Star Trek has always been both emblematic of the times and a social weatherman for the astute observer to tell which way the wind blows.
The original series (TOS to Trekkies) was very much a product of the late 60’s. The Federation is clearly a metaphor for Americans in space, and, as always, the Americans are firmly in charge. Captain James Kirk is from Iowa, the beating heart of America. Dr. Leonard McCoy is from Georgia. Even Mr. Spock, half alien, has a human mother who is clearly American by virtue of her speech patterns. Women are present, but only in support roles. It’s progress, though; interstellar women’s lib just waiting to grow up.
The most striking aspects of the Enterprise’s bridge crew are an Asian man and an African woman who are in charge of their departments. Later in the series emerges Dr. M’Benga, an African-American physician and professional peer of Dr. McCoy at a time in America when there were still whites-only hospitals. Roddenberry was a true pioneer and visionary in this regard. This is where American culture is trying desperately to go: slowly, painfully, but inevitably, even if we’re not there yet.
On the other side, we have the evil Klingons and Romulans, the Soviets and Red Chinese of the galaxy. They are despotic, authoritarian, militant, cruel, and culturally unpleasant. They are bent on conquest and the destruction of the Federation. The Federation spreads democracy everywhere it goes. The Klingons and Romulans conquer and suck dry the cultures they come to dominate, and the only bulwark is the Federation’s quasi-military, socially enlightened Starfleet.
Starfleet is the ultimate evolution of NASA — a thinly veiled non-military agency of space pioneering and exploration, but with huge muscles. Starfleet goes out of its way not to pick fights, but if the Klingons and the Romulans start one, Starfleet will sure as hell finish it.
The next series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (known as TNG to the fans) starts off as more of the same. It’s diversity on steroids. Captain Jean-Luc Picard isn’t an American. He’s French (with an inexplicably English accent). There are various ethnicities, women, a disabled person, an empath, a child, a machine intelligence and, most controversially for Trekkies at the time, a Klingon who is loyal to the Federation. He also happens to have brown skin, introducing ethnic varieties into a formerly monolithic enemy.
The politics of TNG are more subtle and nuanced, so much so that Roddenberry decided to place it about eighty years after TOS. Aliens with different or conflicting mores are dealt with in the spirit of cultural relativism. The Federation is a lot less judgy. The politics between the major civilizations (still the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan Star Empire) are complicated, and there is an element of moral ambiguity. The crew of the Enterprise is chock-full of consensus-builders rather than moral arbiters.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is where the franchise really comes into its own. It is also the first Star Trek series that was developed without Gene Roddenberry. It continues the tradition of diversity, most notably with an African-American man in charge. (We know he’s American because he cooks Cajun food and has a baseball on his desk.) There are aliens of many varieties, and, eventually, an interspecies marriage with interracial overtones. The romance and eventual marriage are between a brown Klingon and a white, blue-eyed humanoid alien with brown spots running down each side of her body.
The setting of DSN is complex. The Federation is smack in the middle of a complicated political environment where they aren’t necessarily the badasses and moral authority of the galaxy. The space station is situated in a star system to defend a planet recovering from a generation-long occupation by unpleasant space Nazis, a new enemy species with an empire and aspirations on a galactic scale who eventually become allies of the true enemy in a full-blown intragalactic war. More on them in a bit.
Two innovations of note are the character development of the Ferengi and shape-changing aliens with no specific name. The Ferengi are ruthless capitalists whose culture revolves around the accumulation of wealth and is fueled by greed, often to comic effect. Sound familiar? The changlings, shape-changing aliens, are a return to Vietnam. They are the devil in the dark. They are the enemy that has no face, or any face. They’re paranoid. Once persecuted, they have become conquerers who manipulate other species ruthlessly, and they are loyal only to themselves. Only total victory can satisfy them.
One of the things most peculiar to this iteration of Star Trek is the embracing of the divine. There are powerful aliens who live in a wormhole. The species that was occupied by the space Nazis worship them. They make the commander of Deep Space Nine their Emissary, something that further complicates the Federation’s situation in that region of space. In a way, this plot element predicts the religiosity that has become a defining characteristic of the last two decades of American culture. Unlike modern religion, however, the wormhole aliens/gods are both divine and at the same time subject to rational explanation. They intervene in the affairs of other species in a way that is unambiguous and undeniable — proof of God.
Star Trek: Voyager takes DSN a step further. The Voyager is a Starfleet vessel that is flung to the other side of the galaxy along with a vessel belonging to anti-Federation freedom fighters called, unimaginatively, the Maqui. The crews combine uneasily and make a conscious decision to function as a Starfleet crew. Then, their war done, they begin to make their way home, like Odysseus.
Voyager shows us another side of the Federation. In this case, it shows us how Federation values interact with other cultures as a distinct and tiny minority in the region of space where they find themselves. They have no leverage. They have no powerful resources to draw upon when they get into trouble. They’re very much on their own. The show is really an examination of whether or not they can hang on to their decidedly high and occasionally impractical morals and at the same time survive without compromising them, especially when holding on to those values is costly and impractical. It is really asking us if we will be able to hold on to our values when America’s status is inevitably diminished in the world.
Star Trek: Enterprise is a prequel. It takes place a hundred years or so before the setting of TOS. The Federation has not yet been formed. Humanity is leaving its cradle for the first time since being contacted by the Vulcans and achieving planetary unity.
The Vulcans are the top dogs in Earth’s region of space at the time. The needs and desires of the Vulcans do not always align with those of Earth, however. In all the other iterations of the show, the Vulcans have been second-bananas to a Federation dominated by humans. In STE, the opposite is the case. Vulcan calls the shots, and humans are starting to balk.
STE is not a good show. It tries to build a dynamic in the vein of the TOS Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad, but it never really gels. The plot becomes mired in two wars: a war of extermination conducted against Earth by alien species who for some false reason view Earth as a threat, and another conflict called the Temporal Cold War, where various species compete with each other to change the past to their benefit. Like America’s two unending wars in Afganistan and Iraq, there is never a satisfactory resolution. The show skips ahead ten years to the founding of the Federation, bringing three unsatisfying seasons to a close as the show is canceled.
Now, after a long break, we have Star Trek: Discovery. The abbreviation STD is not the only thing that’s unfortunate about the show. Set perhaps a generation before TOS, the show is metaphorically dark. Oddly, it begins with Klingons working themselves into a war frenzy on a Klingon ship, in Klingon, subtitled in English. The appearance of the Klingons has gone through yet another metamorphosis. They are more alien, more ugly, and more other than they’ve ever been in shows past.
From the get-go, the two main characters, the captain, a Chinese woman with a Chinese accent who happens to run a ship with a Chinese name, and her first officer are in a love-hate relationship. They seem to like each other, and the captain is sort of a mentor to her executive officer, but they don’t trust each other, a gulf that widens through the first episode. The similarity to the relationship between America and China is as subtle as a two-by-four to the back of the head.
The bridge is crewed by an assortment of humans and aliens, all of whom are unfamiliar additional species in the Star Trek universe. The most striking of these is an unnaturally tall, thin alien with a yellow streak a mile wide. We learn during the course of the episode that his race was bred as slaves, and their purpose was to sense the coming of death. So, of course, he joined Starfleet, a service not known for its low mortality rate.
The show is also literally dark. The bridge is lit like the inside of a car at night. Starfleet, and by extension, the Federation, is stumbling around space, which is dark, in the dark. The other shows brought light with them. Now they don’t. The first officer, who is the main character, senses the Klingon threat and believes that they must attack, but her captain doesn’t believe her, sticking with traditional Federation/American values, chief among which is to not pick a fight. The first officer’s response is to mutiny against the captain. The episode ends with the captain pointing a phaser at her first officer. The command structure is irretrievably broken in the midst of a galactic crisis which the educated Trekkie knows will result in enmity between the Federation and the Klingons. There is no optimal outcome. There is no way to win.
Again, what? The Federation always wins, even if it has to sacrifice in order to achieve victory.
Mutiny isn’t something that happens in Starfleet, just like in the American navy. If a starship crew mutinies, there is always an external factor that causes it and never a difference in opinion among the bridge crew.
This is the time we live in. America continues to venture out into the world, but it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing anymore. We are deeply divided. Most of us want to do the right thing, but we keep pissing people off, and the people in charge seem to be blind to the reasons why. Do we use force on the new Soviets, the North Koreans/Klingons, or do we disavow force in favor of diplomacy? Do we withdraw from Iraq and Afganistan, tacitly admitting defeat, or do we keep slogging along in the hope that we can establish stability by getting the populations to accept American/Federation secular values by osmosis?
Star Trek has been around for half a century. It is an enduring American icon, and it will last as long as secular America lasts. It will be interesting to see if STD can bring us out of our metaphorical darkness and into the light, but I’m not getting my hopes up. We live in dark and dangerous times that are ripe for an upheaval of unknown and unintended consequences. This latest Star Trek series presumes that the Federation/America can survive it. We’re not so sure, but we can hope it’s the way the wind blows.