Star Trek Iconoclast
Writer’s comment: So there I was, my first day in English 103A, and my first day at UC Davis as a transfer student, and somebody mentioned that the course could be tested through. “Aw, man!” I thought, “I could’ve avoided this class altogether!” I spent the next few days cursing myself for not reading that paragraph in the UCD catalog. Wrong reaction—testing through the course would have been a big mistake! I learned more about writing (and how I write) in 103A than any class before or since. And one of the best parts of the course was when we had to develop and explore a pop-culture theme (let’s face it, you can’t get much more pop-culturish than Star Trek).
Instructor’s comment: Finding an original voice is impossible without having something to say. In my English 103A class, students were encouraged to take a stand, pick an uncommon topic, and otherwise go where no writer had gone before—into the unique recesses of their own minds and memories. Few students accomplished this as compellingly as Christian Farr in his cultural critique of Star Trek. Trek’s political undercurrent plays out in this essay wonderfully, so that Chris uses an ironic affection and a large intelligence to give us both the show’s devil-may-care attitude and its powerful colonial subtext.
—Jan Van Stavern, English Department
Star Trek mirrored the Cold War/Vietnam paranoia of the late sixties—in command of the Enterprise, the Federation had an uneasy peace with its adversaries, the Klingons and Romulans (there were many episodes that came down to Kirk vs. the Klingons). In one episode Kirk and his Klingon counterpart each tried to influence an emerging culture to see things their way—remember Vietnam, Chile, and El Salvador? In another, Kirk and Spock were sent to spy on the Romulans so they could steal their cloak (stealth?) technology. And there was Kirk: yellow shirt torn across his chest, with blood on his forehead or across his cheekbone. There would be a weapon in his hand—something primitive, a knife perhaps—and he would circle the battleground (often an arena for those barbaric aliens) staring intensely at his opponent. In the background there would be dramatic music (what comedian Dana Gould refers to as the “Star Trek fist fight theme”). Suddenly the combatants would join in their deadly dance until, inevitably, Kirk would stand victorious over his enemy, a powerful example of a superior culture. Indeed, Kirk often displayed cultural superiority over his amorous conquests; he was irresistible to alien women because he was such a fine example of a superior culture. The lusty-busty alienettes would flock to him (much to the distress of their fellow aliens) and Kirk would show them what it meant to be in the Federation.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the Cold War raged on. And Star Trek’s masters used characters like Chekov to ridicule the Soviet Union. Remember his accent? And what about all his claims of Russian cultural superiority? What about the fact that he would say—straight faced—that the Russians invented the phone, that Shakespeare was Russian, and that Russia was the source of all culture, while Kirk (and his audience) knew that all the things Chekov claimed as Russian were part of our dominant West; knew that Chekov, and by extension Russia, was one big joke. But the fact that he was there at all (as a minority) reassured an American audience that the United States was superior and that its culture, not Soviet Marxism, was the way things should be.
This brings us to Picard’s Star Trek, as different from Kirk’s as 1995 is from 1968. After all, the Cold War is over and the Klingons are now our allies—at least in name. The Romulans are still around but the threat they represent is reduced (a number of episodes have even hinted at peace). That said, most of the criticisms that might be brought against our own culture—racism, imperialism, elitism, and so much else—can still be found in Star Trek. “Come off it,” you might say, “Racist? They have all those other aliens in the crew. What about Worf?” But Worf is Picard’s token Klingon, just as Chekov was Kirk’s token Russian. While these characters might therefore seem to be part of the dominant Star Fleet/American culture, remember that they are only there because their own cultures have been subjugated by the Federation. Star Trek's writers tacitly admit this by scripting social conflict into the shows—“What’s it to be, Mr. Worf,” Picard says, “Star Fleet or the Klingon High Command?”
So ask yourself how many times during the course of the series did Worf choose what was in Star Fleet’s interest over his own Klingon honor? How often was he forced to choose between his native culture and the one in which he worked and lived? And Worf wasn’t alone. There have been many other episodes that highlight the Federation’s treatment of foreign societies. For example, when the Enterprise participated in an officer exchange with a Federation candidate planet, one of the aliens became part of Picard’s crew. But conflict arose when the alien’s techniques were found to be incompatible with Star Fleet’s regulations—in the end the alien had to follow Picard, while Picard and his crew looked on with amusement.
You could argue, of course, that Star Trek is a model for an open, multi-ethnic society in much the same sense that the colonial Spanish mission system of the American southwest was—a mission system designed to “civilize barbarians” by teaching them to be good farmer Christians. But while the Federation might sometimes appear to be a representative government with a counsel of planetary representatives and a prime minister (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he is an imperialistic citizen of the Federation), the fact is that the Federation is an empire controlled and administered by certain Earth humans—thus the implicit cultural racism of the show. Just think about all the colonies. Think about all the “member planets.” And then think about all the explorers. The Federation is interested in expansion.
While Picard might therefore reflect (as compared with Kirk) a more recent imperial style—diplomacy coupled with a strong galactic superpower that most cultures would never want to cross—the fact remains that he is a member of an elite within an elite. “You really should cooperate with us,” Picard has been heard to say, “It is our highest law not to interfere with other cultures, but we may not be back this way for many years, maybe not in our lifetimes.” Uh-huh, very magnanimous of you, Picard. If not today, then next year, or next century, everyone will fall into the Federation’s sphere of influence. And what about all the aliens under Federation control? Hundreds of shapes, sizes, and colors (almost all humanoids) who aren’t slaves but are still part of the Federation. And then there was that inter-racial kiss between Kirk and Uhura (a kiss that was forced on them by aliens with telekinetic powers). Also consider how Star Trek has tried to be non-sexist—women officers who are mostly Star Trek phone operators in mini-skirts (“Captain, your wife is on line two”) and nurses (“Yes, doctor. No, doctor. Right away, doctor”).
The producers of Star Trek (sans Gene “Great Bird of the Galaxy” Roddenberry) have recently launched two new Trek adventures: Deep Space Nine a few years ago, and Voyager this year. Deep Space Nine takes place on a Federation outpost and is commanded by a man (Ben Sisco) whose leadership style is much like Kirk’s—confrontational. Voyager, on the other hand, is about a Star Fleet vessel stranded on the far side of the galaxy, which must find its way home (at top speed, a 70-year journey). More importantly, perhaps, Voyager is commanded by a woman—one Captain Janeway who, interestingly enough, doesn’t fall into the same cultural trap as her Star Trek predecessors because she seems to welcome diversity and respect alien cultures. Of course, whether this is a result of her and her crew’s being a lifetime’s journey away from their empire, or that she is a woman, or just the fact that the creators of Star Trek have come to understand the cultural elitism of their show, I couldn’t say (I hope it’s the latter). And while it is possible that the only reason the new captain is a woman is that the creators have caved in to the politically (and morally?) correct gender politics of our society, the “Janeway style” is certainly a welcome departure from, and possibly a tacit acknowledgment of, the elitist style of earlier Trek captains.
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up watching Star Trek and I’ve always considered myself a fan. While I’m not a “Trekker” who puts on pointy ears, dresses up in red pajamas, and hangs around conventions hoping against all hope that I might meet Majal Barret, voice of the computer, or nurse Chapel, I do like the show (even after I figured out all that nasty cultural stuff, I tuned in to watch Picard do his thing). As a matter of fact, I still love to stumble across old Kirk reruns and remember being a small boy, safe in the arms of my dad, just watching the television and feeling content. But, then, maybe that’s the ultimate attraction of Star Trek— it makes us all feel safe and sound.