Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A planet where liberals evolved from conservatives?

The other thing I'm digging on television at the moment is Planet of the Apes (the 1970s TV series), because I can't figure out if it's a work of genius or a piece of trite sub-Starsky Seventies action television. On the trite side, the characters are cardboard (with the arguable exception of Galen the chimpanzee), the acting variable, and the plot premises are so cliched that Alan and I have taken to shouting out the ending of the story in the first five minutes. But on the genius side, there's actually an astoundingly subtle understanding of politics in the stories which emerges from all that.

Case in point, a recent episode in which Galen breaks his leg and the protagonists are forced to find shelter with a sharecropping family who are the ape equivalent of Southern white trash, with all manner of racist preconceptions about humans. You just know how it's going to end: the humans will win the racist apes over, and the now-no-longer-racist apes will end up saving them from the authorities. But it wasn't quite as simple as that.

The initially racist apes were gradually won over by the humans' showing them how to use their farmland, tools and oxen with greater efficiency, essentially demonstrating to them that tradition is not sacred and they didn't have to stay poor sharecroppers all their lives. But opposition was staged by the elder son of the family-- because under the traditional system, the oldest son is given a bull calf and goes off to set up his own farm upon reaching maturity, and, while he initially objects on the grounds that the humans might "curse" the cow and cause it to bring forth a heifer calf, it rapidly becomes clear that he's also afraid that the humans' challenge to tradition might result in him losing his chance at independence-- indeed, three-quarters of the way through, his younger siblings, noting that the sky hasn't fallen when they changed their traditional ploughing or watering systems, begin to question why the eldest should automatically get the calf. So what could have been a dull and worthy lesson on racism turned into an exploration of how people contribute to their own oppression by buying into the small benefits the system allows them-- the son is willing to be oppressed if that means he gets a calf, rather than reject the system and maybe not get a calf. Worth thinking about, even today.