From The Archive: Australian TV Documentary on The Day After (1983)

At AboutSF, we pay close attention not just to strong cultural movements and moments regarding science fiction, but also to when those things intersect with life in our adopted home: Lawrence, KS, home of the University of Kansas and the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. One of the most prominent events to take place in Lawrence, regarding SF and culture, in the past few decades was the filming of the then-unprecedented nuclear war apocalyptic drama The Dar After. Debuting on TV in 1983, it was a colossal cultural event, crystallizing the attention of the entire country around this movie and the issues it gave rise to.

As this Australian TV documentary shows, this event also had significant ripple effects here in Lawrence shortly after it broadcasted. Not surprisingly, many Lawrencians were concerned with the possibilities that the movie displayed: open nuclear conflict and fallout, with horrific consequences. Some residents were clearly in favor of preventing nuclear war by having America building up its own nuclear armaments, while others were against the idea. In perhaps one of the most surreal and affecting moments of the documentary, citizens of Lawrence hold a candlelight vigil in memoriam of the imaginary destruction of their town in the movie. If anything, this moment in the documentary, and the documentary as a whole, goes to show the impact a work of the SF imagination (it would be fairly easy to define The Day After as SF, so I’m treating that as a given here) can have on those exposed to it.

At the same time, close study of SF works and the reactions surrounding them gives us an opportunity to better understand the culture and time that produced it. The Day After clearly served as a flashpoint for the emotions of many: fear, anger, hope, disgust, rebellion, etc. The politics alone that surrounded this movie and its issues are knotty and revealing. What makes this documentary so interesting to me is how, as a product of a non-American TV company, it casts a clear eye at many involved in American politics, especially then-president Ronald Reagan, who used the spectre of a renewed Cold War with Russia to raise support for his “Star Wars” missile defense program while stoking the fires of anti-Communist sentiment in America. It also shows how inextricable the issue of nuclear armament is from other issues, such as the growth and potential misuse of American military power abroad in general (keep in mind that this was the time of the Iran-Contra Scandal). There is a point early in the video when the director of The Day After claims that he didn’t intend to make a political movie, but that claim seems flippant now; given all the documentary shows here, how could it not be political?

Which raises a larger point: how could science fiction ever not be political in some way? The goal of science fiction, in the eyes of many, is to draw relevance from current situations or concerns and project an extrapolated future or alternate reality from those things. There has never not been a time when human beings haven’t been concerned with the political issues surrounding them, however local or global they are. The larger issue that educators could, and should, float out to their students is this: to what end does an apolitical reading of SF actually hurt our ability to understand and appreciate it?