Star Trek: Trekking Uncertainly Between Utopia and Twentieth Century Earth

27 Aug

Star Trek (and its spin-offs) are justly applauded for including socially progressive ideas in both, the themes of their stories, and the cultural fabric of the counterfactual imagination of the future. For instance, women and minorities command positions of responsibility, those working for the ‘Federation’ take ethical questions seriously, both ‘Data’ (an android) and empathy (via a ‘Betazoid counselor’) play a central role in making command decisions (at least in one of the series), etc.

There are some other pleasant aspects of the show. The background hum of a ship replaces cacophonous noise that passes for as background score on many shows; order prevails; professionalism and intelligence are shown as being rewarded; backroom machinations are absent, and the thrill of exploration and discovery is elevated to a virtue.

However, there are a variety of places where either insufficient thought or distinctly twentieth-century considerations intrude. For one, the central protagonists belong to ‘Star Fleet’, a military (and peacekeeping) arm of the ‘Federation.’ More distressingly, this military arm seems to be run internally on many of the same time-worn principles as on earth in the twentieth century including, an extremely hierarchical code, uniform clothing, etc. The saving grace is that most members of the Star Fleet are technical personnel. Still, the choice of conceptualizing the protagonists as belonging to the military wing (of arguably a peaceful organization) is somewhat troubling.

There are other ‘backward’ aspects. Inter-species stereotyping is common. For instance, Ferengis are mostly shown as irredeemably greedy, the Romulans and Klingons as devoted to war, and the Borg and the Dominion as simply evil. While some shows make some attempts at dealing with the issue, attributing psychological traits to entire cultures and worlds is relatively common. Further, regrettably, uniforms of women in some of the series are noticeably tighter.

More forgivably perhaps, there is an almost exclusive focus on people in command. This is perhaps necessitated by demands of creating non inter-personal drama, most easily achieved by focusing on important situations that affect the fate of many—the kinds of situations only people in command confront (in the hierarchical institutional format shown). The hierarchical structure and need for drama often create some absurdity. Since those in command have to be shown ‘commanding’, the captain of the ship is shown giving the largely superfluous order of ‘engage’ (akin to asking the driver to ‘drive’ when he knows he has to drive you to the destination) in a theatrical fashion. Similarly, given the level of automation and technological sophistication shown, opportunities for showing heroism have to be many a time contrived. Hence many of the ‘missions’ are tremendously low tech.

Where does this leave us? Nowhere in particular but perhaps with just a slightly better appreciation of some of the ‘tensions’ between how the show is often imagined by ‘nerds’ (as a vision of utopia) and what the show is really about.