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Fifty-five years of Star Trek -- a cultural vector and Hollywood cash-cow (Part Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted September 27, 2021

Note: This article was not prepared, approved, licensed, or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing the Star Trek television series or films.

What are the values of the Federation, as represented in Star Trek over the years? They could be perceived as being relentlessly secular-humanist and “New Age,” as far as actual human religions are concerned. As far as the author is aware, there has never appeared any emblem or figure of any Earth religion (as such) in any episode of Star Trek, apart from the dying pagan god Apollo (TOS), an "evil angel" (TOS), and an American Indian native spirit (Voyager). (It has only become more generally known much later that the famous Vulcan greeting had actually been derived by the producers from a real-world Jewish observance.) The line from the dying Apollo episode where Kirk says something along the lines that one God is enough for him is frequently cited as an overt reference to religion in TOS. There were also references to the Christians in Rome situation in TOS (featuring a parallel-Earth where Rome had never fallen, and Christianity continued as a small, idealistic, persecuted sect); and in the “Unification” episodes of TNG, on the home planet of the Romulans, with "enlightened Romulans" in the catacombs with Spock as their leader. There was also the episode of TOS that alluded to the Holocaust. The theme of "Spock, Messiah" has also run through many parts of Star Trek, notably, the third movie. An interesting comment on the evolution of the Spock role and its place in popular culture is Leonard Nimoy's earlier biography, I Am Not Spock (where he pleaded somewhat to be recognized not only for his Spock role), to his latest biography (with his aged and wizened face on the cover), where he simply says, I Am Spock.

Generally-speaking, it may be said that Star Trek mirrors (in virtually every episode and film), Roddenberry's obsessions with "near-gods," "failed gods," "false gods," and "pseudo-gods," as well as fictive alien religions and cults – much of which could be seen as highly unsettling variants of Gnostic speculation.

One often finds a stiltedness in many Star Trek plots, too often relying on the deus ex machina (that is, “god from a machine”) (sometimes literally), often based on the quick and highly improbable technological fix. All too often, one finds some god-like superbeing/s introduced near the end of the episode, to be never again seen in a future installment. The classic example of this are the Organians in TOS. Although reference was made to the Organian-imposed peace treaty in a few subsequent episodes, at some point these superbeings simply disappeared from the Star Trek universe. 

Another aspect of Star Trek is the old-fashioned-liberal homage which it pays to classical music and art (e.g., Shakespeare). As far as the author is aware, something akin to rock music and similar musical genres, has very rarely appeared in the Star Trek universe. (Although there was an episode of TOS that alluded to Sixties’ hippie culture.) The optimism of Star Trek virtually precludes the appearance of late modern forms of music and art (especially in their more extreme forms), which rather than "soothing the savage beast" (as the old saying goes) -- can sometimes be seen as actually contributing to making one into a savage beast. The appearance of rock and rap music (specifically, of their more extreme subgenres) would throw into relief the possible grunge and alienation which the Star Trek future is said to have left far behind. Indeed, the Star Trek future (at least for Earth), appears to be irrepressibly "nice" and optimistic. This stands in strong contrast to the "gritty future" or so-called "air-conditioned nightmare" presented in such works as: Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner (a brilliant rendering of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?); Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (audaciously filmed by Stanley Kubrick); and in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction in general (typified by William Gibson's Neuromancer).

Star Trek could be seen as not much better than a more positive take on that antiseptic, well-ordered dystopia, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It is also in some ways nothing more than a somewhat elegant updating of the optimistic, super-scientific projections of science-fiction pioneer Hugo Gernsback’s 1920s and 1930s science-fiction and futurism (typified by air-cars, moving sidewalks, and gleaming jumpsuits). It should be noted, however, that the first major "dark-future" film, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, had also appeared in the 1920s. It could be argued that in current-day, late-modern society, all the promise of a shiny, happy, liberal (so-called) "utopia" (which to a traditionalist, is actually also a dystopia), has moved in the direction of turning into the ashes of a "gritty" dystopia typified by the cityscape, mediascape, and soundscape of Blade Runner.

The Earth of Star Trek's future is also one where any real national identities are at best superficial. There is not merely a world-government, but an interplanetary and interstellar one. And, as in the real world over the last three decades, there has been a relentless push in Star Trek of advancing the outré and minority tendencies at the expense of more traditional social roles and conventions. White males became increasingly less prominent in the Star Trek shows, and there were often such scenes as, for example, a Black female admiral berating Picard for his stupid mistakes. Indeed, some conservatives have complained that the Federation is effectively a matriarchy. However, some years ago, gay activists had denounced the fact that persons who are unambiguously homosexuals and homosexual couples – as opposed to some situations and characters which hinted at gayness -- had hitherto never appeared on Star Trek.

One of the perennial traits of Star Trek is its drive to what could be called "pluralization." For example, for almost every culture shown, no matter how uniform, conformist, or masculine-ruled in the beginning, there always begin to appear "women and minorities." For example, there have now appeared "the Black Vulcan," a few Black Bajorans, an extremely influential female Cardassian leader, and "the Borg Queen" (yet another powerful female figure from that group). Among the Ferengi, who were initially said to standardly keep their females unclothed at home, there has appeared an independent and highly intelligent female, who masquerades as a male of the species.

All this could be seen as paralleling the unceasing, unrelenting "liberationist" drive for placing “the first” woman or minority in virtually every social, political, and cultural institution as well as workplace in Western societies – to be followed by ever-increasing, multifarious “diversity” at every level.  And anything that prevents the emergence, for example, of a Black lesbian Pope, tends to risk being denounced by ever more politically-correct opinion-makers as "illegitimate privilege.”

The central principle of Star Trek (discussed in some of the literature, but which never quite made it onto the screen) is said to be IDIC -- Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. This is the central principle that Spock is said to be guided by, which is rather ironic, considering how deeply rooted he seems to be in his Vulcan heritage. Indeed, Spock, in the manner of "accredited minorities," is allowed to celebrate his flourishing and "thick" identity -- whereas humans in the Federation have to embrace a definition of IDIC that consists of complete openness and amorphous self-definition, where "the universal idea of human rights" (and its proceduralist "working out") supersedes one's own possibility of having what might be seen as a more authentic sense of rootedness and self-worth.

Some persons have identified the economic system of Star Trek as "market socialism," i.e., business is allowed to exist, but it must turn over most of its profits to "the public good" (probably as defined by Star Fleet or the Federation government). Some screenwriter had also worked in references to the abolition of “animal slavery” in the Star Trek future.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based science fiction and Star Trek aficionado.

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