Source: The Arizona Daily Star,
Thursday, 30 September 1999
UA class sees life through sci-fi
A. E. Araiza,
The Arizona Daily Star)
UA media arts professor Daniel Bernardi teaches a class called 'Signs of
By Kristen Cook
The Arizona Daily Star
Aliens take on many forms.
There are aliens as:
Illegal and unwanted...
Invader, menacing, monstrous...
Daniel Bernardi doesn't look like the type who would know every single
episode of "Star Trek" by heart.
He seems pretty preppy, dressing in button-down Oxford shirts and Dockers
pants. His ears? Not the least bit pointy.
But Bernardi can rattle off the name of each "Star Trek" episode. More
importantly, he can dissect its sociological impact, and he's teaching
University of Arizona students to do the same.
Bernardi, an assistant professor, teaches a new media arts class called
"Signs of Aliens." Contrary to its title, the course isn't devoted to
searching for little green men.
"The class is really about equipping students to think more critically
about pop culture," explained Bernardi, a screenwriter who holds a Ph.D. in
film and TV studies from UCLA.
A longtime sci-fi lover, Bernardi first taught the class at the University
of California at Riverside. The idea was to show students how to analyze
topics such as race and religion but do so in a fun way - through science
People might dismiss shows like "Star Trek" as mere entertainment, but
Bernardi maintains that "popular culture is very powerful."
"More young people watch 'Star Trek' than read the Bible, and look at the
powerful impact the Bible has had on us," he said. "How much do you have to
watch before it starts seeping into your perception?"
"Signs of Aliens" - which has its own Web site at
www.arts.arizona.edu/mar335-02/ - looks at the many forms aliens assume in
literature, on the radio, on television and in the movies. It examines the
sociological impact of aliens, not just considering them beings from other
planets but as the ultimate outsiders.
The class explores such subjects as science, conspiracy theories, sexuality
Students watch films such as "Alien Autopsy," "Barbarella: Queen of the
Galaxy" and even "Born in East L.A.," featuring Cheech Marin, because the
class touches on illegal aliens, too.
Assigned readings include Genesis from the Bible. One of Bernardi's early
lectures proposes that based on the definition of extraterrestrial - not of
this earth - God is an extraterrestrial. So Jesus is one of the first alien
That little revelation usually blows students away, Bernardi said.
"It makes sense, but it also makes clear the social implications," he said.
Bernardi also concludes that a lot of science fiction is racist and sexist.
And "Star Trek" is one of the worst offenders.
Even though the original series debuted in the '60s and embraced civil
rights, Bernardi says the show was inconsistent. It featured people of
color but generally kept them in the background. Women were portrayed as
sexual objects - usually for Capt. Kirk.
"(The show) is offensive at the level of gender representation, but campy,"
A more recent example of racism he contends is the goofy alien Jar Jar
Binks from "The Phantom Menace," the latest of the "Star Wars" flicks. Many
scholars, including Bernardi, blasted the bumbling, Caribbean-accented
character as an obnoxious black stereotype.
In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this summer, Bernardi
called the character "the science fiction version of a character in
Pretty serious stuff. Not at all what Sara Webster envisioned when she
signed up for the class.
The media arts junior said she wasn't sure what to expect, even after
reading the syllabus. But she wanted something different, and this fit the
"It's interesting to see how you can relate (this class) to different parts
of life," said Webster, who wants to be a screenwriter. "It's just really
cool how it relates back to religion and history."
Despite the heady subject matter, even Bernardi himself can't resist poking
a little fun.
In the class syllabus, he explains that overdue assignments must be
accompanied by "an exceedingly reasonable excuse" such as alien invasion or
Bernardi, who's Puerto Rican and Italian, became interested in science
fiction and how race is portrayed while he was a grad student "looking for
an ax to grind."
His dissertation evolved into the book "Star Trek and History: Race-ing
Toward a White Future," which was published last year.
Surprisingly, his office isn't filled with Martian memorabilia. There's
just a framed copy of his book cover and an autographed picture of actor
Pat Harrington Jr., who played maintenance man Schneider on the alien-free
TV show "One Day at a Time," whichran from the mid-1970s to the '80s.
Bernardi admits he attended a "Star Trek" convention once - as research for
his book. Never again.
"I got hit on by a woman dressed in Klingon clothes, and she was growling
at me," he recalled, with a laugh.
He hasn't been to Roswell, N.M., either, a tourist attraction where some
believe aliens crash-landed more than 50 years ago. But Bernardi would love
to go on a field trip.
"I'd go to see how other people interact, how and why they construct aliens
the way they do," he said.
Even though Bernardi's class doesn't explore the idea of whether aliens
exist, we just have to know: Does he believe?
"I think it is arrogant of us to believe we are alone," Bernardi said.
"Now, whether or not there are aliens coming to visit us, I'm skeptical."