Happy 50th Birthday, Star Trek!

First, HAAAAPPYYY BIRTHDAAAAY, STAR TREK! WOOHOOO!

The following is an essay I wrote for part of my sociology degree. Obviously, it’s a little dry and academic but I think you can still get my love of Trek coming through. Enjoy!

UTOPIA – THE FINAL FRONTIER

“It speaks to some basic human needs, that there is a tomorrow – it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids – human beings built them because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”

– Gene Roddenberry, from the Star Trek 25th Anniversary special, 1991.

As noted by Andrew Milner (2009: 827), utopias have fallen out of favour in the last hundred years. Whereas More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic were conscious attempts by the authors to envision an ideal society, popular culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries has favoured the dystopic. From E.M. Forster’s story The Machine Stops (1909) to Oblivion (2013), we seem to prefer our futures to be bleak, frightening and filled with existential despair.

But from 1966 to 2013, there has been one popular text that embraces and promotes the utopian, which portrays and disseminates equality, justice and reason: Star Trek. In this essay, I will examine the utopian centre of Star Trek and why, forty-six years on from its birth, it still has such appeal in popular culture. However, I will also balance this with criticism of Trek as being utopian only for certain citizens since there can be no one-size-fits-all perfect society. Perhaps, as John Gray (2007) contends, utopias are doomed in that they all carry out oppression of dissenters in some manner.

Firstly, we must define our terms. Although Star Trek originated as a network, one-hour TV series, when I refer to Star Trek I do not mean only this series, I mean the entire phenomenon of Star Trek in popular culture. In terms of strict canon, the starting point is the original series (TOS) and feature films starring that cast and successors. It also includes the TV series Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS), Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), Star Trek: Voyager (VOY), Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT) and the most recent films by J.J. Abrams. I would also argue that the longevity and popularity of Trek is due to the engagement of its fans and that all their activity, from fan fiction to conventions can be seen to be crucial, non-canon parts of the text. Thus, when I say Trek, I am encompassing this whole world, the seed of which was one TV series.

The brevity of this essay sadly precludes a detailed history of Trek but an idea of the expansiveness of the text can be seen in Figure 1.

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(Fig. 1 – A Star Trek timeline (Kools, 2012))

Racial and sexual equality were already hardwired into Trek in the first pitch that its creator, Gene Roddenberry, presented to the NBC network (Roddenberry, 1964). The Executive Officer, second in command to Captain April, is an African woman who is “dark in a Nile Valley way” (Roddenberry, 1964: 6). The Navigator is Latin American and the First Lieutenant is an alien called Mr. Spock who is possibly half-Martian and has “a heavy lidded and satanic (sic)” face (Roddenberry, 1964: 8). For 1964, this command layer is diverse, far more so than contemporary US military structures – a woman would not attain an actual combat command position over men until 1989 (U.S. Army, 2013). What Roddenberry wrote as fiction about women in command positions became truth thirty-five years later: exactly the precession of values from utopian to ideology that Karl Mannheim (1979) defined as the core of utopic effect.

However, NBC were not as progressive as Roddenberry. He had to give up his black, female second-in-command, though a good deal of her remains in the character of Lt. Uhura, Communications Officer (Leslie, 2007: 210). From this initial struggle between Roddenberry and the network, we can see that his vision of an egalitarian, diverse future was in tension with the more conservative norms of popular television series. TOS was definitive in setting out Trek’s utopic vision of the future. It was the first US TV series to feature an interracial kiss (Golumbia, 1996: 84) and subsequent series featured non-gendered aliens, anti-genocide themes and sentient machines fighting for civil rights. The universe of Trek, taking place (broadly) between the 22nd and 24th centuries is not only a utopia in that it describes worlds that are physically not our own, it is a euchronia, a perfect future including Earth (Milner, 2009: 827).

From Bloch’s more Marxian perspective, Star Trek is inevitably a product of the contestation of contemporary social discourses (Bloch, 1988 [1959]). TOS was written during civil rights protests and the Vietnam war, it is unsurprising that these issues were filtered on to the small screen, with sometimes only the vaguest of disguises. In the TOS episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the characters of Bele and Lokai drag the Enterprise and crew into their racially-based confict (Golumbia, 1996: 80).

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(Fig. 2 – Left, Bele (Frank Gorshin), right, Lokai (Lou Antonio))

As can be seen in Figure 2, Bele is black on his right side and Lokai is black on his left side. This distinction is what powers their mutual hatred for each other. This antipathy bewilders the Enterprise crew and, by extension, we, the viewing audience. To us, the difference is trivial, far more extraordinary is their bilateral asymmetric skin colouration. Eventually, the two are ejected from the Enterprise, the last two members of their race(s), doomed to fight through eternity. The message here is a clearly liberal, utopian one of anti-racism and tolerance, all the more remarkable since it was aired on network television four years after the Watts Riots which resulted in thirty-four deaths and over forty million dollars worth of property damage (Civil Rights Digital Library, 2013).

Here, Star Trek is in accordance with both Bloch and Kumar’s delineation of a utopic text as opposed to a fantasy text (Kumar, 2003: 65). In its lack of grounding in contemporary society, fantasy text, such as Homer Simpson’s dream of chocolate land (The Simpsons, 1991), does not inform us in the same way a utopic text does. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield would not have been made in a culture where racism was the accepted norm, therefore we can infer that it is the product of a society in which racism was in debate.

There are criticisms of the supposed racial-utopian nature of Trek, however. Golumbia (1996) sees Let That Be Your Last Battlefield as conservative and dismissive of the civil rights movement by conflating the urge for equality with “hatred” which is solemnly condemned by Kirk and Spock. He also notes that the android Starfleet officer Data (TNG) wishes to be a human. Considering that the Federation is constructed to be a nexus for species from myriad star systems, why is longing to be human the only thing Data can countenance? Golumbia argues that throughout Trek, the sign “human” actually signifies white and that human/whiteness is accorded the privilege of being the baseline, the norm (Golumbia, 1996: 87). This is particularly true in what Hurd (1997: 23) calls the Tragic Mulatto: characters such as Spock in TOS and B’Elanna Torres in VOY who are “tortured” due to their half-human (half-white) heredity. With Torres, her Klingon genes constantly present her with the danger of returning to the savage and bestial, of losing control and being too black (Hurd, 1997: 25). Other species are deviations from the white norm and they are valued by how much they can assimilate into the human-dominated Federation: homogeneity is key, heterogeneity is deprecated.

Thus, Starfleet’s hallowed Prime Directive of non-interference, though seeming to enshrine cultural relativism, is broken again and again when it suits humans. This is particularly true of Captain Janeway in VOY with her de-Borgification of Seven of Nine. At no time is it even questioned whether stripping Seven of her existing culture is morally right. The Prime Directive is broken regularly and it is nearly always in the context of the normalisation of humanity as being superior to every other culture (Worland, 1988). This returns to Gray’s (2007) criticism of utopia, the dream of the Federation and Starfleet, a galaxy-encompassing alliance of species, is not far from his condemnation of Marxism and the oppressive states birthed in its name.

Turning to the TNG episode The Measure of a Man, the android Starfleet officer Commander Data is on trial as to his rights. A researcher wishes to dismantle him in order to manufacture more androids (Data is unique) but this process may prove fatal to Data (Harvey, 2004: 263). The episode, a thinly-veiled re-telling of Isaac Asimov’s 1976 novelette The Bicentennial Man, revolves around questions of sentience and (human) rights. After much deliberation and courtroom shenanigans, Data wins. Sentience / humanity is deemed to be not dependent on biological composition but residing within the desire to possess it (again, highly similar to the eventual emancipation of the robot Andrew in Bicentennial Man).

This episode is, again, highly utopian and one of the most widely discussed in Trek fandom. At a Star Trek convention I attended last year, it featured regularly in “fave ep” lists and was specifically cited as proof of the progressive, utopian nature of Trek. The idea that civil rights can be extended to non-humans is, indeed, a complex issue, having implications not only for the way we treat the other sentient creatures with which we share this planet but in terms of the rights of future artificial intelligences which we may create. Trek engages with these issues in a progressive manner and proves Haraway’s quote that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (Haraway, 1991: 149). Even accepting Golumbia’s above critique of the normalisation of “human” in Trek, the symbolic importance of Data’s struggle for acceptance, for civil rights, is totemic and inspirational in the world of Trek fandom.

At this point, it may be useful to extend our definition of Star Trek and incorporate its fandom and the Trek-inspired fiction they produce. Jenkins (1988) details how Trek fandom, more than any other has “poached” from the core texts and invented new texts in accordance to what is deemed the “true spirit” of Trek. Thus, we have stories like Demeter by Jane Land which takes Roddenberry’s original anti-sexist stance and extends it further with the account of an all-female-crewed Enterprise helping a colony of feminist separatists fight off male attackers (Jenkins III, 1988: 481).

Jenkins suggests that Trek has been so readily embraced by women because of the possibilities it offers in a utopian future where sexual equality is a given, not a debate. Even though female fans often feel the core texts do fail in terms of representation of women, they view this as being incongruent with Roddenberry’s ideal and that their fan fiction corrects that gap (Jenkins III, 1988: 479). This is key to the importance of Star Trek as a contemporary utopian discourse. The majority of contemporary science fiction is relentlessly dystopian and this reflects a failure of belief in the concept of utopia, itself perhaps linked to the collapse of ostensibly socialist, utopian states and the spectre of nuclear annihilation (Kumar, 2000). However, Trek is unashamedly based on a future utopia and this is an essential part of its popularity. Deviations from utopian principles in Trek; sexism, racism, speciesism, are seen as aberrations.

Another example of Mannheim’s (1979) concept of progression from utopian idea to ideology is the recent re-boot of Trek via J.J. Abrams’ films. In the new version, we have the same characters as TOS but they take part in a variant timeline to TOS. We meet a young Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), a young Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and watch as they assemble with the other classic characters to become the crew of the Enterprise. In 2009, when it was released, there was nothing extraordinary in the fact that Uhura is a black woman. Since 1966, when TOS was first screened, the visibility of blacks and other non-white ethnic groups in US TV and cinema has increased hugely (Hurd, 1997: 27). To our modern eyes, there is nothing unusual in seeing a black woman in such a prominent role. In fact, US audiences would probably find it unusual if they were presented with an ethnically homogenous cast.

This is the utopian in action. Where once the crew of the Enterprise was notable for its heterogeneity, now reality has caught up to that programmatic, deliberate construction of a future better society (Roddenberry, 1964). Modern audiences, in viewing TOS, cannot see it in its original historical context unless they lived through those times because, in part, Star Trek helped to change the portrayal of ethnicity in popular television and film.

In terms of gender, Captain Kathryn Janeway in VOY was the central character of a popular network TV show that ran for seven years. The actress who portrayed her, Kate Mulgrew, has spoken many times of the many messages from mothers of girls who have been influenced to work in science because of the inspirational character of Janeway (Bowring, 2004: 382). Again, the blueprint that Roddenberry originally drew, of a future society in which humanity had developed beyond sexism enabled (in fact, demanded) we see female captains in Trek. This fiction has directly influenced girls to explore farther than they might have done otherwise, completely keeping with the original spirit of Trek.

In my own life, Star Trek has been something I have loved since being a small child and proudly wearing my first engineering redshirt. As an Indian immigrant growing up in the 1970s, my TV would often feature party political broadcasts by the National Front. Inevitably, the racist attacks at school the day after would be more severe than usual. Isolated in a world where most whites and white popular culture (“comedy” such as Love Thy Neighbour) seemed hostile to me, Star Trek was a welcoming, safe place. I saw, in Trek, the possibility of a future where skin colour would be so unremarkable as to never be remarked upon, where a command crew could consist of Russians, Africans, Japanese, Scottish, Americans and non-humans.

As an adult, I can appreciate the many nuanced analyses of Trek in terms of gender or ethnicity or sexuality. However, I do not see those critiques as fair representations of the Star Trek I fell in love with as a child and the text that has now spread and created a culture, a metatext, far beyond its prosaic origins. Star Trek has engaged its audience to such a degree that there is no comparison with any other modern text (Jindra, 1994: 27). In seven hours time, I will be attending a sold-out preview screening of the latest Trek text, Abram’s new film, Star Trek: Into Darkness. How many other cultural texts have retained such mass popularity over the last forty-six years?

At the core of this huge influence is a text with a utopian heart. This is not coincidental: in our age of fascination with dystopia, Star Trek’s longevity is proof that we still have capacity for optimism, for hope of a better world and a future which is not bleak annihilation but the exploration of a galaxy filled with wonder and adventure.

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