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The Final Frontier: 10 Political Messages Beamed Through “Star Trek”

Editor’s Note: This list post was first published here. It’s presented as part of NewsReal Blog Weekend Double Feature. This afternoon we’ll also be republishing Walter’s list post on the conservative themes of Star Wars, the original of which can be read here.

Science fiction affords storytellers the opportunity to couch political ideas within fantastic metaphors. In this way, ideas can be explored which might otherwise seem objectionable. In some cases, an audience might not consciously realize they are being influenced to think a certain way.

Perhaps the greatest example of science fiction writing which has pushed a particular ideology upon the popular culture is Star Trek. Over the course of nearly five decades, the brand has expanded from televisions series into feature films, countless books, fan conventions, and mounts of merchandise.

Why has Star Trek been so popular? Creator Gene Roddenberry attributed the original series’ success to the philosophy it espoused.

The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mould, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there. And I think that this is what people responded to.

Ironically, this multicultural meme leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tolerating every idea enables ideas which are destructive. As the franchise has progressed, it has (perhaps unwittingly) demonstrated this flaw in its own message.

Next: The United Nations in space…

The U.N. in Space

Each Star Trek iteration has starred a crew of explorers enlisted in Starfleet, the multi-purpose expeditionary armada of an interstellar political entity known as the United Federation of Planets. Conspicuously, the precise form of government practiced by the Federation has never been fully explored. However, there are a number of clues to its nature scattered throughout the franchise canon.

We know the Federation has a president who serves a defined term. We know the Federation has a governing council. We know that the various alien races within the Federation petition to join and have their culture vetted. We know there is a Federation Charter which formally established the organization. There is both a civilian and military judicial system.

Each of these characteristics were established somewhat arbitrarily throughout each series. Depending on the writer of a particular episode, the Federation might remind viewers of the United States or the United Nations. In the original series, for instance, adversaries like the Klingons and Romulans were obvious references to America’s communist opponents in the Cold War. As the franchise progressed, the Federation diversified, expanding its ranks of aliens. The Next Generation introduced evermore frequent diplomatic missions to quall tensions between alien races, thus modeling the professed peacekeeping mission of the United Nations.

For our purposes, what is noteworthy about the Federation is its unquestioned benevolence. While the occasional insurrection or insubordination was explored throughout the franchise, for the most part, no one within the Federation really questions their government. As we shall examine in more detail, in Star Trek, the government is a two-dimensional institution which works because it must in order to advance a particular political narrative.

Next: The greatest law in the galaxy…

Prime Directive

If you were commissioned to conceive of a single directive to inform the diplomatic, military, and technological sectors of society, what would it be? Would it be some twist upon “do no harm or through inaction allow harm to come to others?” Would it affirm individual liberty? Would it declare the value of life?

The defining aspect of Star Trek’s Federation is its Prime Directive, the law above all others which its officers are sworn to uphold even at the expense of their life and the lives of others. Stated simply, the Prime Directive is to never interfere with the natural evolution of another civilization. In the original series, this meant refraining from contaminating relatively primitive cultures with knowledge of Starfleet and its advanced technology. Over the years, the Prime Directive has expanded into a kind of galactic Tenth Amendment, assuring member planets jurisdiction over internal affairs.

While the latter may seem attractive to conservatives, it is worth noting that the supreme moral principle upon which the Prime Directive is based is not natural rights or individual sovereignty, but multiculturalism. In Star Trek, the one cardinal sin is applying your values to an alien culture. It’s not that every sentient being has the inherent right to live under the laws of their choosing. Were that the only consideration, cultural contamination would not be an issue. Instead, the sentiment underlying the Prime Directive is that every way of life has inherent equal value. Like campers hiking Yellowstone, Starfleet visitors to primitive alien worlds are expected to take out whatever they brought in, lest they destroy the priceless authenticity of a uniquely evolved culture. It matters not what that culture bears, whether it is barbaric or virtuous. Such judgments are not for us to make.

Next: No more evil profit…

No Money

In the Next Generation film Star Trek: First Contact, the crew of the Enterprise travels back in time to an Earth just about to learn it is not alone in the galaxy. Through happenstance, a woman from this past ends up aboard the Enterprise and marvels at its futuristic design.

Lily: How big is this ship?

Captain Picard: There are twenty-four decks, almost seven hundred meters long.

Lily: It took me six months to scrounge up enough titanium just to build a four meter cockpit… How much did this thing cost?

Picard: The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.

Lily: No money?… You mean you don’t get paid?

Picard: The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.

This is an expression of the communistic ideal, a society which works for the common good without any individual incentive. Again, Star Trek does not venture to speculate how such a society would actually function, or how we might get from our current primitive fixation upon the acquisition of wealth to this communitarian enlightenment. We are only left with the impression that it could happen. The idea of a world without money is meant to inspire, not instruct.

Of course, the most cursory examination reveals this idea to be patently absurd. As Lily notes, the construction of starships requires resources. Resources, in turn, require mining and other forms of production. If a starship requires titanium, than titanium must be obtained and spent toward that use. Laying claim to resources and imbuing them with additional value through the application of labor, knowledge, and skill is an economic activity. If you convince everyone involved in those processes to work in exchange for a cabin on the ship, that is still trade. Whether you have a medium of exchange or not is irrelevant. In effect, to propose a future without money is to propose a regression, not a Utopian revolution. Of course, the dirty little secret is that communitarians don’t only want to remove the medium. They want to remove the trade by compelling labor without compensation, a little something known colloquially as slavery.

Next: You say you want a revolution…

Galactic Peace

Another notion which is commonly expressed through the Star Trek franchise without suffering the burden of explanation is that humanity will eventually dispense with war, famine, racism, misogyny, and several other manifestations of human imperfection. The closest the fiction comes to explaining how this happens can once again be found in Star Trek: First Contact. The premise of that film is that one of the Federation’s mortal enemies travels back in time to prevent the first contact between humans and aliens, thus unraveling future’s history. It is first contact which inspires humanity to come together, to lay down arms, and to realize that – no matter how different they may be from one another – at least they don’t have pointy ears or forehead ridges.

This idea actually has some grounding in sociology. Faced with an outside threat, disparate groups tend to ally for their common defense. The M. Night Shyamalan film The Village explores this concept, as do any number of alien invasion stories such as Independence Day.

Even so, the idea that humanity is only a cosmic revelation away from an evolutionary renascence is based more in New Age spirituality than a serious consideration of human nature. After all, tribes and nations have encountered others since time immemorial without it resulting in an abandonment of violence.

Indeed, this image of an Earth at peace is one of a number of concepts in Star Trek which the fiction advances while contradicting itself. The starship Enterprise journeys under the constant threat of violence from any number of adversaries known and unknown, and the Federation is a kind of galactic nation vying for power among hostile neighbors on all sides. At best, Star Trek’s humanity has traded international contention for an interplanetary variety. Peace remains illusive.

Next: We might be giants…

Silly God, Tricks Are For Man

Having originated in the ‘60s, the original series began with some vestige of Judeo-Christian tradition. In the network premiere, Where No Man Has Gone Before, Captain Kirk’s lifelong friend Gary Mitchell is exposed to an alien influence which endows him with godlike power. His condition titillates ship psychiatrist Elizabeth Dehner, who soon develops powers of her own.

DEHNER: Earth is really unimportant. Before long, we’ll be where it would have taken mankind millions of years of learning to reach.

KIRK: What will Mitchell learn in getting there? Will he know what to do with his power? Will he acquire the wisdom?

DEHNER: What do you know about gods?

KIRK: Then let’s talk about humans, about our frailties. As powerful as he gets, he’ll have all that inside him.

DEHNER: Go back.

KIRK: You were a psychiatrist once. You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he’ll dare. Who’s to stop him? He doesn’t need to care. Be a psychiatrist for one minute longer. What do you see happening to him? What’s your prognosis, Doctor?

Drawing a distinction between divine power and human wisdom was the closest Kirk would come to apologetics. Later in the series and throughout the franchise, god-like characters were either mischievous and sadistic or stoic intergalactic hipsters encouraging humans to evolve into gods themselves.

Next: Occupations and insurgents…

Occupations and Insurgents

The most contrarian of the Star Trek series was Deep Space Nine. Whereas every other series was set onboard a ship, the titular locale for Deep Space Nine was a station orbiting the planet Bajor on the frontier of known space. The fixed setting provided writers with the opportunity to explore more complex political relationships over a period of time.

The crux of Deep Space Nine was that the Federation was assisting Bajor in administrating the station after the end of a brutal occupation by the fascistic Cardassians. Although the series ran throughout the ’90’s and concluded nearly two years before the Islamist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was nonetheless prescient. When the United States deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, its mission was similar to that of the Federation at Bajor, keep the peace, defend the interests of liberty, and prevent old and new enemies from exerting themselves in the area.

Leftist Star Trek fans might be reticent to acknowledge the parallels. However, many of the tales spun throughout Deep Space Nine bore analogies to American foreign policy. The station became the Federation’s vanguard, defending a wormhole through which the evil Dominion could attack from across the galaxy. Iraq likewise became American’s vanguard in the global War on Terror. The Dominion’s leaders were shape-shifters who could appear as anyone or anything, and thus conduct insurgent warfare against the Federation.

Next: An evolved regard of violence…

Set Phasers on Stun

Aside from “beam me up,” there may be no phrase from Star Trek canon more embedded in the popular culture than “set phasers on stun.” At the time of Star Trek’s inception, the idea of non-lethal response to existential threats was not as prominent as it has since become. Star Trek’s non-lethal ray guns may have played a role in driving that meme.

Science fiction provides ample opportunity for creators to conceive of fantastic solutions to production problems. Star Trek’s transporters, the devices which “beam” people from the ship down to a planet and back, were conceived as a low-cost alternative to depicting the Enterprise physically landing on a different planet every week. Similarly, the stun setting on the crew’s phaser pistols was a convenient way to enable gun-slinging action without racking up an objectionable body count.

Be that as it may, the ability to simply stun enemies rather than kill them lowered the stakes of the drama somewhat. Star Trek frequently failed to address the uncomfortable scenarios such an ability would present in real life. Even if you could stun someone who wanted to kill you, wouldn’t they still want to kill you once they recovered? Have you really dealt with the threat?

Next: Save the whales…

Cosmic Environmentalism

The film in the franchise with the broadest pop culture appeal was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Yet another time travel narrative, Trek IV has Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise traveling back to 1986 in an attempt to retrieve a pair of humpback whales in order to repopulate the species in the future. Why do they need humpback whales in the future you ask? A powerful alien probe has come to Earth looking for them, and starts trashing the place when they don’t harmonize with its cetacean song. The moral of the story is obvious. If we do not act to protect the environment today, a race of alien sea turtles may destroy our civilization tomorrow.

The film takes every opportunity to lash out at modern man’s lack of environmental enlightenment. Upon arriving in the past after a risky and uncertain time-travel procedure, Spock scans Earth to see if they have hit their temporal target.

Judging by the pollution content in the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the 20th century.

As they peruse the landscape of ’80’s San Francisco, the crew wander about like bemused Westerners stranded among a primitive tribe. “Crude nuclear fission,” while unsophisticated by their standards, nonetheless provides the isotopes necessary to jump-start their starship’s stalled engine.

Throughout the franchise, future Earth is depicted as an environmental jewel with no pollution to speak of. As with every other Utopian aspect of Star Trek’s future, no explanation is provided for how this came about.

Next: Resistance is futile…

Resistance Is Futile

In a franchise which has clearly been leveraged to promote leftist ideology, one of the most fascinating developments has been the introduction off a villain so plainly emblematic of the Left. The popularity of the Borg, an aggressive race of cyborgs who share a collective hive mind, is no doubt attributable to the psychological horror they represent.

The Borg seek to assimilate intelligent life into their totalitarian society, wholly subduing individuality in service to the collective. In doing so, they believe they are working toward the perfection of their species. Could there be a better metaphor for the Left than these cybernetic zombies?

You will be assimilated. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.

The Borg challenge the Federation’s Utopian ideals, and thus those of the Left, by presenting a threat which cannot be reasoned or negotiated with. They are introduced in a Next Generation episode when a mischievous god-like entity known as Q takes offense to Picard’s assertion that the Federation is ready to face any threat. Q hurdles the Enterprise across the galaxy into Borg territory. Faced with a relentless and amoral enemy with a single-minded desire to consume and annihilate, Picard quickly cycles through his deliberative diplomatic and defensive responses until realizing he is in over his head.

The Borg are also the enemy faced in Star Trek: First Contact. At that point in franchise continuity, Picard has encountered the Borg enough to know there is only one appropriate response.

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!

Were a conservative to write for Star Trek, they could conceive of no greater enemy than the Borg. It therefore remains remarkable that they were incorporated into the franchise.

Next: The fatal flaw in Star Trek’s logic…

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Star Trek is the product of collaboration between countless writers, artists, and performers, and therefore conveys contradictory messages throughout its five television series and eleven feature films. While elements like the Borg tend to affirm conservative ideals, Trek is primarily an entertainment product by leftists for leftists. It presents a future Earth unified, evolved, and inherently peaceful, without bothering to explain how it works.

Furthermore, to the extent the United Federation of Planets is a metaphor standing in for the United States of America, its interaction with hostile alien empires tends to advocate a liberal (in the academic sense of the word) foreign policy. The Klingons who were mortal enemies in the original series are strong allies in The Next Generation and beyond. As the franchise progresses, there seems to be a similar expectation that all new enemies will eventually be friends.

Again, the Borg stand as a curious contradiction to this sentiment. Strictly speaking, they share the same objective as the Federation, galactic peace. The difference is that the Borg see peace as the end result of destroying or assimilating all free people in the galaxy (a perspective they share with Islam). In this the Borg are correct, because freedom enables distinctiveness, and distinctiveness breeds discord. We will never completely get along so long as some among us remain free.

Walter Hudson is a political commentator and co-founder of Minnesota’s North Star Tea Party Patriots, a statewide educational organization. He runs a blog entitled Fightin Words. He also contributes to True North, a hub of Minnesotan conservative commentary. Follow his work via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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