Gene Roddenberry's Unfortunate Legacy; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Star Trek
Netflix in their pursuit of continual appeasement of the great god Mammon has etched a deal with Paramount Pictures that allows them to stream all day all night all Star Trek all the time. And lo it did come to pass that the great multitude of Star Trek Nerds were pleased. I have taken this opportunity to, with no extra expenditure than I would otherwise make, finally sit down and engage with the franchise as a text. I can now say unequivocally that it is without a doubt every bit as stupid as I always assumed it was, but I have nevertheless made some discoveries about it that I think have wider cultural implications that can be profitably unpacked.
I should note that I elected to watch the series in the chronological order internal to the franchise. I began with Star Trek:Enterprise, followed by 2009 Star Trek prequel/reboot, then watched the 60's Star Trek, then the Motion Pictures featuring the original cast, then Star Trek: The Next Generation, and finally Voyager (Deep Space Nine is not yet available on netflix as of this writing) flipping back and forth between them interspersed with the feature films with the Next Generation cast until Voyager gradually, finally, mercifully ground to an ignominious halt. In all of this, I find very little that is of any value, the Wrath of Khan and the interesting treatment of the "Mirror Universe" being the most notable exceptions. Of all of these particular cash cows, however, the one that I think is most consistently my favorite is the truly abhorrent Star Trek: Enterprise.
Star Trek: Enterprise appears at first blush to have little value beyond the exploitation of actress Jolene Blalock's remarkable physical beauty in the spandex costuming of her vulcan character T'pol. Frankly, the more screen time she gets, the happier I am because no matter how abysmally ill constructed whatever episode I'm watching, at least I can enjoy looking at her. No other regular member of Star Fleet, with the possible exceptions of Nichelle Nichols and Zoe Saldana, has even come close to Blalock's near Audrey Hepburn level of unabashed, full throttle pretty. That said, however, none of the flaws of Enterprise are unique to that series, and the quality of the performances at least is a cut above what one finds from most of Star Trek, with the obvious exceptions (Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Rene Auberjonois, etc.) Yes the character's actions don't make a lot of sense if you start picking them apart, and yes it's a morally confused disaster of a story for much of it's run. But Enterprise has an advantage that none of the other parts of the franchise have ever had, which is that in the context given, it actually works that the characters are inconsistent and the world doesn't make a lot of sense.
Enterprise, you see, is the story of humanity's first real expeditions into deep space. It features characters who have never had the benefit of learning from the mistakes of the past or the discovery of how human beings respond psychologically to prolonged immersion in the cultures of alien species. As such, much of what might otherwise appear to be bizarre and incoherent behavior in the other series just makes a lot of sense for the group of hyperstressed, outgunned, and basically out of their depths protagonists who crew the Enterprise.
The real failing of the series is that it's a Star Trek franchise. What that means is that what makes for a promising, character driven space drama is hamstrung by the expectations of Star Trek fans, and therein lies the trouble. Because it is the first Enterprise, the series has the obligation to try to set up a future that has already been written. This is a difficult task to say the least and has only ever resulted in colossal failures in all things science fiction. And you can go re-watch the Phantom Menace again if you don't believe me. Meesa don't think that'sa gonna happen, betcha betcha. The reason this is a problem is because that future was written by the godfather of all things Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. And Gene Roddenberry, for all his well meaning and good intentions, got space opera very very wrong.
There are two ways to write a Space Opera. The first is to tell a classical epic of some kind. You embrace The Hero's Journey in all of it's splendor, and damn the torpedoes when it comes to realism, futurism, and moralizing about the implications of technology that may never exist. Your job in writing such an epic is to drive forward your great allegory and make your point against this grand backdrop about the nature of the human condition. This is a character focused, plot-driven extravaganza for the senses when it is done right. Great examples of this mode include The Empire Strikes Back, Dreadstar, and a good chunk of all the mess that is Battlestar Galactica. Bad examples are legion, ranging from Buck Rogers to Caprica to Flash Gordon to Star Trek. The point is that grand space opera is very hard to do well. That's why the second kind of Space Opera, and the sort I generally prefer, is the smaller story that focuses intensely on individual conflicts and character development over the galaxy spanning stories of good vs. evil. Here we have the majority of Iain Banks's Culture novels, Firefly, Red Dwarf, and a good portion of the best that is Doctor Who.
Gene Roddenberry's failure is that he tried to do both at the same time, and ended up combining the worst of both worlds. From the Hero's Journey stories, we have the hyperfocus on a single figurehead captain of a starship who must be present to chew scenery at every important moment of the narrative. This renders what would otherwise be a perfect vehicle for an ensemble piece, and that is what stories of sea voyages should be, the mythologizing of Odysseus's faceless interchangeable crewmen notwithstanding, into a character study of a man who is not fit for character study. It also renders incoherent much of the command structure of the Star Trek model. Because the central hero captain must be ever present in the action, there is no room in the franchise for the one thing that any well-equipped starship on an exploratory mission should have: Space Marines. This is one of the few areas that Enterprise sought to correct partway through its run, and it is a better piece of fiction for it. It allows on screen an important tension in the exploration of the galaxy in search of resources (wait what? since when is that the case? We'll get there in a minute) between a noble pure quest for knowledge and the ever present risk of becoming intergalactic conquistadores. Enterprise tries to deal with this notion quite clumsily throughout its run, and it is more interesting for it. The series being what it is, and the back story of the future having already been written, however, the Prime Directive must be brought to the fore and justified. And justified it is if what you're essentially dealing with is a species of arrogant, stupid, hypocrites. Which is, of course, the case.
And this is a problem for the Star Trek universe because like it or not, there has to be a reason that people are doing what they are doing, and in a world where there is no resource scarcity a species of arrogant, stupid, hypocrites can't be motivated by something so innocent and childlike as the exploration of the wonders of the universe gaining knowledge for its own sake. Iain Banks has this as a central problem for his characters in the Culture novels in which the vast bulk of the human population is content to the life of the peaceful dilettante but which needs a release valve for the more rambunctious in the form of a small but active group of people engaged in trying to make other, younger civilizations grow up a little faster and therein resides all the drama in a fictional world that would otherwise be totally dull and uneventful. Star Trek, on the other hand, raises to its highest moral level a rather naive moral principle that there shall be no contact at all with alien civilizations unable to travel faster than light. This brick wall rule, which the heroic captains of the universe apply only in the most spotty of fashions as the plot demands, makes sense in a paternalistic post-colonial sort of way if what you're trying to do is explain how the American, Chinese, Japanese, and European exploitation of the rest of the world's peoples could and should have been avoided. It makes almost no sense at all if what you're dealing with is a society that has moved past internecine strife and presumably can figure out how to help other civilizations accomplish the same thing. Maybe the right answer is Banks's, where a small secretive cadre of interfering aliens can use their superior knowledge and technology to guide a young civilization along a better path. Maybe it isn't. The central problem of Star Trek is that for the vast bulk of its run, this is a question that goes unasked. As a result, the only possible sources of drama in the fictional universe lie in externalities. And, because externalities in fiction are by definition deus ex machina, they are difficult to swallow. Even more painfully, however, is the problem that confronting a deus ex machina must in turn be confronted by the development of new externalities that, in the nick of time, allow our heroes to triumph. All of this makes for bad story telling, and all of it grows out of the childish notion that the Prime Directive is the right way to go. And for all of it's flaws, it is the exploration of this fundamental concept that makes Enterprise rise above its peers and shine dimly as the best that the series has to offer.
And, not surprisingly, it does this by showing the lie of the Prime Directive.
For those not versed in the series, and shame on you for being so culturally illiterate, the Prime Directive holds that Star Fleet will not contact any civilization or interfere with them if they have not yet developed "warp" technology. This seems like a fairly arbitrary bit of nonsense to me, as it is clear from the kinds of civilizations that do develop warp technology (the Ferenghi and the Kardassians for example) that they aren't necessarily any more deserving of neutrality or interference than societies that are less technologically advanced. But never the less, that's the rule, and for the most part it's something that everyone in the series pays lip-service to, if their applications of it as a "supreme moral principle" are mixed to say the least. What makes Enterprise more interesting and better is that it exists in a world where there is no Prime Directive and so these moral questions are things that the Captain has to deal with on his own. Sometimes he comes down on the side of Prime Directive thinking. Sometimes he thinks otherwise. Ultimately, however, the Prime Directive wins out, and over the course of the series it becomes ever more clear what a terrible mistake that is.
Because in the end, the Prime Directive is a form of cultural relativism that cannot sustain serious scrutiny. The idea is that there is some "natural" course of development for a species which must not be interfered with because otherwise dire consequences will result. But that presumes a certainty with which the future can be known that simply doesn't exist. Moreover, it is a canon fact in the Star Trek Universe that whole species and civilizations have been allowed to die out because of the Federation's adherence to the Prime Directive. It's difficult to see how an extinct species is better off because they were not interfered with by a more technologically advanced civilization. In Enterprise, where the noble captain makes the first application of the difficult principle of non-interference, it is because he has encountered a civilization where two sentient species have co-evolved, with one as a sort of master race using the other as an underclass of servants. The more advanced species has become genetically stagnant, whatever that means, and will have died off within a few generations making way for the less advantaged species to become the masters of the planet in turn. The situation is set up to allow us to see the non-interference as something noble, however in principle it would also have applied if it were the less advanced species that was the one in danger of extinction, and that looks an awful lot more morally dubious to me. More to the point, it is clear that such things as slavery, disease, and genocide still exist even on the grand galactic scale of "warp capable" societies in the Star Trek Universe, and it is difficult to me to see how the morally advanced people of the Federation can permit this sort of thing to exist except for the most pragmatic of reasons. We cannot stop them because to do so we would endanger ourselves. That is craven and cowardly and not the sort of thing that a heroic captain of the sort Star Trek is so heavily invested in portraying can accept. In the end there is no heroism in the Star Trek Universe at all. There is just the mean, practical, utilitarian calculation about the survival of one tribe over another. That's hardly the stuff of heroism.
In the end, the Prime Directive is exposed as a very self serving principle that enters the parlance of popular culture on the most high minded of wings. As such, it is a form of double speak that is utterly suited to its times. We live in a world of tribalism that has been given a gloss of respectability. In the end there are no easy decisions, never mind what Gene Roddenberry would have you think. The truth of heroism is in doing what is right in the face of risk to everything one holds dear. Star Trek stands for the exact opposite, and in its grand moralizing and self-representation as a vision of a better future has rendered that meanness palatable. It is a balm for the mind of those who wish to push forward technologically without considering the ethical implications of new technology. In our technologically advanced world, there is nothing more important than that we all take time to measure those implications. We stand at the precipice of a world capable of falling into disaster should we fail in denying ourselves an ever increasing appetite for consumption of the next best thing. Such a disaster is as avoidable as it is inevitable, and thanks to Gene Roddenberry, whatever happens we will be safe and secure in the knowledge that Captain Kirk could have done no better.