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On September 8th 1966, the first episode of a new and highly conceptual sci-fi series called Star Trek aired on NBC. The show, created by Gene Roddenberry and set in the distant future of the 24th century, followed the adventure of the USS Enterprise and its crew, as their vessel ventured the galaxy “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
Star Trek quickly became a cultural phenomenon, and it remained so for decades. Indeed, the longevity of this series and its various iteration (currently counting 6 TV series and 12 movies adaptations) have made this show an icon of pop culture, spanning generations and appealing to an ever-growing fan basis. However, behind the mainstream appeal of the show, resides a much deeper concept that the creators intended for the show.
The core of Star Trek revolves around the idea of humanity, once on the brink of extinction, overcoming its issues of race, war, poverty, greed and advancing as a society. In this utopian future of the 24th century, humanity has become a beacon of hope for the universe, and through Star Fleet and the Federation (the future counterpart of our United Nations) they engage in exploration and discovery to scout space not for conquering; yet for engaging with other alien species, other cultures and ideals, and in general with other beings that can continue to better their already advanced society.
Star Trek also drew major inspiration from the political and social environment of the time. These events drastically characterised the ethos and morality of the show, as well as creating a more vivid world for the audience. This is something that was extremely relevant in the early iteration of the series, but was completely neglected in the more modern iteration of Star Trek in favour of mindless action and mainstream appeal. For the sake of our analysis, we are going to compare The Original Series (TOS) and The Next Generation (TNG) to the more modern shows, as to figure out why things have so drastically changed.
At its origin, the show was based on the political view of its creator Roddenberry. His generation was rising from the rubble of World War II, and in their eyes the United Nations was going to be a symbol of prosperity, technological progress and universal humanity that would help the world heal after the war, much like the fictional Federation is for the show. This was the moral foundation of the series: a fictional journey in the stars which reflected the hopes for the future of a world that was scarred by war and suffering. Therefore, this optimistic view of liberalism and its virtue permeated all the characters of the early series and was rooted in the protagonist of the original series, the legendary captain of the Enterprise James T. Kirk.
Speaking of which, it is crucial in the understanding of the ethos and storyline of Star Trek to focus on the various captains of the different shows. Indeed, as former show runner David Gerrold wrote in 1973:
“When Star Trek was at its best, the captain’s decisions were the focus of the episode. If Star Trek had been a truly dramatic series, then the essential Star Trek story would not have had to have been ‘Kirk in Danger,’ but ‘Kirk Has a Decision to Make.’
The decision is the core of every dramatic episode.”
Hence, the different character traits that differentiate Kirk from Picard, actually reflected the different political and ethical stand that each show was going to tackle. Therefore, in the early 70s we have Kirk, an inspiring and bold leader, who in many ways was created to emulate a real-life political symbol of the time, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
As noted by writer Paul Cantor in his essay, Kirk in many ways replicates the actions and the persona of Kennedy during the Cold War. His charisma and ability to inspire the crew even in the darkest situations, as well as his uncompromising views on liberal ideas and refusal of totalitarianism very much reprised the American president. The humanist view of The Original Series on totalitarianism as a dehumanising process that sets back the advancement of civilizations somewhat summarises the American political propaganda during the Cold War. In TOS, the politics of the show was inspired by the technocratic liberalism of welfare state and secular culture that the Kennedy administration sought to apply.
Then, after a fairly unsuccessful run on TV and a series of well received movies, Star Trek was rebooted in 1987 with a new series: Star Trek – The Next Generation. This series was regarded by most as the apex of Star Trek, as the more genuine incarnation of Roddenberry’s vision. It stayed on our screens for almost 8 years, and truly ignited the mainstream success of the Star Trek franchise and its subsequent incarnation. Once again, we can pinpoint how the general political landscape of the world is represented in this fictional tale of aliens and discovery. Star Trek TNG stars a new crew of the enterprise, captained by Jean Luc Picard.
The political setting of this series could not have been more different from its ’60s counterpart. The idealistic view on liberalism and the harsh rejection to any sort of authoritarianism of the Cold War had now shimmered, leaving room to a more nihilistic and realist take on politics. Now, what became most relevant was the adherence by the Enterprise’s crew and the Federation as a whole to the Prime Directive. That is, the most fundamental rule of the Federation, dedicated not to interfere to with the natural evolution of alien societies and not to intervene to alter the course of the inter-galactical balance. Therefore, in this iteration of the series, the Federation resembles much more the actual United Nations: a global institution devoted to maintaining international balance and be a mediator of conflict, rather than a carrier for Wilsonian ideals around the world.
In this environment we can frame the character of Picard. Whilst Kirk was a brash and charismatic leader, he is a diplomat. Whereas Kirk would jump headstrong to defend the values of the Federation, Picard is a more collected, calculated and methodical captain. Many episodes of TNG usually revolved around issues of ethics or politics, with the Enterprise debating how they should tackle certain issues and coming up with a realistic and practical solution. This is where Picard shined: with his Solomon-like ability to debate and his very strong sense of ethics, he was usually the person to guide the crew when the moral conundrum seemed insurmountable. Picard is a leader of men yes, but most of all he is an idealised politician, a man capable of uniting the rules and values with charisma and with a deep respect for others lives and safety. Of course, exploration and action where still major parts of the show, as this is Star Trek.
However, what TNG pushed was framing the cosmopolitan and humanitarian values of the Federation in the nuts and bolts of politics: it showed what the issues of extreme idealism was and how politics works as a medium.
This idea of politics can be very much traced to the arguments of Francis Fukuyama. After humanity had vanquished all of its shortcoming and had managed to spread the ideals of peace and equality around the galaxy, it was really the “End of History”. In the real world, that related to the idea that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was going to be a hegemony of western liberal democracy, which was regarded as the peak of human politics. The show portrayed humanity as a whole moving towards a unified civilisation of universal principles, and they were able to share them non-violently with other species. Whereas in TOS the major antagonist of the Federation was usually the Klingon empire (a totalitarian society), it is telling that in TNGO the major antagonists are the Borg – a specie of androids whose goal is to absorb entire planets in their collective therefore cancelling their singularity – who pose a major threat to the ideals of freedom and self determination of the Federation.
Then, we come to the modern iteration of Star Treks. Virtually none of the values and core concepts of the original series apply. Instead, it has now become an explosion in space. It is important to state that with modern audiences, the “old” Star Trek would not have the same appeal. Nowadays, with the humongous leaps in technology and CGI, and the general trend of people demanding more action packed and fast content, having hours on hours of people debating about ethics of alien races would not generate enough revenue to stay on air.
That is why, the trilogy of JJ Abrams which started in 2009 does not really explore politics or Prime directive: it depicts the Trek universe in a shallow and action packed movie that does not want to make its audience think, it just wants to wow them with special effects. This is even more tragic when we analyse the modern TV series: Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. The two shows were supposed to be a modern reprise of the true television formula. Indeed, by not having the time shackles of a limited full movie, they had the chance to let their story breathe, tackle relevant issues and themes, and explore both the new characters we were presented and the new plot lines. Yet, none of this happens and these two shows are, once again, just explosions in space, a hollow version of the political and social relevance Star Trek once had.
Speaking of which, what is even more controversial are the seldom moments in which both Discovery and Picard try to tackle social themes. On the surface, they try to tackle the more commonly seen modern issues of discrimination, racial hatred, feminism and so on. Of course, it is an extremely important thing to do, especially to show to a mainstream audience how relevant these issues are, however, it is completely misplaced within the fictional universe of Star Trek.
As stated before, in Roddenberry’s original vision of the show, humanity of the 24th Century had already overcome these issues, and evolved into a more elevated society deprived of these problems. In the older series, having a transgender official or a woman as a captain was never an issue. It was normal, because in the fictional world of Star Trek, that was no longer perceived as taboo. There was no need to emphasise issues of race or sexuality, because there weren’t any: humanity had managed to overcome its problem and finally accept all. Instead, in the new series you have “real” world problems flashed on screen for pure dramatic purposes and so that online blogs can champion how progressive and daring a TV show about alien exploration is.
To conclude, yes: it is true that new Star Trek has to appeal to a difference type of audience that demands action and excitement, however, behind the decline of the show, we can recognise how our society has become more disillusioned about politics and ethics in general. Nowadays, the idealism of older generations has almost completely shimmered, and our faith in institutions such as the UN has slowly and steadily reduced. The fall from grace of the fictional representation of Star Trek in some ways represents our modern disillusionment of the power of politics and of the relevance of qualities such as debate, ethics and the ability of going beyond the limits of our modern society.