A few words about Star Trek

I hesitate to cast myself as a truly hard core Trek fan, because of the negative connotations surrounding convention goers and the like, but I have in fact been a devotee since I can remember. (I have a super retro poster signed by Roddenberry himself.) What with the recent arrival of JJ Abrams’ revamped prequel, I’m positively bubbling with enthusiasm for all things Trek.

BUT unfortunately for whoever reads this, the liberal arts student in me wants to to apply some (totally unoriginal) cultural criticism to the subject. Here we go:

The world envisioned by Star Trek is the ultimate goal of the Enlightenment project, it’s the “positive” end of logical positivism, it’s the future triumph of science, technology, and rationalism. Egalitarianism has been enshrined, money (for the most part) no longer exists, nor does poverty. In Marx’s terms, humanity is no longer shackled to the means of production hence social class disappears. Meanwhile the military, such as it exists, pursues an altruistic mission of peace and understanding.

Mark Twain, who appears on a *great* two part episode of The Next Generation, raises the classic post-colonial objection: “I know what you say, that this is a vessel of exploration, and that your mission is to discover new worlds. That’s what the Spanish said… and the Dutch, and the Portuguese…” And (to jump the gun) that’s what we’re meant to believe about contemporary US foreign policy. Like the US, Starfleet is supposed to be the benevolent peacekeeper of the universe (though each starship is armed to the teeth) and Starfleet values egalitarianism and diversity (though of course it operates according to a strict hierarchy and values conformity among its agents)

Another contradiction: Starfleet crew are meant to uphold cultural relativism via the prime “non-interference” directive. They aren’t meant to interfere with other cultures or intercede in their development. But during pretty much every episode (especially of the original series) the crew steps in to set things right and teach the aliens a thing or two about correct values. As scholar Valerie Fulton has pointed out, Starfleet’s multiculturalism has clear boundaries, since the Federation only really tolerates cultures that have internalized their vision of modernity. The Klingons, Romulans, and Vulcans are suspect — Worf, Spock, Data, and the other non-human crew members are always being put in moral dilemmas in which they must prove themselves loyal to Starfleet and its values.
Similarly, as countless ethnic studies scholars have argued, the “melting pot” welcomes immigrants, but only if they subordinate their own values to those of white middle class culture.

As Katey Rich points out, “Everyone knows that sci-fi and fantasy operate as metaphors for our current world.” Accordingly Trek writers have invented ways to address our own social anxieties within the metaphor that is Star Trek — primarily by re-asserting the Federation (the idealized US) as the best social system in the galaxy. Those episodes of the original series that can be said to be about anything other than crappy stunts were about mind control, watered down expressions of 60’s paranoia. Trek IV is about environmentalism (sorta), Trek VI is about the Cold War, The Borg represent our fear of corporate sponsored techno-media induced conformity, the Kardassian/Bajoran dispute elaborated in DS9 is a thinly veiled allegory for the Israeli Palestinian conflict, etc. The latest installment in the franchise features a fanatic villain (clearly marked as “other” by his speech patterns, tattoos and whatnot) remnant of a fallen empire, driven to terrorism by his mad desire for a return to an arkane social order. Sound familiar? (He is actually something akin to the famous Kahn, whose acquisition of the Genesis device in Trek II perhaps expressed latent fear about the dangers of nuclear proliferation)

It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the the new Trek movie re-invents the original Trek using a time travel trope, setting it up to become the infinite sci-fi franchise. (It’s only potential rival in this regard, the now discredited Star Wars)

I have officially spent too much time writing this, but I will conclude by quoting
a recent conversation with my friend Tracy: “what with time travel and alternate realities, each new generation can rewrite the star trek narrative to express the aspirations and insecurities of its times …forever. It can be a permanent cultural form.” Yes! Trek has proved very flexible to adaptation, partly because it is just cool and partly because it reinforces the fantasy of benevolent colonialism and justified violence, ideals which carry over neatly from the largest American mass media cultural form, the Western.

As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

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