In the second episode of the seventh season of the fourth Star Trek television series, Icheb, an alien teenage civilian who’s been living aboard a Federation vessel for several months after having been rescued from both the Borg and abusive parents, issues a plaintive cry: “Isn’t that what people on this ship do? They help each other?”
It’s an unremarkable episode in one of the worse iterations of the franchise, but the need for an isolated and impressionable young man to offer his assessment of the situation brought a certain clarity to the whole project. The Star Trek oeuvre is immense. Five television series adding up to many hundreds of episodes plus 11 films (so far) and untold novels, comics, and other licensed material. Even restricting myself to TV and movies, it’s an awful lot of material to process. But angsty teen Icheb hit the nail on the head there, plaintively begging Captain Katherine Janeway and the ship’s holographic doctor to let him undergo a dangerous medical procedure that just might save the life of another ex-Borg on the ship who has served as his mentor. They let him go forward, because he’s right: People on the Federation Starship Voyager do try to help each other, as did the people on the various other vessels named Enterprise and even the staff of the Deep Space Nine station.
Starfleet officers help people. And God bless them for it.
The standard line among Trek apologists is that the franchise is not just a lot of sci-fi nonsense but a meaningful exploration of what it means to be human. And among Trek’s kaleidoscope of Vulcans and androids and holograms and shapeshifters, this is a core concern. But Trek has a very particular take on what it means to be human. Part of what it means, the franchise teaches us, is participating in an ongoing progressive project of building a utopian society. Even though the bulk of Trek comes from the ’90s, the franchise launched in the mid-’60s, and the now-anachronistic spirit of midcentury optimism has remained at the heart of the franchise throughout. It’s a big part of what makes Trek great.
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Nicholas Meyer, writer and director of the best Star Trek movies, once wrote that “at its absolute worst, Star Trek is a plaid-pants, golf-course Republican version of the future where white men and American values always predominate (despite blatant tokenism), and gunboat diplomacy carries the day.” And perhaps that’s true—when the show was at its worst. But at its best, the Original Series reflected not plaid-pants arrogance but Great Society optimism.
To dismiss Kirk’s multiracial crew as blatant tokenism seems unfair, given that it piloted the Enterprise at a time when legally entrenched segregation was a subject of ongoing political controversy. Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura is a black woman whose name means “freedom” in Swahili and who served as an officer aboard a starship at a time—back on Earth, I mean—when there were no female astronauts or military officers and black characters on television were more likely to be maids than professionals. Equally striking, given the political context of its era, is Ensign Pavel Chekov, navigator and proud Russian nationalist. The show asked audiences to imagine a seemingly amicable resolution of the Cold War.
More important, perhaps, than these dollops of diversity, is the very nature of Kirk’s five-year mission: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The line is so famous today as to be a cliché, but it’s striking when you take a second to really think about it. The Federation, which our beloved crew serves, is engaged in something like a cold war with the Klingon Empire. But its premiere starship is not a military vessel and has no sharply defined political agenda. Kirk establishes diplomatic relations with new species and tries to play a constructive role in the galaxy, but he’s not there to open new markets to Federation goods or to assist one side or another in proxy wars. The “American values” that triumph in the Star Trek universe are the values that united liberals before the Tet Offensive and the riots in American cities and assassinations and Watergate. And though the message of peace, progress, and tolerance may seem corny today, I happen to think those are still good ideas.
Granted, when you judge it purely as television, the Original Series is a bit weak. (There aren’t many 45-year-old television dramas that hold up well.) Continuity is a mess; the sets look cheap; the acting is hammy. The show was a commercial failure and died after three seasons. But it was resurrected in cinematic form, first with Star Trek: The Motion Picture—which was forgettable, really, but made enough money to spawn an excellent sequel and two solid follow-ups after that.
The films showed the world that bigger production budgets and better special effects could make a dramatic difference. The new-look Klingons, with real alien makeup instead of silly goatees and bronzer, were a huge step up. Star Trek II reprised the Original Series’ best villain, and the light-comedy time-travel caper Star Trek IV showed that the franchise’s signature political concerns could be updated for the 1980s. (Kirk and company voyage to the late 20th century to try to forestall a future disaster caused by the extinction of Earth’s whale population.) Having demonstrated to Paramount that there was a lucrative market for quality Trek content, the studio then began to work on the best and most successful Trek of all, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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Though technically a spinoff or sequel to the original show, TNG is in most respects the “real” Star Trek. It ran for much longer—seven seasons—and obtained ratings never seen before or since for a series distributed via syndication rather than over a national broadcast network. With proper budgets and a determination to serve the needs of a large built-in fanbase, it’s TNG that gave real shape to the Trek mythos. It’s also simply one of the finest dramas from the one-off era of television, offering far deeper characters and a much richer world than the police procedurals and doctor shows that dominated the medium.
TNG also demonstrates that in the Trek universe, not only will the future be better than the present, but life will continue to improve as time marches on. There’s no Russian on Jean-Luc Picard’s bridge, but there is a Klingon—the token of a new spirit of friendship between the Federation and the Empire (the origins of which are explored in Star Trek VI). The cast also includes a blind man whose sight has been restored by technology and a sentient android with human rights and a Starfleet commission. The team’s “continuing mission” has the same broad and peaceful mandate as Kirk’s, and their conduct is precisely the opposite of gunboat diplomacy.
There is one problem, though: The new ship has been equipped with a holodeck, an entertainment device that manages to risk the ship’s destruction with surprising frequency and that proves a dangerous tool in the hands of lazy writers.