by Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D
"One and only one person can give steering and engine orders at any one time....The commanding officer may take over the deck or the conn...In taking the conn from the officer of the deck, the captain should do so in such a manner that all personnel of the bridge watch will be notified of the fact."
--Watch Officer's Guide, A Handbook for all Deck Watch Officers, Revised by K.C. Jacobsen, Commander, U.S. Navy, 11th Edition [Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1981, pp. 68-69]
I have always liked Star Trek. I watched the original show in the 60's, waited eagerly for the first movie in the 70's, and then later in the 80's got hooked all over again on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has been good television, good science fiction, and occasionally even good film. Some things, nevertheless, have driven me crazy: (1) Picard and Riker both giving commands, in tandem, on the bridge is absurd. One person has the conn or has the deck on a ship, and it is dangerous to have any confusion about that (see quote above). As Executive Officer, Riker wouldn't even be on the bridge in ordinary circumstances. (2) There doesn't seem to be anything like a regular watch on the bridge. In one show a big point is made that only a full commander can have bridge command, but nothing is more common on the show than to have scenes where all the senior officers of the ship are in some conference or other, leaving who knows who directing the ship on the bridge -- unless there are full commanders who aren't part of the regular cast. The writers don't seem to know what naval lieutenants are for -- to be the officers of the deck. And (3) Star Trek has never known what admirals are for. The first Star Trek movie has a farcical conflict over whether Admiral Kirk or the newly assigned captain will assume command of the Enterprise. One wonders what Horatio Nelson and Captain Hardy were both doing on the HMS Victory. Later, Star Trek: The Next Generation refers to the Enterprise as the "flag ship" of Star Fleet, without apparently realizing that a flag ship is a ship with a "flag," i.e. a flag officer, an admiral. A Star Trek admiral seems to be some kind of shore officer.
These absurdities, however, can be easily forgiven. Less easily forgiven or forgotten are the more troubling messages about the nature of the future, the nature of society, and even the nature of reality. Star Trek typically reflects certain political, social, and metaphysical views, and on close examination they are not worthy of the kind of tribute that is often paid to Star Trek as representing an edifying vision of things.
In a 1996 newspaper column, James P. Pinkerton, discussing the new Star Trek movie (the eighth), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), quotes Captain Picard saying how things have changed in his day, "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force; we work to better humanity." Perhaps Picard never stopped to reflect that greater wealth means greater material well being, which is to the betterment of humanity much more than any empty rhetoric. But this is typical of Star Trek. A first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "The Neutral Zone," has Picard getting up on his high horse with a three hundred year old businessman who is revived from suspended animation: The businessman, naturally, wants to get in touch with his agents to find out what has happened to his investments. Picard loftily informs him that such things don't exist anymore. Indeed, poverty and want have been abolished, but how this was accomplished is never explained. All we know is, that however it is that people make a living, it isn't through capitalism as we know it. Stocks, corporations, banking, bonds, letters of credit -- all these things seem to have disappeared. We never see Picard, or anyone else, reviewing his investment portfolio. And those who still have a lowly interest in buying and selling, like the Ferengi, are not only essentially thieves, but ultimately only accept payment in precious commodities. In the bold new future of cosmic civilization, galactic trade is carried on in little better than a Phoenician style of barter, despite the possibilities of pan-galactic banking and super-light speed money transfers made possible by "sub-space" communications.
Too much of Star Trek has always reflected trendy leftist political sentiments. It was appropriate that John Lennon's "Imagine" should have been sung at the 30th Anniversary television special: Capitalism and religion get little more respect from Star Trek than they do from Lennon. Profit simply cannot be mentioned without a sneer. The champions of profit, the Ferengi, not only perceive no difference between honest business, piracy, and swindle, but their very name, the Hindi word for "European" (from Persian Farangi), seems to be a covert rebuke to European civilization. At the same time, one can find little in the way of acknowledgement of the role of religion in life that, whether in India or in Europe, would be essential. Although exotic extraterrestrials, like the Klingons and Bajorans, have quaint religious beliefs and practices, absolutely nothing seems to be left of the historic religions of Earth: There are no Jews, no Christians, no Moslems, no Buddhists, no Hindus, no Jains, no Confucians, and no Sikhs, or anything else, on any starship or settlement in the Federation. (Star Trek is, not to put too fine a point on it, what the Nazis called "Judenfrei," free of Jews [see endnote], a condition that Marx also anticipated with the death of Capitalism -- though Leonard Nimoy did introduce, subversively, the hand sign of the Hebrew letter "shin" to signify the Trek benediction, "Live long and prosper.") With no practitioners, there are no chaplains for the crew -- no ministers, no priests, no rabbis, no mullas, no brahmins, no monks, no nuns. The closest thing to religious advice is the tedious psycho-babble of counselor Troi. The absence of traditional human religions stands in stark contrast to the more recent, shortlived science ficiton series, Firefly.
Why there is this conspicuous absence of religion is made plain in a third season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "Who Watches the Watchers?" It concerns a planet of people who are still at only a pre-industrial level of development but who are related to the Vulcans and, presumably because of this, are so intellectually advanced that they long ago ceased to believe in anything so absurd as a God (so some races are just smarter than others?(!?) -- sounds like some kind of racism). Because a Federation observing post and its advanced technology is inadvertently revealed, one of the natives mistakenly takes Captain Picard to himself be the God of ancient belief. He spreads the word among his people. The rest of the episode is then taken up with how this folly can be undone without otherwise distorting the natural development of the natives. In the end, they realize that Picard is not God, and they continue on their previous path of atheistic wisdom.
Such a story is so blatantly hostile to theistic religion, that it is astonishing that it provoked neither comment nor protest. Perhaps the messages contained in science fiction television are simply not noticed. Movies have a somewhat higher profile and, indeed, the futile quest for God in the fifth Star Trek movie, The Final Frontier, provoked the comment from Michael Medved, a political conservative and devout Jew, that it was the same old "secular humanism." Even the aforementioned religious beliefs and practices of the Klingons and Bajorans seem to consist of little more than ritual and mythology, and one is left with the impression that respect for such things is motivated more by cultural relativism than by a sense that they might contain religious truths of interest to others. The Star Trek universe is one without religious truths -- where the occasional disembodied spirit can be explained away with talk about "energy" or "subspace."
If daily life is not concerned with familiar economic activities and the whole of life is not informed with religious purposes, then what is life all about in Star Trek? Well, the story is about a military establishment, Star Fleet, and one ship in particular in the fleet, the Enterprise. One might not expect this to provide much of a picture of ordinary civilian life; and it doesn't. One never sees much on Earth apart from the Star Fleet Academy and Picard's family farm in France -- unless of course we include Earth's past, where the Enterprise spends much more time than on the contemporaneous Earth. Since economic life as we know it is presumed not to exist in the future, it would certainly pose a challenge to try and represent how life is conducted and how, for instance, artifacts like the Enterprise get ordered, financed, and constructed. And if it is to be represented that things like "finance" don't exist, one wonders if any of the Trek writers or producers know little details about Earth history like when Lenin wanted to get along without money and accounting and discovered that Russia's economy was collapsing on him. Marx's prescription for an economy without the cash nexus was quickly abandoned and never revived. Nevertheless, Marx's dream and Lenin's disastrous experiment is presented as the noble and glorious future in Star Trek: First Contact, where Jean Luc Picard actually says, "Money doesn't exist in the Twenty-Fourth Century."
So what one is left with in Star Trek is military life. Trying to soften this by including families and recreation on the Enterprise in fact makes the impression worse, since to the extent that such a life is ordinary and permanent for its members, it is all the easier to imagine that all life in the Federation is of this sort. Not just a military, but a militarism. In the show, this actually didn't work out very well. In the beginning, Star Trek: The Next Generation wanted to remind us of the daily life, children in school, etc. on board; and more than once the "battle hull" of the ship was separated from the "saucer" so that the civilian component of the crew would be safe from hostile action. This cumbersome expedient, however, was soon enough forgotten; and we later forget, as the Enterprise finds itself in desperate exchanges with hostile forces, that small children are undergoing the same battle damage that we see inflicted on the bridge -- unless of course it is brought to our attention because there is a story with a special focus on a child, as with Lieutenant Worf's son. In Star Trek: First Contact, crew members are being captured and turned into Borg. Does that include the children? We never see any. Do Picard's orders to shoot any Borg include Borg who were human children? This disturbing situation is completely ignored by the movie. Star Trek, therefore, cannot maintain its fiction that military life on a major warship will be friendly to families and children.
In the 20th Century there has been a conspicuous political ideology that combines militarism, the subordination of private economic activity to collective social purposes, and often the disparagement of traditional religious beliefs and scruples: Fascism, and not the conservative Fascism of Mussolini and Franco, who made their peace with the Church and drew some limits about some things (Franco even helped Jews escape from occupied France), but the unlimited "revolutionary," Nihilistic Fascism of Hitler, which recoiled from no crime and recognized no demands of conscience or God above the gods of the Führer and the Volk. Certainly the participants in all the forms of Star Trek, writers, staff, producers, actors, fans, etc., would be horrified, insulted, and outraged to be associated with a murderous and discredited ideology like Fascism; but I have already noted in these pages how naive philosophers and critics have thoughtlessly adopted the philosophical foundations of Fascism from people like Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger to what they think are "progressive" causes in the present day.
This danger has come with the corruption of the idea of "progress" away from individualism, the rule of law, private property, and voluntary exchanges -- in short the characteristics of capitalism and the free market -- into collectivist, politicized, and ultimately totalitarian directions. Star Trek well illustrates the confusion, ignorance, and self-deception that are inherent in this process. Dreams of Utopia have turned to horror in this century so often, but the same dreams continue to be promoted just because they continue to sound good to the uninformed. As Thomas Sowell recent wrote about the determination of many to find Alger Hiss innocent of espionage, regardless of the evidence:
"Hiss is dead but the lies surrounding his case linger on. So do the attitudes that seek a cheap sense of superiority by denigrating this country and picturing some foreign hell hole as a Utopia."
Star Trek has a Utopia to picture, or at least a world free of many of the ills perceived in the present, but it doesn't have to deal with anything so inconvenient as the experience of history. Star Trek is free to disparage business and profit without the need to explain what would replace them. Star Trek is free to disparage religious belief and ignore traditional religions without the need to address the existential mysteries and tragedies of real life in ways that have actually meant something to the vast majority of human beings. And it is particularly interesting that Star Trek is free to do all this with the convenience of assimilating everything to the forms of military life, where collective purpose and authority are taken for granted. Captain Picard does indeed end up rather like God, come to think of it.
Note that this discussion is based on aired episodes and movies, mainly those of the original series and of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Other materials that have been published or posted for Star Trek enthusiasts may address some issues, like whether there are always children on the Enterprise, but it is the message presented on the screen, whether on television or in the theater, seen by most casually interested viewers, that I am addressing.
Several correspondents have pointed out how the Enterprise of Star Trek: the Next Generation was destroyed in one of the movies and that the next ship was not built to contain families and children. Two points about that: (1) the movie was made after the entire series was over, so the idea of removing the families and children comes a little late to be taken too seriously; and (2) the idea that the next Enterprise to be constructed doesn't contain families or children isn't actually stated in subsequent movies but has been added in the external lore that has accumulated around the series. This can hardly be taken too seriously either. It is certainly a half-hearted response to criticisms like those voiced here. Other correspondents simply don't like capitalism and write, not to defend Star Trek against charges of being anti-capitalist, but to defend it for admittedly being anti-capitalist.
Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2006
*The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek, Note
To be fair, science fiction historically has really never portrayed familiar religious practices as surviving into the future. Isaac Asimov treated the situation of the Jews only indirectly by transforming all of the inhabitants of Earth into Jew-like pariahs in Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Star Trek, however, has special problems. A big point is made in the original series, with Scotty and Chekov, that ethnic identities, even ethnic accents, survive into the future. One "oy vay" from a character wouldn't have cost them much. Perhaps this would have been regarded as too ethnic -- reminiscent of the kinds of stereotypes and hostilities that are supposed to be absent in the future. The hostility to religion implicit in traditional science fiction, furthermore, Star Trek ends up making explicit, at least in Star Trek the Next Generation, as detailed in the text. Thus, Star Trek has a little more explaining to do for the people who are missing than most other science fiction.
[This article was originally published here. Thanks to the author for permission to reproduce for Trekdom.]