Fifty-five years of Star Trek – a cultural vector and Hollywood cash-cow (Part Four)
By Mark Wegierski
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.
One of the defining moments of Star Trek, as far as the author is concerned, was the premiere episode of TNG, where the Mephistophelean figure of Q (an alien superbeing), briefly takes on the appearance of a stereotypical 1950s American army officer, ranting about "Commies," to show Captain Picard the "primitiveness" of the human race. Picard flinches away from this representation as if it really were the embodiment of the epitome of human evil! He also says something to the effect that humanity has progressed centuries beyond this "barbarism." What is also troubling is how easily Picard can identify an image from over three hundred years ago -- presumably the Federation education system continues to be steeped in late-twentieth century liberal demonology, expounding on the evils of U.S. militarism, McCarthyism, and Nixon. Q then takes on the role of a villainous presiding judge on a gilded throne, with red and black robes obviously reminiscent of medieval or Renaissance Europe. This scene of Q's trial of Picard seemed rather symbolic of a "conspiratorial Left" view of America, with Q (the white male overlord), being served by soldiers in thrall to drugs, and eliciting the support of a crowd of poor, raggedly dressed "common-folk."
It has been noted by some critics that Star Trek often in fact has a rather moralistic or preachy element or tone about it. Many episodes, particularly of TNG, can be interpreted as nothing more than neat liberal "morality-plays," where the audience is expected -- without too much intellectual effort or hesitation -- to draw the proper "lesson" or "message" at the conclusion of the episode. One may indeed wonder if this makes Star Trek typical or atypical of current-day film and television efforts. Perhaps Star Trek anticipates the emergence of "political correctness" as a "new morality."
Star Trek has spawned a huge number of sometimes very intense enthusiasts (the so-called "Trekkies" or "Trekkers"). The passion of this attachment, the memorization of every episode down to the last word, the attendance of conventions which strengthen "the faith," and so forth, strikes one as an over-concentration of time and effort. Star Trek has sometimes grown to command a greater allegiance in the hearts and minds and ways of life of its followers, than many actual nations and religions that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Living in the mostly history-less milieu of late-modern, urban North America, many young persons have been filled with all kinds of ersatz substitutes for "meaning in life." However, Star Trek is obviously only one of the very many identity options available today. And one should stress that comparatively few of such modern-day identities are total -- there is a constant crosscutting and dynamic interplay between the ever-changing and sometimes dizzying array of "roles" one can play. However, most of these "roles" tend to work in a direction that strengthens the current-day system, with virtually all of the "diversity" taking place under a broadly left-liberal banner. For example, one of the lesser-known aspects of Star Trek fandom is a distinct subgenre of fan writing depicting homosexual relationships between Kirk and Spock!
It might be added here, to give some further nuance to the argument, that science fiction fandom is emphatically not monolithic. For example, there are enthusiasts of literary, printed science fiction, who look with varying degrees of disdain at Star Trek or Star Wars fans. Many of the more serious SF fans see Star Trek and Star Wars as "too vulgar," or "sci-fi" (sometimes pronounced or written "skiffy"). Some literary SF people openly call Star Trek “the Blob” – as it envelops such a huge portion of the science fiction genre. "Trekkers" (who see themselves as serious students of the phenomenon), look down on "Trekkies" (seen by "Trekkers" as the particularly intense and socially-awkward devotees). Some Star Trek fans look down on Star Wars fans, as even more socially-awkward than themselves.
Ironically, some crypto-conservative aspects can also be identified in Star Trek, notably the obsession by some with the Klingons (to the point of studying their invented language, which has been codified by a contemporary linguistics scholar), and an often understated hankering for a more "robust" Star Trek universe. For example, among the most popular Star Trek episodes are "Mirror, Mirror" (TOS) (which depicted an "alternate universe" where instead of the Federation, there was a vicious Empire), and "Yesterday's Enterprise" (TNG) (which depicted an alternate Federation that was far more military-oriented, owing to a protracted war with the Klingons). The "paratrooper outfit" of Security personnel in the first Star Trek movie was quickly dropped, while the handsome maroon uniforms in the second Star Trek movie were highly popular. The old psychological core of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, almost certainly has more appeal than the increasingly de-centered and dis-integrated later versions of Trek.
One thing that can be said about the Terran Empire shown in "Mirror, Mirror" is that it looks to a great extent like a liberal parody of an authoritarian empire. The parallel-Enterprise crewmembers in "Mirror, Mirror" are full of viciousness and lust, continually plotting against each other; they are "without honor." While it may be admitted that an authoritarian empire would have fairly negative attitudes to those perceived as servile classes or as outsiders, the relations within the ruling and warrior-elites, would more usually be characterized by mutual respect and courtesy. The more telling critique of the authoritarian empire is not that it lacks a sense of community-closeness and personal decency in relations within the ruling or military caste, but rather that it treats those perceived as servile classes or as outsiders, with contempt.
The DS9 crossover episodes were based on the premise that the parallel-Spock had been able to shift the entire Terran Empire in a peaceful, positive direction -- as a result of which it fell prey to a Klingon-Cardassian-Bajoran alliance. Again, the theme of "Spock, Messiah" -- although his apparently positive intervention had highly negative consequences for Earth.
The author had also seen briefly part of what was apparently a crossover episode of the latest series, Enterprise, but the alternate-Captain Archer was shown as so ferociously evil that it was rather unpleasant to watch.
The author of this article also remembers glancing at a TNG novel, Dark Mirror, which apparently portrayed a parallel-Picard from the Terran Empire challenging the Federation Picard. But that is itself now an alternate interpretation of the history of the crossover universe.
One thing that can be said about Star Trek, with its hundreds of novels and comic-books, as well as an enormous body of fan fiction, is that it can never be a perfectly coherent, consistent universe. Indeed, one of the first Star Trek novels published, Spock Must Die!, can now be considered as only a Trek "alternative-history." (As it ends with the Klingons denied space-travel by the Organian superbeings.)
Actor William Shatner's reaction to the more socially-awkward Star Trek fans speaks volumes. A skit on the long-running Saturday Night Live comedy and entertainment show depicted him (dressed as Captain Kirk at a stereotypical Trek convention), screaming at these kinds of hapless, pimply-faced geeks: "Hey, you there, get a life!!! Have you ever kissed a girl!?!" At one of the Billboard Music Awards in the 1990s, an obviously drunk, completely bald Mr. Shatner, re-iterated his message, saying words to the effect, "Captain Kirk is dead -- get a life!" (Around that time, the Captain Kirk character had finally been "killed off" in Star Trek: Generations, the seventh Star Trek movie. A movie, incidentally, with a cyberpunkish, Nordic villain). In what is perhaps an ironic acknowledgement of Star Trek's central role in his life, William Shatner titled his recent book about his acting career and Star Trek, Get a Life. It could be argued that William Shatner's relationship with Star Trek was ultimately far more complex and profound than is suggested by that one famous or infamous skit -- in the end the so-called “great myth” enveloped him, too.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based science fiction and Star Trek aficionado.