The first time I ever really watched an episode of "Star Trek" was on a weekend I was stuck at home sick. I was a little kid, William Shatner & Leonard Nimoy were hosting a "Star Trek" marathon, and I tuned in just as "The Devil In The Dark" came on. That episode contains almost every element that makes Trek... Trek.
In that episode, there's the dynamic between Kirk, Spock & McCoy, but also the episode goes a long way in differentiating Trek's values from those of most Sci-Fi. I once read an article that compared Trek to most other science fiction franchises. In almost anything else, the Horta would be the "monster of the week" that gets killed off at the end of the story by the triumphant hero. However in "Trek" the Horta is ultimately an entity to be understood & given compassion, with Starfleet finding a way for everyone to live together.
Among the big science fiction franchises with huge fandoms, "Star Trek" is somewhat odd compared to the others (which are usually predicated on humanity existing in varying degrees of dystopia), with Trek depicting an optimistic future in which humanity is an "enlightened," altruistic species that has turned Earth into a quasi-utopia & leads a massive interstellar government called the United Federation of Planets. In 2009, the collective 6 television series & 10 films that had come before J.J. Abrams' 'Star Trek' were effectively rebooted, with Abrams' film creating an alternate timeline where things are a little different. The film enjoyed both popular & critical success, but there is a contingent of Trek fans that feels Abrams' film is an abomination and not "real" 'Star Trek' in keeping with the franchise's original underlying philosophy.
With the release of 'Star Trek Into Darkness' in a couple of weeks, some of those same arguments are happening again. So I thought it might be interesting to look at what that philosophy is.
From a paper published in the journal Sociology of Religion:
The appeal of "Star Trek" is not for a kind of personal salvation, but for the future of the "Star Trek" collective …."I" will not live until the twenty-fourth century, but "we" certainly will, according to the "Star Trek" future. It is hope for ourselves as a society, a myth about where we have come and where we are going. Fans want to be part of forming that destiny.Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon (the other executive producer of the original "Star Trek" who created many of the defining elements of the show, including the Klingons, the Prime Directive, and naming the Federation and Starfleet), and others that worked on "The Original Series" infused the show with a secular humanist philosophy that truly believes in "Man" as a species. That we, as human beings, are not only the product of biological evolution, but are also capable of social evolution to be better than what we are through compassion, tolerance, logic, science, and boldly going where no one else has gone before.
"TOS" USS Enterprise NCC-1701
"As you know, one of the joys of Star Trek, for me, has been the variety of our fans. When I go to conventions and I see people of all sizes and shapes and abilities, and when I see people with nerve disorders that can’t really sit properly and so on, I still know what’s in their mind. They are saying, "In a better world, I can do anything. I’ll be there in a better world. In a better world, they will not laugh at me or look down their nose at me."This is a story that has existed in one form or another for 47 years and will probably outlive us all. This is a franchise that began as a lowly-rated program that barely survived on network TV for three seasons, to become something that spans over 726 episodes of television, spread across six television series, as well as 12 films.
The Abrams-verse Klingons
Almost any situation in life can probably be explained by an episode of "Star Trek." The new film, 'Star Trek Into Darkness,' is reportedly an allegory for terrorism. 'Into Darkness' features Benedict Cumberbatch (best known as Sherlock Holmes in BBC's "Sherlock") as John Harrison. However, there's been much speculation, as well as fan theories over whether John Harrison is the character's real name & his true nature.
Is he Khan? Is he Gary Mitchell? For now, he's John Harrison — and beyond that "name," the only thing we really know about Benedict Cumberbatch's "Star Trek Into Darkness" villain is that he is a ruthless and effective terrorist... "[Look at] real social history and present history, everything that's going on: uprisings, people who are trying to spread democracy or fight their cause, not necessarily through political means ... he is a terrorist, and sadly, that's part of the fabric of our modern world," he explained to MTV when we spoke at a "Star Trek" event in late 2012. "You don't need to look far to research that one."Stephen Fry has made the point that "Star Trek" has connections to Friedrich Nietzsche's belief that artistic tragedy is born out of the conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian impulses from Greek mythology that arguably acts as a metaphor for the conflict of human existence.
Cumberbatch continued, saying he looked towards "certain terrorist groups in the past" to see how they operated. But he wasn't only concerned with real-life terrorism. The actor emphasized the importance of turning towards his character's roots within the "Star Trek" universe itself, saying, "It was important to me to ground him in a reality that's based more on his story than, say, a parallel in the real world."
"What should certainly be chilling are the parallels to the modern world," he added cryptically.
► The Prime Directive
Recently, the writers at Foreign Policy magazine have been debating whether Captain Kirk would intervene if the Enterprise visited a planet where the situation in Syria was occurring? Would Kirk order the Enterprise to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels? Or would he be forbidden from intervening by the Federation's Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet personnel are not allowed to interfere in the internal development of a society?
As a metaphor, the Prime Directive is a story idea born out of the Vietnam era & the perils of trying to be "helpful" to a society struggling with an intractable problem. The flip side of the Prime Directive is that it would sometimes mean watching people die & suffer while clinging to a principle that allows one an out from helping others.
From Michael Peck at the Huffington Post:
Kirk was a man of action. If there was something wrong with the universe, his instinct was to fix it, even if he had to cheat as in the Kobayashi Maru incident. No-win situations were not acceptable. His solution might be unorthodox. Just as in the episode "A Piece of the Action," he might use the Enterprise's phasers to stun both sides in Syria to their senses (a solution many of us would prefer). But if Kirk had to support one side, I think he would support the Syrian opposition, on the chance that the revolution could be guided toward a more enlightened future (under the watchful eye of the benevolent Federation, of course), while the Assad regime is simply irredeemable. But he would do something, because the ethos of "Star Trek" is that to be human in the fullest potential of the word means to do more than mind your own business.
And therein lays the difference between his time and ours. Kirk believes in the possibility of happy outcomes. We don't. America today is a place that does not believe that any good can come from intervening in the affairs of others. We fear, with good reason, that we will become stuck in a quagmire, or will back the wrong side, or discover our leaders lied to us. We fear that sick feeling of error, of futility, of being hated and resented without understanding why. And therefore we are timid.
And thus we cheer a starship captain who is not.
► The Needs Of The Many.....
Spock's death in 'The Wrath of Khan' is arguably one of the best movie deaths & it's pulled off magnificently. Its emotional resonance is totally earned because his death plays against everything we know about Kirk & his ability to "turn death into a fighting chance to live."
As a movie, 'Wrath of Khan' has many themes, but one of the big ones is dealing with consequences. Whether it's the consequences of leaving Khan on Ceti Alpha V, or Kirk meeting his son, dealing with the Kobayashi Maru's "No-Win Scenario," or ultimately Spock's sacrifice & death. The film is structured as part Moby Dick (Khan's quest to slay the White Whale that is Kirk & the Enterprise) and part A Tale of Two Cities (in many ways, just as Carton does for Darnay, Spock dies the death that Kirk "earned"). The final act of the movie begins with Kirk saying "I don't like to lose" and revealing he has a plan to stop Khan. The first time you see the film, in that moment, you actually believe that Kirk can overcome any obstacle. And then the worst happens.
From the A.V. Club:
I think the scene works because we recognize the truth in it. Just like we need heroes who always win because we know that nobody wins forever, Spock's sacrifice is moving because it's honesty without pretension. This is what happens. You will lose your friends, no matter how important they are to you, no matter how much you can't imagine life without them. You will lose them. And in the end, you're just standing on the other side of the wall, hand on the glass, as they break down, piece by piece, and you can't be there, and you can't make it better. All you can you do is mouth the old pleasantries and pretend there's some nobility in all of it. In the end, all you can do is watch.
It's not a depressing movie--there's a definite "life goes on" vibe in the conclusion--but that it's willing to be that bleak is part of what makes it great.
► The Needs Of The One.....
When they bring Spock back in 'The Search for Spock,' they explicitly go against the philosophy espoused by Spock in 'Wrath of Khan.' The characters throw away their careers, Kirk loses his son, and they sacrifice the Enterprise in order to save Spock.
Kirk: What I've done, I had to do.This contrast is pointed out to Spock by his human mother in 'The Voyage Home,' with her seeming to take pride in the actions of Spock's "illogical" human friends.
Sarek: But at what cost? Your ship. Your son.
Kirk: If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.
Amanda: Spock, does the good of the many outweigh the good of the one?
Spock: I would accept that as an axiom.
Amanda: Then you stand here alive because of a mistake made by your flawed, feeling, human friends. They have sacrificed their futures because they believed that the good of the one - you - was more important to them.
Spock: Humans make illogical decisions.
Amanda: (said with a bit of a grin) They do indeed.
► The Great Society
As depicted in the various TV series & films, by the 23rd century humanity exists in a virtual paradise. On Earth, there is no poverty, crime, sexism, racism, or war. Earth is the capital of the United Federation of Planets, with humanity seeming to have great influence as the backbone of Starfleet.
Troi: Poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it: hopelessness...despair...cruelty...
Samuel Clemens: Young lady, I come from a time when men achieved power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor....where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace...and power is an end unto itself...And you’re telling me...that isn’t how it is anymore?
Troi: That's right.
Samuel Clemens: Hmph. Maybe it's worth giving up cigars for, after all.
► The Great Empire
There is an alternative interpretation of "Star Trek" that argues there is a difference between what Roddenberry intended & what the show actually depicts. In short, the argument says the Federation in "Star Trek" is an idealized "American Empire." On the commentary for 'Wrath of Khan,' director Nicholas Meyer states that when he was writing the movie he didn't see Roddenberry's "perfectibility of man" idea in the show. Instead, he thought "Star Trek" was largely about "Gunboat Diplomacy."
In "Deep Space Nine," the issue is confronted directly. One of the main Maquis characters accuses the Federation of being worse than the Borg, since he claims at least the Borg announce their intentions to assimilate cultures before doing it.
Michael Eddington: I know you. I was like you once, but then I opened my eyes. Open your eyes, Captain. Why is the Federation so obsessed with the Maquis? We've never harmed you. And yet we're constantly arrested and charged with terrorism. Starships chase us through the Badlands and our supporters are harassed and ridiculed. Why? Because we've left the Federation, and that's the one thing you can't accept. Nobody leaves paradise. Everyone should want to be in the Federation. Hell, you even want the Cardassians to join. You're only sending them replicators because one day they can take their "rightful place" on the Federation Council. You know, in some ways you're even worse than the Borg. At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation. You're more insidious. You assimilate people and they don't even know it.I once had to write a paper for a college sociology class and had to search through the Sociology department's database for sources. I wish I could remember the name of the paper, but I distinctly remember one being about multicultural depiction in media, and as one of the examples it argued that "Star Trek" does not necessarily depict diversity, but a future where everyone, including the aliens, are assimilated towards a western, European version of the future.
The paper used Nog and Worf as examples of characters within the show who we embrace, because in some ways, they turn their back on their own culture's values & assimilate to the Federation's.