Who says this? A villain. Obvi. How do I know? I recognize the cynicism and lack of faith in social progress as the damning shortcomings that, in fiction, surely accompany an antagonist. At least, I make this guess instinctually, because that’s what my favorite TV shows from youth suggested.
X-Men and Star Trek: The Next Generation were popular programs that argued for both the possibility and necessity of social progress. Set aside the political implications of the word “progress” for a moment and consider, with me, these shows that made a daring point amidst a middling era in television.
In X-Men, a persecuted minority struggled not only against the ignorance of their society but also the violence of impatient radicals. The show accepted the hero/villain dichotomy considered common practice in children’s television, but took pains to define the heroes as peacekeeping progressives and the villains as cynical manipulators. The above quote comes from the immortal Apocalypse, whose lack of faith in humanity justifies, in his mind, acts of terrible violence.
Star Trek: The Next Generation demonstrated the promise of an enlightened society, located in a future just familiar enough as to make it seem possible. As Matthew Yglesias notes in his article on the meta-series, the protagonists both embody and actively promote a peaceful way of life. Captain Picard seems to spend his whole career helping others while evading the role of Imperialist.
This outlook is exceptional in popular entertainment. Read the anti-super hero ramblings of New York Times movie critics to witness the prevalent perspective that stories must choose between having something to say and having broad appeal. Among creators with the opportunity to contradict this pessimism, the subtext often only serves to articulate a might-makes-right ethos unworthy of a modern thinker. I speak of Christopher Nolan’s authoritarian Batman and JJ Abrams’ Romulan-blasting Kirk. I am always disappointed when creators in these genres live up to their stereotypes as worshippers of adolescent power fantasy.
And now, I begin to worry. It has been a long time since X-Men and Star Trek: The Next Generation. JJ Abrams’ version currently dominates the Trek franchise. The popularity of mediocre X-Men movies has been dwarfed by the Avengers, a Marvel super team that demonstrates the righteousness of a muscular Aryan rather than an oppressed minority. Looking to television, the great works of the moment appear more cynical than progressive. Consider Mad Men, a brilliantly written show that uses a period of social upheaval in US History as the setting for a tale of betrayal, narcissism and deception. Consider House of Cards, a thoroughly engaging drama in which a power-seeking schemer uses education reform as a means to a selfish end. These are all, in fact, works that I enjoy and appreciate, but where do I go for a sophisticated story about earnest world-changers? Don’t others cry out for a new world? My Netflix queue is running low on West Wing episodes.