Friday, December 27, 2019

Stone Age to Space Age in 1960s and 70s American sitcoms

One weekend I was idling at home watching cheesy American sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s, and I chanced across a very interesting episode of The Brady Bunch. I was arrested by a theme that I've written about often before: the trope which places the 'Stone Age' and the 'Space Age' in opposition. The Brady Bunch was a pretty unlikely place to stumble across a critique of this, but stranger things have happened.

This led me to recall a double episode of my favourite Space Age sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie, set in Hawai'i. I watched this again just as I was beginning to feel my way around my space research over a decade ago, and it's been in the back of my mind ever since. Its themes are similar to the Brady Bunch episodes, and it's interesting to see how they appear to the contemporary eye.

From buffalo to blast-off

In the Brady Bunch episode Grand Canyon or Bust (1971), Cindy and Bobby wander off during a family holiday and get lost. They meet Jimmy, a Hopi boy who has run away from his grandfather.

This is in the midst of the Apollo human spaceflight program: Apollo 14 had been launched in January 1971, and Apollo 15 in July.
Cindy and Bobby meet Jimmy

In the third episode of this story arc, The Brady Braves, Mr Brady rescues the three children. Jimmy says he loves his grandfather, but ran away because his grandfather talked about the past all the time. He says, 'Mr Brady, I'm tired of being an injun [sic]. I want to be an astronaut'. In his mind, the two are mutually exclusive. The 'Stone Age' cannot meet the 'Space Age'. 

When he is reunited with his grandfather, the grandfather says to Mr Brady, "He thinks because I speak of buffalo, I don't understand blast-offs". There are generational dilemmas in this phrase. The implication is that knowledge is lost in simply three generations between the grandparents and grandchildren. The youngsters don't want to know their heritage; the connection between the past and the future is not obvious to them. The grandfather thinks differently, however: for him the buffalo (a term commonly used for North American bison), a species which had been decimated by European invasion, is still the present, not the past. The buffalo symbolises the impacts of colonialism which young Jimmy wants to forget, but the grandfather sees the connections between the 'Space Age' and 'Stone Age'.

Later there's a ceremony in which the Brady Bunch are inducted as members of the tribe and given new names. There is an exchange of values flowing between past and present, invader and vanquished. Of course none of this is as fluffy and light in reality as in Brady Bunch world, but the episodes attempt to break down the idea that there should be a division between buffalo and blast-off - the Hopi boy can have his American Dream without giving up his heritage. It's a hopeful message about the reconciliation between Stone and Space Ages.

'Pity the Indians of Outer Space'

There's quite a few stories of American Indian reactions to the Apollo missions. They centre around the themes of Indigenous knowledge vs 'scientific' knowledge.

In series of stories (I heard one account first-hand from a US anthropologist), American Indian people tell anthropologists who ask their opinion of the Apollo lunar landings that they already knew the Moon was just a grey dusty rock. There was no need to spend billions on a mission to find out what was already known!

Another set of stories has a tribe sending a message to the lunar inhabitants, or the lunar spirits, to watch out for the visitors. They will only steal their land, or ruin the environment as Europeans have on Earth (eg Young 1983: 273).

These stories place Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge in opposition, and are told with the intention of mocking Western science - but the 'superstitious' knowledge of the First Nations people is also satirised. The 'Stone Age' and 'Space Age' still define the encounter. Like all good urban legends, the stories stop short of telling you what happened next. The conflict is not resolved but left hanging in the air.

As Young (1983:274) argues, however, these are different registers of knowledge. Although they are juxtaposed in the metaphor, they are not commensurate. Each requires a different class of action. And First Nations people are not, by these stories, positioned as the first astronauts. They are still excluded. The Space Age is seen as unnecessary for them.

I dream of a terra nullius

There's an interesting parallel in the on-location Hawai'ian episodes of I Dream of Jeannie, which are basically US propaganda to justify the illegal annexation of the islands. Hawai'i was an independent sovereign kingdom until the monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was overthrown by an American conspiracy in 1893. In the 1960s, an independence movement was emerging in Hawaii just at the time when tourism was becoming a big industry. The IDOJ episodes represented space as soft diplomacy.

Hawaii was quite an important place in the US space program. NASA built a tracking station on the island of Kauai, in Koke'e State Park, in 1961 to support their first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury. The station went on to support Gemini and Apollo. Neil Armstrong himself was posted to the Kauai tracking station in 1965 when he was the CAPCOM (capsule commander) for Gemini 3. It's now called the Koke'e Park Geophysical Observatory.

The tracking station on Kauai in 1965. Image credit: NASA
The returning Apollo astronauts dropped into the sea; and the Pearl Harbour naval base, near Honolulu, was where the recovery fleet was stationed. (You might remember that astronaut Tony Nelson finds Jeannie's bottle on a tropical beach with palm trees when he steps out of his capsule). The Apollo 11-14 crew were quarantined in Honolulu.

NASA also used the stark volcanic landscapes of Hawaii to familiarise the Apollo 11 astronauts with lunar geology. In January 1965, the crew traipsed over terrain shaped by lava in training exercises, including a hike to the summit of the Mauna Loa volcano.

But of course, these uniquely Hawai'ian landscapes were not a terra nullius, the legal fiction of a land belonging to no-one. They were only a lunar analogue if you stripped away all history and culture; reduced them to a narrow geology where people had never set foot before.

'Oh, you don't think he's serious about this invasion business, do you?'

Oh, you don't think he's serious about that That invasion business, do you?

Read more:
Oh, you don't think he's serious about that That invasion business, do you?

Read more:
In Jeannie Goes to Honolulu (December 19, 1967), Tony and his comedic sidekick Major Roger Healey are on a 'working holiday' in Hawai'i when Jeannie joins them. The second part is The Battle of Waikiki (January 2, 1968). Tony expresses the desire to meet King Kamehameha, who founded the Kingdom of Hawai'i in 1810, and of course Jeannie summons him up.

Tony and Roger chat to King Kamehameha in downtown Honolulu.
Image courtesy of Sitcomsonline
The script is so entangled with colonial metaphors it would take a whole essay to pull them apart.  I'm not going to do it now! But there are some key points. Famously, Kamehameha was in power when Captain Cook came through and 'discovered' the islands in 1778.  There's a whole narrative of space exploration which co-opts the colonisation of the Pacific by intrepid seafarers, followed by the European colonial voyages, into a supposed universal human 'urge to explore' which leads to space. Thus Hawai'i's subjugation by the US is subsumed into an arc of inevitability. The connections in this narrative are so strongly embedded in space culture that the Apollo Lunar Surface Journals were created in emulation of Cook's journals during his Pacific voyages.

Part of the humour resides in King Kamehameha's reactions to modern technology. 'He has a chance to see what civilization has done for his country' says Roger. The king surveys the office buildings, hotels, sidewalks and motorcycles, but he's not impressed. He insists that they are removed. The astronauts are confused. Isn't it obvious that this is better? 'He's got to be made to see that civilization has helped, and the progress that's been made here', Tony says.

Once again, Indigenous knowledge and western scientific knowledge are brought face to face. Kamehameha performs a dance and causes it to rain (with intervention from Jeannie). Dr Bellows sees an opportunity:
Dr Bellows: Don't you realize if he went to Washington with us, have you any idea what it would mean? 
Tony:  It would certainly shake up the boys in meteorology.
Dr Bellows: Well I think so! Predicting the weather is one thing, but making the weather? Why, we're just beginning to experiment!
Interestingly, Dr Bellows prefigures the current trend to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in land management. Of course, the joke's on him: as Tony points out, no-one would believe him about the rainmaking.

The King is in no mood to be trifled with, and proposes to raise an army to take back the islands. But the only canoes he can find are rented at $2.00 an hour to tourists, and the only spears are souvenirs for purchase in the hotel gift shop. His soldiers are the staff at the 'Living Hawai'i' museum.

While King Kamehameha plans his moves, the NASA staff all head off for a grand luau with roasted pigs and tropical fruits. Kamehameha's attack is interpreted as a performance and his army desert to participate in the luau. The King gives up in disgust.

By the end of the program, he has been brought to heel. 'I do not understand your way of life but my people seem happy. Perhaps this progress is good for them', he says. 'You make sure your civilization take care of my people.' An interesting statement in light of the social divisions unremarked upon in the episode: the local Hawai'ians are employed to serve food, sell souvenirs, hire out war canoes to white American military personnel and tourists looking for authentic tiki culture.

And so by the end of the episode, all conflict is resolved neatly, delivering political stability in advance of the Apollo 11 mission.


The episodes are both blunt instruments and nuanced in ways you don't expect. The Brady Bunch episode has so many cliches and stereotypes, and yet it is basically promoting the idea that the Stone Age and Space Age are not opposed: the young Hopi boy CAN become an astronaut. The buffalo and blast-off can co-exist, neither erasing the other.

The Battle of Waikiki is a reverie on the continuity of colonial manliness, a theme analysed by Anne McClintock in Imperial Leather. King Kamehameha conquered and united the Hawai'ian islands, just like the astronauts are going to conquer space. And like the cannibal mythos, the astronauts have absorbed some of King Kamehameha's heroic qualities. They become his symbolic heirs in conquest. In doing so, they retrospectively bestow value on Indigenous cultures, which are not excluded but incorporated into the narrative while staying firmly fixed in the past.

Hawai'i is still a battleground of Stone Age/Space Age values. It's the location of the Hi-SEAS (Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) habitat, meant to simulate the experience of isolation on a long-duration space mission to Mars. The colonial refiguring of the landscape has morphed with changing USA space aspirations.

More recently, there has been controversy about the construction of a new telescope on the mountain of Mauna Kea.  The easy resort of placing 'Stone Age' in the past while 'Space Age' represents the future is being challenged by protectors resisting a manifestation of colonialism masked in science. It's complex and I don't pretend to understand enough about the issues to explain them here. One commentator, however, has called the protests 'one of the largest uprisings of Native Hawaiians in modern history'.

There are no Indigenous people in space, I have heard stated many times. Space is up for grabs with clean hands as no humans will be displaced, alienated, subjected to genocide. Space is the colonialist's wet dream.

But I would argue that it's a false framing to say that the lack of space Indigenes creates a carte blanche, a tabula rasa, a terra nullius. It's just that we don't recognise how deeply space is now inscribed with white, male, capitalist and colonialist values, as these are the default, invisible to the scientific and military cadres of which the space community is mainly composed. But because these things are defined by what they exclude, the exclusions are already present. You need a different perspective to perceive their power.

McClintock, Anne 1995 Imperial Leather. Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge

Young, Jane 1983 'Pity the Indians of outer space': Native American views of the space program. Western Folklore 46(4):269-279