Star Trek and a Western Galaxy
I have been a longtime fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation and recently went back to the roots and watched The Original Series as well. One thought that I find myself returning again and again to was that barring some cosmetic futurism, there really isn’t anything futuristic about the franchise. Star Trek is more about Utopia than it is about the future. And the difference between the two is not something we should pass by in silence. Not all futures are going to be nice. Some of them will turn out to be nightmares. If you are having trouble digesting that, spend a minute thinking about what people in the last century imagined the 21st century will be. End of war was one theme. Commonplace space travel was another. Domestic robotic servants filled these optimistic dreams as well.
Though Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was one of peace and prosperity, he gave these to Earth alone. All of Earth’s troubles he took into space. Racism, religious bigotry, superstition, gender bias and a host of other social ills were now to be found on planets on the far side of the Alpha Quadrant. Roddenberry, and those who inherited Star Trek from him, sent their heroes to these places with a message of civilisation and enlightenment.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Prime Directive. Star Fleet is not supposed to interfere with the workings of pre-warp civilisations — planets which have not yet achieved the ability to travel across inter-stellar space at the speed of light. But this seemingly wise strategy only serves to emphasise the unstated superiority of those aboard the Starship Enterprise. They shake their heads and go, “Pity these poor fools. They know not what they do. Alas! We can not do anything to help them. Our high ideals stop us from interfering.”
The values embodied by Star Fleet are advertised as being representative of Earth in a general way. Though Star Trek episodes hardly ever deal with life on Earth, we are told that technology has erased war, famine, and misery from this planet. It also seems that in the Trek future, all cultural diversity has been erased from Earth. What appears on the surface to be a unified Earth culture, is actually a patently Western one. Am I ranting? Perhaps. But there is a danger here — the idea that in the absence of conflict and scarcity, the culture humanity will fall back on by default is Western.
Also, even though Star Fleet seems to be limited to the Alpha Quadrant of the galaxy, almost every other alien civilisation they encounter seems to be humanoid. Not only that, they all speak English. Even if the communication between them is happening by way of universal translators, a measure of linguistic difficulty would definitely be in order for the stories to be more credible.
Despite being a die hard Trekker, I have to say that when faced with the choice of episodes from all of TNG, it is slim pickings for genuine science fiction in a sea of moral fables.