This week the third and latest instalment in the rebooted Star Trek franchise hits cinemas worldwide, marking the potential completion of a movie series that started J.J. Abrams’ career in the business of taking great science fiction franchises and turning them into fairly meaningless but fun summer blockbusters with lots and LOTS of lens flares.
Although not directed by Abrams himself, instead by Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious fame) and written – peculiarly – by Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead fame, who also plays ship’s engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung, Star Trek: Beyond is the continuation of the conveniently-altered-timeline romp into the post-puberty, pre-maturity phase of the beloved characters from the original television series. I’ve booked my back-row-centre tickets and my 3D glasses for the day-after-premiere, mid-afternoon session (I prefer quiet cinemas), and I’ll level with you – though my expectations of Hollywood films are generally low these days – I am pumped!
So at this point I will admit it: I am a huge Trekkie.
I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and by my early teens I had watched the whole series (every episode) at least three times. Now in my thirties, I’d say I’ve watched TNG all the way through at least six times. My commitment dwindled in my twenties because I also needed time to re-watch Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and all of the twelve Trek films. Becoming a husband kinda made my viewing time drop a bit too, though my wife did really enjoy DS9 with me. Since becoming a father, I’ve only had time for the occasional movie. Nonetheless, the love affair lingers on.
Needless to say, I’ve done my 10,000 hours of Star Trek watching and study, and I consider myself pretty knowledgable about it. Unlike most of the convention freaks you see on television and laugh at, I’ve never attended a convention or dressed up as a Klingon or Vulcan, nor do I bother with learning the Klingon language, memorising the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, or quibbling about the exact number of times that Captain Picard said “make it so”. I did recently take my wife to see William (the real Captain Kirk) Shatner’s one man comedy show, and it was pretty fantastic!
What I concern myself with, and what I love so much about Star Trek is the themes. I’ve always been more interested in the writing and ideas of a TV show or film more than exactly how it was produced, acted, or edited – though all of those things can certainly have a great impact on how the ideas are carried to the audience (*curse your damned lens flares JJ!!!*).
Star Trek has always been about the bright future of humanity, particularly as a species who finally got it right back home on Earth and are now out spreading peace, philosophy, and justice around the galaxy through non-aggressive means – making tonnes of friends, and defending against a few new formidable enemies along the way.
The guiding principles of Starfleet – the space navy who both defend the territories of the United Federation of Planets, and explore space looking for new friendly warp-capable species to enlist into said Federation – are those of non-interference with primitive cultures, non-aggression, and most importantly curiosity. These principles were perhaps best embodied in one Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701D (yes, I have memorised the Enterprise’s serial number… so what, wanna fight about it?).
If you’re a millennial and are unfamiliar with Captain Picard, perhaps you will recognise him from this popular meme:
Picard is portrayed by the wonderful Patrick Stewart, a British actor of Shakespearean training. His character is an explorer-philosopher who listens to classical music, reads and quotes from “ancient” literature and poetry, and never fails to agonise over the philosophical details of every situation and desperately seek the objective right thing to do. He also drinks tea, earl grey, hot – like a boss!
Indulge in a 45 second snippet of the kind of pensive, smouldering philosophical think-porn you could expect to see from the Captain back in the day:
Roddenberry’s Bright Future
Gene Roddenberry is the man who created the original Star Trek series, originally led by Captain Christopher Pike, succeeded by the infamous Captain Kirk – who is now, again, the central character of the rebooted series. Roddenberry was so far ahead of his time in his ideas, and although he didn’t write most of the original series, he was the guiding force of the themes and principles of the show. He broke so many rules in creating his vision of the future. Consider this. In 1966 (the year that Star Trek launched) the real world was enjoying the following situations:
- The Vietnam War – a divided planet with barbarism happening daily between nations states.
- The Cold War – a stagnant distrust and aggression between Western countries and the Soviet Union, primarily Russia.
- The Civil Rights movement – Blacks in America fighting for equality under law and for the removal of cultural segregation.
- Second-Wave feminism – the beginning of the end of conservative, traditional cultural restrictions on women in the West.
- Post-World War Two hateful narratives about the Japanese – as the last major aggressor on the United States, anti-Japan views were still prevalent.
So along comes Gene Roddenberry and creates a vision of an evolved human race, living in the 23rd century as faster-than-light travelling, peaceful space explorers. And who does he put on the bridge of the flagship?
- A Russian weapons officer.
- A Black FEMALE communications officer.
- A Japanese helmsman.
To add insult to injury (as far as the poor old status quo goes) he presents the first ever interracial kiss on television (between Kirk and Uhura in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” in 1968), and consistently hires writers who dare to comment (almost) directly on the socio-political climate back here on present day earth. Behold:
Oh, The Hypocrisy!
All looks legit so far, so why is Roddenberry a hypocrite?
The reason I venture to call one of my all-time creative heroes a hypocrite, is because of the philosophy he chose to place at the foundation of this bright future he designed.
In the 23rd century, Earth exists in a state of utopian paradise. There is no war, no hunger, no racism, nationalism, and (unbelievably) no money or religion… or so they keep saying throughout the show. The planet has limitless power, derived from wonderful, seemingly magical technological advances like transporters (a device that breaks down the molecular structure of a person or object, sends it along a beam of light between ships or planets, and rematerialises it, intact, at its destination), warp drives (faster-than-light travel), handheld communicators (complete with Snake 2, I believe), food replicators (that beam energy in and convert it into delicious, steaming matter in whatever form you desire), and Skype!
Yes, by some miracle, people have abandoned all selfish interest, turned to all-out altruism and discarded the “archaic” forms of transaction ($, €, ¥, £ et al) and embraced an attitude of “EVERYTHING IS FREE, YIPPEEEE!”, and amidst this obviously utopian socialist revolution, somehow individuals have still managed to be inventive, determined, passionate, principled and empowered to create. The biggest failing of Star Trek as a wistful romp into a wildly divergent future is its failure to demonstrate just how 2 + 2 = 5.
If you’re not following me, consider this: there is one glaringly obvious contradiction at the core of Star Trek‘s philosophy: The United Federation of Planets is a SUPERSTATE!
Allow me to demonstrate pictorially:
Look a little familiar? Yes, like the European Union, in Roddenberry’s future there is a council of representatives from each of the ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY odd member states/planets, spread across a meagre 8000 light years of space, who sit in a room on planet Earth, and make decisions that effect the lives of countless people from hundreds of unique races, whether the individuals there agree or not. Dare I ask the question: What do humans of planet Earth know or care of the plight of farmers from the planet Quartung in the arse-end of the back corner of the alpha quadrant? And should these councillors 8000 light years away have the right to make decisions for said Quartungian farmers? Well that depends on whether or not you are a statist.
So it looks like religion did make it into the 23rd century. To yield to the authority of the imagined entity of “the state”, is merely just a new form of religion. The number of people who agree with you has no bearing on the empirical non-reality of the state, nor will it ever legitimise its claim to authority. Belief in and subservience to the imaginary state is as irrational as a belief in god(s).
Further, like the ultimate superstate – the Communist paradise – this bright future has no money!! At this point, if my shock and abhorrence of a moneyless society is a surprise to you, I will direct you to my friend Sven’s recent article entitled The Root Of All Evil?
And herein lies the hypocrisy – Gene Roddenberry himself was a flagrant, proud and very successful Capitalist. He used the great capitalistic engine of Hollywood to fund and establish his creative vision as the cultural phenomenon that it remains. He grew incredibly wealthy from it. When he saw the opportunity to leverage the growing cult-like fanbase, he seized it, even going so far as to forbid his actors like Shatner and Leonard Nimoy to make appearances at casual conventions related to Star Trek without he himself taking a significant cut of their speaking fees.
And you know what? Too bloody right!
William Shatner was a fine and successful working TV and theatre actor in his time, but where would he be without Star Trek? Would anyone today even know Leonard Nimoy at all? Perhaps not, and the supporting cast even more so. Would Nichelle Nichols have ever had a shot at the level of fame and symbolic power she attained through her role as Uhura – a black, female military bridge officer on the flagship vessel of an interstellar alliance? Not a chance.
Gene Roddenberry used his creative vision, his business acumen, his feisty determination and his cocky swagger to take money from television executives and turn it into MORE money for them (eventually), and he created a franchise that continues to make loads of money for loads of people to this day. Aside from those directly involved, Star Trek has provided inspiration and joy to countless geeks like me, and has even potentially changed the course of human history.
Many technologies we enjoy today have been inspired by Star Trek, and you could argue that without the creative genius of Roddenberry and his team, some of them may not yet have been invented, let alone pursued as design or theoretical concepts. The communicator (mobile phone), wearable communicators (Apple Watch), telepresence (Skype, FaceTime), the tractor beam (yes, MIT developed one on a small scale), universal translators (maybe not yet universal, but getting there!), tricorders (handheld scanning devices used by NASA and in the medical industries), laptop computers, floppy discs (yeah, okay we’ve moved on from those), and so many more devices have come to fruit, some of them directly inspired by the imaginings of the Star Trek universe.
And if something like Star Trek is so popular that it can influence the progress of humanity in the realms of science and (to a lesser degree) philosophy, should the founder, creator and original owner of the franchise not be paid handsomely for facilitating such a vision? I say he should. And he did too. He took his money and enjoyed it. So why present the future as moneyless?
It’s indisputably proven by history that capitalism breeds innovation and increases wealth for everyone in the society it touches. The freer the marketplace, the higher the quality of life for all. Communism breeds misery, poverty and death. No greater threat has ever appeared to man than totalitarian governments, responsible for the murders of over 250 million people in the 20th century alone. And there is no greater total government than a communist government. Of course, the communist ideology relies on the notion that if you make a government big enough, and powerful enough, it will – when the time comes – magically disappear into a cloud of utopian dewdrops, possibly followed by the return of the unicorns… on rainbow slippery slides. This is why leftists always think that freedom is just one or two more government programs away.
So I would argue that Roddenberry choosing to set the bright future of humanity in a communist utopia like a moneyless Earth, under the supervision of a totalitarian superstate like the United Federation of Planets, is unrealistic, untenable and hypocritical to his own life position.
The double think ran deep in Roddenberry and his successors, for in 1990 (the year before Roddenberry died) they created the dreaded Borg – perhaps the most terrifying alien threat ever written for the screen. A cybernetic, hive-mind, collectivist society intent on the assimilation of all biological and technological distinctiveness in the galaxy – at threat of deadly force.
If you want to see the TRUE face of communist utopia, behold THE BORG.
Still pumped for Star Trek: Beyond, though.
Why, if I disagree with the fundamental philosophy of Star Trek so much, would I still be such a Trekkie, and so excited to see the new film?
Well, sheer entertainment and dazzle factor aside, the truth is, I do not disagree with the fundamental philosophy of Star Trek. Sure, there’s some double-think, and, like most fallacious ideologies and ideas, what they SAY is their philosophy is often not their philosophy at all.
The true (though not declared) philosophy of Star Trek is shining individualism. The things that make the bright future of Earth so wonderful are the achievements of great individuals like Zefram Cochrane, Captains Jonathan Archer, Christopher Pike, James Tiberius Kirk, and Jean-Luc Picard. In fact, the greatest challenge and deepest pain of Captain Picard is when he loses his individuality to the Borg collective. Roddenberry clearly knew that individualism is the power that makes humanity, collectively, soar. But he failed to see the connection between superstates and moneyless (Communist) societies, and collectivism. Despite all this, Roddenberry’s future has been full of great individuals.
Star Trek is full of heroes. As a young boy I idolised Wesley Crusher, the kid-genius who got to pilot the Enterprise before he’s even attended space college! As an emotionally repressed teenager, I idolised Data, the android who – though far superior intellectually and physically to humans – was incapable of emotion, and wanted to feel above all else, to understand the human experience. As a man, I look to Jean-Luc Picard as the captain of my philosopher-explorer heart – the wise elder who looks to the past to inform his present day decisions, with a commitment to a principled and peaceful future.
And even in the new franchise, young Kirk is an admirable hero – he follows his gut and his gifted intellect to protect his crew, he is fiercely loyal to his friends, and when necessary he breaks the rules and even rails against the very system that he works for – all in the pursuit of doing what is right.
It’s the heroes of Star Trek that make it great, and why – despite any philosophical difference I hold – I will likely always be pumped for a new addition to the “watch, re-watch, rinse and repeat” pile.