Space — the final frontier: A reminiscence of Star Trek

Published online 5 March 2015.

Awhile back, I wrote a diary on Star Wars, as a sort of critique of what happened to space opera and as a reminiscence of when I used to read that stuff back in high school.  I wasn’t going to write a diary on Star Trek.  But this radical, visionary Leonard Nimoy obituary came out earlier this week in Jacobin on the topic of Star Trek (“Goodbye, Mr. Spock,” by Leigh Phillips, 3/2/ 2015), and so as a consequence of reading it I decided to put forth my thoughts on Star Trek.

(public domain image, from Wikimedia Commons)

Star Trek originally came into focus for me with televised reruns of the original series.  When the original series came out, between 1966 and 1969, I was really too young (and not interested yet) to know what it was.  My interest in science fiction came later, in the 1970s.  When I was in sixth grade, my teacher had a small library in the back of the classroom with copies of Analog: Science Fiction/ Science Fact magazine, which is where my original interest in science fiction came from.  Star Trek, by contrast, appeared to me to be a cheap version of science fiction, adapted for television.  I was mostly interested in written science fiction, science fiction which explored ideas you wouldn’t see on Star Trek.  (Another big limitation of Star Trek back then was its repetition of the spaceship-meets-planet plot mold, a mold which was only broken in 1993 with the first broadcast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.)

One of the most promising aspects of Star Trek, however, was its invitation to serious writers of science fiction to write episode screenplays.  From the Wikipedia page:

In its writing, Star Trek is notable as one of the earliest science-fiction TV series to use the services of leading contemporary science fiction writers, such as Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon, as well as established television writers.

Moreover, a few Star Trek episodes attempted to use science fiction as a serious vehicle to probe contemporary social issues.  Wikipedia again:

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” presented a direct allegory about the irrationality and futility of racism. Anti-war themes appear in episodes such as “The Doomsday Machine”, depicting a planet-destroying weapon as an analogy to nuclear weapons deployed under the principle of mutually assured destruction, and “A Taste of Armageddon” about a society which has “civilized” war to the point that they no longer see it as something to avoid.

However, Star Trek appeared to me to be as much fantasy (as opposed to serious science fiction as a category, which I thought was supposed to use its scientifically-now-impossible plot devices sparingly) as Star Wars did when it came out in 1977.  The most fantastic Star Trek plot device, as I pointed out in my Star Wars diary, was time travel — but then Star Trek also relied for narrative purposes upon matter transmitters (although Wookieepedia claims that someone used them in Star Wars writing), “aliens” who looked more or less like people and spoke English (through imagined technical devices of course), and “aliens” capable of magical powers (of which the ultimate example was Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation).Star Trek, then, relied upon a quick-and-dirty imagined version of future “science,” with few narrative concessions to realism and a spirit of we-can-know-it (and “fantastic things are out there”) utopianism.  As Leigh Phillips pointed out in “Goodbye, Mr. Spock,”

In his 1964 pitch for the show, Roddenberry had initially intended Spock to be half-Martian, but later changed his home world out of fear that part way through the series, if it were successful and had a long run, it was not out of the question that humanity could land on Mars and ruin the believability of the storyline.

The instinct behind Star Trek was that alien life was everywhere in the universe, that technology could in utopian fashion ultimately satisfy all of our desires regardless of its necessary foundation in what we today call “science,” and that the universe would ultimately be rendered understandable despite its initial attempts to defy our understandings of it.These Star Trek themes became mere literary conventions.   Today they serve as reminiscences of what we once thought the future might hold, and as context for bright shiny movies (see e.g. the JJ Abrams contribution) bearing no relation to our present-day Year 2015 expectations of what the future holds.  The fact that we no longer believe in the Star Trek technological utopia in any sense is elucidated in a wonderful David Graeber piece, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” which I’d encourage you all to read if you haven’t done so yet.  Graeber argues that our shiny visions of the future have been replaced by bureaucratic, neoliberal, capitalism.

In this regard, Leigh Phillips’ piece, the main topic of this diary, is admirable especially for its attempt to pay tribute to Spock, and thus the recently-passed actor Leonard Nimoy who played him (and who in passing removed his Spock from the realm of reality), as a major contribution to the Star Trek mythos.

Science officer Spock was of course as much a creation of actor Leonard Nimoy, who died on Thursday (2/27/2015) at age eighty-three, as of Roddenberry and the other writers who built and continue to build the Star Trek mythos. In a production memo from 1968, Roddenberry wrote: “In the beginning of the Star Trek episodes, Mr Spock was a fellow who occasionally said ‘illogical’ and that was about it. We all worked hard to build him into a fully dimensional character, and a lot of people, including Leonard Nimoy, deserve credit.”

I also liked the connections the piece makes to Spinozist logic and to socialism (as would be appropriate to a publication like Jacobin).  On Star Trek and socialism:

Discussions abound online as to whether the Federation in the various series is intended as a socialist utopia (What about the Ferengi? Does Chateau Picard mean their is still private ownership of land?), and while the series makes no explicit references to democratic planning or the market, the consensus is that, well, it does appear to be a post-scarcity socialist economy of some description, albeit with a highly hierarchical, even militarist tinge.

As regards the Ferengi: The Ferengi were intended as an alien species of “beings” (really, people) who were more or less trapped in problems of capitalism and sexism which humanity proper had overcome a long time ago.  This allowed Star Trek writers to portray critiques of capitalism within the Star Trek universe — so, for instance, in the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled “Bar Association,” the workers in Quark’s bar go on strike, and the ultimate resolution of this strike becomes a series of pretenses — the strikers win the strike, but Quark asks them to pretend that the union never existed because he feels obliged to look good as a Ferengi businessman.  Thus a fundamental problem of wages and of worker power is transformed into a mere cultural conflict with the socialist society of Star Trek, resolvable through the manipulation of appearances.Ultimately, though, the appearance of Star Trek in our own culture represents a problem of our present-day capitalist culture.  The dwindling away of the “Space Age” is itself a problem of capitalism.  Since there is no perceived profit in “going where no-one has gone before,” the space program, and the fantastic dreams which once accompanied it, have been dramatically scaled back — and thus Phillips concludes that the reinvigoration of the public sector is a prerequisite to the rediscovery of those dreams, because the profit motive won’t get us there by itself:

Whether manned or otherwise, space exploration is simply too expensive with too little promise of profitable return for the private sector to care about anything beyond the servicing of low-Earth-orbit satellites.

And then he laments:

Could it be that an unrecognized casualty of neoliberalism has been the forward-looking optimism of both the Left and Right? That neoliberalism and the global defeat of workers’ movements have resulted in a decadent bourgeoisie more interested in looting short-term profits than investing in new technology, research, and exploration?

The problem, of course, is that the “Left” has become a mirage Left, offering tantalizing visions of utopia which become “sold out” once anyone tries to put them into practice. We should have ended hunger and poverty a long time ago, for instance, but is anyone even thinking of doing that anymore?  And, as for the “Right,” all there really is there is a reactionary historical residue, a series of different tint-shadings for the longing for some imagined past (much in the way in which 1968’s Presidential candidate George Wallace was motivated by a longing for the return of racial segregation).  Political vision, then, has more or less congealed in a competition between varieties of conservatism, or pushed to the margins.As for neoliberalism — well, for a postcapitalism of Star Trek caliber to emerge on Earth, first capitalism has to die, and since this hasn’t happened we have neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the “picture of Dorian Gray” version of capitalism, in which both eternal youth and total corruption are granted the bourgeoisie, at the expense of that increasingly terrifying face which can today be seen in the portrait of working-class life under capitalism.

And, lastly, about the Star Trek universe: Phillips reminds us in passing that the Star Trek universe went through World War III — between 2049 and 2053 — but perhaps this isn’t just an incidental fact. What sort of transformative, millenarian event (which we can hope will be relatively peaceful) will in fact prepare our capitalist world-society for a more realized utopia than the one we currently inhabit?

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