Why Watch Star Trek?

Star Trek fans have higher IQs than most. This false fact seemed believable to my younger and stupider teenage self, because the show boasts fascinating discussions and thought experiments. I am a fan, too, which gives me embarrassing bias.  Yet if you asked me to name which series episode X is in, or how I would rank alien-plot-arc Y, I would be too ignorant for a proper answer. I am no fan in the excessive contemporary sense; I do not regard it a substitute religion, and its fandom my people. Any ‘universe canon’ has been arbitrarily decided by those with property rights. Like the Catholic Church omitting gnostic gospels from The Bible, what counts as truly Star Trek is whatever people want to make of Star Trek. Timeline contradictions and fanfiction confusions are part of the fun. Imagine a Star Trek line graph. It fluctuates from high (very good) to low (very bad). And that makes arguing its merits dubious for it is marred by more faults than an ordinary show, and by a weirder reputation than Star Wars. Moreover, by the standard of today’s clean factory line entertainment machine—‘big budgets for small minds’—Star Trek looks dated and lame.


Exactly because Star Trek has traditionally been progressive, its multiracial and multigendered casts and exploratory plotlines seldom make headlines. In a way, the banality of Whoopi Goldberg’s playing the wisest character in The Next Generation or Kate Mulgrew leading Voyager demonstrates how far we have come, and how far Star Trek’s moral messages have become literalised practice. (So-what? Women should be half the officers, not merely lead the whole ship!) And broadening the circle of empathy to construed unknown and weird creatures just does not cut the mustard as a radical humanist message any more. The predictive and altruistic success of Star Trek has manifested in Star Trek: Discovery, its most recent series. It is rated 45% negatively–55% voted 3.5 or higher–on Rotten Tomatoes. A scientific enlightened utopia where everyone is free from needless pain, and education is available through devices, and equality is most esteemed has become the implicit wish of everyone, not the mere optimism of nineteen sixties luminaries.


Nevertheless, Star Trek ought to be loved for its faults as much as its merits. Not only for embodying a historical record or as a franchise whole but each episode as an individual. As already said, when Star Trek is good it is exceptional, when it is bad it is awful. Is the better half the more genuine? I think so. The acting is campy and stilted and heavy-handed; you have an urge that the captain could just look in the camera, break the fourth wall, and announce the moral lesson whenever the clincher crisis emerges. But it doesn’t work like that. It makes you work to imagine what’s going on and stay loyal to the plotline.


Star Trek is remarkable in making the viewer work, and in packaging lessons within entertainment. Since the 1920s (so called ‘the modernist turn’) the idea that entertainment should teach has been tributary-stream. It is not fashionable that entertainment be wholesome and edifying; no best-of film ranking, for instance, features the most pleasant and the most instructive very high on the list. When it does, Forrest Gump, say, it is a funny disjuncture between the (how) form of Gump’s sweet narration and the serious (what) content he tells. Whereas Star Trek always plays it safe; it never makes it into aggregated best-of lists. A metaphor often used to describe it is ‘clinical’ or ‘sanitary’. That metaphor is meant to be off-putting and bad, but appeals to me. You may hear someone say shows are watched for escapism—yet why would they want to escape into the gritty world of The Wire, Breaking Bad or the brutality of Game of Thrones? Instead Star Trek is genuinely escapist. On the continuum of real to fictional, it is far on the fictional end. If a character dies, for instance, there is always another reality where they are alive. If the whole crew is wiped out there is another reality where the Enterprise lives on. If problems arise they are resolved by cooperation. The universe is made ever better and ever more humane. It is, then, a comfy show to watch when ill or suffering, as it always safely lifts rather than brings down. It offers moral messages with hope; fictional shows now fashionably offer spectacle and cynicism.   


True, there are examples like the new Doctor Who series which is lively, happy, and child friendly. Yet that series’ turn must surprise and refresh for a reason. Perhaps the cynicism ought to be called the Black Mirror turn? Black Mirror was named after the black mirror of the turned-off screen, which offers our darkened faces and darkened selves back to us. The scope of Star Trek, though, has been decades older and wider and more ambitious than the leftist agenda of new Doctor Who, delightful as it is—and Black Mirror merely cautions against technology through technology. Moreover as its creator, Charlie Brooker, admits it does not take much thought for a what-if scenario. ‘Imagine if a loved one died, but you had all the data to simulate them – would you?’ ‘Imagine if virtual reality went out of control and became torture – that would suck!’ ‘Imagine if The X Factor was converted into a means to escape capitalist slavery where one can be promoted from earning mere ‘merits’ pushing pedals to applause by a rich celebrity Simon Cowell stand-in.’ (Hmh, familiar. . .) Imagine if there was a literalised ranking system of attractiveness and social-status dictated by a mysterious algorithm. Or imagine the actual potential of living forever in a virtual world.


These what-ifs are not imaginative leaps; they are old themes filtered through imaginary and literary devices. And any time Black Mirror gets happier, as with the couple who can live together forever, there is a sardonic undertone waiting to be discovered. If one could live forever and for happiness, how would life have meaning, or stay happy, when every experience inevitably becomes a repetition? Even virtual—not neurochemical—happiness is impossible to imagine as eternal.


That sort of theme is already covered by Star Trek: Voyager. An immortal partially omniscient and partially omnipotent being wants to die because it has had enough; everything bores it, it has existed as long as the multiverse. Whereas mortals have long aspired to become gods or angels, this angel—a rebellious Q of the Q continuum which spans the different Star Trek universes—wants to go the other way, and become human. This Q becomes mortal exactly because being immortal is interminable. Although that may strike a note as cynical and sad, (it shocks Captain Janeway) it is cheery. Rather than lament loss, the Q society comes to celebrate his passing, and humans re-appreciate their bodily expiration date.


Star Trek is cringe-worthy at times, but that is its chief charm. Its wholesome story-lines are sweet, delicate, light yet profound. In the Star Trek universe, humans may go where no human has ever gone, but they always manage to find a humbling and generous humanist theme where they arrive. Even the euthanasia of omnipotent beings. Other themes include accepting the contingency of ourselves and our own small world; we are the aliens to everyone else. Belief in peace, human and alien co-operation, and the value of education in preventing suffering are Star Trek values. Star Trek is a socialist programme. Each humanoid is deemed equal, and is given equal property by virtue of super 3d printers, named replicators, which are able to re-combine atoms into whatever material is desired by design, from replacement phasers to “Earl Grey tea, hot”. This means absolute satisfaction of economic demand, and therefore material abundance in planet earth and its allied federation planets; universal basic services becomes inevitable. It becomes necessary for the government—The Federation—to provide for the crew and its citizens rather than have them compete over replicators. People have jobs, of course, but these are to serve human flourishing, rather than The Market, and are roles instead of functions. Indeed hologram doctors and superintelligent androids would jeopardise jobs. . .    


Granted, the corrupt alien species still follow a market; yet they are an exhibit of what not to be. The alien species work like a living museum of human civillisation and history. Of course, these species are analogues for human history. Klingons are Vikings; Romulans are Romans; Vulcans are Athenian Greeks; Cardassians are ancient Chinese, and the Ferengi resemble slave and women traders. The similarity is contested, yet undeniable. Klingons fight for honour, Romulans and Cardassians imperial stability at any cost, Ferrengi pursue profit, Vulcans practice tranquillity, and humans arrogantly maintain peace and stability in the galaxy.


Like most science fiction Star Trek is a means to look at now and the past, from a hypothetically cushy (or a hypothetically dismal) future. The speeches the captains give always figure around human endurance and compassion and, how bad aliens were “just like us once”, and how humans could in the same causal chain of experience be also.  Often, the scientific explorations of the enterprise resemble clumsy anthropological expeditions. And just like an anthropologist studies others from their self, so humans study aliens from a biased human-centric view. Overcoming such a human-centric view is vital to understanding the galaxy, and how aliens work. (It is not so lazy, by the way, that aliens are humanoid—Richard Dawkins remarks that with our understanding of evolution, it makes sense that communicable aliens would resemble us.) Yet the gaze upon aliens again folds-back on how humans could well have evolved, and how our societies could well function if part of chaos had happened differently.


Consider the anthropology (or humanoiodology) episode of the Next Generation, Darmok. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is stranded on an alien planet (surprise, surprise) and cannot properly communicate with his alien companion, Dathon. The convenient universal translator A.I has never calibrated to the Tamarians’ language, and cannot translate their strange means of communicating without a loss of sense to Picard’s ears. The audience and Picard make out English but in a series of riddles. Dathon, the captain of the Tamarian vessel rendezvoused with The Enterprise, seems to have captured Picard but is so sweet to Picard that he comes to realise it must be for good intention. After struggling a day Picard comes to understand that “Temba”, a repeated word, is a mythological or historical character. “Temba with his arms wide” means open, generous and giving. An open fist means to seek peace, whereas a closed fist means to attack. When Picard declares, “that’s how you communicate isn’t it? Through metaphor, you cite example!”, he receives “Sokath with his eyes wide open” in reply. To see clearly, to not be blind, to understand, all figure metaphorically with light and the sense of sight.


Just as The Enterprise transporter dematerialises Picard to rematerialise in atom rearrangement back to ship, Picard and Dathon are attacked by a monster, . The arduous process of learning to communicate in the Tamarian language and worldview gains Picard a friend; the tragedy is that it is too late for his friend Dathon. Picard discusses his experience with Dr Beverly Crusher and counsellor Le Troi – a psychic betazoid – who agrees Tamarians communicate as though humans would when citing a cultural trope poetically.  Dr Crusher says “Juliet on the balcony” represents irrational adoration. Contrary to kidnapping Picard, the Tamarians consider waylaying him on the island Tanagra with Dathon as the first step to diplomacy. By having a common struggle against alien monsters they have a common ground. The opening message of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is akin to saying ‘Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta’. (A World War Two peace conference.) By putting Dathon and Picard—the two captains—together they hope to bring diplomacy in the model their people know and recognise; in helping each other battle space monsters (or to continue the analogy, combat Stalin).


The episode does reveal a different way of thinking, a foreign or alien way, yet at the same time does play in universals. Evidence hints time again that the earliest humans were animists. Animists personify the environment without regard for scientific causation. They believe each object has supernatural agency with a rock ‘intending’ to fall, that we are ‘designed’, and that we have minds separate from brain-matter. These beliefs persist now in contemporary humans, who go through what counselors call ‘magical thinking’, believing things were “meant to be” rather than caused chaotically. If magical thinking were not true to our thinking, we could not understand nonliteral speech. Consider how metaphor pervades everywhere. Metaphor is an idea but in that prior sentence is treated, metaphorically, as a substance. The sun can be called a candle, the earth can be called a mother, a nation a mother or father land, and the sun is said to ‘rise’ and ‘set’—none of which are true. Yet they can be understood; what is got at in the phrases is intuited. They are: a lightsource, the origin-point of life, what you are born into. The sun, too, does come-up and go-down to parochial eyes’ position. The fashion for plain, direct, clear, speech and writing is remarkable then since metaphor is always figuring. One thing ‘standing’ for another. This episode of Star Trek conveys how contingent, fragile, and peculiar communication can be when rethought about as alien.


How fascinating a Star Trek thought experiment! My favourite episodes are the holodeck adventures, which provide a holographic simulation (quite like virtual reality, but walk in world without headsets) which make for interesting combinations between historical figures, like Einstein, Newton and Stephen Hawking playing poker with 24th-century android Data. In other episodes the crew encounter a part organic and part machine ‘species’ bent on assimilating everyone into a hive-mind for the sake of harmony at the price of freedom; in another they encounter a Victorian-like society but with matriarchy instead of patriarchy in which women mistreat and own men. In another they encounter a species of humanoid that has no gender or sex but reproduces asexually and deliberately. The acting, special effects, and pacing can all be bad in Star Trek, but when given a long-enough chance the ideas are liminal and the storylines offer much to a sympathetic eye and a generous ear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.