[Disclaimer: Trekdom welcomes the contributions of scholars and academics. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of Trekdom, and we invite scholarly rebuttals.]
A Call to Arms
For decades, Star Trek has been a favorite target of a certain group of scholars* who wander the postmodern stairwells of academic ivory towers. In book after book and dissertation after dissertation, we the fans are given the unvarnished truth about Trek. While we muddle about on message boards and fanzines religiously reciting Roddenberry clichés like “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” these Ph.Ds, though often disagreeing with each other, join forces in condemning Star Trek.
Star Trek, they claim, promotes imperialism, racism, sexism, neo-conservatism, militarism, fascism, nationalism, or some combination of these negative “isms.” As a product of American culture, it reflects what is essentially wrong about Americans and U.S. foreign policy. Apparently, our “hopeful vision of the future” is really an imperialistic vision of U.S. supremacy and global domination. Captain Kirk’s intervention in alien cultures exemplifies the imposition of Western values on Third World peoples. Every alien race, consequently, must “assimilate” to Federation culture, that is, the white, American, “bourgeois capitalist” norm. While the U.S. sends warships to “spread democracy,” the Enterprise enforces Federation values at gunpoint. Seeking out new life and new civilizations is yet another form of cultural domination and imperial conquest. Exploration is exploitation. Whether in glorifying a “frontier spirit” that historically led to the slaughter of indigenous populations, or in espousing racial views of biological difference, Star Trek is guilty as charged. When fans say otherwise, they are simply wrong, these intellectuals claim.
Yet, these scholars never tell us why we are wrong. Are we just passive, unthinking viewers, absorbing the underlying “subtexts” of television unquestioningly? Are we just too uneducated to see what is really in front of us as it subconsciously reinforces our prejudices and cultural assumptions? Scholars, please tell us lowly fans, in small words that we can comprehend. Please tell us why we have such mistaken perceptions of a television show that we obsess about, that we memorize, and that we debate year after year. What is your secret, in that you can selectively use 12 out of 700+ episodes to discover the truth about Star Trek?
It must be that we’ve been brainwashed by Roddenberry or Paramount propaganda, right? We like to feel self-righteous and holier-than-thou, so we’ve adopted clichés about Trek’s multiculturalism and its optimistic vision of human progress. Deluding ourselves about the “progressiveness” of Star Trek, we pass the popcorn in a self-congratulatory and “enlightened” way.
Perhaps. Or, could it also be possible that we are not the ones brainwashed. Instead, it is you, who come armed with your Derrida, Foucault, or Benjamin, unquestioningly perceiving Star Trek through pre-approved glasses that graduate advisers gave you. While desperately wanting to critique U.S. foreign policy, or say something meaningful about the “postcolonial” and “postmodern” age of ambivalence, you race toward Star Trek with blind devotion to an “authorized” interpretation. With a uniformed march worthy of fanboys, you position yourself on the pomo pedestal, ready to strike down the masses with a lightning bolt of academic elitism. Combining your secret love of a popular television show with you open embrace of the trendiest intellectual “school” of the moment, you take a wise course aimed at publishing your dissertation and scoring a comfy position in a cultural studies department. It doesn’t seem to matter that your interpretations and arguments are illogical, ahistorical, and unsupported by the evidence.
You see what you want to see where you want to see it. You pick and choose episodes that fit well with your predetermined thesis, while ignoring obvious examples that disrupt your arguments. Along the way, you make glaring omissions. For example, while claiming that Star Trek became critical of the Vietnam War by the third season, you don’t mention “The Way to Eden,” a preachy season 3 critique of the peace movement (see H. Bruce Franklin). While arguing that Star Trek “races towards a white future,” you ignore Deep Space Nine and its black commander, as well as most of the episodes that dealt explicitly with racial issues (see Daniel Bernardi). While asserting the militarism of Star Trek, you ignore episodes like “Homefront.” There have even been times when you have argued that the Trekverse stinks of fascist ideology while ignoring every episode of Trek that critiqued Nazism, totalitarianism, and collectivism (see Kelley L. Ross).
The fans may selectively choose “progressive” episodes like “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield” to reinforce clichés about Trek’s multiculturalism and respect for diversity. Yet, you are equally guilty of the selective use of evidence to support a predetermined interpretation. It’s time to admit that. You misquote Star Trek by using two or three episodes while ignoring the full text. If you’re going to write a book or article about Star Trek, then you need to know the material, not simply which passages fit well with your thesis. Is that really too much to ask?
It’s also time to admit that the millions of people who watch Star Trek, the hundreds of thousands who make pilgrimages to conventions, and the dozens of insiders who wrote books about this television show (which you ignore) may in fact KNOW what they’re talking about! We are not passive consumers or pawns of corporate interests. We are not blind devotees of Trek gospel speaking in tongues. We are not victims of a “culture industry” that manipulates us from above. Indeed, the underlying assumptions you have about us, the way culture and consumption works, and the role of Star Trek as a cultural artifact reek like a bad plot from a terrible science-fiction film. It’s unbelievable, cynical, and simplistic.
From this day forward, we will fight your interpretations, and we will fight for Trek. You may not rest undisturbed in the pages of obscure academic journals. We will fight from below, in classrooms, seminars and public lectures. We will question your unfounded assumptions. We will identify the omissions and scream, “bloody murder.” We will fight you as Kirk fought Apollo, demanding our freedom from the tyranny of dishonest slandering. It will no longer be enough to gain the respect of fellow colleagues for being well versed in cultural theories. You need to watch Star Trek! Otherwise, you risk angering the most militant of fandoms by speaking as an "authority" who obviously hasn't read the full book.
Author's note: This essay was directed at a specific circle of postmodernist critics of Trek. This essay is not meant as an attack on every scholar of Star Trek.