The neocons captured the Star Trek universe, as they’ve captured America

Summary:  This post looks at the evolution of the Star Trek “universe” from 1964 through today, using it as a mirror to help us see how we’ve changed. It gives us a clear picture, but one we might not want to see. This is the second in this series about the militarization of American society; see the conclusion tomorrow.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

GARTH: “You, Captain, are second only to me as the finest military commander in the galaxy.”
KIRK: “That’s very flattering. I am primarily an explorer now, Captain Garth.”

— From “Whom the Gods Destroy”, first aired January 1969. It was a different America.

Spock: vulcan peace sign

Contents

  1. Evolution of the Star Trek universe.
  2. The evolution of Star Trek is America’s.
  3. Other posts in this series.
  4. For More Information.

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(1) Evolution of the Star Trek universe

One often-mentioned aspect of the great Star Trek saga, first conceived in 1964 and still running, is that it provides a mirror showing the evolution of American society. The longest trend is its gradual militarization. Roddenberry pitched it as a “Wagon Train” to the stars, explorers moving though a new universe of wonders. The Enterprise met new peoples, sometimes hostile, sometimes friends, sometimes incomprehensible.

Mostly episodes in the original Trek featured exploration, commerce, and diplomacy. These took place during a cold war with the Klingons and Romulans, with some conflicts and even battles (echoing the geopolitics of the 1960s). There were shows about frontier clashes (“Balance of Terror”, “Arena”, ), proxy wars (“A Private Little War”), cold war gamesmanship (“The Enterprise Incident”, “Journey to Babel”), fighting off invaders (“By Any Other Name”), and an outbreak of total war (“Errand of Mercy”).

But these were more than offset by the explicitly anti-war tone of the series (“The Doomsday Machine”, “Day of the Dove”, “Spectre of the Gun”, “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “A Taste of Armageddon”, and the twist endings to “Errand of Mercy” and “Arena”).

The series slowly grew darker, generation by generation, as the Star Trek universe shifted from Roddenberry’s original vision to that of today’s neocons. Deep Space 9 was a war story. Voyager journeyed though a realm of high tech races that resembled the Balkans. I consider this among the darkest of scenarios, where sentient species develop god-like powers without intellectual, moral, or spiritual growth.

The last series, “Enterprise” wars are ever-present: between Andorians and Vulcans, an invasion by the Sphere Builders (in which millions on Earth were killed, and the planet itself escaped destruction by seconds), and a temporal cold war (which briefly turned hot and almost destroyed our time line).

SS Botany Bay (DY-100 class)
SS Botany Bay (DY-100 class).

(2) The evolution of Star Trek is like that of America

“Nothing that resembles Gene’s humanistic vision would be allowed on TV screens today. What we would get would be a militarized Starfleet, a lot of technobabble and, of course, great special effects; perfect for the action figure market.”

— By LongTomH in a discussion thread at Democratic Underground.

The Star Trek world became one in which trust was for fools, strangers were usually enemies, and often only amoral measures can prevent the end of humanity. Star Trek was always a to help us see the world differently. Like so many things these days, from flying to reading the news,it now serves the neocons.

Especially the news, now a propaganda machine overflowing with stories about civil wars abroad (existential threats to us), rivals building new weapons (a hostile act when done by them), and endless stories about our military and foreign affairs (which concern either economic or military affairs). See one day’s examples here., making us feel insecure and so easily ruled. Plus a constant barrage of fear about so many things, including the imminent threat of domestic terrorism (which seldom appears). The GOP mocks Obama, one of the most aggressive Presidents in his use of force, as weak or even a pacifist.

Fifty years have passed since Gene Roddenberry first pitched his idea to NBC. According to his original vision, by now we would have won the mid-1990s Eugenics Wars (aka WWIII, described in “Space Seed”), with our nuclear powered vessels (like the DY-100 class) traveling through the solar system. Instead we’ve taken the resources with which we could have done great things — especially after the Cold War ended from 1989 (Berlin Wall fell) to 1991 (Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union dissolved) — and in effect burned them.

Instead we’ve increased spending on military and intelligence not just disproportionate to any threat but largely irrelevant to our actual threats (we’re “ready for wars past and future, but not present.”). Even worse, we’ve initiated a mad series of foreign wars that’s set the Middle East aflame.

The result: our confidence in the Republic’s institutions has fallen across the board, with the military (and police) the only ones retaining our confidence (per Gallup).

Our sci-fi is so often all war, all the time. “Star trek into the dark side” by Misterho at DeviantArt.

(3)  Star Trek’s fans are Americans, and so blind

Star Trek, like so much of science fiction in American film and TV, has become all war, all the time. It’s true as well, to a lesser extent, of fantasy and science fiction in print.

Oddly, this evolution of the Star Trek series has gone largely unnoticed by Star Trek fans. They see and debate the obvious militarization of Star Fleet — and the degree to which it is justified by the threats to the Federation. But they don’t see that the Trek universe itself has changed from Roddenberry’s vision in which peace and justice could be realized to the neocons’ jungle described by Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (1849):

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed
… So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.

(4)  Other posts in this series

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See the bible: Making of Star Trek (1970), explaining Roddenberry’s ideas — and the trade-offs that went into putting it on TV. Also see these posts about the films: The Shiny, Sexy Seduction of Star Trek Into Darkness. and Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.

For something more serious I recommended reading these to help you better understand our times:

  1. War is the health of the state” by Randolph Bourne (1918).
  2. War Is a Racket by Smedley D. Butler (Major General, USMC, deceased), one of by America’s most decorated soldiers (1935).
  3. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War by Andrew Bacevich (2013).
  4. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow (2013).

16 thoughts on “The neocons captured the Star Trek universe, as they’ve captured America

  1. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and by opposing end them.

    No, wait, I think I may have confused that with something else.

  2. For the everyman’s perspective on Star Trek, which in America often means a child-like view, we turn to Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”), interviewed on National Geographic’s “StarTalk” (21 April 2015):

    Through science. Not only that, in the Star Trek future, everybody gets along. People from the continent of Australia, from North Africa, South Africa, North Asia, South Asia, from Europe. Everybody gets along, because they point out over and over again that we’re more alike than we are different. That we are all in this together. Let’s embrace that happy Star Trek future.

    Perhaps he hasn’t watched much Trek since “The Next Generation” ended in 1994. His description hasn’t been true of the trend in Trek shows and films during the past 20 years. Humanity is unified, but the Trek universe is one of many species (as proxies for today’s many peoples, divided by race, ethnicity, and religion). And those species are not “more alike than different” and certainly don’t “get along.

  3. “Gene’s humanistic vision”

    Thanks for the brilliant cultural observations in this article, FM. I’m sure fans of the original series would love to read this. It wouldn’t surprise me If someone determined that the humanist vision peaked culturally right around the time Star Trek was being created in 1964. Peak humanistic vision seemed to ride along with peak middle class economic and social security. I could put together a list of films and tv shows from this period when it seemed that the tide had turned in favour of the middle class –late 1930’s thru late 1960’s. Here’s a few off the top of my head:

    Standing up for decency and against fear: “Seven Day in May” (1964) with my favorite film humanist Col., Jiggs Casey, played by Kirk Douglas.

    Rod Serling also challenged Americans to question what the militarism and paranoia of the Cold War was doing to us. Check out these Twilight Zone episodes (1960-1), Third From the Sun, The Shelter, and The Monsters Are Due on Maple St.

    1. Philastore,

      I didn’t have a high opinion of President Kennedy until I read Virtual JFK — results of a symposium of historians about Kennedy’s foreign policy, specifically the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam. He was often the only sane man in the room, but had the strength and diplomatic skill to impose his will on them.

      A remarkable book. It changed my view of the US government.

  4. A gloomy view of the world, which I utterly reject — as would Gene Roddenberry

    A reader sent me this passage, the conclusion to Jill Lapore’s article in The New Yorker “The Rule of History: Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the hold of time“. The article itself is classic New Yorker — fact-rich shallow cynical revisionist history. The conclusion is the most interesting part.

    The rule of history is as old as the rule of law. Magna Carta has been sealed and nullified, revised and flouted, elevated and venerated. The past has a hold: writing is the casting of a line over the edge of time. But there are no certainties in history. There are only struggles for justice, and wars interrupted by peace.

    The last line despairs of human progress, seeing history purely as a sine wave in which we endlessly learn and forget, progress and regress. I do not believe that. We have abolished slavery and given rights to women, events almost without precedent in history. While those could be lost in some civilization cataclysm, I do not believe that will happen.

    Rather Ms Lapore gives us the usual excuses for our passivity and apathy, which appears to be something we desperately want — probably as justification for our abdication of responsibility for the Republic.

    I think Gene Roddenberry would agree with me.

  5. And of course, Roddenberry was originally a motorcycle cop in LA. How many LA cops today are flogging sci fi scripts to network producers? Things have changed in so many ways the mind reels.

    1. Peter,

      I wonder if that’s an important difference between then and now in the arts. Roddenberry’s history was typical of writers and actors until our time. They had experience as soldiers and on the streets. Dashel Hammett was a Pinkerton detective. Robert Heinlein graduated from Annapolis, etc). Bogart was in the Navy and a bond salesman. James Stewart led bombing missions into Germany in WWII.

      I suspect few writers and actors today have that depth of life experience. David Drake’s military science fiction drew on his experience in Vietnam; no romanticizing of war from him.

  6. This post is even more prescient now that Star Trek: Discovery is out and falls into line perfectly with everything said here.

    1. Sean,

      Thanks for that news about “Discovery” and its themes. I watched the first episode and thought it was almost unwatchable. It didn’t even make sense.

    2. I recommend you keep watching. If the Federation represents the neo-cons / neo-libs – multiculturalism from a photon torpedo tube – the Klingons represent the alt-right / jihadists. I hate to admit it but I found myself sympathizing with them over the Federation.

    3. Rando,

      The main characters’ behavior in the first episode was silly. Much like The Next Gen, acting as if cosplaying at a Trek convention. No matter how interesting the plot, that makes it unwatchable to me.

      The series peaked with Enterprise, showing how the Federation was built. Practical and idealistic, much like the Greatest Gen’s building of the post-WWII world order.

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