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Star Trek

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Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.
—Gene Roddenberry:The Star Trek Philosophy [1]

Star Trek is a multimedia science fiction franchise, best known for a television series from the late 1960s, a series of related movies, and various spin-off TV series during the 1980s to 2000s. It was the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry.

Its enormous impact on popular culture has given those who have heard of it, but never seen it themselves, the impression that it's merely another mindless, escapist fantasy (and its weaker moments are guilty as charged), but there's much more to it than that.

Star Trek and rationalism[edit]

"Do you realize the number of discoveries lost because of superstition... of ignorance... of a layman's inability to comprehend?"
Star Trek: TOS episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" Note: this was in 1966.

Star Trek was perhaps the first major work of popular culture in the 20th century to espouse a blatantly pro-rationalism viewpoint. This is due in no small part to Roddenberry's outspoken atheism,[2] though credit must also be given to studios that have the balls to fund something that could be perceived as anti-Christian. Roddenberry rejected attempts by the studio to add a Christian chaplain to the bridge, saying that in the future everyone was an atheist and better for it.[3][4] Perhaps the ending to "Bread and Circuses"[5] placated Christians.

Examples abound. In one episode (which was originally intended for the failed 1970s Phase II series which never materialized) Captain Picard personally tears down a con artist posing as a manifestation of the Devil; in another Kirk and crew find out Apollo and the Greek gods were in reality very powerful aliens. Even in the original series, Spock, the legendary first officer, was constantly searching for scientific explanations for everything the crew discovered, because it was science that had brought them into space in the first place.[6] Another episode showed Picard being mistaken for a god, which caused the re-development of a religion among people who had previously abandoned it. This was treated as a terrible backward slide by Picard and crew,[7] who worked to prove he was mortal (however, this specific attitude was not seen again).

However, there were times when Star Trek's rationalism stripped its gears. For example, in the animated episode "The Magicks of Megas-tu"—which had started out life as Larry Brody's third season episode where Kirk meets 'God" (so yes in some ways Star Trek V actually was Brody's little brain child, not Shatner's)—Kirk and company meet Lucian...the being on which the stories of the Devil are based in a part of reality where magic actually works. In the Voyager episode "Mortal Coil" an alien named Neelix is told through a vision quest that there is no afterlife – and has to be convinced by one of his shipmates that this life is still worth living. This despite that Voyager had another episode ("Barge of the Dead") which heavily implies the Klingon afterlife does exist. And, of course, there was the cringeworthy ending to "Bread and Circuses" already referenced, and the fact that anything resembling Native American mysticism (vision quests, spirits, etc) typically did exactly what it said on the tin.

Star Trek and society[edit]

In the future, everyone wears rayon.
When Patrick Stewart, a bald man, was cast as the captain in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a reporter said to Roddenberry, "Surely they will have cured baldness by the twenty-fourth century!" Roddenberry replied, "By the twenty-fourth century, no one will care."[8]

Star Trek was as progressive socially as it was philosophically. At a time when race and interracial marriage were very contentious issues in the US, Star Trek became the first television series ever to depict an interracial kiss on television.[9] Uhura was considered a role model for the black community as well as women across America, with praise from Martin Luther King himself; the character also inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an entertainer and Mae Jemison to become an astronaut. A subsequent episode dealt with the thorny issue of overpopulation, going so far as to have Kirk suggest they "Give them devices to prevent conception" (a hot-button topic at the time). Not long after that came "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", an episode with a species that is half-black and half-white, one on each side of their faces. They fight each other to the point of extinction over the question of whether it's better to be black on the left and white on the right, or vice versa.[10] Later series maintained this devotion to equality by putting first a black man, and then a woman, in the captain's chair[11] (and even, in one scene, a female black captain of another starship in Star Trek IV).

Roddenberry had hoped to keep Star Trek free of racism and sexism. The original pilot, "The Cage," had a female first officer played by Roddenberry's future wife, Majel Barrett. Roddenberry had intended to have Barrett continue the role in the series, but NBC spiked the idea of a female Number One, as she was called – Roddenberry then tried to have her cast as chief medical officer, but NBC balked at that too.[12] Finally, she was cast as a nurse, but Roddenberry was able to sneak in one little detail. Nurse Chapel was actually Dr. Chapel, a biological research scientist who had signed on as a nurse so she could go into space to find her missing fiancé (Roddenberry got his revenge in Star Trek: The Motion Picture – when somebody called her "Nurse Chapel," she got to snap back that she was Doctor Chapel).

The original Star Trek series featured women working in integrated units with men. The series debuted in 1966, a full 12 years before the Women's Army Corps in the USA was disbanded and women were allowed to serve in the military alongside men. However, most women in the original series appeared in subservient roles, were often portrayed as flakey and overemotional, and frequently served no other purpose in the plot than romantic or sexual interest. While the pilot featured female Starfleet officers in the same uniforms as their male counterparts, their uniform in the rest of the series was essentially a minidress. And Uhura's job, when you get down to it, was...answering the phone. She was a secretary in all but name.

Roddenberry would address the sexism at NBC in the series' final episode, "Turnabout Intruder." In that episode, Kirk meets Dr. Janice Lester, yet another woman from his past. She complains that she was rejected as a starship captain because she was a woman, then uses some alien device to trade bodies with Kirk. Unfortunately, Paramount and NBC had relieved Roddenberry of full control of the series by then, so when he turned in the script for the episode, it was rewritten to show Dr. Lester as an unstable, hysterical, whiny bitch.[13]

Roddenberry was hardly a saint in this regard, though, given under his watch were also created one of the most racist episodes of Star Trek ever made and one of the most sexist. The series also has perennial problems with depicting alien cultures as monolithic, with entire planets often having only a single language, religion, etc.

Voyager's Chakotay has also been criticised as a depiction of a Native American, with his fictional tribe a nonsensical grab-bag of traditions from the entire length of the Americas: turns out the "native adviser" bought on for the production was Jamake Highwater, a notorious plastic shaman. One episode that stands out in particular is "Tattoo," where it is suggested that Native Americans had no language, religion or culture until white aliens came down and gave it to them because they were noble and one with nature and so on.

Gay rights[edit]

Nonetheless, the show had some noted flaws, especially as concerns LGBT issues. Roddenberry had been slightly homophobic in his youth, and although he grew past that childhood prejudice, he rarely led by example in depicting gays or transgender people in a positive light. It is understandable that it would have been next to impossible to discuss LGBT issues in the 1960s, but the lack of LGBT characters in modern Trek is something of a mystery. Gene Roddenberry had said he intended to introduce an openly gay character on The Next Generation but did not do so at the time of his death.

A proposed script for a second season Next Generation episode, known as "Blood and Fire," would have included a gay couple on the Enterprise and would have been about AIDS.[14][15] Unfortunately, the episode was never filmed. However, thanks to far more open-minded fans, the episode was later released in two parts in the style of the original series for the independent fan film series Star Trek: Phase II.[16][17]

One episode of The Next Generation did depict a genderless species which dealt with the treatment of those of different genders and sexualities by the mainstream, but this was a pretty covert treatment of these issues, especially since all of the genderless aliens were played by women. The official line is that this was done because it is allegedly easier to make women appear androgynous. However, it looks almost as if Commander Riker is teaching a member of a species of lesbians how to be straight, not at all what the message was meant to be.[18]

Furthermore, there were only two outright instances of same-sex kissing in Deep Space Nine and in both cases there was a flimsy excuse for the kiss rather than a fair depiction of a real gay couple (and both cases were women, not men, suggesting the scenes were driven purely by ratings). Speculation as to why there wasn't an openly gay character during that time ranges from objections from executive producer Rick Berman to the studio suits at Paramount.

One positive thing to note about one of the instances of same-sex kissing was that the relationship between Jadzia Dax and her ex was not considered unusual because of their genders; though it could have been considered allegorical, the relationship was taboo because they had been married in a previous life, and it was not considered proper for lovers to reunite in different bodies. That they were both women wasn't even remarked upon.

However, sexuality has been treated far better in Star Trek spin-off media with its many novels, comics and video games. They bluntly show that sexual orientation is irrelevant in many societies within the Star Trek universe, most especially humanity. They've even gone further by revealing that characters introduced in the movies and TV shows are not heterosexual. The unfortunate Lieutenant Hawk of Star Trek: First Contact is a notable example being outed as gay and in a relationship with a man in the novel Section 31: Rogue. Sadly, these stories are not considered part of the Star Trek canon. Paramount has said that only what is established in the motion pictures and television episodes is material they acknowledge as legitimate to Star Trek lore.

There may be hope for LGBT issues in Star Trek yet: the same series that gave us George Takei also gave us Zachary Quinto, who came out in 2011 and, like Takei, has been a strong advocate of gay rights.[19]

Their efforts have apparently paid off as the most recent film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond has officially confirmed that the alternative universe first introduced in the 2009 film Star Trek does have a major character who is gay and in a same-sex marriage: Hikaru Sulu. This development came about specifically as a reference and homage to Takei and his gay advocacy work.

Rather than be glad that the Star Trek canon finally has an indisputably gay character, Takei got angry. His reason: the film's writers departed from Rodenberry's original blueprints for the character. Takei argued filmmakers should've instead added a new, original character who was gay.[20]

Simon Pegg, one of the film's co-writers and stars responded to Sulu in a concise, level-headed response established all of that and added that adding a new character instead of making a pre-existing character in the alternative universe that's been focused on since the 2009 film Star Trek would've amounted to tokenism.[21]

Still, the fact that it's been firmly established as canon that there's an openly gay character, and that humanity doesn't bat an eye when it comes to sexual orientation in the Star Trek universe, is a long-needed step in the right direction for a franchise that has treated same-sex relationships so poorly on screen.

Dark undertones[edit]

Dark undertones of the ST universe?

Much has been made of how Star Trek depicted a "better" humanity but when you really look at the original series there was this dark undertone that not all was well in the Federation especially in Kirk's era. It seemed every time Kirk met someone important in the Federation they either were already stark raving bonkers or finally snapped in Kirk's presence.

  • Doctor Adams who had "done more to revolutionise, to humanise prisons and the treatment of prisoners than all the rest of humanity had done in forty centuries" was secretly torturing his patients.[22]
  • Commodore Matt Decker becomes so obsessed with destroying a planet-destroying robot that he flies a shuttle into the mouth of the thing.[23] Interestingly, Kirk seems to be going down this very same path in "Obsession", but how he handles it is very different from Decker.
  • John Gill the historian, whose "treatment of Earth history as causes and motivations rather than dates and events" Spock found impressive, thought the best way to unite a fragmented planet was to recreate Nazi Germany. I mean what could possibly go wrong with using a doctrine of race superiority and genocide with political backstabbing to unite a people? They try to wipe out their neighboring planet after some opportunistic guy drugs you for one, Gill old bean.[24]
  • Doctor Richard Daystrom whose duotronic breakthrough won him the Nobel and Zee-Magnes prizes, had his engrams put into his computer which quickly loses it and starts killing people, followed by Daystrom himself losing it and stating, "We're invincible. Look what we've done. Your mighty starships, Four toys to be crushed as we choose" followed by Spock giving the obviously crazy man the Vulcan neck pinch.[25]
  • Captain Garth of Izar whose exploits were required reading, who has totally lost it and compares himself to Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Lee Kuan, Krotus (last two are would-be conquers)[26]
  • Dr. Janice Lester, mentioned above, who was presumably a competent Starfleet officer with a legitimate complaint about discrimination in the service, goes off the deep end and resorts to a rather creepy kidnapping scheme to get what she always wanted.

These dark undertones spilled over into later spin-offs as well. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine saw the first appearance of a highly secretive black-ops organization approved under Federation law. Called Section 31 and certainly not supposed to be any kind of reference to the CIA, the group goes to any length to preserve the well-being of the Federation, to the point where ethics get the shaft. Torture, extortion, exploitation, and murder are usually the tools employed to accomplish this. To illustrate how ruthless they are, a story arc during the aforementioned series involved the group planning the genocide of a whole species, the Founders, to end the Dominion War through the deliberate infection of main character Odo.

Such behavior shows that even in the 23rd century humanity isn't quite as advanced as the show would have us led to believe.

Star Trek and science[edit]

Eclipsed only by the works of Jules Verne[27], Star Trek is claimed to have inspired more inventions and scientific advances than any other work of science fiction, though the more sweeping versions of such claims frequently end up committing the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy by listing things Star Trek "predicted" only after someone came along and actually invented them. For bonus points, lists like this one often include things invented before they appeared in Star Trek, such as flatscreen TVs (invented in the 1950s and available commercially and common in military aircraft by the 80s), tablet PCs (the idea can be traced back to the Dynabook in 1976, somewhat before Next Generation's PADD, and the devices in the original series were more like clipboards with added lightbulbs) and head-mounted displays (used for the FLIR of military attack helicopters such as the AH-64 Apache since the 80s, and seen on Smartguns in Aliens in 1986, both a little before Deep Space Nine ever aired). The point is, be skeptical.

It is fair to say, though, that NASA loves Star Trek, to the point that the first space shuttle was named Enterprise (though this was largely due to a fan campaign directed towards then-President Gerald Ford: NASA were going to call it Constitution).

The Alcubierre model of faster-than-light movement did not exist when Star Trek the original series was conceived, but Alcubierre stated in an email to William Shatner that his model was directly inspired by the warp drive used in the show[28] and he references it in his 1994 paper.[29] Before you get too excited, while this method of faster-than-light travel works in terms of abstract physics with an arbitrary energy state, forming the bubble has impossible energy requirements (of the order of perfect annihilation of Jupiter-sized masses of matter and anitmatter) and requires the output be pure negative energy, a configuration that is not known to be possible outside of a blackboard. Alcubierre's model also only describes the drive once it is in motion: it is not particularly clear how one would decide which direction it goes in.

While teleportation-like stuff has existed before in other works, Star Trek popularized it. It's even more curious when one notes it was created purely as a way to save the budget of having a ship landing each episode, since Roddenberry had a notorious dislike of using stock footage. It is really common for any quantum experiment involving some type of "teleportation" to be reported on as the first step to Transporters, but it is extremely unlikely that the method shown on the show would be possible within the known laws of physics. It is also questionable whether the person who stepped off the transporter would have the same consciousness as the person who stepped onto it, an issue the show has never really addressed.

In contrast, The Next Generation inspired the QuickTime media player.

It should be noted, however, that Star Trek is not hard science fiction in any way. Just take a look at the Technobabble article.

See also[edit]

  • Star Wars, because we can't love both franchises, apparently. On a serious note, it's less about exploration and science (as the galaxy has seemingly already been mapped out generations ago) and instead focuses on the political breakdown leading to war. Yeah, probably reading too much into it.
  • Donald Trump - Hideous, obsessed with precious metals, demands females take their clothes off... My God, it all checks out.


  2. "We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes." – The man himself
  3. Braga, Brannon (June 24, 2006). "Every religion has a mythology". International Atheist Conference. Reykjavik, Iceland. Retrieved May 11, 2009.
  4. "Gene Roddenberry .". 2012. Retrieved October 25, 2012.
  5. "Bread and Circuses", Memory Alpha
  6. "This crew has been to many places in the galaxy. They've been witness to many strange events. They are trained to know that what seems to be impossible often is possible given the scientific analysis of the phenomenon." – Spock, "Turnabout Intruder" (1969)
  7. At least, one could take it that way. If you watch the episode, the issue is that they impacted that culture, causing changes in it that would not have happened naturally. This is a big DON'T in Starfleet.
  8. Patrick Stewart recounts the story, courtesy of YouTube.
  9. When this episode was being filmed, the network wasn't sure whether to go through with the kiss, so they decided to film the scene twice, one with the kiss and one without. The actors filmed the kiss perfectly, but deliberately screwed up every other take so that the network would have no choice but to air the original.
  10. Sure, it makes Avatar look subtle by comparison, but when there are real people being killed purely because of ignorance and hate (especially because of the colour of their skin), and many of the guilty are unintelligent to begin with, subtlety is a liability.
  11. Although, technically, Benjamin Sisko was only a Commander, and didn't become a Captain until Deep Space Nine's fourth season, but he was still firmly in charge of an entire space station.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Number One (Star Trek).
  13. Which, admittedly, was a perfect match for Shatner's acting talents after they'd switched bodies.
  14. "Blood and Fire", Memory Alpha
  15. From Star Trek to Star Wolf: David Gerrold's Worlds of Star Trek
  16. Long-suppressed gay Star Trek episode comes out
  17. Official site for the episodes
  18. Jonathan Frakes is known to have wanted at least the alien he actually kissed to be played by a man.
  19. An article in The Huffington Post has the details.
  22. "Dagger of the Mind"
  23. "Doomsday Machine"
  24. "Patterns of Force"
  25. Ultimate Computer
  26. Whom Gods Destroy
  28. Shapiro, Alan. "The Physics of Warp Drive". Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  29. Alcubierre, Miguel (1994). "The warp drive: Hyper-fast travel within general relativity". Classical and Quantum Gravity 11 (5): L73. arXiv:gr-qc/0009013. Bibcode 1994CQGra..11L..73A. Error: Bad DOI specified.  Template:Open access