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Space-racism is bad: And 17 other not-so-subtle lessons learned from Star Trek

Illustration for article titled Space-racism is bad: And 17 other not-so-subtle lessons learned from Star Trek

1. Racism is bad (original series, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield")
Star Trek has a long-running habit of recasting social situations via none-too-subtle metaphors, using far-future scenarios packed with androids and aliens to highlight some of the flaws in stodgy old 20th-century human thinking. One of the most pointed such shots at social commentary came in the 1969 original-series episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," as Captain James T. Kirk and the Starship Enterprise ran across two powerful half-white, half-black aliens with a long cultural history of mutual suspicion, oppression, and hatred that led to their world's destruction; in the end, they were the only survivors. Why so much hate? As one explained, he was white on the left side and black on the right side, whereas his enemy was the opposite. Of course, Kirk and his (nearly all white) crew didn't get it; to their advanced civilization, the distinction between skin colors and the prejudice attached to those colors was arbitrary, ridiculous, and hopelessly backward. Hint hint, racism-plagued ’60s America.

2. Office romance is almost always a bad idea—especially with your superior officer (The Next Generation, “Lessons”)
When Captain Picard discovers that he makes beautiful music—literally and figuratively—with the new head of the stellar cartography department, Nella Daren, a strange feeling comes over him: He’s responsible for decisions that might affect her very life, but he couldn’t possibly put her in harm’s way—not after she helped him reconnect with his love of the Resskian flute! No sooner than you can jiggle a tricorder, Picard must send her to a dangerous situation at the Federation outpost on Bersallis III. When he hears that she might be dead, the heretofore stoic Picard breaks down and has trouble making the calls that a Starship captain needs to. Turns out she’s alive, but both realize that Picard’s job is too important to risk letting personal feelings get in the way. So it’s just like that time the Wal-Mart swing-shift manager dated the pharmacy technician—both were doomed to failure because too damn much was at stake.

3. Save the whales! (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)
When a mysterious vessel approaches Earth and begins destroying the atmosphere, Starfleet Command is at a loss: The vessel is sending out a signal, but they just don’t understand it! Spock, noting the arrogance of humans, suggests that the signal might be aimed at another lifeform. Turns out that humpback whales, long extinct, might be the key to ending Earth’s imminent destruction, so a kooky plan is hatched. Dr. McCoy can explain it best: “You’re proposing that we go backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them forward in time, drop them off, and hope to hell they tell this probe what to go do with itself?” That’s right, those whales aren’t just symbolic of what people have done to this planet—they’re actually the key to survival in the long term. (And a great excuse to send the original Star Trek crew to Earth in the ’80s, where they can encounter punks and fall in love.)

4. Racial profiling is bad; detention camps are even worse (“Detained,” Enterprise)
In its first two seasons, the Scott Bakula-helmed series Enterprise faced a formidable foe in the form of the Suliban, an alien race whose weapons included time travel and genetic engineering. And what a terrible race they were! But wait, they weren’t all bad, as Bakula’s Capt. Archer discovers when he winds up imprisoned in a detainment camp with a bunch of Suliban. Turns out they’re a peace-loving race who largely shun the violent tactics of the terrorist-like Cabal sect. Message received, right? Almost. Turns out Archer has some facts about the United States’ WWII Japanese internment camps he needs to share with his jailer (Bakula’s old Quantum Leap co-star Dean Stockwell) before leading a daring escape. We get it, all right?

5. Be cautious when introducing new lifeforms to your eco-system—even super cute ones (original series, “The Trouble With Tribbles”)
When Uhura brings an adorable, furry little tribble back to the ship, the immediate reaction is friendly: Tribbles coo, and their sound and feel is very soothing to humans. But little did the crew know that if you feed a tribble, it will immediately begin to asexually reproduce—and the more you feed it, the more tribbles you’ll end up with. The creatures eventually begin to take over all available space on the Enterprise, getting into the grain supply and eating it all up. That turns out to be a good thing, since the grain had been poisoned by a devious Klingon. Still, everyone learns that a starship is no place for a tribble to live, and Scotty cleverly uses them to mess with the Klingons—he beams the lot of them into their engine room.

6. War shouldn't be easy (original series, "A Taste Of Armageddon") 
One of the biggest problems about addressing real-life concerns through metaphor is making that metaphor plausible enough to work in a fictional environment. There's no fun in watching an episode of any show that bogs down in moralizing, especially when the moral takes precedence over common sense. Here Kirk and Spock visit the planet Eminiar and learn that it's been at war with neighboring planet Vendikar for over 500 years. Instead of the chaos and destruction one would expect after such a conflict, they find an apparently thriving civilization. The secret? The war is being fought with computers, and there's no property damage because there are no bombs. The only problem: the casualty figures are still very real, which means that at the end of each simulated "battle," a number of people are ordered to report to the Disintegration Chambers. It's a clever-enough idea, using technology to disconnect people from the harshness of real conflict, and making it possible for that conflict to never resolve itself once either side's resources are exhausted. But as an actual model of human behavior, it leaves a lot to be desired. What if the computers break down? Did generation upon generation of Eminiar citizens really willingly go to their executions? The system had been going on for centuries before the Enterprise showed up, and there's no indication that anybody had ever objected to it before. Obviously a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required for even the best Trek episodes, but there are limits; and in its need to make a point, "Armageddon" sacrifices good storytelling for rhetoric.

7. Society cannot be led by a computer (original series, "The Return Of The Archons")
A computer-run civilization is a common theme in the Trek-verse; the basic template allows the writers some leeway (how does this computer decide to run things?), as well as letting them beat up on logic and science. (Spock may be the sanest person on the Enterprise, but he takes an awful lot of ribbing because it.) "The Return Of The Archons" certainly isn't the last time this particular meme would pop up, but it is one of the oddest. After a random crewman gets kidnapped and poor Sulu gets a serious case of the jollies, Kirk and team beam down to Beta III to investigate, and find all manner of craziness afoot. The town looks like a Western could start filming there any second, and the natives are dressed accordingly, but the weird bit is when "Red Hour" hits, and everybody in the area goes crazy. After some investigating and further conversation with the locals, Kirk and Spock discover the horrible truth: a man named Landrau wanted to create Utopia, so he built a machine to run everything, and taught it his own theories on how a perfect society would work. The result is, unsurprisingly, a total mess. So is the episode. After a promising start, "Archons" gets bogged down in repeated exposition, and the final reveal of Landrau's AI is a disappointment. Seems it's easier to create an obviously inferior opponent than it is put up a real challenge, and Kirk's response is to launch into a seemingly endless monologue designed to force the machine into destroying itself. Apparently, the main point here is supposed to be so obvious that it doesn't have to be shown, simply presumed.

8. We need our pain! (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is generally considered the worst of the Trek movies, and for good reason. William Shatner’s direction is hamfisted, the script doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and performances range from disinterested to senile. And, oh, when it comes to lessons learned: Don’t put on rocket boots and freak out a rock climber; always make sure the commanding officer knows about any secret half-brothers; don’t trust a 56-year-old fan dancer; if God asks for a starship, He’s probably not the real thing. But the most important lesson at all comes from Spock’s black sheep of a sibling, Sybok. On his quest to find the mystical planet Shaka-Ri, Sybok picks up followers by ridding them of the one thing in their life that hurts them the most. One quick mind meld and a hug apparently stands in for a lifetime of therapy, and nearly everyone who gets the treatment acts like a pod person afterwards, bowing to Sybok’s requirements. Of course Kirk finds the will to resist, and when Sybok tries to put the moves on him, James T. responds with a stirring speech about how a person’s pain, and how they live with it, defines who they are. Inspiring words, truly; or at least they would be if the whole notion wasn’t ridiculously simplistic. The idea that each and every person Sybok meets has one memory so awful that its resolution changes their entire personality seems born of hack writing and talk-show therapy, and Kirk’s assertion that keeping that memory unresolved and aching is the only way to stay true to one’s self is equally shallow. Cheap psychology is hardly the worst of Star Trek V’s many sins, but there’s something frustrating about watching beloved characters—men and women who would’ve died for Kirk in seasons past—betraying their principles like college students after their first self-help book.

9. Sometimes you have to let go (Star Trek: First Contact)
It makes sense that the best movie with the Next Generation crew would involve the Borg; the assimilating robo-zombies were one of the series most enduring contributions to the Trek-verse, and they’re one of the most effective villains of the show’s history. In probably the best of all the Next Gen story arcs, they actually managed to do the one thing hundreds of aliens and baddies had never achieved: They took out Captain Picard. Worse, they didn’t kill him—they made him one of their own, using his knowledge of Starfleet and the Enterprise to force him to betray his own people. So when the Borg make an all out assault on Earth, it’s no surprise that Picard is determined to shut them down once and for all. The Enterprise ends up following the main Borg ship through a time warp into the past, where Picard can pursue his vendetta while the Borg Queen tries to screw up history. All well and good, until Picard starts losing perspective. Patrick Stewart gives it his Shakespearean best, but the script lets him down, overplaying its references to Ahab and turning one of Trek’s greatest captains into a yelling cartoon. And when it comes time for someone to bring him down, instead of using someone in the regular cast, the movie brings in Alfre Woodard to serve as a voice of reason. Strong an actress as Woodard is, there’s no fun in seeing a stranger lecture Picard on being more adult. The ridiculousness of the Borg Queen aside, that’s the movie’s biggest flaw; it makes a hero into a fool, and then lacks the writing to make the arc matter.


10. Rape is bad (Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Violations”)
Genre storytelling is a great way to deal with touchy subjects through the veneer of fiction. By providing the audience with distance from a difficult issue, it allows them to view things more objectively, and maybe find a new perspective on things. Or else it turns something bad into, well, kind of a joke. “Violations” sits on the middle of the line—like most episodes of Next Generation, it’s well-meaning and generally effective, but when the metaphor becomes literal by the end, it turns into shrill moralizing that makes the whole “cloaked in sci-fi imagery” angle seem largely pointless. The Enterprise is transporting three Ullians on their trip to create a kind of personal history of the galaxy. Using their psychic gifts, the Ullians are able to probe minds of their subjects, bringing previously lost memories into sharp focus. It’s all pleasant and soothing, until one of the Ullian takes a shine to Deanna Troi and forces himself into her brain. It’s a mental rape standing for a physical one, and creepy as that is, the metaphor is so direct as to be hardly a metaphor at all. Much like Willow’s much hated “magic addiction” on Buffy, it’s less a clever way to make a point than it is an obvious lack of nerve in dealing with something that would’ve been far more effective had it been handled more directly.

11. The U.S. Constitution Is The Greatest Of Glories (original series,"The Omega Glory")
Especially in the original series, Star Trek had a penchant for presenting the Enterprise crew with planets uncannily like Earth, down to the shape of the continents, but different in some fundamental and plot-driven respect. (Here's where the Nazis took over, there's where the Roman Empire never fell…) The conceit was particularly ludicrous and heavy-handed in "The Omega Glory," in which Kirk and company ran afoul of a bitter conflict between two tribes, the Yangs and the Kohms, on a world devastated hundreds of years earlier by global war. Omega IV is actually Planet Of The Blatant Cold-War Allegory, Kirk deduces, and "Yang" and "Kohm" are corrupted versions of "yankee" and "communist." The Yangs, apparently the descendants of the love-children of Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter, literally worship the American flag and the U.S. Constitution, which over the years has been linguistically warped into a nonsensical religious catechism: "I plegleia neptum flagumm; to pec, liforstand…" What this situation needs is overacting, and William Shatner is the man for the job: He corrects the Yangs with a sweepingly grandiose recitation of the Preamble. ("Tall words! … not written for the chiefs or kings or the warriors or the rich or the powerful, but for ALL THE PEOPLE! They must apply to EVERYONE—or they mean NOTHING!") It's nearly impossible to take seriously, though the patriotic sentiment was meant unironically—supposedly, series creator Gene Roddenberry personally submitted the episode for Emmy consideration. (It did not win.)

12. There’s no staying in the Garden Of Eden and that’s okay (original series, “The Apple”)
The Enterprise beams down to a planet that looks like an unspoiled paradise only to find it’s controlled by a sophisticated, snake-headed computer named Vaal whom the inhabitants regard as God. By attending to their every need in return for the occasional mineral meal, Vaal keeps his bronze-skinned, blonde-haired worshippers in a state of permanent, childlike innocence. While Spock seems to think this is okay, McCoy and Kirk are repulsed by the sexless, socially retarded civilization—so they say damn the Prime Directive and proceed to blow Vaal to bits. Taking their cues from the Russian lothario Chekov, the former Feeders Of Vaal start making out and giggling at Kirk’s lame jokes, their innocence lost forever but their humanity restored at last. It’s as literal-minded as the original series got—Spock, Kirk, and McCoy bring up the story of Adam and Eve at the beginning and end of the episode, in case anyone missed the point—but it’s also a fairly daring, quintessentially ’60s smack at the notion that we need to stick to inherited moral codes at the expense of our own happiness because that’s simply how things are done.

13. It’s okay to ask for help (The Next Generation, “Q Who”)
When the mischievous Q transports the Enterprise 7000 years into the future, Picard is faced with the first glimpse of his greatest enemy: the collective cube-dweller(s) called the Borg. Picard—with help from Troi and Guinan—learns that the Borg act as a hive mind, and that they have no real leader. And no remorse. And the ability to completely subsume or destroy pretty much anything that gets in their way. In later episodes featuring the Borg, we learn about the downside of being a conformist, but in “Q Who,” it’s all about reaching out for help, even to a trickster god. When things look completely bleak, and Picard must decide whether to blow up his own ship (with everyone aboard) or be assimilated by the Borg, he finally relents, telling the almost-omnipotent Q that he wants his help. “If we all die here now, you will not be able to gloat. You wanted to frighten us. We’re frightened. You wanted to show us we were inadequate. For the moment, I grant that. You wanted me to say ‘I need you.’ I need you!” No hugs after that, unfortunately.

14. Owning slaves is not cool, even if they’re kinda robots (The Next Generation, “The Measure Of A Man”)
When a Federation scientist wants to disassemble Commander Data—in order to see if he can create more androids like him—Data objects, fearing that the scientist won’t be able to put him back together. Starfleet tries to exert its authority over Data, who resigns rather than submitting. Then Starfleet tries to claim that Data is actually their property (oh no you didn’t), and that they can do whatever they like with him. All the judge needs to be swayed in Data’s favor is an impassioned courtroom speech by Picard, of course. But in case it wasn’t clear what was at stake here, witness this exchange between Whoopi “Guinan” Goldberg and Picard: “Consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work… You don’t have to think about their welfare; you don’t think about how they feel. Whole generations of disposable people.” “You’re talking about slavery.”

15-16. Immigration is a positive thing for a society; abortion is a fundamental human right (Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Up The Long Ladder")In what's been described as the most protested Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, writer Melinda M. Snodgrass had a couple of basic agendas. She defined the first in an interview: "It was intended to be a commentary about immigration, because I hate the current American policy. I wanted it to be something that says sometimes those outsiders you think are so smelly and wrong-colored can bring enormous benefits to your society, because they bring life and energy." Problem was, the "outsiders" in this case were a bunch of comically backward, thick-witted, tech-spurning space Irish whose colony was being threatened, so they had to bring their livestock, their boozing, and their campfire-cooking ways aboard the Enterprise. In the process, they annoyed everyone so much that Commander Riker eventually told one spirited lassie, "I can see why your father wants to marry you off… So he can have a pipe and a mug of beer in peace."


Eventually, the Enterprise found a second colony of the same people on a planet populated by clones of the original settlers; needing more genetic diversity, the clone-leaders stole a few "interstitial undifferentiated cells" from Riker and Doctor Pulaski, and created clones with them. When Riker and Pulaski figured it out, they returned to the planet and killed the clones, with Riker pointedly giving a speech about his right to control his own body, and how unwanted copies of himself "diminish me in ways I can't even imagine."

In the same interview, Snodgrass admitted that a) the plot was definitely meant as a pro-choice message, and b) she got a ton of angry letters from pro-lifers who caught on quickly. Strangely, Irish-Americans were equally angry about the cheap stereotypes of the Irish culture as a bastion of backwardness and drunkenness, even though the space Irish eventually save the day by bringing "life and energy" to the clone-culture in the form of a willingness to breed in some new genes.

17. Society ought to accept gay people and aliens analogous to gay people: 
“The Outcast” (Next Generation), “Rejoined” (Deep Space Nine), “Stigma,” (Enterprise)
Same-sex pairings have long been a thorny subject in the Star Trek universe. Gene Roddenberry’s future has conquered racism and sexism and, ostensibly, homophobia. So where are all the gay characters? Why don’t we see same-sex couples holding hands at 10-Forward? A handful of episodes have dealt with gay themes, however, usually by having our Starfleet heroes encounter sexual prejudice in other cultures. In “The Outcast,” the Enterprise teams up with a race called the J'naii, an androgynous culture that regards genders as a thing of their race’s primitive past. Nonetheless, a J’naii minority have never lost the urge to choose a sexual preference, and one female-identified J’naii named Soren falls hard for intergalactic playboy Riker, even though it means exclusion and possible brainwashing. Much impassioned speechifying about how gay people… err… J’naii with gender preferences are as normal as everyone else follows.

Deep Space Nine’s 1995 episode “Rejoined” follows much the same pattern, but with a little more subtlety, when the body-jumping Trill Jadzia Dax encounters the wife she left behind when her life inside a previous, male host ended. Rekindling old flames is verboten for Trill, and after a passionate flirtation—and a broadcast taboo-pushing same-sex kiss—Dax’s once-but-not-future-lover decides their newfound old love is not worth living as exiles. A few years later, Enterprise found resident Vulcan T’Pol experiencing prejudice when she’s found to be suffering from an AIDS-like disease largely transmitted by members of a shunned sub-culture of Vulcan mind-melders. Though not a mind-melder herself, she takes a bold stand against bigotry and learns of a mind-melding underground fighting for equality. As with Star Trek’s previous attempts to deal with gay issues, the episode’s intentions are never less than noble, and the conclusion just short of tragic. Would one happy ending kill them? Even better, wouldn’t showing a future where seeing men with men and women with women wasn’t that big a deal have said more than the occasional windy sermon about equality?

18. Politics is a dirty business, (“The Inquisition,” Deep Space Nine)
The Star Trek universe has its roots in utopian ideals, but utopias aren’t always the easiest things to maintain. Set in a galactic hotspot, Deep Space Nine was the series most eager to acknowledge realpolitik, moral ambiguity, the fact that not all problems can be wrapped up 44 minutes, and that the principles of the United Federation Of Planets might not hold all the answers. The 1998 episode “Inquisition” even questions the integrity of the Federation itself. Dr. Bashir becomes the object of intense scrutiny thanks to inquiries made by a purported internal affairs officer named Sloan. After an ordeal and several twisty revelations, Bashir learns that Sloan’s actually a member of the super-secret “Section 31,” a agency designed to protect the Federation even when it means violating its core principles through deception, espionage, and torture. Somewhere Dick Cheney was taking notes.