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5/8/2009
THE ENDURING POPULARITY OF STAR TREK
CATEGORY: Culture, Star Trek

1-12

Today is the big day for Trekies of all ages as the newest installment in the film series opens in more than 3,800 theaters.

Entitled simply Star Trek, the film will fill in some blanks about the young adulthood of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the cast. There will also apparently be a satisfying continuity with the original series as Kirk’s mentor will be Captain Christopher Pike, a character in the original pilot as well as a two part episode in the first season based on the pilot.

Taking a look at the cast, except for Eric Bana who plays a character with the decidedly Trekie name of “Nero,” (Roddenberry loved classical allusions in his creation), the original Spock Leonard Nimoy, and Ben Cross, I am unfamiliar with the players.

This is just as well. It allows me to watch the film and not be distracted by wondering why what’s-his-name was cast in an important role.

It was 1966 when the original Star Trek series debuted. That’s 43 years of watching and internalizing an absorbing universe that has captured the imagination of people around the world. It is an astonishing record of longevity - a franchise, rivaled only by the James Bond series of films.

There have been 10 films based on the characters created in 5 television series that had varying degrees of success. (See John Nolte’s ranking of the films that he started today along with my own attempt at analyzing the best of them here.)

Why has the mythos of Star Trek endured? The original series with Captain Kirk and Spock was an uneven attempt to bring sci-fi to series television. I say uneven because few of the plots actually dealt with standard sci-fi themes. James Doohan, who played Scotty in that series once famously remarked that the original series resembled a western set in outer space.

But there were certainly several memorable shows written by legitimate sci fi authors like Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and David Gerrold (”Trouble with Tribbles”).

Subsequent incarnations of the show did much better with time-space irregularities and other staples of science fiction. But aliens were almost always humans with weird ears or noses - a handicap made even worse by the fact the English seemed to be the universal language of the galaxy.

No matter. Those of us who are fans suspended belief for the hour long episodes that portrayed a society that was something of a radical utopia: The elimination of most violence, no money, everyone does what they want, one assumes free food and medical care - all the stuff dreamed of by Utopians in America for more than 2 centuries.

This is where I believe Star Trek captures each succeeding generation and is the key to its hold on our culture.

Many say the universe developed by series creator Gene Roddenberry reflected his belief in radical leftist politics which, at the time, manifested itself in groups of young people setting up “communes” across southern California where experiments in communal living (including “free love”) thrived for a time in the late 1960’s.

This may be so. There are certainly all the elements of pure socialism in Roddenberry’s human society of the 24th century as this excellent essay on Federation society points out:

Determinism: On the whole, biology dictates behavior. Humans are the race most capable of free thought and action, and have the most cultural diversity. Other races are stereotypical. All members of a given alien race share the same culture, beliefs, and personality traits. For example, all Ferengi are shifty and greedy, and believe in the Rules of Acquisition. Aliens who spend a lot of time with humans (example: Nog) sometimes acquire the human capacity to break stereotype. (Editor’s note: cultural contamination in in Star Trek is a one way street. Vulcans can learn to emote after enough exposure to humans (eg. Spock, Tuvok), but humans don’t become more logical after exposure to Vulcans. Klingons can become more ethical after exposure to humans (eg. Worf), but humans don’t become more aggressive after exposure to Klingons. Ferengi can become less materialistic after exposure to humans (eg. Nog), but humans don’t become more materialistic after exposure to Ferengi. After all, we’ve figured out the one true and righteous path, right? Sounds like the cultural self-satisfaction of Columbus and other murderous European conquerors).

F. Socialism. All people should work according to their abilities and receive resources according to their needs. Individual achievement is recognized socially but not rewarded materially. Individual freedom is not important. Economy should be centrally planned by the government, since they know best who needs what. Commerce and competition are necessary evils. The profit motive is evil. Social problems are caused by scarcity and/or unjust distribution of material goods, but modern technology renders competition for resources obsolete. Federation citizens have access to all the material things they need thanks to the Federation government, so they are free to be truly happy and to maximize their human potential.

But before we condemn Roddenberry for promoting Communism, let us examine another possibility - one based on history and all-American thinking - that would explain his vision in terms that are friendlier (although no less preposterous) than some addle-brained attempt to bring to life a Marxist paradise.

The “perfectibility of man” is a fairly recent concept in civilization, advanced by early Christian thinkers like St. Augustine who believed that the path to perfection was through God, an individualistic view of perfection. The Enlightenment philosophers didn’t reject that notion entirely but included the possibility that science and technology would eventually make the perfect society (Engel’s “scientific socialism” was related but a different animal).

Ideas on what defined “perfect” evolved also. But I think Roddenberry’s vision is informed more by Enlightenment thinking than Marxism. The society governed by the Federation echoes transcendentalist efforts at creating a Utopia at Brook Farm rather than Marx.

An atheist, Roddenberry was a near fanatic about keeping God out of his creations. But the philosophy Picard talks about in First Contact has a spirituality that cannot be ignored. He speaks of a world where there is no hunger, no poverty, no money, and that the desire for material goods has been replaced by a drive to improve oneself. This sounds almost monkish in its implications for a society.

Star Trek society is unreal because if given the opportunity offered in Federation governed earth, man would simply waste away in pursuit of the sensual. Indeed, it seems remarkable that we would have overcome the tendency to allow our baser instincts to prevail in a scant 400 years of evolution. First Contact tries to tie this fundamental alteration of the human condition to our making first contact with the Vulcans and realizing “we are not alone.” One would think that if the recently concluded nuclear war in that movie that killed hundreds of millions didn’t do the trick then why would meeting an alien have much effect?

But such inconsistencies and outrageous postulations about future humans don’t seem to stop Trekies from embracing the society created by Roddenberry and his successors. I believe this is because at bottom, Star Trek speaks to the adolescent in all of us who pine for a society where money is not necessary to enjoy luxuries, chores are optional, and everyone seems to have a teenager’s fantasy outlook on sex; everyone does it whenever they want with whomever they choose and with no messy consequences.

The serial alien girlfriends of Kirk in the original series, the love interests of many of the crew on Voyager, the Lotharian antics of Ryker on NextGen - the writers even going so far as to create a pleasure planet called Risa and a society of mental adolescents that engage in sex like rabbits — the attitude toward sex in Federation society is decidedly free and easy. This is not to say it is necessarily immoral, just that it bespeaks a society that any hormone addled adolescent would love to live in.

The attraction of Federation society does not bear up well if one were to apply critical thinking skills to the consequences of what such a community would mean if it were real. What about criminal behavior> Or a desire not to be educated, or even what would happen if one simply wants to strum a Vulcan lyre all day instead of contributing anything useful to the Federation?

Lacking these critical thinking skills, adolescents simply accept the premises of Federation society that are presented to them. And when we grow up, our fascination with the Star Trek world is partly due, I think, to taking a nostalgic trip back to our teenage years when we had no responsibilities and we weren’t stuck in jobs we hate because we had to make a living. Responsibilities on the Enterprise are not a burden, they are a joy. Who wouldn’t want to fly around in space, killing aliens, discovering fascinating new worlds instead of facing the day to day drudgery that defines most of our lives?

Transporting ourselves into the Star Trek universe then, becomes an exercise in adult fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to have a drink with Scotty or play a game of chess with Spock, or sit down for a discussion of archeology with Picard? And who wouldn’t want a date with Troi or Seven of Nine?

Yes, Federation society is based on simple minded principles. But that doesn’t make imagining living in that time and with those characters any less fun, does it? That will always be the basis for the eternal popularity of the series and the movies; visualizing an impossible future but living it with fun, interesting, and attractive people.

Judging by the slam bang opening predicted for the newest movie this weekend, the franchise appears to have rekindled enthusiasm for the whole Star Trek universe. And the adolescent in all of us is pleased.

By: Rick Moran at 10:53 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (38)