Science-Fiction as a TV genre has always been one to indulge in healthy debates and thought exercises on topics that effect all of us and our futures, whether it be the fundamental threat of advanced Artificial Intelligence in Person of Interest or looking at the sort of society we want to become in the various forms of Star Trek. One of the most popular and long lasting topics has been the role the military plays in our society and just how much power should they be able to wield.
This theme is probably more important today than it ever has been in recent times, with our military actions in the Middle-East going without legal repercussion and the military in other countries playing an ever increasing role in democracy and have their own thoughts on how to protect it, which we saw in the recent attempted coup in Turkey. These issues have long been reflected in many of the best shows out there, with one of the finest examples portraying the balance between the military and democracy in the post-9/11 age being Battlestar Galactica, which saw the military and government face increasing challenges with each other and at one point saw the military stage a coup against the emergency government for breaching its agreed limits of authority.
While this strong tradition of fair critique of the military has until now survived, two of the most popular Science-Fiction series currently airing, AMCs The Walking Dead franchise and the BBCs Doctor Who, have seemingly taken a very big and, in my opinion, potentially troubling step further than what had previously been fair criticism in the space of a few years and are instead putting forward a view of the military that I can’t help but think is naively stupid at best and deliberately insulting at worst.
When The Walking Dead started back in October 2010 we saw very limited displays of the military, mainly due to the fact the core narrative took place an unknown amount of time after the main fall of ordered government, but what we did see painted a display of various actions taken by the military during those final days. During the main body of the first season we saw largely the remains of the attempted military holding of Atlanta, Georgia, with overrun tanks and barricades in the street (such as the infamous tank scene at the end of the pilot episode) and by the end of the season we see what was most likely the military’s last stand outside the CDC, the facility being the last US hope of a cure to the zombie apocalypse.
This view of the military is challenged to some degree that same season at the start of the final episode in a flashback to the hospital, where Rick Grimes was located during his recovery, as Shane Walsh sees the panicked collapse of order, with a handful of troops in hazmat gear executing those they believe infected moments before being killed by zombies themselves, clearly displaying a military overwhelmed by the situation and acting erratically as a result during the attempted evacuation of the facility.
The last we see of the military in any real sense during the main show was a unit of the National Guard during season 3 who had been caught by the Governor. His interrogation of their leader (before he executes him and has his head placed in a fish tank) reveals that this unit had been part of a large contingent protecting a refugee camp full of civilians but an accident, in which someone was bitten inside the camp, saw a mass panic that caused it to be overrun by the infected after someone opened a gate, with the National Guard unit being some of the only survivors. The nature of what happened to them and their fate in the episode is clearly one that portrays them as humans who tried to do their best but then became the victim through no fault of their own.
Cut forward five years later and we see the start of the spin-off Fear The Walking Dead, marketed as showing us how the outbreak happened and turned out but this time in L.A, and while the military are initially absent, with the main force to start with being the quickly overwhelmed LAPD, they eventually show up by the end of episode three where they are shown as the rescuing cavalry, quickly (if coldly) eliminating infected in the suburbs and disposing of the corpses. It is here however the portrayal of them takes a sudden turn for the worse.
Our introduction to episode four, and a nine day time jump plot wise, is via a narration by the character of Chris Manawa, a teenager with anti-authority views, and is understandably skeptical of the National Guard, sarcastically calling them ‘our saviours’ and likening their situation to that of a zoo. However this subjective view of the military quickly becomes the objective portrayal put forward by the show.
While, as seen in the original show and described above, it’s understandable that military personnel would find themselves out of their depth and downbeaten, and to be fair the show does portray this to a small degree through the minor character of Sergeant Castro and his two squadmates PFC Richards and CPL Cole who eventually desert to rescue their families, the show quickly descends into portraying the armed forces in a terrible fashion.
(Sergeant Castro, one of the few decently portrayed military personnel on Fear)
First we have the named characters who are military and all of them are depicted as either being crooked or deranged, such as Melvin Allen up top who extorts from those in detention who he threatens to have taken to most likely be killed otherwise, the leader of the ‘Safe Zone’ Lt. Moyers who has demoralised troops under his command beaten and forcibly takes away demoralised civilians to the main compound, and finally CPL Adams portrayed initially as a nice guy and then victim when the main characters torture but is still later portrayed as a psycho bent on revenge, shooting his torturer’s teenage daughter.
Outside of these named characters the general portrayal of other military personnel is also distasteful, where not only are some portrayed as deserters who attack two of the child characters in a garage but the entire military plan has them executing uninfected survivors outside the safe zone and later ordering the complete ‘humane termination’ of all the survivors they decided to protect in the safe zones to begin with.
This change in the space of 5 years of television from displaying a military who were an ordered if ragtag (and most likely largely destroyed) force even months, if not years, after the start of the outbreak to portraying them as a morally deficient rabble of evil doers who take pleasure in the suffering of others right from the get go.
Doctor Who is a show where it is almost impossible to remove the military element, with the Doctor’s involvement and on and off alliance with Earth based military forces, primarily the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (yes I’m using the original name) with whom the Doctor largely worked for during his exile to Earth during his third incarnation. Hell one of the most well known friends and allies of the Doctor is largely known simply as ‘The Brigadier’.
UNIT in the classic days, set during the Cold War, saw them face off many threats including those of
Fascism and Communism Daleks and Cybermen and defending the British way of life with all the associated patriotic ways (For Queen and Country etc) while being able to make it back in time for tea.
Skipping straight to the 2005 revival the Doctor’s willingness to work with UNIT is still present, with him working with them during the events of the episodes Aliens of London and World War Three in series one (which also saw the last time we see solely British equipment as part of UNIT before everything becomes Americanised) where they were the first on scene after an alien ship crashes in the middle of London, but the Doctor is now also more critical of their actions, with him admonishing UNIT troops for killing the defenceless pig pilot who was afraid of them.
This complex relationship between the two would continue throughout the RTD years and into the early Moffat years, with the Doctor, while on the outside acting like the scornful parent, happy for their help on multiple occasions and angered by the loss of their men in what he saw as senseless killing. UNITs role in the show was always kept as the conflicted one in NuWho, with them at times overstepping their mark, such as in the series four finale that saw UNITs Osterhagen contingency being condemned as a step too far in the Doctor’s eyes, while in others they were portrayed as a necessary evil to protect Earth, such as being the main force who repelled the Sontaran invasion also in series four and attempting but failing to stop Missy’s Cyberman attack during series eight, in part due to the Doctor’s awareness he wouldn’t always be there to defend the Earth. Under Moffat this ‘new look’ UNIT also saw the introduction of two character who’d become divisive with fans, the Brigadier’s daughter Kate Stewart who heads up the UK Science Division and her assistant (and Doctor fan) Osgood who both tried to eliminate the more militaristic elements from the organisation.
Despite this previously complex relationship with UNIT and the military in general the introduction of the twelfth Doctor saw a noticeable shift in personality towards those institutions. Now the Doctor was openly hostile and even callous to those in the military, refusing to help them at times and also hating individuals because of their job. This was centre of stage during series 9 which saw the character of Danny Pink, a veteran with obvious issues as a result of what he saw and did while deployed, routinely mocked by the Doctor (and at a couple of points Clara as well) throughout the entirety of the series, only finally being treated decently by the Doctor after he dies.
While UNIT got a fairly decent portrayal during the series 8 finale their only major appearance of series 9 in the Zygon two parter was the exact opposite. Both the organisation and Kate Stewart, both previously being keen advocates of using force when needed suddenly became overtly aggressive in their outlook, choosing to use violence as a first resort to the situation at hand rather than even considering the diplomatic option in what was already a highly politicised episode. This saw UNIT bombing a building they knew the Doctor was inside of at the time and Kate point blank refusing a peace deal with the Zygons to go back to the situation prior to the episode. Not only was this highly reductive for both the character of Kate and the organisation that was UNIT but it also went against the fairly balanced view the show had taken in previous years.
For Doctor Who there has been a clear change in the depiction of UNIT and the military at large from starting off as almost accepted without question to an acceptance as being necessary but flawed to finally a view that almost seems to paint the military as a force that is actively working without reason to the detriment of all.
This article topic is one I’ve had on my mind for a while now and one that I’ve struggled to start writing as it’s an issue that is not only central to many people’s political views but can also be very hard to talk about given the complex nature of the beast that is the military to begin with.
Despite these two things however, or even in fact because of them, the best depictions of the military in Science-Fiction throughout the years have always been those that have managed to look at both the good and bad of the armed forces and those who have served or currently serve in them. Here however we can see two depictions of the military that are in my view disturbing in how they’ve turned out and are at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former portraying them as a lawless gang who take advantage of those they’re sworn to protect while the other shows them as an uncontrolled force who rule through an iron fist.
Hopefully these depictions turn out to be a flash in the pan and down simply to the political views of some of those in charge and could correct themselves with Showrunner changes that have been confirmed for one of the shows and probably likely for the other as well. If this turns into a trend though I do worry about the theme of military power as a central part of the Science-Fiction genre and any debate around it.
So, there’s my take on the topic of the depiction of the military in two prominent examples of the genre. Now it’s over to you guys. Are there any other shows you feel have badly portrayed the military? What are your thoughts on the depiction in these two shows in recent years and how its evolved? Do you agree or disagree with parts or all I’ve said? As usual answer in the comments below.