“Star Trek” has lived long and prospered.
Fifty years ago Thursday Gene Roddenberry’s visionary TV series debuted on NBC. It was not an instant success — in fact, it was canceled just three years later — but a famously devoted fanbase kept the sci-fi epic alive and it has since spawned numerous hit TV spin-offs and over a dozen blockbuster films that have dominated the box office for 35 years.
The show, which followed the exploits of a 23rd century crew of interstellar explorers (working for the fictional United Federation of Planets, or “Federation”), distinguished itself with its intricate plotlines that often featured prescient social commentary, and its colorful cast of characters including the logical half-human Spock, the compassionate Dr. “Bones” McCoy and the purely passionate Captain James T. Kirk.
And, like so many other pop culture phenomenons, fans have projected all sorts of sociopolitical meanings onto “Star Trek” in the decades since it first aired.
Progressives tend to take note of what appears to be a humanitarian and environmentalist streak in the show. It takes place in a relatively Utopian world where there is no money (which has inspired a book called “Trekonomics”) and the distinctly diverse series also boasted the first interracial kiss in television history (provoking the ire of Southern affiliates) just a year after the Supreme Court’s legendary Loving v. Virginia ruling. The series is still breaking new ground today, with the latest big screen adaptation outing the character of Sulu as gay.
The original series’ nuanced portrayal of characters of different species and racial backgrounds working amiably together even made an unlikely fan out Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2011, Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress who portrayed Uhura on the 1960s television show and later in six successive feature films, recounted how Dr. King revealed himself as a Trekkie at an NAACP fundraiser and encouraged her to stay on the TV series instead of taking a Broadway role because she had become a “symbol” for young black women.
— Femme Noir? (@MissToni2U) September 8, 2012
Nichols would be welcomed to the White House by another unabashed “Star Trek” fan, President Barack Obama, the following year. Ironically, the fictional character to which the president is most often linked is the cerebral, thoughtful Spock, and it’s a comparison that Obama has shied away from.
In a 2011 interview with Barbara Walters, the president said the biggest misconception about him is, “Me being detached, or Spock-like, or very analytical.”
Meanwhile, conservatives have found plenty to champion in the “Star Trek” canon, in particular the so-called “Prime Directive,” a recurring theme throughout the iterations that former “Star Trek: Voyager” cast-member Robert Beltran recently referred to as “fascist crap.” It calls for the heroes to not intervene in other interplanetary squabbles. Last fall, writer Timothy Sandefur even went so far as to argue in The Federalist that the entire series is a symbol of the decline of liberalism in the post-Kennedy era.
Former presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz has certainly seized onto the more individualistic ideals of the show, appearing to liken himself to Kirk in the past anddeclaring the character was likely a Republican, much to the chagrin of the actor who originally played him, the irascible William Shatner.
Star Trek wasn't political. I'm not political; I can't even vote in the US. So to put a geocentric label on interstellar characters is silly
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) July 23, 2015
“I think ‘Star Trek,’ to its credit, tries to take on big political and moral issues, and it’s natural that people who are interested in these issues would project them onto ‘Star Trek’ or use it as a foil,” said George Mason University Law School Professor Ilya Somin, who has written extensively in the past on the politics of the series. “I think it’s a great franchise, but it also takes some very wrong stances. Particularly in ‘The Next Generation’ and in the succeeding shows, it’s very sympathetic to socialism.”
Still, Somin concedes that part of the show’s strength is in its philosophical conflicts — for instance, if you believe that progressivism is inherently more logical or humane, you may believe that the triumph of Spock or McCoy’s perspective in a particular episode is a validation of your own worldview.
Regardless of the politics, Somin attributes much of the franchise’s success to its aspirational nature.
“Part of its appeal is that it offers people hope for this future of abundance of freedom and prosperity, where we have overcome some of the problems that plague us in our time — whether it be racism or poverty or war,” he said.
It’s precisely how the major characters overcome their differences of opinion — and in some cases, background — that make the show special, according toDaryle Lockhart, vice president of the African-American Film Critics Association, and a die-hard Trekkie since the age of 7.
“It’s not just about skin color, it’s about philosophy, it’s about ideology,” he said. “If you don’t have that diversity of different points of view, it’s going to be difficult to explore past your backyard. As a universe, it sort of is as middle of the road as you get.”
It’s the shows contradictions that have always appealed to Lockhart. The fact that the Prime Directive is always portrayed as of vital importance — until it’s not. How the show’s philosophies towards peace, violence and technology can shift from week to week, or how its existential questions are never fully resolved.
For instance, Lockhart points out how the Klingons, who are frequently cast as adversaries to the Federation, can be seen as stand-ins for any cultural boogeymen at the moment — the Russians, the Chinese, etc. — and yet one of their own, Worf, becomes a trusted security chief and lieutenant commander in a later iterations of “Star Trek.”
“Cooperation is really what its about. They show that it’s not just your way or the highway. You need another opinion to balance things to balance things out” he said, citing the original show’s most acclaimed episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” as an example of a coalescence of competing viewpoints.
Kirk, Bones and Spock have traveled to the past and they discover that a woman’s death will set a chain of events into motion of historic significance. But Kirk, not atypically, falls in love with the woman, and the three men must make an emotional and heady choice about whether or not to change the future.
Competing viewpoints reaching the best possible consensus? Sounds like a total rebuke of Trumpism.
Lockhart agrees, pointing out that that original show and its spin-offs take place in a idyllic world which has nevertheless been rebuilt in the aftermath of devastating war that left 50 million people dead.
“Trump will get us to this Utopian future,” he quipped. “It’s just the worst possible path.”
by Adam Howard