Home > musing > Star Trek is my religion

Star Trek is my religion

May 16, 2013

I was surprised and somewhat disappointed yesterday when I found this article about Star Trek in Slate, written by Matt Yglesias. He, like me, has recently been binging on Star Trek and has decided to explain “why Star Trek is great” – also my long-term plan. He stole my idea!

My disappointment turned to amazement and glee, however, when I realized that the episode he began his column with was the exact episode I’d just finished watching about 5 minutes before I’d found his article. What are the chances?? 

It must be fate. Me and Matt are forever linked, even if he doesn’t care (I’m pretty sure he cares though, Trekkies are bonded like that). Plus, I figured, now that he’s written a Star Trek post, I’ll do so as well and we can act like it’s totally normal. Where’s your Star Trek post?

Here’s his opening paragraph:

In the second episode of the seventh season of the fourth Star Trek television series, Icheb, an alien teenage civilian who’s been living aboard a Federation vessel for several months after having been rescued from both the Borg and abusive parents, issues a plaintive cry: “Isn’t that what people on this ship do? They help each other?”

That’s the thing about Star Trek. It’s utopian. There’s no money, partly because they have ways to make food and objects materialize on a whim. There’s no financial system of any kind that I’ve noticed, although there’s plenty of barter, mostly dealing in natural resources. And the crucial resource that characters are constantly seeking, that somehow make the ships fly through space, are called dilithium crystals. They’re rare but they also seem to be lying around on uninhabited planets, at least for now.

But it’s not my religion just because they’ve somehow evolved past too-big-to-fail banks. It’s that they have ethics, and those ethics are collaborative, and moreover are more basic and more important than the power of technology: the moral decisions that they are confronted with and that they make are, in fact, what Star Trek is about.

Each episode can be seen as a story from a nerd bible. Can machines have a soul? Do we care less about those souls than human (or Vulcan) souls? If we come across a civilization that seems to vitally need our wisdom or technology, when do we share it? And what are the consequences for them when we do or don’t?

In Star Trek, technology is not an unalloyed good: it’s morally neutral, and it could do evil or good, depending on the context. Or rather, people could do evil or good with it. This responsibility is not lost in some obfuscated surreality.

My sons and I have a game we play when we watch Star Trek, which we do pretty much any night we can, after all the homework is done and before bed-time. It’s kind of a “spot that issue” riddle, where we decide which progressive message is being sent to us through the lens of an alien civilization’s struggles and interactions with Captain Picard or Janeway.

Gay marriage!

Confronting sexism!

Overcoming our natural tendencies to hoard resources!

Some kids go to church, my kids watch Star Trek with me. I’m planning to do a second round when my 4-year-old turns 10. Maybe Deep Space 9. And yes, I know that “true scifi fans” don’t like Star Trek. My father, brother, and husband are all scifi fans, and none of them like Star Trek. I kind of know why, and it’s why I’m making my kids watch it with me before they get all judgy.

One complaint I’ve considered having about Star Trek is that there’s no road map to get there. After all, how are people convinced to go from a system in which we don’t share resources to one where we do? How do we get to the point where everyone’s fed and clothed and can concentrate on their natural curiosity and desire to explore? Where everyone gets a good education? How can we expect alien races to collaborate with us when we can’t even get along with people who disagree about taxation and the purpose of government?

I’ve gotten over it though, by thinking about it as an aspirational exercise. Not everything has to be pragmatic. And it probably helps to have goals that we can’t quite imagine reaching.

For those of you who are with me, and love everything about the Star Trek franchise, please consider joining me soon for the new Star Trek movie that’s coming out today. Showtimes in NYC are here. See you soon!

Categories: musing
  1. May 16, 2013 at 9:07 am

    For once we got a movie before the USA – saw ST:ID last week. Enjoy the ride.

    ST isn’t my religion, but Kirk is my favourite philospoher.


  2. Higby
    May 16, 2013 at 11:18 am

    You watch too much TV.

    By the time the average American reaches age 65, they will have watched 7 yrs of TV. Think about it — 7 years, lost to the idiot box. Life is too precious.

    That amount to something like 32,000 commercials a year.

    Time better spent reading Neil Postman’s classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

    Or Sommerville’s How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society.


    • May 16, 2013 at 11:26 am

      I don’t have cable. I watch Star Trek with my sons and we have a blast talking about the politics while we’re watching it. If I read books, which I do, I can’t talk about them with my kids as I read them.

      In other words, it’s a conscious choice I make regarding how I spend my time. Please stop with the judgy attitude.


      • Higby
        May 16, 2013 at 5:00 pm

        My sister engaged her child in social issue analysis of entertainment as well. Fostering a critical (i.e., objective) attitude.
        How about if I said, “We, as a society, watch too much TV” ?
        Radical take on mass media, that’s all


  3. Zathras
    May 16, 2013 at 11:35 am

    “In the second episode of the seventh season of the fourth Star Trek television series….”

    This can’t be right. Star Trek Enterprise didn’t have 7 seasons. Anyone who counts ST:Voyager as a Star Trek series is not a real fan 😛


    • May 16, 2013 at 11:45 am

      Voyager rocks. You are jealous or something.


      • Nathanael
        May 20, 2013 at 12:32 am

        There’s some really offensive stuff in some Voyager episodes (there’s one epsiode where the only possible reading is “don’t believe rape victims, they make stuff up”). And there’s a *lot* of really bad writing (“Voyager syndrome” is another name for the “reset button at the end of the episode”). So I can’t watch it.


    • Ruthi
      May 17, 2013 at 11:50 am

      You don’t consider VOY to be Star Trek but you liked Enterprise???


    • Nathanael
      May 20, 2013 at 12:30 am

      The fourth Star Trek television series was Deep Space Nine.

      Everyone forgets the animated series. 🙂


  4. Eric
    May 16, 2013 at 11:48 am

    If you like Trek for a post-scarcity techno-utopian society – check out Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ novels (if you haven’t already)…


    • May 16, 2013 at 11:51 am

      Yeah I’ve read “Player of Games.” It’d be better as a movie.


      • pjm
        May 17, 2013 at 8:13 am

        Consider Phlebas (the first one) is better as Space Opera. Excession is stronger in a bunch of ways (and one of the less dark and even humorous Culture novels). Player of Games is more
        of a dark political satire. There are a few I haven’t read.

        Btw, Banks isn’t just an important sci-fi writer in Britain, he’s considered an important *writer* (he made Guardian’s 50 most important post-WWII Brit list). Some sci-fi
        fans resent or find impenetrable his more literary style. I really
        like Bank’s politics (he said he was inspired in the 60’s write sci-fi because he gotten fed up with predominant right-wing politics in US sci-fi)


  5. May 16, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    The only point I’d argue with is the ‘technology is neutral’ point. There were quite a number of technologies that were banned in the Federation and its allies (and even among many of their enemies) as being too dangerous to use. Mostly, technology is neutral in the Star Trek universe, but quite often some technology was seen as not being possible to use in a non-destructive way.


    • May 16, 2013 at 12:08 pm



    • Allen K.
      May 16, 2013 at 4:01 pm

      Thirteen separate violations of the temporal code. The man was a menace!


  6. May 16, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    You’re right that the Star Trek writers have been fairly quiet over the years about how human (western?) civilization evolved from the materialism and violence of the late 20th century into a 23rd / 24th centuy utopia, but there have been some hints. For instance, there are various references to a global nuclear war over genetic engineering that destroyed the world’s governments, and the more peaceful and cooperative order apparently emerged from the ashes.

    A more interesting vision of social change fortold in Star Trek appears in the two part episode “Past Tense” in season 3 of DS9. The crew is transported back to San Fransisco in the year 2024 (not so far off!) to find a world in which economic inequality has accellerated to the point where the poor and disabled are thrown in ghettos from which the only escape is a work permit (i.e. a job). One is reminded of the present reality in which employers discriminate against the unemployed. We are told that protests and rioting erupt in the ghettos, and that the organizer of the riots sacrifices himself to save some hostages. This is described as a “watershed moment” in human history which causes the public to finally take inequality and poverty seriously.

    So Star Trek provides two visions of political change: one in which a better world emerges from the ashes of global destruction, and one in which the cycle of economic inequality is finally broken by a sympathetic hero. There is a certain idealism to the latter vision (even though it requires our current problems to get worse before they get better), but I unfortunately find the forme more plausible.


  7. Eugene
    May 16, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Let me know when you’re seeing the movie!


  8. Barry
    May 16, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    I think you will find this very relevant to your interests:



    • pjm
      May 17, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      Cool article. Got my me stirred up over intellectual property issues. Dean Baker too, he writes alot on this and especially drug patents which he considers a government giveaway that makes all others look paltry.
      Proudhoun Lives!


  9. grwww
    May 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    You have to go back to the “first contact” story in Star Trek. At that moment, the Vulcan’s step out of the sky, and say “hey, we saw your warp signature, and so we know you are advanced enough in technology that we can show you more cool stuff”. Our societies in most of the world, are based on “money”. It’s a big leash that lets those who have it, lead those of us without it, around to do what they want done, so that they’ll pay some of that money to us, and keep it in circulation.

    If tomorrow, we all decided that we would just barter, and give up on money, it would be a great escape. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know how to do “agriculture” in our back yards, nor “keep live stock” (you can’t in the city), etc. The machinery of all of the stuff that ties us down, is so burdening that we can’t get out from under it.

    At some point, we will have an “exposure” event that will allow people to “See” how big the universe actually is, and that sitting on this silly little planet and “eating”, “watching TV” and “working for dirt”, is just a really stupid way to “live”.

    Practically, we should be pouring every technological resource on the planet into building a “star ship” sized craft that at least 50,000 people could live on, and figuring out how to get it into space. We should have tons of large robots to do all the crafting and just let them go at it, in space. Take them materials and it could happen.

    We really could be hauling large amounts of materials into space, continuously. A cost to do that, at millions and billions of dollars only represent a limitation of our view point. We have enough people and we have enough “resources” to do something like that. Having to “pay people”, instead of just “taking care of everyone”, is such a huge waste of our intelligence.

    We already know how to take care of each other. Why don’t we spend our energies on getting ourselves off this lone old rock?


  10. Darren
    May 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    “And yes, I know that “true scifi fans” don’t like Star Trek.”

    That’s silly. At worst, it’s drama with a sci-fi backdrop. Take it or leave it as it is, don’t fault it for not meeting some standard it may not even be striving towards.

    I was just trying to explain to some students, who are too young to be familiar with anything but J.J. Abrams’s Trek, the very same thing you’re describing in this post. That Trek has action and conflict, but it’s not action driven; I think the intent was always to give us something to aspire to, and I think most of the writers have tried to remain true to that goal.

    Think about it: the original series was one of television’s first multiracial casts, and it had the first interracial kiss. It included a Russian character during the height of the Cold War.

    And sure, it doesn’t really tell us how we are supposed to get from here to there–that’s for us to figure out. Dictating that path might’ve just made it that much harder to believe that we could ever get there.


    • pjm
      May 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm

      Well, actually I thought some of the writing in TNG was abysmal. (The episode with a Dyson sphere, it only serves a backdrop to a James Doohan guest appearance and that was not the worse episode by far – but what was worse was the tendency to make up techno-science babble).

      Also, having an omnipotent being Q really made the series fantasy and just was not very well thought thru as to the implications for dramatic action and suspension of disbelief (almost all bad).

      Still didn’t keep me from watching the whole series. On the other hand, most TV and movie sci-fi is cliche-ed, formulaic, dumbed-down. But the OS did not start out that way. I also thought the writing in STE was tolerable to good. Liked the STV writing better than TNG (though was probably was not as entertained) and never really followed DS9.


  11. May 17, 2013 at 1:56 am

    Preach, sister! What is the Prime Directive if not a non-violent and anti-imperialist code of ethics? What is the Federation if not an interstellar United Nations peacekeeping mission? Given the whole series’ focus on ethical questions, it’s no coincidence that many of the actors in Star Trek the Next Generation are active members of Amnesty International. The episode “Chain of Command, Part II” was influenced by Amnesty International’s campaign against torture and is now used as a teaching tool by AI chapters to foster awareness of the psychological and physical dimensions of torture, routinely practiced by countries all over the world, including our own.


  12. Nathanael
    May 20, 2013 at 12:29 am

    DS9 is by far my favorite Star Trek. (Though Enterprise has its moments, and so does the original series, and Next Gen is fun.) I’ll warn you: it’s less utopian than some of the previous ones. But at least they still believe that utopia is a *worthy goal*.


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