The Colour out of Space Opera: Red And Blue

So, having got the preliminaries out of the way (part one here and part two here, for those of you just joining us), we now get on to some actual space operas, and the things they do with colour.

Last time, I pointed out that structuralist anthropology is quite big on binary oppositions. Male/female, raw/cooked, nature/culture. Well, nature/culture oppositions are quite a big thing in space operas too. This goes back to the ur-space-opera, the First Ancestor: Forbidden Planet (1956), the prototype for Star Trek and, with it, all of American space opera ever since.

Forbidden Planet straight away set up a colour opposition between culture, rationality, technology and science– represented by colours on the blue spectrum: neutral, quiet, calm. Here’s the spaceship:

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Here’s the crew:

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Here’s the city of the Krells:
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However, when we encounter the Id Monster, representing the irrational, natural, emotional state, its colours are on the red spectrum:

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Meanwhile, just look at what the designer is doing here with Robbie The Robot, who, being a helpful robot built with Krell technology, and serving Morbius, the rational scientist who is in fact the calm face of the Id Monster, is on a rather ambivalent position between the rational and irrational, the technological and the natural:
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This particular grammar of blue/technology/rational, red/nature/emotional, has become a huge part of space opera visual culture– to the point where it’s worth noting that in the climactic fight at the end of Black Panther, T’Challa (rational, technological) wears a costume with blue elements, and Eric Killmonger (emotional, natural) one with red elements.

However, as I also said last time– one of the things about these oppositions, they aren’t always interpreted in the same way. In the 1950s, when Forbidden Planet was made, technology is a positive force, emotions are wrong and dangerous, and so our good guys are in blue, and our Id Monster in red. Twenty years later, however, and with people becoming much less certain technology was their friend, and recognising that it’s not a bad thing to be in touch with one’s emotions, we get Star Wars. And guess who’s got the blue:

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And who’s got the red:

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Which is probably why we also get this association in Firefly. Red:

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Blue:

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Once you’ve established that grammar, though, you can start playing with it. In the prequel movies, before his transformation into sleekly technological Darth Vader, Anakin is clearly associated with the colour red:
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The intention here is fairly obviously not to present him as a good guy– he murders a schoolful of Jedi children and tries to strangle his own wife, after all. However, one of the themes of the prequels is that Anakin’s failure to master his emotions is what leads to his downfall. And, by contrast, Anakin’s son Luke, with his blue lightsaber, on his green swamp planet with his little green Jedi master, learns to achieve this control:

 

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So again we have red/nature/emotional, blue/culture/rational, but whether they’re good or bad things clearly depends on the character and the situation.

Similarly, have a look at the poster for Serenity, the movie which wrapped up the story of Firefly:

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What we have here is River Tam, dressed in green, but in front of a rather red and orange explosion. Tam herself is poised, skilled, and controlled: but the result of her actions is always chaos. So here we have nature/culture, ego/id, represented visually in the same character and in the same image.

To sum up: as discussed last week, space opera has a grammar, expressed through the use of colour. But once you understand that grammar, you can use it to say different things– and even convey completely opposing ideas within the same story, as with Anakin’s journey to the dark side.

Next up: Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7, and other things you can say with nature and culture.

Published by

Professor Fiona Moore

Academic, anthropologist and SF writer, living, teaching and working in a global city.

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