Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New life and new civilizations

Nerd around long enough, and you'll hear somebody point out that there are no gay characters in Star Trek. It's true, and it actually goes beyond omission: on at least one occasion, a character strongly implies that human same-sex relationships are completely unknown, and winsomely suggests that maybe, someday, the human capacity to love won't be so limited. The only unstraight characters ever shown are in the Mirror Universe, where evidently all women are bisexual.

Of course, Star Trek is a television show, and is subject to the limitations of television shows. When Gene Roddenberry was producing a colorful space western to fill the Friday night time slot after T.H.E. Cat, he could be forgiven for not plotting all the socioeconomic implications of his utopian society. When a script made reference to the fact that the Federation had abolished money, I doubt there was a debate in the writers' room over economic incentives and state compulsion. And for most of the show's run, gaiety was a fairly contentious subject that a TV show could be forgiven for avoiding. But as nerds like me take the show's universe at face value and start spending way too much time deconstructing it, the undercurrent of the stories starts getting pretty sinister.

First off, again, there's no money. This is superficially reasonable: they have replicators, which can make anything you want, so why would you need to buy anything? But people also provide services, for which they're obviously not paid. This may make sense for personally rewarding jobs like archaeologist or engineer, but how many people, honestly, feel such a personal calling to clear dishes in Ten Forward that they'll ship out on a years-long assignment to do it eight hours a day unpaid? Later writers addressed this by creating latinum, a medium of exchange that can't be replicated and which serves as currency for a thriving galactic market economy, but the Federation uses it only when dealing with "alien" societies. Her own citizens do scut work for nothing. When interacting with 20th century humans, Captain Picard tells them dismissively that humanity has "grown out" of the "infancy" self interest.

Humans in the federation are, again, also uniformly straight and monogamous, expressing shock at "nontraditional" relationships that were out of the closet three hundred years earlier.

Perry de Havilland sums it up succinctly:

How many gay characters crop up in Star Trek's Federation? How many non-conformist extroverts? Any sign of a counter-culture? How often is an internal voice of political dissent heard in the Federation? The only dissidents shown, the Maquis, were forced into armed conflict with the Federation when it betrays them to the fascist Cardassians. The only attempts at political change shown were a couple failed attempts at a coup d'├ętat by elements of the Federation's own military, neither of which had liberty as their objectives. The Star Trek Federation is a dystopian nightmare: smiley face totalitarianism with a California "liberal" vibe...

In short, Star trek presents a future in which the great majority of humans simply don't act like humans, and seem very happy to be forced into specific roles by an omnipresent semimilitary government with the power to move people around involuntarily at will and to incapacitate people en masse without injuring them. It can also instantly identify and locate an individual person anywhere on a planet, and has an essentially infinite capacity to store and coallate all records. It has personnel who can literally read minds, and employs them as ships' counselors. The establishment's ability to identify and neutralize resistance is effectively absolute.

And all this follows the defining divergent event of Star Trek's fictional timeline, the Eugenics Wars, a world-shattering conflict caused by ambitious and disastrous tinkering with the human genome.

When you put way too much though into TV sci-fi, it's impossible to escape the conclusion that Star Trek's humans have been artificially homogenized, genetically engineered to eliminate variation and dissent. And this unanimity has been enforced for centuries by a singular government with the ability and willingness to forcibly suppress any new variation from the established order. It's not quite a boot stomping on a human face, but it sure as hell undermines the utopian feeling you're supposed to get from all those clean hallways and pocketless jumpsuits.


  1. Remember, Star Trek was not about living in a future's society, it was about living in a future's Military.

    Much like Heinlein's Starship Troopers is about military life and, while it mentions civvie life, doesn't really explain it. There were more contrasts to "old school" militaries than commentary non-military lifestyles.

    Oh, and I remember in Voyager, that once the annoying alien congratulated two men on their new relationship.

    "non-conformist extroverts" Riker before the beard. He pushed it about as far as he could (and then some) for being a military officer.

    "internal voice of political dissent" It is implied by the fact that there are Maquis; militaries should NOT get involved in politics until shots are about to be fired.

    The rest is spot on. Too many "feel good" ideas crammed together to work. As a metaphor, it's OK, but at face value the "willing suspension of disbelief" needed an overdrive.

    I stopped watching Star Trek in the mid-to-late nines (has it been that long?!) At that time I wanted to write a fan fic with a Paul Muad'Dib-esque character to point out the flaws and contradictions of utopia. Seems they almost did that with it the DS9.

    I gave up when the studio, made a Borg queen, killed Kirk, and I could not take the crap writing on voyager for even one more episode.

    Was it just me or did Janeway end every episode in season one with a variation of the "This proves how right I always am" meme?

    Oh, and Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  2. I seem to recall that the characters in Trek were adamant about not being in a military organization. Wasn't there a lot of angst over building the Defiant? "No, no, no; we don't build ships of war! We build ships of exploration that can incidentally melt a continent should the need arise. Can't you put an astrometrics bay in it or something?"

    And good call on Deep Space 9; I guess it's Danielle's and my favorite for a reason. Get the Starfleet characters out of their own environment, dealing with a more realistic society, and they get much more interesting. I can't imagine Dax lasting very long on the Enterprise.

  3. ISTR David Gerrold being enticed to write the pilot (?) of TNG with promises that the series would "address" homosexuality. And Gerrold feeling betrayed when "The time wasn't right yet." Considering that Roddenberry seemed to expect that he, Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barret could have a happy life together, you'd think he'd be a little more open to, um, "unusual" relationships...

    I stopped watching late in the DS9 series, never really watched Veejer, and really wanted to like Enterprise, but... (They should have done the Mirror universe thing from the start...)

  4. Considering that Roddenberry seemed to expect that he, Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barret could have a happy life together...

    Reeeeally? Preliminary googling turns nothing up--do you remember where you heard that? I'd love to add Roddenberry to my celebrities-you-didn't-know-were-polyamorous list. I know he was a product of 1960s SF culture as far as sex was concerned (evidently he wanted a Phase II episode showing Earth as a nudist paradise), but this is a new one on me.

    DS9 got bogged down in the Dominion War, and turned into a soap opera. I still haven't seen all the episodes in the last season. That Mirror Universe storyline in Enterprise was great, though; serious props for making it a Mirror Universe _show_ with an alternate opening sequence and no normal-universe framing story.

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