Celebrating 50 Years of Humanism in Star Trek

The following is the full-length version of a shorter commentary I wrote for The Humanist in 2016. The version at the link has the benefit of editorial oversight and fact-checking. This version is the messier director’s cut:

Optimism for the Future

Optimism for the Future

It feels like we live in a culture where movie and television studios are perpetually finding ways to make stories darker. It’s a pop culture where viewers tune in for their weekly dose of misery on The Walking Dead, depravity on Game of Thrones, and where even classic children’s heroes like Batman and Superman are portrayed as mass-murdering vigilantes in Dawn of Justice. Comic book and science fiction fans have even coined the term “grimdark” to describe this apparent one-upmanship of doom and gloom constantly barraging us.

In contrast, through five decades and across three generations the Star Trek universe has remained positive, philosophical, and moral. Star Trek portrays a society built on Enlightenment virtues and embodies what a humanist future might look like. With six television series totaling 716 episodes across 30 seasons, 70 million books in print, over 40 video games, a new television series in the works, and this summer marking its 13th feature film, Star Trek endures because there is nothing like it in American media: a positive vision of humanity’s future based on rationality, science, and human-improvability.

No other show can claim to weave so many inspiring historical figures into its narratives. With Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, and even the real-life Stephen Hawking playing parts in the story. No other show takes place in a post-scarcity society, a future where every human material need is met and we have refocused our life-purpose on higher aspirations. As the 1997 documentary Trekkies made clear, fans of Star Trek are scientists, doctors, engineers, software developers, and a multitude of other highly-skilled occupations. Star Trek is an ideal, where the main characters all act on noble intentions informed by knowledge and the wisdom of their peers.

Star Trek is not for everyone. It is a thinking-person’s universe. JJ Abrams, who directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot and 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, two films that were exercises in action-style over substance, admitted in an interview with Jon Stewart he never liked Star Trek, “It always felt too philosophical for me.” It’s not difficult to see how the average viewer could find Star Trek dull, where characters spend much of their time sitting around tables grappling with how to peacefully resolve their problems instead of simply shooting at one another. It’s certainly not as exciting as having Spock abandon logic and beat up Khan with his fists in the climax of the 2013 film. I am happy to say that Star Trek fans were appropriately appalled at where Abrams was taking things, and have remained vigilant in pressuring studios to remain true to Star Trek and not turn it into just another dumb action franchise.

While I will argue my case with examples of Star Trek’s best moments, it’s important to understand that over 50 years of content, it’s possible to find stories to support nearly any hypothesis. Star Trek is not perfect. Conservative critics have a valid point that Starfleet appears communistic, while liberals correctly criticize the fictional organization for being militaristic. There are episodes that are appallingly poorly written, with plot holes, bad acting, and nonsensical situations that offend reason. But there are also so many episodes that can bring tears to our eyes for their insightfulness and the beauty of their ideas. So please indulge my cognitive biases as I share the three aspects of the Star Trek canon that most appeal to me as a humanist.

Human Improvability

We seem to have a never-ending stream of dystopian futures marching through our books and films. Popular films like The Hunger Games portray humanity as doomed to regression, scarcity, and totalitarian oppression. “Dystopian Young Adult Fiction” has become a popular genre in recent years, with Divergent, Pretties, The Maze Runner, and many other post-apocalyptic futures captivating teens and adults alike. The satirical portrayal of society devolving into stupidity and superficiality in the film Idiocrasy has become the go to example for pundits complaining of American cultural decline. It seems as though the popularity of dystopias is connected to a pervasive cynicism and dissatisfaction with modern society.

In contrast, Star Trek gives us a positive vision of humanity’s future where material want is no more and technology has dramatically improved our quality of life. It envisions a future where humanity is exponentially more intelligent and our motivations are intellectual as well as ethical. The primacy of education and exploration are embodied in the Starfleet Academy motto, ex astris, scientia, “From the stars, knowledge.” As a time-travelling Captain Picard explains to a woman he encounters on post-World War III Earth in Star Trek: First Contact, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

While movies about alien invasions seem to come at us every other year, in Star Trek we are the extraterrestrials, the UFOs, studying primitive cultures–but holding to a principle of non-interference. The United Federation of Planets, the United Nations of the galaxy, has a Prime Directive, which reads in part, “As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture.”

How well the characters in Star Trek adhere to the Prime Directive is a matter of perpetual debate among fans. The Directive is meant to prevent the Federation’s technologies from falling into the hands (or tentacles) of cultures without the wisdom to properly wield them. The Directive is meant to prevent the “contamination” of emergent cultures, which encourages diversity in the Federation if and when those cultures venture out to the stars and become members of the galactic civilization.

A Multicultural Future

Hollywood, with its obsession with profits, regularly casts Caucasians in traditionally nonwhite character roles. For example, Liam Neeson playing Ra’s al Ghul, a character of Arab descent, in Batman Begins. Tilda Swinton will be playing the Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange, who is a Tibetan man in the comics. When Ridley Scott was asked about so many white actors playing Biblical figures of Middle Eastern descent in his film Exodus: Gods and Kings, he replied obtusely, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”

In contrast, when Gene Roddenberry brought Star Trek to television in 1966, he brought with it the first positive portrayal of a Japanese character in helmsman Sulu. In the midst of the Cold War, the show later featured the Russian ensign Chekov as the tactical officer. Roddenberry’s pilot for the show originally included his wife serving as second in command, but the studio executives refused it.

Instead, Roddenberry placed one of the first major African American characters on an American television series in Chief Communications Officer Uhura, whose name comes from the Swahili word for “freedom,” and who came from the “United States of Africa.” Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, was persuaded by Martin Luther King Jr. to stay on the show as a role model for the black community when she considered quitting after the first season. She would later take part in what many credit as American television’s first interracial kiss with William Shatner in the 1967 episode Plato’s Stepchildren.

Again, it must be noted that Star Trek has often fallen prey to our current sexist and racist cultural norms. Despite having many strong female characters, the shows have also blatantly exploited the sexual appeal of some characters in order to bring in male viewers. I cringe at the short skirts women wear on a military vessel in the original series, and continued to cringe at the revealing outfits highly-talented actresses wore in later shows. At the same time, I have met many women Millennials who grew up with Star Trek Voyager and found a hero in Captain Kathryn Janeway, the tough-as-nails, yet compassionate leader who takes her coffee black.

Star Trek has also whitewashed its own characters. In JJ Abrams’ 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness British actor Benedict Cumberbatch played the character Khan Noonien Singh, who was originally played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán. While having a Mexican actor play a character with an Indian name in 1967 was also culturally insensitive, having a brown-skinned character play a “genetically superior” villain was a direct challenge to the time’s cultural norms. Hollywood making the character white 46 years later only reinforces how we must continue to challenge those norms today.

There is also legitimate criticism of the simplicity of the alien cultures in the Star Trek universe. Every alien race exhibits a single cultural stereotype. Klingons are violent. Ferengi are greedy capitalists. Vulcans are cold scientists. Bajorans are spiritualists. I don’t think these portrayals are meant to be racist as much as they serve to streamline the storytelling. Every alien race presents a different facet of our own culture that the characters must engage with in order to resolve conflicts.

I have faith that future Star Trek episodes will revisit these offenses, just as it already has already often acknowledged them. The film Undiscovered Country points out the show’s speciesism during an incredibly awkward dinner party between the Enterprise crew and a group of Klingon ambassadors. Chekov notes the Federation principle of supporting “inalienable human rights,” to which a Klingon replies, “Inalien… If only you could hear yourselves? ‘Human rights.’ Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a ‘homo sapiens’ only club.”

The show is, after all, currently written by imperfect humans, but the ideals of cultural diversity and tolerance are always present. The 1969 episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield explores the absurdity of racism with a civilization destroying itself because half its populace is black on the right side and white on the left, with the enemy being the mirror opposite. In 1992’s The Outcast the Enterprise crew encounters a genderless culture, where a member of the society is persecuted for the crime of identifying as female. Titled after a Dr. King quote, Measure of a Man puts Data, the android crewmember’s freedom in the hands of a trial over whether human rights extend to artificial intelligence. Captain Picard argues that humans are machines as well, constructed from their parents’ DNA, and warns that the creation of life does not mean ownership of that life–something I can easily imagine our own civilization grappling with in this very century.

These principles of diversity and tolerance are best embodied in the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, which stands for “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” And the show spends much time giving voices to many diverse viewpoints. It explores ideas and wrestles with them to find a resolution instead of cutting to the big action scenes as a distraction.

A Skeptical Future

Most of all, unlike paranormal shows like The X-Files, where every episode repudiates Scully the skeptic and vindicates Mulder the believer, Star Trek uniquely holds up the skeptic as the hero. When an accident renders two characters intangible in the Next Generation episode The Next Phase, one believes they have become ghosts while the other seeks out and finds a physical explanation for their plight. In the Voyager episode Mortal Coil, a religious character is resuscitated after being dead for 19 hours. He is dismayed to find he experienced no afterlife, and must find purpose in life without the promise of anything after. In the episode Distant Origin, the Voyager crew encounter the distant, space-faring ancestors of Earth’s dinosaurs, called the Voth, and the persecution of Galileo Galilei under the Catholic Church is repeated as a Voth scientist is charged with the crime of believing in evolution.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer extrapolated from this that, “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” This is a regular theme in Star Trek, where supremely powerful entities make claims of godhood and are revealed as simply technologically advanced.

In the episode Who Mourns for Adonais? , the Enterprise crew encounter a godlike being who claims to have once been worshiped as the god Apollo on Earth. He is revealed to simply be a member of an advanced exploitive alien race. In the fifth Star Trek film The Final Frontier, the crew encounter a being claiming to be god himself at the center of the galaxy, who wishes to spread his word across the stars using the Enterprise as his vessel. Kirk, standing among the awestruck believers basking in god’s glory, raises one hand and asks, “What does god need with a starship?” When the being demands to know if Kirk doubts him, Kirk replies, “I seek proof.”

Again, with so many writers and episodes, there are exceptions to the rationality. The 1968 episode Bread and Circuses portray religious belief and Christianity specifically in a positive light. There are also episodes that suggest there is more to life than what we see, but the episodes and Star Trek films that promote skepticism are unlike anything else in mainstream media.

If I could recommend just one episode, it would be the Next Generation’s Who Watches the Watchers. In it, the Enterprise crew visit a team of xeno-anthropologists studying a primitive culture on a distant world, the Mintakans, who have given up their belief in the supernatural for rationality. When an accident at the observation post exposes the anthropologists, violating the Prime Directive, a villager, Liko, runs home with revelations about the gods he has seen.

Soon, the populace becomes infected with religion. Fanaticism and witch-hunts begin. At one point, Liko fears the gods must want him to execute a crewmember of the Enterprise because a storm is coming, but this conflicts with his rationality. The crewmember tells him, “That’s the problem with believing in a supernatural being – trying to determine what he wants.”

One of the anthropologists, now onboard the Enterprise, urges Captain Picard to give the villagers “commandments,” arguing that the Mintakans are doomed to establish religion and, “without guidance, that religion could degenerate into inquisitions, holy wars, chaos.” Picard is outraged at the idea, saying, “Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? NO!”

Picard instead decides to violate the Prime Directive even further, to bring a Mintakan leader, Nuria, onboard the Enterprise. There he carefully explains to her that he and his crew are not gods. Our technology is simply more advanced, just as Nuria’s technology is more advanced than that of her ancestors. He promises her that the wonders she sees on board the Enterprise are the wonders her descendants will create through science and rationality. Nuria, upon seeing all of this, speculates, “Perhaps one day, my people will travel above the skies.” To which Picard replies, “Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.”

He could just as well have been speaking to us primitive Earthlings living 300 years in his own past. Star Trek is more than just entertainment, it is a positive vision of a future to which we may aspire if we remain empirically clear-sighted and cherish the interdependence we have with our fellow human beings.


Check out this amazing fair use video covering this same topic: