STAR TREK: MARK TWO
Justin B Rye [MAIL] 1992–1998

Section 9: IDEOLOGY

9.0 DODGY SUBTEXTS (see postscripts)

As Trekkies regard Star Trek philosophy with near-religious adulation, and constantly praise its contribution to Global Niceness, it may come as a shock to them that I regard it as deeply suspect.  Roddenberry picked the wrong subgenre of SF for preaching neophilia and tolerance: a Space Opera setting suits Kirk's human-chauvinism, black-and-white ethics, and anti-intellectual distrust of technology much more naturally than any rational conceptual extrapolation.  Space Opera isn't an automatically evil and fascistic genre (read Iain M Banks' technosocialist Culture novels!), but it takes an effort to make it intelligent and xenophile.

9.1 GUNG-HO REPUBLICANISM (see footnotes, postscripts)

Remember Kirk's little lectures on Liberty, Individualism, and Mom's Apple Pie?  His personal endorsement of US involvement in Vietnam (A Private Little War, ST:TOS2)?  The episode (The Omega Glory, ST:TOS2) where he gets to recite the constitution of the USA?  And speaking of which, there's the Constitution-class starship, USS Enterprise, with its US-Navy rank structure… yes, it's the good old U F of P: a cultural melting-pot in which every bridge-crew (like a war-movie platoon) is a careful blend of token minorities!  … Spotted the subtext yet?

9.2 UNCONSCIOUS RACISM (see footnotes, postscripts)

I have already (5.3) expressed doubts about the Star Trek Universe's multi-racial community metaphor; if the intended message was that differences are only skin-deep, why all those bad-guy species whose differences are as profound as they could get?  Why the organism-chauvinism and contempt for clones (1.5, 1.6)?  If the United Federation of Planets is so tolerant and equal and cosmopolitan, why is it run by English-speaking Terrans?  When was the last time anybody detected any menacing entity heading straight for, say, the Andorians' homeworld?  (er, Andora?)  How is it Q can declare that he's come to put humanity on trial without the Klingons, Androids, Betazoids, and so forth saying I'll be off, then!?  And above all, what about those stereotyped comic relief foreigners, like Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, or that planetful of appalling stage Irishmen in Up the Long Ladder (ST:TNG2)?

9.3 CALLOUS ABSOLUTISM (see footnotes, postscripts)

Judging by Kirk's interpretation, the Prime Directive says never be helpful to aliens unless it's convenient, profitable, or fun; cf. the Monroe Doctrine.  By ST:TNG times it has become an absolutist dogma, which you may furtively break but can't appeal against, that Charity is Evil (those aliens whose planet is about to explode ought to learn to stand on their own two feet – Pen Pals, ST:TNG2).  It also seems to have become more universally applicable.  The Prime Directive used to crop up only in connection with primitive societies; but in the ST:TNG1 drugs episode Symbiosis it forbids dropping hints to spacefaring races who beg for Federation aid.  All for Their Own Longterm Good… Surely, by the same logic, Starfleet has no right to interfere in Romulan expansionist policies?

Note also that the Prime Directive is based on the (inferred) ethics of the benign alien observers imagined by UFO-cultists.  The oddity of this is highlighted in the episodes when the Enterprise becomes a UFO; like First Contact (ST:TNG4), with its brave UFO-spotters versus a Malkorian government coverup.  But hang on; twentieth-century Terran Ufologers never were being watched by the United Federation of Planets!  Are we the only race in the Star Trek Universe with such sad delusions?

9.4 UTOPIANISM (see postscripts)

Life in 2370 is perfect.  We know, because they never stop saying so.

…And so on.  ST:TOS by contrast displayed rampant capitalism, alcoholism, intolerance, sexism etc.; the movies (e.g., the start of The Search for Spock, ST:TMP3) hinted that it was a militaristic bureaucracy.  But by ST:TNG, the United Federation of Planets has become a 1980s-American vision of paradise, with revealing blindspots.  Note for instance the peculiar sanctity with which Starfleet officers' ranks and duties are imbued.  Acting Ensign Crusher may not see how he's entitled (as in Pen Pals, ST:TNG2) to issue commands to people bigger, smarter, and more experienced than he is, but it's simple enough; he outranks them.

9.5 RESIDUAL SEXISM (see postscripts)

Uhura is, despite her soft-focus, as close as Star Trek has got to a sympathetic female, content in a non-girly career with no man in her life.  It's been downhill ever since; name the highest-ranking woman on the NCC1701D!  Dr Crusher (née what?) is a mother-figure; Deanna too is a sexual stereotype, and outside their ordinary chain-of-command.  Notice also that aliens, especially superbeings like Q, are invariably male.

9.6 NEW AGEISM (see postscripts)

Quasisciences (1.0) work well in SF; pseudosciences don't.  The New Age is the latest Californian fashion in parareligious tosh, seeping into ST:TNG whenever Deanna opens her mouth.  (Any New Agers offended by my comments should remember: let go of your judgemental mindset, sucker!)  It's a bizarre (but profitable) syncretistic mishmash, incorporating:

9.7 CONCLUSION (see footnotes, postscripts)

ST:TOS was a respectable effort (for the sixties) to produce intelligent SF.  It at least tried to make sense, and featured US TV's first interracial kiss.  ST:TNG has bigger budgets but less integrity: it reuses the setting not because it was good, but to guarantee an audience for minimal risk and creative investment.  So it can't imperil its ratings by depicting a world where most humans aren't WASPs, women are as important as men, and moral codes can be irreconcilable (Xyzons torture babies!  Terrans eat dead meat!).  The diversity-stifling corporate control of the media has formularised Star Trek into a soap-opera using sci-fi special effects; a genre in its own right, supplanting SF in the minds of the viewers and in the ecosystem of big-budget TV productions.  Resistance is futile…


1993 Footnotes

9.1 I hasten to add that the USA is a perfectly fine country, as countries go.  But I hardly expect Lincoln to be remembered as an early Earth President (The Savage Curtain, ST:TOS3).
9.2 There is for a change one English-accented character who isn't a baddy; but despite his taste for tea, identification with Horatio Nelson, and willingness to take seriously a woman named Vache, he's supposed to be French!  Deanna, meanwhile, is an alien, and therefore speaks with an Americanoid accent – even though the actress is a Londoner!
9.3 Note for those ignorant of American history: that's the nineteenth-century President Monroe, not Marilyn.
9.7 I remember the days (up until about 1985) when the BBC used to produce SF, as opposed to kiddy fantasy spoofs or half-hearted technothrillers.  This will never happen again while they can get hot and cold running Roddenberry.

1997 Postscripts

9.0 B5 has some themes I don't care for, but it evades criticism by refusing to endorse any cause unequivocally.  Witness its handling of the Vorlon/Shadow war.
9.1 JMS doesn't show the USA as dominating Earth, let alone the universe; the Us/Good/Americans versus Them/Evil/Aliens dichotomy is one I'm glad to see the back of.
9.2 Bizarrely, USS Voyager's token black officer is also its token Vulcan (raising the question of why all the rest were melanin-deficient).
9.3 B5 has several times pointed out the questionable ethics of the Prime Directive (usually via the elitist Minbari), and indeed made alien abduction jokes.  (Note the unhelpfulness of ST:TMP8's second-hand title…)
9.4 Although the Star Trek Universe is free to discard Roddenberry's utopianist straitjacket, I have yet to see evidence of democratic elections, a free press, or Starfleet officers with unconventional opinions, let alone crime, poverty, drug addiction, evil corporations, bad laws, discrimination, biassed journalism… the Earth Alliance is far more interesting!  The next step is some sign of subcultures cutting across racial boundaries – let's see some punk Drazi and/or G'Quonist humans!
9.5 USS Voyager's female captain is a cardboard Competent Bizniswimin; the Queen B is a ludicrous piece of misogyny.  Still, this is one of the areas where B5 is itself open to criticism, since its aliens are patriarchal by default.
9.6 The X‑Files strikes me as the perfect disproof of postmodernism, which holds that today's media-literate audiences are sufficiently sophisticated to play around with genre boundaries (like fantasy and documentary) without getting them hopelessly mixed up.  JMS uses religions as material, maintaining a clear quasi/pseudoscience divide.
9.7 By now even the fans should see that the Star Trek Universe is being strip-mined beyond sustainable limits.  Death to the Star Trek Collective!  Long live the Resistance!

Prev | Top | Next

Where Next?  Babylon Five: Mark Two – The Saga Continues!