Volume 21, Number 1, Spring, 2003


Does Star Strek Make Sense?

By J. Neil Schulman

Let's get this out of the way: I'm a Trekkie.

l've been watching Star Trek since it hit the air in 1966. I know every episode of the original series by heart. I watched the Star Trek animated series. I've seen all ten of the theatrical Star Trek films, and the spin-off TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and now the latest Star Trek series, Enterprise.

Carrying a press card from the tabloid newspaper The Star, I covered the first major Star Trek convention held in New York City, where I met all the original series' bridge crew except William Shatner.

At a later convention I fondly recall reclining on a bed at a room party, next to, and chatting with, Nichelle Nicholas who played Lieutenant Uhura.

I even spent a half hour on the phone, sometime in the mid-70's before Star Trek: The Motion Picture revived his career, chatting with Star Trek's creator, Gene Rodenberry. Believe it or not. he was so untethered by fans at that time that his home phone number was publicly listed.

I've gone to the Star Trek Experience in Las: Vegas several times, and bought my daughter a Tribble.

The point to this is that I feel well-qualified to discuss the ins and outs of the Star Trek universe.

The new series, Enterprise, takes place earlier in the timeline than the rest of the TV series, before the formation of the Federation, on the maiden voyage of the first Starfleet vessel with a warp drive fast enough to get anywhere interesting. It's also before Starfleet's Prime Directive has been passed into law, making it a crime for Starfleet to interfere with the "natural" cultural development of another species-or does that just apply to species that haven't yet developed warp drive? And does the Prime Directive apply to anyone not in Starfleet? The different Star Trek series keep contradicting each other on these points.

I can see what Gene Roddenberry was thinking when he thought up the Prime Directive. It had something to do with avoiding that bugaboo of the anti-American left, cultural imperialism. I don't recall that Roddenberry ever tried to stop Star Trek from imperializing cultures around the world with American values, so maybe he did think this idea only applied to extraterrestrials. But for the life of me, I can't figure out what the heck the darned Prime Directive means in the first place.

Star Trek episodes throughout the years have made a point of extending human rights to intelligent rocks (the Horta on the original series episode "Devil in the Dark")' self-aware robots (Data, a regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation), and self-aware computer programs (The Doctor, on Star Trek: Voyager).

Now, on a new episode of Enterprise, "Cogenitor," Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) upbraids his chief engineer, Charles "Trip" Tucker III (Conner Trineer), for teaching a third-gender sex-slave from a newly encountered species how to read and awakening in it enough of a desire for freedom to ask the Captain for political asylum.

This newly encountered species aren't rocks. They are almost human. They look human, they eat human food (although they find it unfragrant), and one of their females even wants to have sex with a human male on a first date. That's human enough for me.

Trip demonstrates that the alien thirdsex "cogenitor" (Becky Walhstroml) — treated like a useful fertilization machine by its own culture, not even given the status of having its own name-has superior cognitive abilities. It learns how to read complex material in a single day. understands human movies at first viewing, and outplays Trip, an experienced player at a game of skill, on its first try.

Captain Archer, concerned with maintaining diplomatic relations with a technologically advanced species, and therefore useful future trading partner, more than the messy business of opposing slavery, hands the refugee back to his/her/its shipmates, where the raised-consciousness Cogenitor promptly commits suicide.

The episode ends with the Captain laying a guilt trip on Trip.

Never mind that Captain Archer is the real guilty party for denying the slave asylum, using 21st century multicultural relativism as his justification. Probably one of Archer's ancestors also had practice papering over the brutal crimes of other equally valid cultures by working as a producer for CNN.

Wonderful message Star Trek sends out. Rocks, robots, and computer programs can have the protection of human rights, but not third-sex alien slaves. I'm sure this policy will make perfect sense to whatever extraterrestrials we humans actually encounter in the future.

The point is that the morality and politics of Star Trek verges on incoherence. In other words, it's typical of the sort of writing you'd expect from current-day American liberal TV writers. It appears to be written for the sole purpose of allowing one character each episode to show moral outrage at another character, and which character gets tagged outrageous and which one outraged is pretty well unpredictable. There are no discernible, consistent, overriding principles to help us, just the outrage du jour. It's enough to make Spock weep.

Thoughts from the Editor

By William H. Stoddard

Many thanks are due to J. Neil Schulman for sharing Does Star Trek Even Make sense? with the LFS. I felt very much the same shock and outrage when I watched "cogenitor," and I thought of devoting this issue's editorial to it-but Schulman made his column available first, saying what I wanted to say, and more eloquently. Star Trek always appealed to audiences partly by its idealism, but after this episode its ideals seems all too hollow.

I wanted to add one further reflection. a disturbing historical parallel to this episode and to the Prime Directive. What we are seeing is an analog of the Fugitive Slave Act-and Star Trek's endorsement of that act as a symbol of moral idealism. A perverse taste for ugly ironies makes me wish that the cogenitor had been offered asylum, not by Tucker (who always gets the alien women anyway) but by Mayweather. It would have been grimly fascinating to see Captain Archer telling a black crew member that it was his legal duty to aid another culture in taking back an escaped slave.

The ante-bellum South's justification for its "peculiar institution" was very much like the Prime Directive: an appeal to traditional cultural values. And that appeal was still heard as late as the struggle against the Civil Rights movement, when the original Star Trek was being produced. Southern sates didn't just allow whites to discriminate against blacks; they required them to do so, saying that if it were left up to individual choice then greedy businessmen would hire black workers. or sell to black customers. and destroy the cultural values of the community. I doubt that it ever ocurred to Roddenberry that he was endorsing racism; but his successors have made it all too clear that that's where the Prime Directive leads.

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