The popularity of Star Trek has made it more influential than many other works of science-fiction. On revisiting The Original Series (TOS), however, there is a lot to dislike. Most startling, perhaps, is the rather crass sexism I critiqued in part one of this series.
TOS, broadcast from 1966 to 1969, is highly rated for its technological foresight. I consider it over-rated, and believe some of the ideas (like video-conferencing) ought to be attributed to earlier works (in this case the 1927 film Metropolis).
However, the real value of the technological dreaming was that Star Trek created a positive vision of the future. That was rare among the apocalyptic visions and dystopias imagined by most science fiction writers, then and now.
Besides the belief that technology would be a tremendous benefit rather than a threat to humanity, the show also incorporates the antiwar message that dominated the 1960s counter-culture. Seeking peace and harmony were considered a self-evident product of an intelligent, advanced society.
However, if you dig a little deeper, the politics of Star Trek may not be worth our optimism.
In Star Trek, the goal was to unite the galaxy within the hegemony of the United Federation of Planets. That organisation, down to its logo and name, was modelled on the United Nations, in the role of a benevolent but ever-present world government. Whenever Starfleet, its military wing, came across a planet with two warring societies, the solution was to convince them to opt for unity, and then have them join the Federation.
This was the polar opposite of Star Wars, another iconic series of space films which started in 1977. That series was about a plucky alliance of rebels, fighting against an evil empire which sought to control the galaxy. It was all about the struggle for liberty. In one of the prequels, at the foundation of the Galactic Empire, Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé Amidala, delivers the wonderful line: “So this is how liberty dies: with thundering applause.”
The Star Trek alternative was, perhaps, an understandable vision in the 1960s, when hopes were high that the United Nations might avert a nuclear third world war. As it happens, it didn’t in the Star Trek universe itself. There are many references to nuclear and biological doomsday weapons with which Earth’s fictional third world war – fought over eugenics and genetic enhancement – was fought. One can think of Star Trek’s Federation as the successor of the failed United Nations, much as the United Nations was the successor of the failed League of Nations. And it suffers the same shortcomings.
For an exploration vessel, the Enterprise sure did a lot of diplomacy, and that diplomacy wasn’t always as benevolent as it looks. The theory was that joining the Federation was a voluntary act. The “prime directive” of Starfleet was not to interfere with any planets’ development. In practice, however, the Enterprise’s missions are more reminiscent of colonialism.
In The Paradise Syndrome, Captain Kirk ends up as a white-skinned god among a primitive tribe modelled on Native Americans. He saves them from destruction, of course, as good colonial masters do. In Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, he tries to reconcile two races – cack-handedly caricatured as half-white, half-black – before condemning the savages to war it out between themselves.
The Enterprise crew brought peace and civilisation to alien cultures whether they wanted it or not. A good example occurs in the episode Spectre of the Gun, in which a space buoy warns the Enterprise to stay away from a particular planet. Instead of respecting the sovereign right of the aliens, Captain Kirk ignores this request and beams a landing party down to make contact. He is surprised when his band of armed, uniformed trespassers are met with violence. After a bizarre recreation of the gunfight at the OK Corral, the soldiers from the Enterprise manage to convince the aliens that they kill only in defence. Worn down, the aliens agree to join the Federation as another jewel in the colonial crown.
The vision of peaceful colonisation and unification in Star Trek does not hold up well when measured against reality. In reality, they led not only to hardship, oppression and civil war, but to the break-up of countries. Besides the many historical partitions and secessions – from Ireland to India, the Soviet Union to Sudan, and Yugoslavia to East Timor – there are hundreds of separatist groups around the world. And if Europe seems a good example of a successful union, consider that it is still young, and a couple of dozen of these separatist groups are active in Europe.
Separatists desire liberty, instead of subjecting themselves to a foreign authority. Too many people seek sovereignty and escape from dominion to think that the hegemony of a political union is the political cure to all the world’s ills.
Ironically, the planets in the Star Trek universe that joined the Federation to secure peaceful relations did so only to find themselves in a constant state of war. In TOS, the Klingons and Romulans were introduced as enemies. Others would follow in later series. Every large power needs enemies and the perpetual threat of war in order to maintain its military budgets and justify its extensive powers. Far from being peaceful, the United Federation of Planets fought hot and cold wars from the start.
Economically, Star Trek is a mystery. TOS mentions “Federation credits” several times as some sort of currency, but they are rarely used, and there is no clear explanation of how they are earned, or what gives them any value. Two decades after TOS, executive producer Gene Roddenberry reportedly decreed that the Federation did not use money, and even Federation credits weren’t currency.
Characters strive for personal improvement, rather than material enrichment, but this hardly ever seems to limit what they are able to acquire or consume. The show clearly rejects consumer culture and capitalism, in favour of a society in which money is simply not a factor.
Venture capitalist Rick Webb goes into great detail trying to explain it, and concludes: “I believe the Federation is a proto-post-scarcity society evolved from democratic capitalism. It is, essentially, European socialist capitalism [with welfare systems] vastly expanded to the point where no one has to work unless they want to.”
This is not a bad call, considering that Europe is both a union and has extensive welfare states. The problem with this analysis is that it supposes the existence of a working class that creates all this wealth for the non-working class flitting about in starships. This supposedly will happen spontaneously and voluntarily, but the episode The Cloud Minders clearly warns against this kind of class division. It is a thinly veiled rehash of the HG Wells story The Time Machine, in which a peaceful intellectual race lives off the productivity of a subjugated class.
Many of the story-lines suggest that commerce is viewed as a low-class occupation. Whenever a trader of any kind makes an appearance in the story, you can be sure he turns out to be the bad guy. Harry Mudd? He turns out to be a greedy human trafficker. Cyrano Jones? Also greedy, and a liar. He ends up being punished for transporting a harmful (and dangerously cute) species called Tribbles. As if to underscore the contempt in which commerce is held, later series would treat viewers to the crude caricature of the Ferengi, on whose planet money is a religion and the women go naked.
The anti-capitalist idealism of Star Trek’s creators may not be surprising, in light of the left-leaning counter-culture of the 1960s. It is certainly interesting when seen in the historical perspective of the Cold War. But despite its refreshing techno-optimism, the economic and political future that Star Trek sketches is hardly one to aspire to.
TOS imagines a sort of socialist utopia, with one government, a massive welfare system and no money. Its inevitable economic contradictions are never resolved. Conformity, duty and honour are celebrated, the characters look and act like military colonialists, and nobody has any privacy at all.
I always cheer for the aliens who prefer to keep their liberty, rather than sacrifice it to the United Federation of Planets. DM