Star Trek Is Brilliantly Political. Well, at Least It Used to Be
In the closing moments of Star Trek Into Darkness, Capt. James T. Kirk eulogizes Admiral Christopher Pike, who died at the hands of Khan Noonien Singh. “There will always be those who mean to do us harm,” Kirk says. “To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.” The stirring turn feels like a plea for humanity to end it endless wars. It also is the closest thing to politically-motivated the latest run of Star Trek films has ever gotten.
After decades of the Star Trek franchise setting the bar for sci-fi-as-political-metaphor, Darkness—along with 2009’s Star Trek and this year’s Star Trek Beyond—have delivered a lot of flash and action, but little in the way of a message or point-of-view. Rather than political queries, the new, J.J. Abrams-produced films seem more interested in answering the questions fans have long asked one another: What was young Kirk like? What would it be like if Spock had a girlfriend? Could we get more Khan?
Those are fun themes to explore, sure—and those movies have been lauded by critics and fans—but they also lack the heft Star Trek is known for. By placing a premium on broad entertainment value, the new Trek films have lost sight of delivering a specific view of the America of the day—both the way we view ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. Creator Gene Roddenberry’s Trek was philosophy masquerading as space-theater; Abrams’ Trek is just the opposite. The new films are fun, but they’re also largely devoid of a centralized argument.
Perhaps it’s unfair to attempt to parse a specific political message from Abrams’ additions to the Trek world—or, rather, to insist that they have one. Whereas Roddenberry smuggled his message out by play-acting politics using aliens on foreign worlds, Abrams has explained that, for him, the most important thing is making movies both purists and average moviegoers can enjoy. “Embrace the elements that make it unique,” he told the Los Angeles Times prior to the release of 2009’s Star Trek, “but be sure the master you’re serving is the making of the most entertaining movie possible.”
Star Trek: A Blueprint for How to Govern
That’s fine, but it’s also kind of a shame considering that Roddenberry worked so hard to imbue Star Trek’s early seasons with messages of fairness and tolerance. In an excerpt from Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman’s The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, he explains that although he promised a show “with the villain suffering a painful death” at the end, once Trek was on the air “we began infiltrating a few of our ideas.” And those ideas, of course, became the model for how Trek would respond to the issues of the day throughout its 50-year run.
This makes sense considering the times from which the show emerged. Star Trek is nothing if not a product of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement—a time when the United States became a superpower in a newly aligned political landscape. The period provided a backdrop for Trek to comment on issues of race and class (Roddenberry’s Enterprise crew had moved past sexism and racism, but they still encounter many species and planets plagued by it). It also allowed the series—and many of the franchise installments that came after it—to serve as a blueprint for how to exist as an empire in a fragmented world. While Star Wars fits Joseph Campbell’s model for a hero’s journey—a man rises from the dust, and with the help of mentors along the way, defeats a great and mighty evil—Star Trek is about a powerful organization trying to negotiate the most humane way to move through a combustible galaxy.
The Enterprise Is America, Basically
Early in the first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Captain Kirk orders the Enterprise into a mysterious and destructive alien cloud headed toward Earth. Decker, from whom Kirk has taken command of the ship, warns, “Going into that cloud is an unwarranted gamble.” Kirk quickly responds: “How do you define unwarranted?” In other words, for the Enterprise’s captain, inaction against evil is unconscionable.
Famously optimistic about humanity’s future, Roddenberry believed his crew had a responsibility to spread freedom and end tyranny throughout the galaxy. He even named the Enterprise after an aircraft carrier that helped the Allies win the Second World War. He once said that “if man survives that long, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures”—his faith in American liberalism was the guiding principle for the first crew of the Enterprise.
In fact, when that spirit didn’t fully come through on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Roddenberry wasn’t pleased. The movie, released in 1991, at the end of the Cold War, is about striking peace with the Klingons, and according to director Nicholas Meyer the Trek creator was furious with him for creating a socially imperfect Enterprise crew, one wrought with hatred for the species they’d fought for decades.
“Mr. Roddenberry really believed in the perfectibility of man, of humans, and I have yet to see the evidence for this,” Meyer said at the 2011 Hero Complex Film Festival. “VI is a film in which the crew of the Enterprise has all kinds of prejudice, racial prejudice, vis-a-vis the Klingons. And some of their remarks, including how they all look alike and what they smell like, and all the xenophobic things which we grappled with—that was all deeply offensive to him.”
A New Moral Compass
By the late 1980s, as a new crew boarded a new Enterprise—helmed by Jean-Luc Picard, a captain averse to the cowboy-like qualities of Kirk—the focus shifted toward non-intervention. The ship’s crew, which now includes a Klingon commander, must wrestle with the threat of a new nemesis, the Borgs, a response to the rising economic power of Asia in the ’80s and ’90s. By Star Trek: First Contact, we see Picard begin to struggle with the new moral compass. In the film, the Borgs have taken over much of the Enterprise, turning crew members into hive-minded drones. Lieutenant Commander Worf tells Picard to destroy the Enterprise in order to stop the Borgs and save Earth. But Picard, who himself was once a prisoner of the drone’s collective, wants to stay and fight. When Lily Sloane, a 21st century survivor of the Third World War, also pushes Picard to give up on the ship, he explodes:
“I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We’ve made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again! The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And I will make them pay for what they’ve done!”
Picard has taken a stand like Kirk before him—he is arguing that they must engage, must make the gamble to defeat evil. But, soon after his outburst, he realizes his mistake. He compares himself to the captain in Moby-Dick, mad on the need to avenge the whale that took his leg. “Ahab spent years hunting the white whale that crippled him; but in the end, it destroyed him and his ship,” he says. Kirk drove directly into the alien cloud; in Picard’s world, it’s best not to chase the white whale. The times changed, and so did Trek—but it always had a point-of-view.
Each new generation to board a Starfleet ship has wrestled with how to exist within the specific America of its time. The original Star Trek went to the final frontier to explore issues of xenophobia and what it means to be a superpower in the midst of the Cold War. The crew of Deep Space Nine, which started two years after Operation Desert Storm, worked through the idea of a just war and occupation in a far away land. Voyager, which ran during the turn of the last century, takes on the idea of losing one’s bearings and searching for ways to make it home. Enterprise, which aired from 2001-2005, shows how a leader changes after a terrorist attack.
It’ll be interesting to see how the new television series, Star Trek: Discovery responds to the current political climate. CBS has brought both Meyer and Roddenberry’s son on to the production, and in an era of overwhelming distrust of government, it would be odd if the crew of this latest starship shared the Kennedy-era liberalism of the original Enterprise. Then again, in a time of paranoia about terrorism, it probably won’t be as anti-interventionist as Picard’s crew. (It might, however, showcase a bit of Kirk’s late-’70s bravado, for better or worse.)
Roddenberry created a universe that has been inhabited by actors, writers, directors, and fans for 50 years. His Trek suggested unity and diplomacy; by the 1990s, The Next Generation was advocating that we not get involved. It’s hard to know the best way for the Enterprise to navigate through the mess that is 2016. But as Star Trek moves into the 21st century, it’s time it argues for some bold new way to exist in the galaxy.
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