Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard (Poster excerpt from Star Trek: Picard, 2020)

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

Sci-fi TV such as Star Trek and Doctor Who have more in common with Harry Potter’s wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry’s techno-utopian dream.

Star Trek and the Liberal Utopian Dream

When Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to NBC, he framed it as an epic voyage of rugged space pioneers akin to the westerns that then dominated the airwaves. What we got over the next three years was a deep exploration of two separate but linked phenomena: modern liberal politics and utopian technologies. By the former, I don’t mean what now passes for liberalism. Instead, it was a more robust sense of a future where, at least within the boundaries of the Federation, material need was largely overcome, people worked for pride or glory instead of money, and racism had disappeared from human cultures.

It was an uneasy balance of freedom and equality with a strong sense of individual human rights. Sure, Ensign Stiles (Paul Comi) might distrust the Romulans (and by extension the similar-looking Vulcans) in “Balance of Terror” (episode 1.14), but Captain Kirk (William Shatner) was quick to remind him that there was no room for bigotry on his bridge. There were hints that the Federation might even be a socialist paradise, though this was never entirely clear.

Yes, most of the female Star Fleet characters were secondary, but we should remember on Kirk’s bridge there was a black woman (Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura — a first on network TV), an alien (Leonard Nimoy’s Spock), a Japanese-American (George Takei’s Hikaru Sulu), and later a Russian (Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekov). And there were a number of “strong female characters” as guest stars, right from the second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, with Sally Kellerman playing Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a heroic psychiatrist who saves the day.

Further, Star Trek doled out its liberal medicine in the candy-coated form of allegory: whether of the futility of racism (3.15 “Let That be Your Last Battlefield”), of the Vietnam War as part of a balance of power (2.19 “A Private Little War”), or of the dangers of letting computers make decisions for us (2.24 “The Ultimate Computer”). Most of these allegories — with the notable exception of Roddenberry’s own ham-fisted “The Omega Glory” — could be swallowed without too much narrative pain, and without knowing the links to real political situations they hinted at.

Roddenberry’s The Next Generation continued, for the most part, this utopian liberalism, featuring episodes where Cmdr. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) falls in love with Melinda Culea’s Soren, a gender-fluid alien (5.17 “The Outcast”), where the crew faces peril on a planet ruled by women (1.14 “Angel One”), and where Cmdr. Data’s (Brent Spiner) rights as an artificial person were defended ably by none other than Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard (2.9 “The Measure of a Man”). It was truly a “dignity culture”, using sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s categorization of how we react to personal offense (the others being honour and victim cultures).

If anything, Picard was too much of a stickler when defending the prime directive: unlike Kirk, he rarely tried to impose liberal values at the point of a phaser. For instance, it’s hard to imagine him destroying the war-simulation computers that locked the planet Eminiar VII in a never-ending war with planet Vendikar as Kirk did in 1.23 “A Taste of Armageddon”: Picard would have talked his way of out this one.

The foundation of Star Trek’s liberal utopia was what I’ll call utopian technology that allowed inter-planetary travel (warp drive), protection against alien threats (shields and phasers), and easy travel to a planet’s surface and to other ships (the transporter). Next Generation added the choice of a wide variety of food, drink, and material objects (the replicator) along with unlimited leisure possibilities (the holodeck). Apparently, no one abused their replicator privileges and went on drinking binges with endless pints of Romulan ale or, with the partial exception of Dwight Schultz’s Lt. Barclay, became addicted to the sexual and power fantasies made possible by the holodeck. They had better things to do.

Science fiction stories offer five distinct levels of technology: primitive (that which we’ve long ago surpassed), contemporary, advanced (things we can realistically envision but don’t have quite yet), utopian (things that make sense within a canon but we don’t have any idea how to create), and magical (things that may seem “cool” on the surface but make no scientific sense). Our journey is one from Star Trek’s utopian technology in the 1960s to a mixture of utopian and advanced technologies at the end of the millennium, finally to an embrace of magical technologies in the last decade, with notable exceptions. This journey parallels the decline and fall of inclusive liberal utopianism as we move from Kirk’s Enterprise to Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) Star Trek: Discovery. The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Discovery, Picard, and Doctor Who have more in common with Harry Potter’s childish wand-waving than Roddenberry’s original techno-utopian dream.

Cracks in the Wall: Capitalism, Collectivism, and Honour Culture

Star Trek itself started to push back against its own utopianism starting in 1987, though more as parody than serious critique. In 1.5 “The Last Outpost” we meet the Ferengi, who Riker characterizes as “Yankee traders”. At first portrayed as aggressive and greedy aliens, by the time of Deep Space Nine they became a parody of capitalism, especially whenever Quark (Armin Shimerman) quoted the hilarious Rules of Acquisition that could be all boiled down to one mantra: greed is good. Still, in this and others episodes Next Generation amped up the sense of cultural relativism, in keeping with the times. Not all alien species shared the Federation’s post-capitalist egalitarianism. To drive this point home, the Ferengi were shocked that human women were allowed to wear clothes.

But Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager presented two more serious challenges to the original series’ techno-utopianism. The first came from the Borg Collective, whose admittedly amazing technologies came at the expense of erasing any sense of individuality in the races they assimilated. In 2.16 “Q Who” and more dramatically in “The Best of Both Worlds” (3.26 and 4.1, 1989), we meet a species that absorbs not only the culture and knowledge of all races they come into contact with, but for whom individual rights are meaningless. Their members were little more than nodes on a vast digital network whose sole purpose is control. Their technological superiority to the Federation challenges the assumption that liberal societies produce the most sophisticated science.

The second challenge came from the Klingons 2.0, as re-envisaged by Next Generation. As I’ve said elsewhere, they were no longer loose analogues of Soviet-era Russians. Instead, they were space-faring Homeric heroes for whom honour and clan loyalties were supreme. Their technological sophistication may have been a bit below those of the Federation, but they were not unburdened by the cultural relativism of the non-interference directive, and were willing to fight their enemies with gusto if their honour was challenged.

When we watch 3.17 “Sins of the Father” or 4.26 and 5.1 “Redemption Parts I & II”, it’s not a stretch to see parallels with family drama and Machiavellian politics seen in Shakespeare’s histories such as Richard III, Henry V or Macbeth. They in effect told us that modern liberal societies lacked a sense of noble struggle so typical of warrior cultures. In “Redemption” the new emperor Gowron (Robert O’Reilly) challenges Worf’s (Michael Dorn) insistence on Star Fleet protocol and thus the utopian liberalism of the Federation when he asks him to seek Picard’s help to defeat the Duras clan:

Gowron: You come to me and demand the restoration of your family honour and now you hide behind human excuses? What are you, Worf? Do you tremble and quake with fear at the approach of combat, hoping to talk your way out of a fight like a human? Or do you hear the cry of the warrior calling you to battle, calling you to glory like a Klingon? (“Redemption”)

It’s clear that the Klingons represent a return to honour culture, to the idea that sovereign individuals have a duty to defend themselves according to a warrior code.

Rebels Roaming the Range: The Rogue Ship Theme

The golden age of sci-fi television was the 1990s, when one could watch everything from the paranormal police procedural The X-Files, the wacky reality hopping of Sliders, the grand space opera of Babylon 5, and the weirdness of Lexx and Farscape. One major theme connecting many of these series was the idea that state bureaucracies and official police forces could no longer be trusted — or were entirely absent. As Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin) told Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) with his dying breath at the end of season 1 of The X-Files, “trust no one.” Instead, we get a number of shows about a group of criminals and rogues trying to escape the long arm of the law.

It all starts with the BBC series Blake’s 7 in 1978, where our heroes are seven British rebels on the run from a malevolent and authoritarian Federation. We see a much weirder band aboard the planet-destroying living ship over four seasons of the Canadian-German production Lexx. Its crew included an undead Brunnen-G assassin named Kai (played by London, Ontario’s own Michael McManus), a human security guard named Stanley Tweedle (Brian Downey), a sex-starved half-human, half-lizard named Zev (Xenia Seeberg), and a horny robot head named 790 (Jeffrey Hirschfield ). They had stolen the Lexx, the most powerful weapon in the universe, from His Divine Shadow, and used it to go on many strange adventures.

Better know is the Australian show Farscape (1999–2003), which starred Ben Browder as the pistol-packing astronaut John Crichton, who winds up on another living alien ship with another band of criminals. These include the semi-human former Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), who Crichton has an epic love affair with; Ka D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), a Luxan warrior with strange facial features; the plant-woman Zhaan (Virginia Hey); and two characters played by puppets, the squid-like Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu) and the arrogant Dominar Rygel XVI (voiced by Jonathan Hardy). For a season they’re chased by a revenge-seeking Peacekeeper Captain named Crais (Tupi again), later by the half-lizard Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), who wants John’s wormhole knowledge.

Both Lexx and Farscape feature super-powered ships created by tyrannical governments where our heroes are outsiders being persecuted by supposedly legitimate governments. There’s no sense that space is a utopian final frontier where liberal dreams can be pursued.

Perhaps the most iconic show in this genre is Firefly (2002–03). In it Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), an erstwhile Han Solo-style smuggler captain, leads a crew of eight civilians with various motivations, ranging from making enough money to survive, to avoiding the clutches of the Alliance, which governs the central planets of two solar systems this space western takes place in. The world of Firefly is a direct parallel to America after the Civil War, where Union Blue and Confederate Grey are replaced by Alliance Purple and Independent Brown, with the rebels losing in both cases.

Though there are hints of incipient intersectional feminism here — the four female crew are all “strong female characters”, with Zoe (Gina Torres) clearly dominating her husband Wash (Alan Tudyk, the pilot), and the unstable River Tam (Summer Glau) seeming to have psychic superpowers — there is still a sense of balance of skills between crew members of diverse identities. But the world of Firely is no utopia: the technology is partly a return to the primitive world of horses and six-shooters, while our heroes spend more time escaping the law than exploring new frontiers.

Lastly, Andromeda (2000–05) deserves a brief mention as a sort of hybrid between the rogue ship and Star Trek motifs. The crew of the Andromeda are the typical misfits seen in other rogue ship series — there’s the shady smuggler captain Beka Valentine (Lisa Ryder), the Nietzschean warrior Tyr Anasazi (Keith Hamilton Cobb), the unstable tech-head Seamus Harper (Gordon Michael Wolvett), and the catlike purple alien Trance Gemini (Laura Betram). But presiding over them all is Captain Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo), who wants to use his powerful ship to re-establish the long-dead Systems Commonwealth, a stand-in for the Federation. Though it’s widely agreed that Andromeda’s writing fell apart after its second season, it presents an interesting combination of utopian and dystopian visions of the future.