Once upon a time, people consumed and enjoyed fiction in various forms. The play, the novel, the radio drama, the comic book, the film, the television show – each had their merits and drawbacks, their fans and their detractors. People enjoyed the stories told by others, and were satisfied with the stories as they stood – or at worst, learned to live with any disappointments they might have felt with the fictions created for them.
Then Star Trek happened.
Star Trek was far from the first franchise to create a compelling fictional universe – Tolkien springs easily to mind as an earlier example. But people who read The Lord Of The Rings accepted the rich world created by Tolkien, at least at first. Tolkien did a fantastic job of covering just about all the questions most people might have about Middle Earth. Star Trek, on the other hand, hit a strange combination of a body of work that people related to mixed with a fairly limited run that left them wanting more. So they started filling in the gaps. They interpolated or extrapolated details about the universe of the Federation from details in the shows. They looked at draft scripts that were never used, or used in different forms, to discover more information. They scrutinized anything said or written by creator Gene Roddenberry, show writers, and anyone else tangentially related to the series. They hunted for clues in costumes, props used by the actors, ship designs, and languages. And slowly but surely, the universe created collectively by the fans far outstripped anything ever dreamed in the three seasons of the show.
So what does this have to do with history? To be frank, absolutely everything. See, everything that Star Trek fans did to build the world they cared so deeply about mirror the tools we use to understand history. Primary sources like the show or like documents written by a historical figure are considered more valid than secondary sources like offhand comments by a show writer or a book written years after the event. Clues based on physical evidence are used to speculate on qualities of a society, whether they’re a tricorder or a triptych – historians often work closely with archaeologists to gain a better understanding of a situation from a more mundane but holistic perspective. Sometimes historians are forced to interpolate or extrapolate information when no real evidence exists. This isn’t a process done lightly or haphazardly, but it’s still only a best guess, though responsible historians will admit to making it and explain their reasoning.
Even this is only a correlation, though. Analogies are a dime a dozen. What really brings the two together for me is that, at the end of the day, history is fiction in a way. That isn’t to say that there’s a plot to create history from whole cloth; this isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s important to recognize that history is what’s known as a construct – that is to say, any work about history is an interpretation by the historian. Some would argue that there are absolute truths in history, but that’s just chronology – a list of things that happened in order. History, as I remind the audience at the beginning of each episode, is a narrative; it’s an assertion that not only did certain things happen, but that they relate to each other and that they matter somehow. What that relationship is, and why they matter, is constructed by the historian using evidence they’ve collected and arguments they make using this evidence. The chronology can be absolute, but two historians can interpret those events quite differently. As one of my high school history teachers and a major influence would say, not only do you need to identify something, but you need to state its significance as well to truly practice history. This is why there can be different schools of thought on an event or series of events without any of the schools contradicting the actual events that occurred, merely the other schools. The Bay of Pigs Crisis certainly happened, but what that meant – for US foreign affairs, for Cuban domestic affairs, for the Cold War as a whole, for mid-20th century Latin America, for communist history, for military history, and a whole host of other ideas – is mutable based on the subject being discussed, the evidence being used, the arguments being presented, and the bias of the historian presenting their case. We ascribe meaning to the event, and in doing so, construct a narrative that mirrors a plot structure; we leave out irrelevant events, we build a clear cause-and-effect sequence, and we seek a resolution. History is an art, which some historians take offense to for some reason, but it really is the art of interpreting the past in meaningful ways. It uses facts, but is never clinically factual. It can’t be. The facts mean nothing without us as human beings giving them meaning.
What makes the Star Trek phenomenon so interesting is that the things people wanted to know about the world are the same things people want to know about true societies and events – things like the culture and philosophy of society as a whole, or characteristics of the languages, or political organization, or economic structures. They wanted to know what other historical events led up to the society depicted in the show. And when an answer wasn’t immediately apparent, fans of the show dug deeper into the evidence to find it – or made best guesses based on the evidence they had to explain these facets. And though they may have been first, as well as arguably the most well known, fans of Star Trek opened the door for fans of various fictional universes to ask similar questions; the fifty years since the show aired have seen a massive surge in people trying to better understand the fictional worlds they’re passionate about. The only two things that separate historians from these fans are the reality of their passion and their more standardized methodology.
So when we produced the Star Wars episode (whose fans I hope will forgive me for going on about Star Trek, its mortal enemy, at such length), it was actually quite easy in that I didn’t need to change my process at all. I picked a topic and read all I could about it, focusing on understanding cause and effect as well as context. I learned what I could about the politics, economy, and society of the world at the time of the rise of Emperor Palpatine. I learned what I could about Palpatine himself and his motivations. I read the chronology of his rise to power, then assigned my own significance to the events that fit the narrative I was constructing of his usurpation of the Republic. I created a story that was neat, sensible, consistent, and most importantly, backed by evidence. The only real difference for this episode is that the evidence was fictional, as was the world in which all of these events took place. The construction of history was otherwise identical. That’s why, as one listener commented, the episode sounded so “serious”; it was. A well constructed fictional world, backed by a large enough body of work, can be analyzed and interpreted historically using exactly the same methods as we use for real history. But what it also means is that people are consistent in what they want from a story, true or not: order and meaning, insight into major events and their causes, insights into the lives of everyday people, and most importantly, continuity. We build our fictions the way we want our own history to be, with nothing at random and everything with a purpose. In fact, no one should be surprised that I could extract a functional analytic narrative out of one of the most popular fictional universes out there; it’s artificial. Facts were created by countless people across various media specifically to fabricate a world and a chronology consistent enough to be analyzed this way. If anything, it should be surprising that we can come anywhere close to that when examining reality.
And in the end, that’s what makes HI101 work as a show. The things that I pulled from Star Wars for this episode, that Tolkien fans argue about at length, the details people love about A Song Of Ice And Fire, are all the same things that historians work to pull from history. People who dismiss history as “memorizing names and dates” just don’t like chronology, and I can’t blame them; it’s incredibly boring. Whoever taught them that that’s what history is was a poor teacher. History, in part, is being a fan of our own story as a species. Historians take the seemingly random events and make sense of them. They read the theories that other historians have put out there, and try to poke holes if they disagree. They get excited when a link appears between two things they didn’t realize had any connection. We only have canon to work with – no one’s coming along to build us a series of Del Rey books that will answer questions we have – but we’re doing all the same things. Or rather, a devoted fan is doing what a good historian does, possibly without realizing it. So that’s what fiction teaches us about history: that history doesn’t exist without passionate people to ascribe it meaning, and that our fiction will in general try to answer the same questions we ask of reality. Making the Star Wars episode was fun, but it wasn’t frivolous. It was still interpreting history. We just tried a different chronology as source material to change things up a little.
So don’t be a fan of names and dates. Those are boring and only useful as evidence. Be a fan of the stories. History is instructive, yes, but it’s also so incredibly interesting! Trust me – historians write some of the best fan fiction out there. We have really good canon, and we’ve been doing it for thousands of years longer than anyone else.
Take that, Star Trek.