I’m feeling another funk coming on, but I’m going to see if I can turn it into motivation to do something distracting. Like, I don’t know, writing or something.
So here it comes. You knew it had to be sooner or later. The Star Trek post. This kid is a Trekkie. Deal with it. Anyway, I want to talk specifically about the original series of Trek. You know, the one your mom likes. Its cool though, cause they made a new version of it that was ‘deliberately’ retro and funny looking, so you can enjoy it and still be hip.
The original Star Trek is rightly hailed as a landmark both for science fiction and for television. It broke down barriers, asked tough questions, and generally pushed the boundaries both of its genre and its medium. Moreover, it cast the mold for an entire subset of science fiction that would broadly imitate the model established by Trek. Part of Trek’s popularity came in its idealistic outlook, the notion that mankind would one day leave politics behind, uniting in a spirit of mutual betterment. That said, Star Trek was not without an ideology. The central ethos of Star Trek was an extension of a system of ideas which under-girded the first years of the 1960’s and which Star Trek effectively stewarded through the latter half of the decade. These ideas resonated with the American public in part because they were articulated by this man:
President John F. Kennedy. His spirit is infused in every atom of Star Trek, which in many ways represents the ultimate expression of his scientific and social goals. The utopian society presented in Star Trek has some times been jokingly referred to as being pseudo-communist, with its rejection of currency as a unit of value and other such anti-capitalist trappings. However, the truth is that human society in Trek is much more akin to a vast “technocracy,” in which the predominance of scientific principles as societal movers has reduced all social ills to variables in an equation which can then be corrected for and eliminated. This is the logical end point of Modernization Theory, a school of thought which was really coming into the fore with the advent of the 60’s and which strongly informed Kennedy’s rhetoric. The opening monologue of Star Trek echoes sentiments of Kennedy speeches, particularly the famous “New Frontier” speech accepting the Democratic nomination for President.
“[W]e stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats […] I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
Beginning to sound familiar? It was this ideology that gave us not only the space program but also the Peace Corps. This latter development also informs the Trek ethos, establishing the crew as missionaries of progress. Just as Modernization sought to divest itself of “the white man’s burden,” so too did Star Trek invoke its Prime Directive. Nevertheless, Moderinzation’s frequent conflict with ill-defined notions of “traditional” society made it difficult not to ascribe it a “civilizing” or “westernizing” quality. So too does Star Trek at times feel possessed of a kind of moral agency, a sense of carrying the light of “civilization” into the untamed blackness of space. While it deliberately avoids attempting to “lift up” less technological societies, rarely does it hesitate to “enlighten” them. This kind of high-minded imposition of values can’t help but seem a little poorly fitted with the rest of the series’ humanistic message, but in the context of the time it isn’t so strange. Modernization carried with it a current of objective morality that was in large part a reaction against more ethically subjective philosophies which, many at the time believed, had led to the excesses of the Nazis and the Holocaust. Consider that these events were scarcely twenty years removed from the cultural memory and this kind of sermonizing isn’t really surprising.
Consider also, the primary antagonists of the original series, the Klingons. They represent everything antithetical to Trek society. They are clannish, warlike, and duplicitous. The honor-bound depiction of Klingons most Trek fans are familiar with wouldn’t be introduced until The Next Generation two decades later. In fact, the original history and culture of Klingon society published in the early 70’s actually emphasizes their untrustworthiness. Even their ships hide behind cloaking devices. Certainly this plot-device had the advantage of allowing them to use fewer expensive models on set by rendering the other ships invisible, but it also served to drive home the notion that Klingons were cowardly and alien. Even the iconography used to communicate the Klingons’ “otherness” wasn’t new…
The top image is a Klingon. The bottom image is Fu Manchu. While Star Trek was trailblazing casting George Takei, a Japanese-American, in a leading heroic role it was also putting its villainous archetypes in yellow-face. Some of this was unintentional. The Fu Manchu style makeup provided an easy visual shorthand for audiences who were familiar with its use in villain imagery. On the other hand, the imagery in question was based on antiquated, racially-motivated caricatures. When you also consider that the Klingons were used to represent much the same things as the Fu Manchu archetype; savage outsiders who threaten good enlightened society, the case becomes more damning. More broadly, the Klingons represented the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. According to Modernization, the USSR was state in which something had gone wrong during the transition between “traditional” and “modern” society, resulting in a writ large Frankenstein’s monster with the capacity of a modern state but a savage worldview. So too are the Klingons an advanced spacefaring race like humanity, but possessed of a ruthless expansionistic quality . I won’t go into the problems of these assumptions right now, but content yourself for now knowing that they are there.
Does any of this invalidate Star Trek’s profound impact on our culture? No. Does acknowledging that Star Trek is a product of its time period, replete with compromises, rather than a spasm of divine inspiration mean that you can’t enjoy it without irony? Of course not. I still do. Amidst the unfortunate baggage there remains the fact that Trek created a time capsule for American idealism during an era when that was in short supply. It took the best of Kennedy’s vision and became its steward, its shepherd. Great men can be killed, but their legacies endure eternal. Star Trek is the legacy of the New Frontier, and though it may be long until we finally cross it, these shall be our voyages…