Celebrating Fifty Years of Humanism in Star Trek

It feels like we live in a world where movies and shows keep getting darker. It’s a pop culture where viewers tune in for their weekly dose of misery on The Walking Dead, depravity on Game of Thrones, and where even classic children’s heroes like Batman and Superman are portrayed as mass-murdering vigilantes in Dawn of Justice. Comic book and science fiction fans have even coined the term “grimdark” to describe this apparent one-upmanship of doom and gloom assaulting audiences.

In contrast, for over five decades Star Trek has remained positive, philosophical, and moral, portraying a society built on Enlightenment values. With six television series totaling 716 episodes across thirty seasons, seventy million books in print, over forty video games, a new television series in the works, and this summer’s thirteenth feature film, Star Trek endures because there’s nothing like it in American media: a positive, humanist vision of humanity's future based on rationality, science, and human-improvability. With over fifty years of content, it's important to note that one can find Star Trek stories to support nearly any hypothesis and also that Star Trek isn’t perfect. Conservative critics have a valid point that Starfleet appears communistic, while liberals correctly criticize the fictional organization for being militaristic. There are episodes where the writing is appalling, with plot holes and nonsensical situations that offend reason, along with bad acting. But there are also so many episodes that can bring tears to our eyes for their insightfulness and the beauty of their ideas. So please indulge my cognitive biases as I share the three aspects of the Star Trek canon that most appeal to me as a humanist.

1. A Better Future

"Dystopian Young Adult Fiction" has become a popular genre in recent years, with The Hunger Games and many other post-apocalyptic fantasies portraying humanity as doomed to regression, scarcity, and totalitarian oppression. The 2006 film Idiocracy, with its satirical portrayal of society devolving into stupidity and superficiality, is commonly cited by anyone complaining of US cultural decline. The popularity of so many dystopias reflects a pervasive cynicism and dissatisfaction with modern society. In contrast, Star Trek unapologetically—even rebelliously—gives us a utopia where material want is no more and technology has vastly improved our quality of life. It envisions a future where humanity is exponentially more intelligent, where our motivations are intellectual as well as ethical. As a time-travelling Captain Picard explains to a woman he encounters on post-World War III Earth in the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact, "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity." The primacy of education and exploration are embodied in the Starfleet Academy motto, ex astris, scientia: "from the stars, knowledge." While movies about alien invasions seem to come at us every other year, in Star Trek we are the extraterrestrials, not invading but studying primitive cultures while avoiding interfering with them. The United Federation of Planets, Star Trek’s United Nations of the galaxy, adheres to the “Prime Directive,” which reads, in part, "As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture."

2. A Multicultural Future

When Gene Roddenberry brought Star Trek to television in 1966, he brought with it the first positive portrayal of a Japanese character in Helmsman Hikaru Sulu. In the midst of the Cold War, the show later introduced the Russian Ensign Pavel Chekov as the tactical officer. Roddenberry's pilot for the show originally included actress Majel Barret as second-in-command, but the studio executives refused it. Roddenberry did successfully place Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the bridge, a female African-American character whose surname comes from the Swahili word for "freedom." And the series has remained progressive. I have met many women millennials who grew up with the 1990’s Star Trek: Voyager and found a hero in Captain Kathryn Janeway, the tough-as-nails, yet compassionate leader who takes her coffee black. Despite its multicultural vision, Star Trek has often fallen prey to our own pervasive sexist and racist cultural norms. This is most apparent in the one-dimensionality of its extraterrestrials. Every alien race exhibits a single cultural stereotype. Klingons are violent. Ferengi are greedy capitalists. Vulcans are cold scientists. Bajorans are spiritualists. The film Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country (1991) calls out this pervasive speciesism during an incredibly awkward dinner party between the USS Enterprise crew and a group of Klingon ambassadors. Chekov notes the Federation principle of supporting "inalienable human rights," to which a Klingon replies, “Inalien...If only you could hear yourselves? 'Human rights.' Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a 'Homo sapiens' only club.” Star Trek’s principles of diversity and tolerance are best embodied in the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, which stands for "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations." And the show spends considerable time expressing diversity and defending it. The 1969 TV series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” explores the absurdity of racism with a civilization destroying itself because half its populace is black on the right side and white on the left, with the enemy being the mirror opposite. In 1992’s “The Outcast” (an episode of the Next Generation series), the Enterprise crew encounters a genderless culture, where a member of the society is persecuted for the crime of identifying as female. A 1989 episode of that series titled “Measure of a Man” (after a Dr. Martin Luther King quote) puts the freedom of the android crewmember Data in the hands of a trial jury over whether human rights extend to artificial intelligence. Captain Picard argues that humans are machines as well, constructed from their parents' DNA and warns that the creation of life doesn’t mean ownership of that life—something futurists can easily imagine our own civilization grappling with in this very century.

3. A Skeptical Future

Most of all, unlike paranormal shows such as The X-Files, where every episode repudiates Scully the skeptic and vindicates Mulder the believer, Star Trek uniquely holds up the skeptic as the hero. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer extrapolated from this that, "Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God." This is a regular theme in Star Trek, where supremely powerful entities make claims of godhood and are revealed as merely being technologically advanced. In the original series’ episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (1967), the Enterprise crew encounters a godlike being who claims to have once been worshiped as the god Apollo on Earth. He is revealed to simply be a member of an advanced exploitive alien race. In the fifth film, The Final Frontier (1989), the crew members encounter a being claiming to be God himself, who wishes to spread his word across the stars using the Enterprise as his vessel. Captain James T. Kirk, standing among the awestruck believers basking in the god’s glory, raises one hand and asks, "What does God need with a starship?" When the being demands to know if Kirk doubts him, Kirk replies, "I seek proof." If I could recommend just one Star Trek episode, it would be “Who Watches the Watchers” (Next Generation, 1989). In it, the Enterprise crew visits a team of xeno-anthropologists studying a primitive culture on a distant world, the Mintakans, who have given up their belief in the supernatural for rationality. When an accident at the observation post exposes the anthropologists and violates the Prime Directive, a villager, Liko, runs home with revelations about the “gods” he’s seen. Soon, the populace becomes infected with religion. Fanaticism and witch-hunts begin. At one point Liko fears the gods must want him to execute a crewmember of the Enterprise because a storm is coming. However, this conflicts with his rationality. The crewmember tells him, "That's the problem with believing in a supernatural being: trying to determine what he wants." One of the anthropologists, now onboard the Enterprise, urges Captain Jean-Luc Picard to give the villagers "commandments," arguing that the Mintakans are doomed to establish religion and, "without guidance, that religion could degenerate into inquisitions, holy wars, chaos." Picard is outraged at the idea, passionately countering, "Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? NO!" Picard instead decides to violate the Prime Directive even further, to bring a Mintakan leader, Nuria, onboard the Enterprise. There he carefully explains to her that he and his crew are not gods; their technology is simply more advanced, just as Nuria's technology is more advanced than that of her ancestors. He promises her that the wonders she sees on board the Enterprise are the wonders her descendants will create through science and rationality. Nuria, upon seeing all of this, speculates, "Perhaps one day, my people will travel above the skies." To which Picard replies, "Of that, I have absolutely no doubt." He could just as well have been speaking to us primitive Earthlings living 300 years in his own past. As we gear up for another round of Star Trek this summer, I’d like to make the case again that it’s more than just entertainment. Star Trek is a positive vision of a future to which we may aspire if we remain empirically clear-sighted and cherish the interdependence we have with our fellow human beings.


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