BLOG The art and philosophy of Star Trek and Stargate

What is the philosophical value of science fiction? Blogger Kell Harker talks to artist Martin Firrell about his new Sci Fi Series project

“Chewy” is the adjective that artist Martin Firrell chooses when he’s asked to describe his Sci Fi Series project in just one word. Using his privileged position as an artist and his interest in science fiction and portraiture, Martin has been interviewing some of the best-loved characters from popular American television science fiction for this project; an investigation into the value that sci-fi has in our lives.

Featured on his official website, Martin gives us glimpses of his work in progress with Joe Flanigan (Stargate Atlantis), Eddie McClintock (Warehouse 13), Ben Browder (Farscape, Stargate SG1), David Nykl (Stargate Atlantis), Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek Voyager), and Nathan Fillion (Firefly).

Whoa. Excited and intrigued to learn more about the Sci Fi Series I humbly approached Martin for an interview and he generously granted one:

For those who are not familiar with your new project, can you explain what your Sci Fi Series is about?

Martin: “The Sci Fi Series will present social comment, and philosophical truths about living well, derived from observation of popular American television science fiction. It allows me to explore my growing interest in portraiture (of the actors who have created some of the most well-known and best-loved characters in the genre) and my belief that it is popular culture, rather than high culture that will shape our beliefs in the 21st century.”

“I see this work as an evolution of Complete Hero, the work I made as Public Artist in Residence with the Household Division of the British Army in 2009. In that work I made my first experiments with video portraiture and it was also my first departure from works based purely on text. Incidentally, Nathan Fillion (Mal Reynolds, Firefly) was the first person I interviewed for Complete Hero, so the origins of the Sci Fi Series can be traced back to him. He and I have discussed this, and the fact that Nathan has, and continues to be, my muse.”

“Through all of my work, you can see my interest in art as an agent of positive change and an active force for good in people’s lives. I believe that art should be useful and it should be for everyone. So whilst the Sci Fi Series project may look a little different from my earlier works, it shares this founding belief with them.”

What inspired you to join science fiction with your art?

Martin: “I am interested in the power of popular culture to disseminate sound ideas about how to live productive, intriguing and valuable lives. It struck me that popular culture is often looked down on by ‘serious’ critics or commentators. I wanted to use my privileged position as an artist to counter this by taking a very long, deep and critical view of the ideas in science fiction and their potential value when applied to our daily lives.”

“I decided to begin looking at science fiction because it is a sub-culture I enjoy anyway, and working with Nathan Fillion in 2007 was a rewarding and valuable experience for me. I decided I could build on that experience and explore other science fiction characters and franchises for their value and usefulness in living good lives.”

What challenges have you encountered working on the Sci Fi Series?

Martin: “Of course, much of science fiction sets out to explore rich and interesting ideas, so in some ways the problem was knowing where to start. I had to make a decision at the beginning of the project to limit its scope in the first instance, so I made the decision to look only at American television sci-fi – no Doctor Who and no movies, for the moment at least.”

“The Sci Fi Series is built on looking at the philosophical value of Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, Farscape, and Warehouse 13. There is a logic behind these choices: Star Trek as the great foundation of the genre of popular television science fiction, Stargate as the longest continuously running science fiction TV show in history, Farscape because of its unique strangeness, and Warehouse 13 for its contemporaneity. I would also like to do a future update to the project based on Battlestar Gallactica, focusing in particular on Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell.”

What are the ideas in sci-fi which most interest you?

Martin: “The social ideas of inclusion, cooperation, learning from what is other or alien, family, the way technology changes but our fundamental needs to belong and to be valued do not. I am also interested in the way science fiction has reflected social change usually in advance of other popular forms – racial equality, women’s rights, gay liberation have all been explored by science fiction long before more mainstream genres. This is what makes science fiction so interesting and valuable.”

What have you learned from working on the Sci Fi Series?

Martin: “Sci-fi is a very good place to share ideas and learn together – interpretations differ wildly of course, and that is part of its richness. Because it is speculative in its nature, it supports further and varied speculation. As Kate Mulgrew puts it in her Sci Fi Series interview: ‘Star Trek says there are no answers – come on the journey…’ My hope for this project is that it captures that spirit of journeying together to explore ideas that can form the basis of good, intriguing, rich, and well-founded lives.”

“Truth is, I have little or no idea about how to live a good life myself, and my experience suggests that we are all equally baffled and all equally in need of ideas and advice. Science fiction is as good as source as any, in my opinion – maybe a better source than most. So the Sci Fi Series project is intended to create a platform for thinking about what might be important and helpful to us all.”

You’ve interviewed Stargate actors Joe Flanigan, David Nykl, and most recently Christopher Judge and David Hewlett regarding their characters in the series. Why is Stargate important to this project?

Martin:Stargate is the longest continuously running science fiction show in the world, so of course it is important. But Star Trek is the ‘mother of all science fiction’. At the beginning of the project I decided I wanted the work to have the authority of an encyclopaedia. When I made a work for the 300th anniversary of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, I explored the idea of creating something with an apparent endless depth. This appeals to me, and I believe science fiction fans are so smart and so knowledgeable, the Sci Fi Series project has to be deep and rich, otherwise it would disappoint.”

“So it has always been my intention that the backbone of the project will be both Star Trek and Stargate. It just so happens that we have been able to co-ordinate diaries with more Stargate actors initially and so the work in progress appears (misleadingly) to be focused on Stargate at the moment.”

What importance do you think Stargate has compared to other science fiction television?

Martin: “The stargate itself is an irresistible metaphor, for adventure and exploration, for going out into the unknown. But also for how the unknown can come back through the gate and threaten us. I think it’s immensely symbolic that one of the first things the SGC does is to install the iris, in effect trying to control the unknown. And there’s one of the great lessons of human nature – we want to explore and learn, we want to investigate the unknown, but we also want to be safe and secure from any threat the unknown might represent.”

“There is also a strong thread running through Stargate about secrecy and paranoia – the stargate programme is always kept secret from the American people (who are funding it through their taxes, after all!) and there is a constant tension about this. I think there is an immense resonance with WikiLeaks now – the idea that we would live in a better world if there was greater transparency between the people who govern and the people who are governed.”

“In Stargate we see secrecy and inter-secret-agency conflict constantly threatening the greater good and putting good people in jeopardy.”

Is there a sci-fi character who we should really admire and look up to?

Martin: “There are many characters that are admirable, many that resonate with people. In some ways we gravitate to the characters we find most meaningful. I think conceptual spaces are very important for us. In my interview with Kate Mulgrew, I learned that she was invited to the Whitehouse as guest of honour at a gathering of American women scientists. At that gathering, one woman explained to Kate Mulgrew that it was watching Janeway command Voyager that gave her the inspiration to go into space herself. Here is the conceptual, imaginative space of ‘woman commands spaceship’ turned into reality by a fan of Voyager – I think that is astonishingly powerful.”

The Sci Fi Series is a work in progress, so where do you see it taking you?

Martin: “The thing about making anything as an artist is that you need to understand the precise nature of the artistic challenge you have set yourself. Usually making anything is more a question of solving the problems the making presents (rather than making impressive imaginative leaps). In this case, I knew I had to learn to interview in a certain way in order to allow the deepest interpretations of popular science fiction to emerge.”

“As I began working with the first video material from those interviews, I realised the aesthetic problem was one of portraiture – how do you make portraiture of these incredible performers (and by extension of the characters they have created) that has a clear point of view, a visual strength and distinctiveness. The critical question for me has been ‘in what way are these interviews not DVD extras?’ That is not to disparage DVD extras but to acknowledge that I must bring something more to the process than that, otherwise what uniqueness have I added to the overall conversation?”

Who are you hoping to interview next?

Martin: “Purely by fluke, we have interviewed more men than women at the moment – this has just been a scheduling coincidence. So this year is all about Torri Higginson (Dr Elizabeth Weir), Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun and Vala Mal Doran), and the very next interview will be with Alice Krige (the Borg Queen).”

“I am fascinated by Dr Elizabeth Weir because I believe her to be the single most important woman in the history of science fiction so far. This is because her gender is incidental. I think for the first time in the genre, the character’s gender is entirely coincidental and it is solely her skills as a diplomat that makes her the right person for the job. At the same time, Weir uses her natural advantages as a woman, her emotional clarity and intuition to be the best leader she can be. This makes Weir a critical post-feminist construct. Weir opens a new conceptual space where we stop noticing the gender of our leaders because it has become irrelevant.”

“Ben Browder spoke to me about the curious gender polarities in Farscape. He suggested that John Crichton is the ‘female’ character in Farscape and Aeryn Sun is the ‘masculine’. Obviously the opportunity to speak with Claudia about Aeryn Sun’s power and the burden of that power is immensely intriguing.”

“I am enthused by the prospect of talking to Alice Krige about her creation of the Borg Queen, ‘we are the one and the many’. The Borg Queen strikes me as a brilliant counterpoint to Janeway. It seems interesting that the chief good and chief evil in the Voyager universe are both embodied by women. And also interesting that Krige’s character is austerely beautiful and beguiling, as evil can so often be.”

What do you hope people will take away with them from viewing your project?

Martin: “I am very clear about this. We all know that science fiction is important and rich. And we all have favourite shows and characters. The purpose of this project is to bring as much of that together in one place, and make the exploration incredibly deep. On the basis of that depth, I would hope people could take away new ideas about living fully, bravely, richly, and be inspired by the possibilities, inspired all over again by valuable and relevant ideas derived from shows they know and love.”

“I am not naive – I know many of us take ideas and use them in our lives already, but I want to contribute to that process – make more material available and shine a light on it.”

“And I also want to use my privilege as an artist to say to the outside world, ‘popular television science fiction is important and should be treated as such, respected, revisited,
revered.’ Science fiction has done much for me. Now I want to do something for it.”

Thank you, Martin!

Thanks Martin for this interview and for sharing some sneak peak pictures from the project. Visit Martin Firrell’s official website to find out more about the Sci Fi Series and his other work. Read more contributions by Kell and our other bloggers by clicking on the blogs category at the top.