack the town and as swiftly executed him when he proved more liability than opportunity. The other story lines similarly paint Patriot forces in cynical yet credible hues, positioning Revolution to use science fiction as effective political allegory for contemporary distrust of government and social fragmentation, following in the footsteps of Ronald Moore’s reinvented Battlestar Galactica, which helped audiences navigate a post 9/11 landscape. I’m now excited to see how far the series will take its villainous US this season, and apologize to Kripke et al. for my doubts last week.

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