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.

The Colour Out of Space Opera: What is structuralist anthropology, and why should I care?

So, to recap: this is a blog post series, based on a 60-minute talk I gave in 2018, on how designers working on space operas secretly use structuralist anthropological concepts to establish character and mood quickly and unobtrusively, and to differentiate locations easily. You can read the introduction here.

51uTBkmKh2L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_By this point, a few people are probably asking what “structuralist anthropology” is, and, yes, why it’s at all relevant. So: this post will be the quick-and-dirty, oversimplifying, explanation (if you want longer and more complicated, I recommend Claude Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Edmund Leach’s Social Anthropology, Needham’s introduction to his edited volume Right And Left, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Berber House. Yes, there are a lot of French names there– the reason will become obvious in a second. Please also note that the use of Amazon links is indicative only– I’d encourage you to use your local library if you can).

Structuralist anthropology emerged in the 1950s, initially in France (see my recommended reading list above), but with the UK and other places (such as India and South Africa) following close behind (what about North America? While it wasn’t uninfluential, at the time the US and Canada were largely dominated by an emerging culturalist anthropology developed from the works of Franz Boas and his student Ruth Benedict, so took a slightly different approach. Again, longer and more complicated).

The defining characteristic of structuralist anthropology is, essentially, the idea that culture is sort of like language: that people have cultural traits, but underlying these is a sort of “grammar”, which informs the ways in which people possess and express these traits. The initial idea the structuralists had was to drill down through these and identify what’s universal to all humans. While they did identify some things that seem to be common to all human cultures, the problem was that they were expressed differently, sometimes quite radically differently, all over the place: for instance, marriage, as an institution, is arguably universal, but the idea that “marriage is always (or even usually) between one man and one woman” is wrong, dead wrong, and the idea that every person in a given society should, ideally, be married, is also not a given.

Eventually, having figured this out, the structuralists instead wound up focusing on comparison and context: looking at the different ways different cultures address the issues humans face around the world, though without losing sight of the initial premise about culture as a kind of language, with an underlying grammar.

One key point to raise here is the idea of binary oppositions. Structuralists fairly rapidly turned up the fact that human societies love developing informal classifying systems (what we call “native categories”, and incidentally I’ve written about this too), which often revolve around oppositions between categories: nature-culture, raw-cooked, female-male, left-right, yin-yang, etc. But again: this is complicated and problematic, and these binary systems are far from universally expressed or interpreted (“left”, for instance, is “sinister” in the UK, but “sacred” in Japan). Many of my readers might find that list I just gave familiar and even self-evident, but that’s because my blog stats show most of you are from the UK and the USA, or secondarily from Australia and Canada, where all of those are, well, your native categories.

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An example from the literature is the idea, analysed in an essay by Sherry Ortner, that “Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture”: this spawned an entire (very good) edited volume by Carol McCormack and postmodernist living legend Marilyn Strathern, coming to the conclusion that this wasn’t universal, and, even in places where it is, the meanings of “nature” and “culture” and their symbolic relationships to gender aren’t necessarily the same. Furthermore, that it changes over time: what European people in the 18th century understood by making that sort of opposition isn’t what Europeans mean now.

What has all this got to do with space opera? Hang on to your tricorders, we’re going back in….