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Star Trek: Cultural vector and Hollywood cash-cow (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 25, 2009
Deep Space 9 (DS9) was another setting, a space station above Bajor, a troubled planet that had recently been occupied by the Cardassians, an evil, rather hideous-looking race. The withdrawal of the Cardassians had left Bajor divided and in the flux of change, undecided about possibly joining the Federation. The Federation’s Commander of the station, Benjamin Sisko, was an African-American, who was raising his young son alone (Sisko’s wife had perished during the earlier incursion by the Borg aliens). The Commander’s obvious social conservatism and bearing of military discipline were increasingly downplayed in the ongoing episodes, among other things by a change of hairstyle (to bald) and by his growing a beard, giving him a more "cool" and sinister look. The other main figures on DS9 were Major Kira, the Bajoran female officer; Jadzia Dax, a woman linked with a "symbiont"; the often naive Dr. Bashir (an Anglo-Indian who played what in earlier times would have been called "the twitty Englishman" role); and O'Brien (an obviously Irish engineer), who just happens to be married to a somewhat shrewish Japanese woman (Keiko). (Yet another liberal device, bringing together a couple from what are some of our own Earth's most different societies.) Two alien figures are Odo, who is an apparently unique representative of the shapeshifter race, and is the personification of strict duty as the Constable, and Quark, a Ferengi trader and trickster-figure (who looks like a sort of big-eared goblin), who is his comic foil.

The planet of Bajor is shown as having a kind of traditional culture, with a long-established religion. What seems to not be realized, is that the Bajoran culture would probably be utterly undermined by the explanation that "the Prophets" are really just another race of transdimensional "superbeings" (of which there have been innumerable other examples in the galaxy). DS9's Hollywood producers also show an extreme naivete in the portrayal of the earlier Bajoran partisan-fighting against the Cardassians, attesting to Hollywood’s all-too-obvious lack of historical knowledge and feeling. For example, it emerges that Odo fulfilled the function of Constable under the Cardassian regime, and that surely would qualify him as a high-ranking collaborator. There was also the case where the Cardassians threatened to destroy several Bajoran villages unless a prominent leader of the resistance surrendered to them. What this ignores is that the occupiers could easily destroy the villages after the leader's surrender. It is never made clear whether the Cardassians are more "authoritarian" (e.g., like the more typical Western colonial administration of "backward" lands), or "totalitarian" (e.g., like the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany during World War II). The more "reactionary" Bajorans, however, are predictably condemned, as for example in an episode that alluded to a Bajoran "racist" organization, who wanted "off-worlders off Bajor." Kai Wynn, one of the leading "traditionalists," was shown as increasingly, outrightly, evil. The liberal stereotypes about the Jerry Falwells of our own world were thereby again vindicated. The Bajorans were also termed in current-day chatter about the show as "the Palestinians of the 24th century" -- a comment that caused some embarrassment, taking into account the analogous identity of the rather hideous and evil Cardassian occupiers.

Seven of Nine
Seven of Nine

Voyager, which premiered in 1995, has a female Captain, a black Vulcan, an American Indian, a half-Hispanic/half-Klingon woman, a holographic doctor in the Spock/Data role, and other exotic elements. In what is perhaps the most gratuitous example of Star Trek's tendency of absorption of "the other," there appeared "the Borg babe" (Seven of Nine), a highly attractive female who was once part of the Borg aliens, the Star Trek symbol for the dangers of collectivism and fascist misuse of technology. The ongoing appeal in Star Trek to an often-frustrated "geek" element is also obvious.  There was a story in the papers that when the actress playing Ezri Dax joined the DS9 show (after the on-screen demise of Jadzia Dax), she was surprised at the extent to which her outfit was padded to accentuate her breasts. The use of such enhancements is apparently a long-time Trek tradition, going back to TOS itself.

One of the central motifs of Star Trek is that the whole universe is "up for grabs" for conversion to the basically liberal values of the Federation. The main large theme of Star Trek is encounters with various alien races (which obviously represent different, unruly, untamed, more "primitive" or premodern aspects of human existence), and their eventual "humanizing" or "liberalizing" in the direction of Federation values. This could be characterized as a co-opting or co-optation of these dangerous, unruly aspects of human character and historical experience.

It may obviously be argued that the major non-human races in Star Trek are inspired by various archetypal or stereotypical aspects of human character and historical experience -- the Klingon warriors, the Ferengi merchants, the mystic Bajorans, the pseudo-Roman Romulans, the collectivist Borg (probably a take on the Japanese), and so forth. In that sense, Star Trek provides a certain series of quick templates (especially in a virtually history-less milieu such as that of late-modern, urban North America) for reaching conclusions about human character and historical experience. However, as will be looked at further below, Star Trek's "take" on much of human character and historical experience, is overwhelmingly liberal.

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. 

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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