The good and the bad of Star Trek

Earlier this week, The Volokh Conspiracy posted a podcast about the politics of Star Trek. (Find that illogical? Then stop reading. I’m a blogger, not a librarian.)

Star Trek, for those who have been stranded on Delta Vega for the past few decades (that, by the way, is three Star Trek references in four sentences), was a groundbreaking science fiction TV series during the tumultuous 1960s. Just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it seemed as though the U.S. and Soviet Union were intent on leaving the world suitable only for cockroaches, here was a TV series that suggested that people of both sexes and all races would not merely survive, but thrive to explore “strange new worlds … to seek out new life and new civilization … to boldly go where no man* has gone before.” It also suggested a logical destination of the space race, which culminated in the 1960s with man on the Moon, continuing to, in the setting of the original series, faster-than-light-speed travel to be able explore millions of planets suitable for supporting human life.

* The word “man,” of course, referred to “mankind,” not just men. Remember that this was written in the 1960s. Later versions changed “no man” to “no one,” not the first change that was not a positive change.

Star Trek has had a huge impact on pop culture for a series that lasted just three seasons, the last of which forgettable at best. It was the first serious science fiction TV series that featured a world different from this one (“The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were usually set on present-day Earth) as its setting. The format allowed drama, action and adventure, and even comedy interspersed with metaphorical explorations of issues of the turbulent 1960s. Some of the era’s greatest science fiction writers wrote scripts for the original series.

One of the things science fiction allows you to do (similar to any setting before, or after, or away from contemporary today) is explore contemporary themes in a non-contemporary setting. The original series explored racism, bigotry, sexism, economic equality, international relations, wars and “police actions,” cold wars, big countries interfering with small countries, genocide, drugs as escape, guilt and innocence, the conflict between man and technology, and such personal traits as power, our own duality, love, obsession, vengeance and death. Or, if you like, a series like Star Trek allows you to combine, or alternate, action, drama, comedy, farce, pathos and any other dramatic forms writers like. (Although some episodes resist classification.)

The beauty of Star Trek was that, as long as the viewer was willing to suspend disbelief (which is required of all fiction — ever seen a red police car with a big white stripe in real life, or a doctor who loses a limb and then his life to a helicopter, or a TV series that lasts four times as long as the war on which it’s based?), the viewer would be presented with a message, or with 60 minutes of entertainment, or both. (Or neither, in the case of much of the original series’ third season.)

Yes, this is merely a TV series, although no other TV series spawned five spinoff series, 11 movies, hundreds of fiction and nonfiction books, and an entire subculture that started with just 79 hour-long episodes. (Not bad for a series that couldn’t beat such competition as “My Three Sons,” various movies on CBS, “The Tammy Grimes Show,” “Bewitched,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” — for those who think Star Trek is a fantasy, imagine the Marines allowing Gomer Pyle to enlist — “Hondo” and “Judd for the Defense” in the Nielsen ratings.) Many TV series have been on longer (for instance, “M*A*S*H” and “ER”), but neither have been, or will be, as long-lasting as Star Trek. (The one “M*A*S*H” spinoff, called “After MASH,” lasted 1½ seasons.) As with any entertainment set in a period different from the present, attitudes in the series do reflect, in the case of the original series, the 1960s, with, in some cases, unfortunate results.

There is also a perception that the acting style of, specifically, star William Shatner was over the top, but if you watch other TV series from the ’60s, the acting style of Star Trek actors is consistent with the ’60s TV drama standard, which was closer to stage acting than movie acting. (Shatner was a Shakespearean stage and movie actor of note when he was cast as Capt. James T. Kirk.) The byplay among Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy makes all but the worst episodes (more on that later) worth watching.

My favorite character is Kirk. (The fact that I’m a Myers–Briggs ESTJ has nothing to do with that, I think.) As portrayed in the first series, he is the fully realized man — an explorer, a fearless warrior when he needs to be, compassionate, someone who does the right thing instead of the safe or expedient thing (it’s hard to imagine the career of someone in today’s military surviving the number of head-butting incidents with higher authority), a wit (he had — will have? — good writers), willing to nuke the rulebook when appropriate, cool or hot when necessary, an idealist and an optimist, full of both guts and character, and capable of earning almost fanatic loyalty from his people. (And with an active, though exaggerated, social life.) If those sound like the qualities of a good CEO or even manager, that may not have been an accident.

My favorite episodes, in the order that they appeared: First pilot “The Cage” (which was not used as the pilot, but was turned into a two-part episode in the series’ first season), second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Balance of Terror,” “Arena,” “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” “Court Martial,” “A Taste of Armageddon,” “Devil in the Dark,” “The Alternative Factor,” “The Changeling,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “The Doomsday Machine,” “Journey to Babel,” “Obsession,” “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “A Piece of the Action,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” “Patterns of Force,” “The Ultimate Computer,” and “The Enterprise Incident.”

(One irony is how real-life technology exceeded dramatic technology. The “communicator” the series used was the size of what now is a standard cellphone, and the “tricorder” was closer to the size of a VHS tape than today’s PDA — which, come to think of it, can do both functions. Experiments have tried to move matter from one place to another similar to the series’ transporter, which of course was created to avoid the special effects costs of having a spaceship land and take off every time a planet was to be visited.)

I watch TV and movies (sorry, “films”) and listen to music for entertainment, not usually for deeper messages. There is, however, one facet of Star Trek (other than the completely disastrous third season of the original series) that didn’t bother me when I started watching the series, but now gets my attention. It is the same quality that sinks many predictions of the future — the idea that human nature will be somehow defeated in the future.

Most characters in each iteration of the series are either Enterprise crew members, scientists, people the Enterprise meets in their explorations, or aliens. The original series (with the exception of two episodesfeaturing miners and one featuring a bar/trading post owner) has just two characters who could be considered businessmen, and shady ones at that — Cyrano Jones, who introduced the 23rd century to tribbles, and Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd, who didn’t let the law interfere with, for instance, human smuggling.

The next series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” goes even farther. A first-season episode features the discovery of a satellite inside which three people from the 20th century were cryogenically frozen. One of them was a Donald Trump-type who discovered that all his wealth had disappeared, but that was OK because, in the words of the captain, in the 23rd century “We have eliminated need.” That series also introduced the Ferengi, which “have a culture which is based entirely upon commerce”; more accurately, the Ferengi combine the worst stereotypical abuses of unfettered capitalism with the worst stereotypical abuses of patriarchy. Suffice it to say that it is not a positive portrait.

It would be a fair statement to say that the economics of Star Trek are clearly utopian, at least vaguely socialist, certainly based on central planning, and sufficiently redistributionist to be able to supposedly “eliminate need.” Others would go farther and claim that the Star Trek universe is a communist (note the small C) society, featuring the abolition of property rights; state control of transportation, communication and industry; the elimination of religion (or replacement of it with a religion that worships technology and humanism); a two-class system with military, politicians and scientists in one class and everyone else in the other class (just like the U.S.S.R. was); inordinate military control and influence (ditto); and “enforced social uniformity.” Other than the military part, think of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (More on the philosophy of Star Trek, which could be described as “universal humanism,” can be read here and here.)

One person actually created what he thought was the economic history of the United Federation of Planets (the 23rd century’s answer to the United Nations), based on an economic concept called “participatory economics.” As this person put it:

As far as I know, the creators and owners of Star Trek have never made specific the economic system that is used in the Star Trek universe. I doubt they have much of an idea, other than it’s not capitalism, doesn’t use “free” markets, and is probably quite just. From various quotes from movies and the TV shows, we know that they don’t use money (Star Trek IV), they use “credits” (Deep Space Nine), that the encouraged point to life is self improvement, not aggrandizement by wealth (The Next Generation) …

This, of course, is where you know it’s fiction. One of the main premises of the series is that nation–states have been superseded by nation–planets, beginning with Earth. It may be a stretch to suggest that planetary unity is absolutely impossible, but consider this planet, a collection of nations, ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions, at least one of which (radical Islam) having as its goal the conversion or destruction of those who don’t adhere to that religion. World War II ended not because the Allies and the Axis agreed that their differences were not as important as their similarities; World War II ended because the Allies defeated the Axis. The Cold War ended not because the West and the Warsaw Pact had a kumbaya revelation; the Cold War ended because the West’s superior military and economic power forced the implosion of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, helped in large part to those satellite countries’ citizens figuring out that life away from Communist control was a whole lot better than life under Communist control.

You may think that’s a grim view of history. (Not as grim as Star Trek’s version, though, which includes eugenics wars during Bill Clinton’s presidency — you’d think I’d remember that from my first stint as editor of Marketplace, but somehow I don’t — and a third world war with 600 million dead and nuclear winter in the middle of this century.) It is a realistic view of history and not grim because, fortunately, the correct side — the side that values freedom and individuality — has prevailed so far. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, a unified world cannot exist half-nonfree and half-free. To have a unified world, either both sides have to have the same values, or one side has to prevail. So far, totalitarian governments and movements, whose values are certainly different from ours, have lost to governments based on freedom. And there’s that pesky link between economic freedom and political freedom (one of the personal freedoms) that keeps popping up despite the best efforts of governments to break it or claim it doesn’t exist.

The notion that enterprise and money will go away in the future is similarly dubious, requiring you to believe that resources eventually will become unlimited, but still must be administered by an all-powerful all-encompassing government. (If resources are unlimited, then why does anyone have to administer them?) Commerce goes back more than 2,000 years on this planet, starting millennia before anyone figured out theories of economics, capitalism and markets. One Web page terms “a planet-wide government that runs everything, and has abolished money” as “a veritable planetary DMV.” (That is a line I will probably appropriate to categorize any new government venture — say, nationalized health care.)

As another observer/fan puts it:
The basic problem is that Leninist workers paradises don’t work. That’s why the Soviet Union early on abandoned its efforts to have a cashless society and reintroduced the use of money.
Money plays a vital role: It tells you how much somebody wants something that is in short supply. Person A wants to have something that Person B also wants to have (say, a nice fluffy tribble that has been safely neutered). Who wants it more? Money is the best way to settle that. (Fisticuffs not being a good way.) You want this tribble? How much are you willing to pay for it? Supply and demand. …
A society of humans couldn’t be more advanced than us and yet lack money. Whether cash or electronic, money is the most efficient way of settling how wants what how much and thus who gets it. It’s the best way to organize resources on a wide scale. Any other system is going to be inefficient and result in the misallocation of resources and greater human suffering.

Then there’s that sticky issue of religion, which is as fundamental a flaw in the concept of Star Trek as its pseudoeconomics, as this writer points out:

NO human civilization has been able to erase the religious impulse from the minds of the majority of its people. NO human civilization has successfully combined lock-step totalitarian government with soft, fuzzy good feelings and compassion. NO human civilization has successfully combined excellence in all areas of human endeavor with collectivist, socialist economics and politics. I just can’t believe it. First of all, no society in the history of the world that has been Marxist, as the Fed[eration] clearly is, has achieved anything worth a darn. The only ones that have been even close to successful are the Soviet Union (now extinct, or at least dormant) and China (which is a stable society with roots far deeper than its present government). In the Trek timeline, there was a period of horrific genocidal war in the 21st century followed by a worldwide dark age. What motive could get humanity all the way to the stars by the 23rd? What got Western civilization through the “dark age” that followed the sack of Rome? Sunny confidence in the essential goodness of human nature? A love for scientific exploration? Baloney. There are basically two motives behind all human progress: economic advancement (for either survival or profit) and religious belief. Both were absolutely essential to the successful Middle Ages that followed. Both were necessary for the birth of modern science in the Renaissance. A society must be very advanced and leisured indeed to produce philosophers that churn out anti-capitalist and anti-religious ideas and a rarefied intelligentsia that takes them seriously.

Star Trek could be, probably unintentionally, an exploration of the tension between freedom and security. Humans, Vulcans and other sentient beings in the 23rd century can have the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs satisfied by the mighty Federation, leaving them to strive toward the top three levels. That, however, sounds like a sterile and pretty uninteresting, not to mention completely self-absorbed, life. Forget about creating something; never mind about meeting the needs of others. (Oh, that’s right — there will be no need by then!) And, by the way, your choices will have been guided, if not predetermined, by the Department of All. Your freedom of choice, after all, includes your freedom to make what others might consider to be the wrong choice. President Gerald Ford, not known to be a Star Trek fan, nailed it nonetheless: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take from you everything you have.”

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who was a visionary to merely think of the concept (which he described as “Wagon Train to the stars”), fell into the utopian trap of believing that not only would things change in the future, but human nature would change. The characters of Star Trek are idealized people (not surprising given that they are staffing the flagship of their fleet), when the reality is that we flawed humans make mistakes, have always made mistakes, and will always make mistakes, some even with disastrous consequences. We have to consciously choose to do the right thing, every time we have a choice. That ability to make choices not only makes us human; it gives us reasons to get up in the morning.

In the episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” Captain Kirk has destroyed the computer that allows one planet to wage war with another without using actual weapons; their “war” is a computer game until Kirk puts a stop to it. When the planet’s ruler claims that, like humans, they are “a killer species” and thus unable to not wage war, Kirk answers:

All right — it’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it! We can admit we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that you’re not going to kill … today. Call Vendekar [the other warring planet]; I think you’ll find them just as horrified, shocked, as appalled as you are — willing to do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you — peace or utter destruction. It’s up to you.

And on that note … peace. Live long and prosper.

4 thoughts on “The good and the bad of Star Trek

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