The Next Generation
The Original Series (hereafter TOS ) of Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, has been around for a whopping 43 years now. Despite a lack of initial success1, TOS had four other series following it as well as now eleven feature films. TOS was the corner stone of the Star Trek universe. The interest behind this paper is the political and ideological subtext of Star Trek in 2009, as well as the commercial grounds behind it. Wasn’t Star Trek dead after Kirk died2 and fewer and fewer people watched the adventures of Capt. Picard’s crew on the big screen3 ? What makes this American utopian science fiction so appealing to audiences throughout the world? Why is it necessary to adapt and reinvent a brand from the sixties? How did they do it and what changed the original vision and concept from Gene Roddenberry over time? Star Trek has always incorporated traditional American key conceptual values and myths. How does that translate into the 21st century? How can audiences, new to the concept of Star Trek, relate to it while at the same time getting the entire exposition needed to emotionally partake in this universe?
To answer at least some of these questions, I will give a short summary on the history of the franchise and narrative, as well as the mythological and genre implications. Later the plot of Star Trek will be laid out briefly as I analyze, in a more detailed manner, several aspects and narrative devices of the film in regard to its 1960s predecessor. Unfortunately the analysis of the new Star Trek movie will have to be without the original script written by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, which is still not available, neither online nor elsewhere. Apart from that, it can be stated that the film was crafted very much after the final script version since the WGA went on strike right after the script was finished in early November 2007 and director J.J. Abrams, as a member of the WGA, was not allowed to alter anything in the script during filming4. However, I hope that through analyzing and comparing the “old” and “new” Star Trek universe, I can offer considerable insight into what is behind the legendary narrative of Star Trek, aside from Hollywood’s lust for dollars and action-packed blockbusters.
The Original Series - Rise of the Franchise
Following Klaus Sachs-Hombach in his essay on Star Trek5, science fiction as a genre is hard to define, and the academic consensus states two traditions for it: the purists and the universalists. Purists approach the genre from a scientific standpoint and foremost require plausibility as well as accuracy from the depiction of futuristic worlds6. Universalists see the genre as a scientific shell for universal stories about human problems and relationships, or more pointedly, the human condition. Star Trek as a concept is more or less a mix of these definitions, whereby the Universalist approach has a stronger grip on the narrative. Even so, departing in the sixties with a quasi-realistic feel for the series was, not only due to low budget, hard to accomplish. The futuristic technological concepts born out of this hardship had a strong influence on following genre output, as well as on new technologies in the real world7. For contemporary audiences, Star Trek may have been the only optimistic, plausible outlook on the destiny of humanity. Arguably, this stemmed from the seamless connection between a realistic harmonic future society and American myths.
Politics in Space
TOS was ahead of its time, portraying a better society while the US was at the verge of war and torn apart by civil rights issues. The first episodes aired in 1966 (the work for Roddenberry on the NBC series started in 1964) with the famous crew already together in the second pilot. Basically TOS revolved around three main characters: Capt. James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Captain usually being the last to tip the scales, while reason and logic sided with Spock and emotion and conscience spoke through McCoy. This classic setup dealt with more or less philosophical and humanitarian issues, while most of the encountered conflicts within the closed episodes were solved diplomatically. The scripts for the episodes of the three seasons TOS came from several Science Fiction and New Wave authors (Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon and others), who hereby had the chance to address critical issues of the times under the mask of a seemingly harmless science fiction/adventure show.
Under this umbrella of a science fiction narrative Star Trek, TOS formulated a peaceful communication with unknown, strange cultures as its central theme. This can be called the heart of Roddenberry’s vision of a tolerant, self-reflexive future society depicted in TOS8. The most prominent contemporary issues during the sixties appear as subtext as well as partly overlapping motives in the series, where the geopolitical implications in the growing Cold War against the communist bloc (external conflict), as well as the multicultural melting pot within the US culminating in the civil rights movement (internal conflict) reveal themselves from within.
The external conflict
The external conflict suggests the United Federation of the Planets (UFP, officially introduced in the second season of TOS ) as the equivalent of what was conceived to be the “Free World” during the Cold War. We see two massive, ideologically opposed superpowers (the UFP and the Klingon Empire), which basically mirror the situation starting out in the fifties of the 20th century between the Western alliance under leadership of the US, and the communist bloc under leadership of the Soviet Union. The Klingon Empire, in this case, is portrayed as evil, violent, and imperialistic, using whatever means necessary to accomplish their goals (Soviet Union). The Federation with its army Star Fleet (equivalent to NATO) is depicted as a peacekeeping force that defends the freedom of the UFP (USA) against the aggressor. As Rick Worland extensively analyzes, the Enterprise follows the rules of containment throughout the conflicts with the enemy race - an institutionalized US way of handling the assumed plans of the communist opponent since 1950 through NSC-689. Incorporating contemporary conflicts into the series became a habit of Star Trek, and later in the several sequel series, although the writers and directors became more and more interested in the internal conflicts of the crews, and analogies to real life became harder to draw.
The internal conflict
The entity that is a spaceship in Star Trek symbolizes the closed community fighting together for a common cause. Obviously we, as an audience, merely know about the crew of the Enterprise - from the movies and TOS - but assume its composition in terms of race and gender to be exemplary for all Federation ships - representing a diverse society that has overcome violent conflict and explores and operates under the prime directive not to interfere with the internal affairs of other planets and/or species. All the spacecrafts coming from Earth are registered through the prefix USS and a ship name. USS stands for United Space Ship or United Star Ship, which is also the abbreviation used for regular US navy ships (United States Ship). This simple yet effective incorporation of naval name standards into the series leaves the audience with two possible ways to interpret it. Firstly, we are presented with a multi-cultural society under the leadership of the white male as a metaphor for the melting pot analogy, frequently used for US society. Secondly, we are shown a world community that is peacefully working together to protect Earth and the other planets of the Federation. Both variations are used in the narrative throughout the series as fit, even though the American principle, with regard to the domestic television market, requested and received more presence. The Federation itself is shaped after the federal system of the US blended with the ideals of the United Nations, whereas the political and ideological principles of the USA are planted into the very roots of the Star Trek universe. Despite the obvious notion of the United Nations, the often depicted last minute rescue of whatever is at stake by the Enterprise crew can be seen as a contemporary comment on the paralyzed state of the UN during bi-/multi- national conflicts, and furthermore as a pro argument for US interventions.
Both main background motives addressed in the series with a utopian vision are specifically American, despite being depicted via a world community10 aboard a ship. Other influences on the series’ storylines, production design, and overall ethic code, are: the arms race with the soviets, the space race, counterculture, and the Vietnam War. The ideological direction in the external conflicts stays clearly and conservatively on the path of the US government11, while the aforementioned moral discourse apparently criticizes the status quo and portrays Roddenberry’s humanistic approach. All these reflections on contemporary problems were imminent in the narrative and dialogues between the main characters, often interwoven with the philosophical question of morality and affectivity. Kirk represents the well-balanced center of power, negotiating morale originating in pure reason with the specifically human trait of affectivity. Is it right to let pure rational reason reign over one’s actions? Doesn’t emotionality define a human being? Isn’t it the ultimate perfection to combine both principles in a matter of acting that serves highest standards of morale and doesn’t deny human features?12 It cannot be my task to prove the “success” or quality of solutions suggested by the series regarding those questions here, but to investigate how these issues have changed and towards which direction the franchise is tending to go.
1 Sander, Ralf. “Das Star Trek Universum: Band 1”. Wilhelm Heyne Verlag. 1993. p.195
2 In Star Trek Generations.
4 Meaning the scriptwriters had a lot of weight in this film and their original vision of the written Star Trek script might be quite close to the final product.
5 Sachs-Hombach, Klaus. In: „Zukunft im Film“. p.155.
6 Including pseudo-scientific explanations for phenomena.
7 E.g. the transporter beam was invented to circumvent frequent shots of landing crews in spacecrafts. Sander, Ralf. “Das Star Trek Universum: Band 1”. p.17.
8 Hellmann, Kai-Uwe. In: “Zukunft im Film“. p. 138.
9 Worland, Rick. “Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior”. In: Journal of Popular Film and Television . p. 114.
10 The crew of the Enterprise is put together to represent the utmost global team from around the world and beyond, travelling under American leadership. The different crew members are: Sulu representing all of Asia, Uhura representing Africa and African-American culture, and Scotsman Scotty as representative of the old world, Chekov representing the Soviet Union. To fit the Federation picture even an extra-terrestrial was incorporated with Mr. Spock.
11 Here, exceptions prove the rule. The Vietnam War analogy pointed out by Worland is one of these exceptions argued during an entire episode of TOS. Almost obvious humanist criticism is stated towards the possible outcome of a conflict like the one in Vietnam. Again, the criticism is not methodical but stands out in the context of the whole series.
12 Sachs-Hombach paraphrases Schiller when he writes: Kommen Moral und Affekt in dieser Weise zur Einheit, spricht Schiller von Anmut, gelingt diese Harmonie mit den Gefühlen nicht, bleibt nur die Würde, ein Zustand der Selbstbeherrschung, in dem wir am Moralischen auch gegen unsere Affekte festhalten. In other words, morality and affectivity coming together in ones actions is the best solution (grace), otherwise one should stick to morality against the impulses of affectivity (dignity).
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- Freie Universität Berlin – John-F.-Kennedy-Institut
- Star Trek TOS The Original Series Kirk Spock Next Generation roddenberry gene roddenberry american America Robert Orci Alex Kurtzman screenwriting screenwriter script scriptwriting scriptwriter j.j.abrams McCoy enterprise starship enterprise Uhura script analysis analysis Chekov Captain Kirk Commander Spock Chris Pine Zachary Quinto