I’m just figuring this out, because I love the idea of Star Trek–I’ve watched hours and hours of it, ever since I was a kid, and I still want to be a starship captain when I grow up.
I love Kirk and Picard because I grew up with them. Those shows are a part of me, and even as an adult, I can’t really view them without that weight of nostalgia and fascination. But I got sick last week, and started binge-watching Star Trek: Enterprise (the prequel series that got cancelled a while back).
It turns out to be a pretty good show, actually–just like every Trek, there are a couple great episodes, and a couple great characters, and it’s worth wading through the technobabble and cheese to get to them–but because it was unfamiliar characters in an unfamiliar setting, it didn’t have that magical aura of childhood about it, and I realized something:
I hate Star Trek. It’s smug, and patronizing, and hypocritical, and the ideals it preaches are so transparently broken that I’ve been throwing popcorn at my screen for a week.
But I kept watching, because I like the Chief Engineer, and also I like hating things. So here’s why this show drives me nuts (and if you’re wondering why I care enough to write about this, skip to the bottom).
Nobody gets paid
One of the big ideological thrusts of Trek is that we’ve “outgrown our obsession with wealth”; we all just work for the betterment of ourselves and society. The important corollary of this is, nobody gets paid.
Which sounds like a sweet deal, as long as you’re living the dream as a starship captain, or an intrepid xenobiologist, or a space-Indiana Jones; but what about the miners, the freight-haulers, and the stewards?
We meet people in this universe who live out their lives in cramped, dimly-lit ships, running the same routes year after year, just to make sure some shipment of plot-device gets to Bumf**kulon III on time. Are we really supposed to believe that these guys just find that so wonderfully enriching that they don’t need compensation?
It’s especially rich when The Captain is sitting in his personal dining room, pontificating about how enlightened and content we all are, having risen above the distastefulness of money–and then some anonymous jumpsuit with no lines comes along to top off his drink. Because clearly, this guy has always dreamed of playing Jeeves to some preachy schmuck whose dining room is bigger than his entire living space.
This isn’t the post-scarcity society it pretends to be. Sure, there’s basically costless food and a comfortable standard of living, but there certainly aren’t free starships and rock-star jobs for everyone who wants one. Instead, those scarce commodities are doled out by a semi-militarized bureaucracy–who, by the way, weren’t elected by anybody as far as we can tell. The Federation is basically the Soviet Union, only they get a visit from the Science Fairy every time their incompetence would have unleashed a famine.
There’s nothing to fight about
The next point of doctrine that every Federation officer recites is that we’ve “overcome war”–which is obviously not true. They go to war all the time, with the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Borg, the Romulans, the Dominion, the Suliban, the Xindi, the Sphere-Builders, the Tholians, etc.
Of course, when they say this, what they mean is that we’ve overcome war with each other–but that’s no big trick, since humans in the Star Trek universe have essentially nothing to argue about.
There are no cultures, no religions, no nations–no competing values or customs or ideologies on Earth. “On Roddenberry’s future Earth, everyone is an atheist; and the world is the better for it” (Brannon Braga, Star Trek executive producer).
Trek’s humans have unanimously bought in to a nondescript humanist liberalism, and the (rather insulting) explanation for this is that we’re all just too smart to believe in anything else. In the course of the series, we meet one or two humans who step out of line, but they all conveniently turn out to be murderers or xenophobes or fanatics, who get what’s coming to them in one episode or less.
Star Trek’s humans haven’t overcome war–they’ve simply eradicated all the diversity that creates the risk of war. Hell, I could paint you a picture of a world without war, where everybody’s Mormon and likes the same movies I like, but that’s hardly evidence of the superiority of my way of life. It’s easy to get along when everyone has already fallen in line.
Space is full of Republicans
You can see this ideological lockstep a lot more clearly in the way Starfleet treats alien species. For all their talk of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”, Enterprise basically meets two kinds of people: enlightened secular humanists, and ham-fisted metaphors.
On every other planet they come to, the Enterprise finds somebody who’s space-gay or space-black or space-disabled, and persecuted by the cruel space-bigotry of space-conservatives. This, of course, affords the captain a chance to teach these people (whom he’s just met) a thing or two about the deficiencies in their millennia-old culture, while all but wagging his finger at the viewer.
And yet, this clown gets to maintain his reputation as a brilliant diplomat and peacemaker, because the target of the captain’s sermon generally comes around to the “proper” way of thinking, and occasionally even thanks him for exposing their savage culture to the light of reason.
But when a pious tongue-lashing doesn’t get the job done, the crew has zero qualms about simply doing what they want–and then they’re outraged when their hosts finally get fed up and lock phasers (or throw them in jail). The Federation talks a good fight about imperialism and intolerance and force, but because secular liberal culture really is superior to all others, it’s okay to impose it; in fact, it’s the Right Thing To Do.
The Prime Directive is a crock
The only species to whom their schoolmarmy attitude does not extend are those who have not mastered faster-than-light travel. These “pre-warp” societies fall under the purview of the Prime Directive, which forbids any activity that might “contaminate” the culture of a primitive society–including making them aware of our existence. This creates much of the show’s dramatic tension, as officers are torn between their loyalty to Starfleet ideology, and their desire to help people who are suffering or in danger.
The Prime Directive is usually justified by an offhand reference to the damage that the conquistadors did upon making contact with the Native Americans–but it’s a pretty weak argument, and even Starfleet officers seem to understand that. There’s a chasm of difference between evacuating people from the region of an impending supernova, and subjecting them to five centuries of rape, murder, and slavery.
The real rationale for the Prime Directive is, essentially, a veiled form of Social Darwinism; that lesser cultures are unready for (and in fact, unworthy of) the kind of help we could offer them, because they haven’t yet “evolved” the characteristics of ethicality and decency that they would need to safely wield advanced technology.
That was why the Vulcans watched us suffer, through centuries of war, plague, and massacre, without lifting a finger to help: we were primitive (and therefore also morally inferior), and not to be trusted with their knowledge–no matter how many of our lives it might save.
Of course, we meet species every episode who demonstrate how idiotic this doctrine is. There are dozens of races who have mastered warp travel who are still pretty much Space Nazis (or in the Klingon case, Space Mongols)–it’s obvious that advanced technology has nothing to do with advanced culture or morality.
And then there’s the fact that the Federation’s enemies have no qualms at all about arming (or even subjugating) pre-warp societies–so literally the only thing the Prime Directive accomplishes is protecting primitive cultures from folks who might actually mean well and want to help.
But why risk creating dangerous rivals, when it’s so much easier to scoop up all the uninhabited planets (and their mineral rights) before your backward neighbors have time to get their pants on?
I’m not welcome there
Ultimately, it’s just a show; but it’s a show that represents something. Star Trek is probably the most beloved evangelist of a very widely-held secular idealism, and it unintentionally reflects the brokenness and limitations of those ideals.
Roddenberry’s vision of the future means an awful lot, to an awful lot of people; and people like me have no place in that future. Pluralism–real pluralism, with stark moral and philosophical distinctions–would chew Trek’s facile utopia to pieces. So it’s hard for a non-socialist, non-positivist, non-non-believer to get jazzed about that world; it requires our absence to function.
In a society with less and less common ground to stand on, and with the rise of a very Trek-like brand of strident secular moralizing, I worry about the people who find comfort in the sterile consensus of Star Trek–who reason that the world would be better off without people like me (or at least, beliefs like mine) in it.