My favorite description of a hero has always been Raymond Chandler's, who wrote that a hero "must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." Inherent in that statement is the idea that a hero may stand out from a crowd, but he doesn't stand apart from it. Televised science fiction, like most television programming, stuck with this concept for a long time. People with special innate abilities were always support characters: take Star Trek, for example. Captain Kirk may accomplish nigh-impossible things, but at heart he's still just a regular kid from Iowa farm country. Spock, with his alien background and computer mind, is a font of knowledge, but his judgement is inevitably inferior to Kirk's.
This year, viewers have over a dozen different science fiction television programs to choose from (if they have cable), and the Kirk/Spock paradigm is as strong as ever. Brawny good guys rely on brainy sidekicks on every network. However, it's no longer enough for heroes to simply have better judgement. Now, they must also be blessed with uncommon, innate abilities that set them apart from humanity. It's no longer necessary for them to choose to save the world; that decision has been made for them, at the genetic level. Even if they choose to buck their destiny, they can never melt into regular society. At least half the current SF shows this season show signs of this trend.
It seems likely that the common inspiration for the new crop of gifted heroes can be found in the recent real world scientific advances in cloning and genome research. It's easy to imagine a person facing danger on a weekly basis if they have some natural talent for attracting it. In a way, it's a sign of post-modernist thinking, a new irony, if you will, in television writing. The nature of heroism is called into question, and the answer seems to be that only those who have no choice in the matter would be dumb enough to face vampires or aliens or corporate overlords. The support characters are still fonts of knowledge, but the very fact that they had to study seems to mark them as physically inactive characters, unfit to fight for themselves.
To me, this seems a sinister twist. It's all very well if delivered tongue-in-cheek, but the message that some people are born to greatness, while the rest, no matter what their abilities, are meant to support them, smacks of a feudal sensibility. It's possible that this is nothing more than a bit of high fantasy sneaking into science fiction (Star Wars, with its knights and princesses, is the classic example of that), but it could also be a reflection of a societal inclination in America to trust the mystical over the rational. Strange as it may seem, the growing popularity of science fiction on television springs from the declining faith in education in American society. Like a priest's vocation, heroism is a calling, instead of a choice. A hero's reluctance to take up his/her destiny is no longer the hesitation of a person in doubt of his/her moral superiority, but rather an aversion to duty. From a strictly literary point of view, a special kind of tension has been lost.
Let's get down to specifics. I realize some of what follows looks like major hair-splitting, and some of it looks like oversimplification. I'm not making quality judgements -- just looking at the underlying assumptions. I'm also going to ignore sitcoms and animated shows, and products of non-American origin, such as Lexx, for brevity's sake.
Roswell centers around teenagers who are alien royalty from outer space, reborn into human form, with paranormal powers. While the show is mostly about human-alien relationships, this year the aliens are also occupied with defending themselves and the Earth from alien invasion. It is often hammered home that ordinary humans do not have the requisite abilities to fight the aliens on their own.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer has its Slayer, whose superpowers enable her to fight both mundane and supernatural villains in defense of society. This show also features intellectual support characters, and demonstrates post-modern sensibilities. From the same creative team comes Angel, in which a man with supernatural qualities, backed up by a bookworm and a seer, defends the helpless.
Dark Angel uses genetic manipulation to set apart its hero, whose abilities leave her with few options except to battle evil, with the prodding of a computer whiz. Like Buffy, the hero tries to refuse her obligations, but her supernatural qualities make her the only person who can get the job done.
Star Trek: Voyager is an interesting case. On the one hand, Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine seem to form a relationship similar to Kirk and Spock, except that, recently, Seven's instincts have become the principal problem-solving tool, while the Captain functions as Seven's font of knowledge. There will be more on Voyager later in this article. Another syndicated show, Earth: Final Conflict, began with an ordinary guy in the lead, but currently features a human-alien hybrid, unique to his planet, locked into his fate of saving all of humanity.
Moving into cable originals, The Invisible Man depicts a reluctantly endowed superhero, with a former intelligence agent as a sidekick, battling societal evils. The lead character may not have started out in life with his abilities, but having obtained them, he is duty-bound to do the Right Thing. First Wave hedges the hero's unique qualities by refusing to examine why the hero is resistant to the invading alien's brainwashing, but still sets him apart by virtue of his intuition, while his brainy companion takes care of the technology.
So much for gifted heroes. For the related trend of elevating those with special perception, or infallible intuition, to the level of almost superhuman figures, I offer the following examples: The X-Files features an overtly intuitive lead, coupled with a scientific-minded partner who is inevitably debunked. Mysterious Ways follows The X-Files' lead, with an intuitive truth-seeker paired with a skeptical psychiatrist. Seven Days has a chrononaut selected for his superior physical traits, supported by a host of scientific types. To be fair, Seven Days' unique story structure artificially puts all foreknowledge into the hero's hands, and the hero is occasionally threatened with replacement. The lead's superior status is granted by his extreme tolerance to pain, which is likely just a comic twist on an action hero's typical immunity to injury.
Farscape features a lone human, lost in space, whose instincts sometimes serve his shipmates better then their superior technology. There are other factors that distinguish him: he has a unique perspective on his alien friends, and an unusual sensitivity to moral quandaries and metaphysical dilemmas. He is in his particular situation against his will, and acts heroically partly as a means to survive, much like Buffy and other birthright heroes. However, he is very similar to Kirk in that he serves as the balancing influence between his shipmates' extreme perspectives. Although he is supposedly interchangeable with any other human, he cannot, in fact, be exchanged, due to his situation.
Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda sneaks up on the feudal/birthright concept by bringing a man forward in time from a Golden Age. While he has no special innate abilities, his ship is a large part of his identity, and that ship makes him a figure of mythic power. However, despite the appearance of a gutsy hero with a computerized sidekick, this show actually has more in common with Chandler's definition of a hero than not. The lead has doubts about his right to impose his beliefs on others, and questions his own moral superiority.
Stargate SG-1 harks back to the Kirk/Spock model, with the exception that 'Spock' is broken into three characters. SG-1 does not fall within the bounds of my theory, because it stridently maintains that the SG team are heroes by happenstance: in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they have to make the best of it. Freedom, Level 9, and Freaky Links also seem to rely on ordinary people, stuck in extraordinary circumstances, although I haven't yet been able to catch any episodes of these shows.
There are multiple fantasy shows on the air, which naturally favor brawn in the lead, but it seems necessary to mention them briefly. Charmed features three heroes who are born to their abilities, and have no choice but to use them in self-defense and in defense of their immediate society, yet rely on an external source for knowledge. Xena: Warrior Princess features an overt warrior-scholar team. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World also combines adventurers with scholarly sidekicks. Beastmaster and Sheena both run on instinctive heroes battling evil because they are set apart by their superior abilities. I admit that I haven't yet watched Queen of Swords or The Immortal.
I leave scorekeeping as an exercise for the reader. Clearly, there are a lot of prominent shows that favor a gifted hero over an ordinary grunt who just has to knuckle down, learn a few tricks, and fight the good fight. Although we've been looking at how the birthright trend plays out in current SF programming, since we're using Star Trek as the basic model for this discussion, let's look at The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, as well as Voyager, in a little more detail.
Star Trek: The Next Generation centers around Captain Picard, who, despite his improbable Starfleet record, is still emphatically just another Starfleet Academy graduate, with no inherent abilities beyond those of his race. He has two gifted supports, Deanna Troi and Data, and a host of specially-skilled supports, including someone to provide muscle in a pinch: Riker. This fits the Raymond Chandler ideal nicely, except when the writers bring in supervillains such as Q and the whole universe suddenly revolves around Picard.
Skipping ahead a series, Star Trek: Voyager also has a Standard Model Starfleet Captain, with large amount of theoretical scientist thrown in. Janeway seems to combine brawn and brains, like Picard, while also relying on specialized support characters. However, Voyager's crew is more trait-homogenous then that of The Next Generation, with the result that dramatically necessary extremes were consolidated in Janeway and Seven of Nine. Seven of Nine falls into the gifted category of heroes. She has unique traits, inseparable from her personality, which give her the ability to save the ship. She and Janeway trade off the roles of font of knowledge and hero of the hour. In other words, depending on the episode, Voyager is, and is not, a birthright trend show.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has no such ambiguity. Sisko looks like another Starfleet cookie, but he's been specially baked; he's the step-child of demigods. While his unique background doesn't figure in to many episodes, it is nevertheless the reason that he is in the position to do right in the cosmos. In the end, he succumbs to his higher obligations.
Sisko has a support staff of specialists, all of whom function as knowledge pools. While not all of them get their specializations from education, the fact that they are so specialized prevents them from seeming like viable replacements for Sisko, in a crisis. Unlike Picard and Kirk, who had other command-capable characters around, reminders that they are only the cream of a crop, Sisko is irreplaceable in his world. The other characters are unfit for the job, because they aren't the favored of the wormhole aliens. Granted, this could be seen as the conceit of a show centered on a space station, but let's look at the other space station show.
Babylon 5 (also not producing new episodes, I know, but I couldn't really write this without including it) does a very good job of avoiding the birthright trend, or at least it seems to. Mostly, it goes in a different direction: instead of splitting the attributes of brawn and brain into separate people, Babylon 5 puts them back together in one person, then cheerfully duplicates the process four or five times. Jeffrey Sinclair is a war hero, and gets out of several scrapes with his fists, but he has a pronounced philosophical bent. He may be a warrior, but he is also a thinker, almost a mystic, and ends up as a messianic figure. On the surface, this may look like the birthright trend, but it actually isn't. Sinclair finds his path through studying Marcus Aurelius and other works of philosophy.
John Sheridan also begins as a warrior, albeit a wily one, capable of outsmarting the smartest enemy. In his new position, however, he relies increasingly on his education and his reason, rather then his instinct. True, his gut still sends him messages, as did Sinclair's, but the actions which make him the savior of all mankind are based in his studies. Sheridan has been to Vorlon school, therefore he can succeed. Both Sinclair and Sheridan add to their warrior personae through education. They are not alone.
Ivanova is also a warrior, but she surmounts her greatest challenges by turning away from her instinctive reaction and forcing herself to learn from her enemies. Doctor Franklin, when he ignores his medical sense, spirals into disaster and addiction. Garibaldi, quite the man of Chandler's universe, relies on his gut even when his brain is screaming at him, and ends up paying the piper for it. Through Garibaldi, Bester, and the telepaths in general, Babylon 5 comes close to stating outright that relying on instinct and/or inborn traits only lead to trouble. The characters that claim a birthright, such as the telepaths, are bad guys. This show goes out of its way to champion educated, thinking heroes over those with the supposedly natural right to lead the way. Almost every character reiterates this theme in some way.
Then, Babylon 5 seems to jettison this entire concept, when it appears that Sinclair, Sheridan, and Delenn have been predestined to be The One who will defeat The Shadows. It's revealed that Sinclair is the reincarnation of a holy figure, and Delenn is one of his descendants. Sheridan is elevated above humanity by contact with the Vorlons, and Lorien. All the scenes and episodes that were devoted to denying that they were born to their fate look like a smokescreen. Babylon 5 devolves into the feudal model, where some people are born to fight the good fight on behalf of the little people. However, the argument could be made that this state of affairs is just the result of the choices made at the beginning of the story; even Sinclair's special status was discovered only through his choice to ram the Minbari warship. So, the question of whether Babylon 5 is an example of the birthright trend is arguable; the subject deserves an article of its own.
In conclusion, there are many noteworthy science fiction television shows with heroes who exemplify the birthright trend. This convergence of philosophy mirrors a societal struggle between the value of education and the desire to heap our problems on someone with the divine right to solve them. The urge to create a tough guy as central character, with a varying modicum of wit, but an undeniable destiny to lead, is a new twist on the Star Trek paradigm. The new hero, the Gifted Hero, and the similar Instinctive Hero, are a glorification of the will to renounce responsibility for solving the big problems. The unfortunate side effect is the subtle downgrading of human achievement. In these shows, it doesn't matter how well you hone your mind or other abilities. If you aren't born to the job, you need not apply.
Ingrid de Beus lives in Los Angeles and works in show business. She has a degree in history from a snooty university, and acquired all of her practical skills by hanging out with her strange and wonderful friends. Despite evidence to the contrary, she does not spend all of her time watching television.
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