'Star Trek' and the Problem With B-4 and After 2379
What is it about this moment in time that renders the Star Trek franchise incapable of envisioning its own future?
Star Trek: NemesisDirector: Stuart Baird
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner
This article begins with a basic observation about the Star Trek timeline: that it ends.
Let me clarify. When Star Trek: The Original Series (hereafter TOS) aired in 1966, it was set in the year 2266, exactly 300 years into Earth’s future. From there, the timeline jumped forward, with 1987’s Star Trek: The Next Generation set in 2364, nearly a century after TOS. The franchise then continued at a steady pace through both Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Between the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Voyager finalé, 14 years passed in the lives of Trek’s characters and actors alike.
Then something funny happened. When Star Trek: Enterprise debuted in 2001, it looked back to Star Trek’s past for its inspiration. The upcoming Star Trek: Discovery will likewise explore the Federation’s origins, leaving Star Trek’s future to play out only in our imaginations.
The franchise’s filmic output tells a similar story. From 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture to 2002’s Nemesis, each of Star Trek’s initial ten films moved the Trek timeline forward, despite First Contact’s foray to the 21st century. After Nemesis, however, the films also abandoned the Federation’s future, opting instead for the high-octane, high-budget TOS reboots. Despite the fact that the Star Trek franchise continues to produce new content, the Star Trek timeline appears to have been closed.
My question, then, is simply: "Why?" What is it about this moment in time that renders the Star Trek franchise incapable, unwilling, or merely uninterested in envisioning its own future?
Regarding Enterprise, longtime Star Trek executive producer Rick Berman once explained: “to go forward didn’t really offer us very much. To go forward meant spaceships that were a little sleeker and ships that were a little shinier, but there wasn’t that much to invent that we hadn’t invented already.” Indeed, TOS and Star Trek: The Next Generation both granted viewers exclusive access to seemingly “final” frontiers that Deep Space Nine and Voyager significantly expanded, and so maybe the promise of yet another new frontier just felt stale and unfruitful. Still, Enterprise’s commercial and critical failure might have prompted the franchise to return to its original vision in the wake of its abortive retrofuturist experiment, except, for some reason, it didn't.
Did Star Trek’s final frontier close because the Federation had nowhere left to go? I think there's more to it than that. I instead suggest that the timeline ended because the values that underpin Star Trek’s utopian urges bumped up against their own inherent contradictions. In other words, Star Trek’s final frontier was neither spatial nor temporal, but rather conceptual.
On the appeal of Star Trek, creator Gene Roddenberry said: “It speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow; it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans.” Indeed, it is this humanist spirit that is in great part responsible for the Star Trek franchise’s enduring popularity. If we let ourselves become swept up in its vision, we must simultaneously give ourselves over to a fundamental optimism not only that humanity will survive, but also that humanity deserves to survive.
Of course, Star Trek’s many non-human characters remind us that, in the Trek universe, what is human is not necessarily biologically determined; rather, the desire to be human is what ultimately decides a character’s eligibility for membership into that privileged group -- a process emphasized by the fact that the dramatic arcs surrounding the major non-human characters involve their journeys toward becoming human.
For example, Voyager’s holographic Doctor, like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s android Data, is constantly required to assert his humanity in order to acquire basic rights aboard the ship, including the rights to move freely, to not be forcibly deactivated, to pursue his own personal interests, etc. To argue for these rights, the Doctor’s refrain throughout the series is: “I have exceeded my programming!” He repeats this desperate claim in part because it taps into the Federation’s most deeply held belief: that the term “human” is synonymous with “progress”, more specifically, with the type of progress toward uniqueness and individuality that underlies certain strains of humanism.
Assimilation underway in "First Contact" Star Trek: The Next Generation
It makes sense, then, that the Borg is the one species with which Roddenberry-brand humanism cannot contend. “We are Borg”, they repeatedly insist. “Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.” The Borg script, familiar to all Trekkies, illustrates exactly what is so dangerous about the Borg project. They are Star Trek’s zombies: slow moving, unfeeling drones that seek only to devour and assimilate. The Borg program envisions a universe of absolute uniformity and in this way is incompatible with Federation’s valorization of individuality and free will -- ideals never truly threatened by the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, Dominion, Xindi, or any other alien enemy dealing solely in territorial or ethnically-motivated hostility.
We may therefore find it fitting that the final five minutes of the Star Trek televisual timeline feature Captain Kathryn Janeway’s marooned starship hurtling through the Borg’s transwarp hub -- a structure comprising the symbolic and actual center of Borg operations -- destroying Borg infrastructure and killing innumerable drones in the process (Star Trek: Voyager: “Endgame”). This spectacle introduces several problems for the timeline. First, once the Federation defeats its ideological other, continued external conflicts will resemble little more than an extended denouement. Second, it exposes the barbarity concealed by the Federation’s purportedly peaceful imperial project. Even if the Federation refrains from imposing its ideology onto the new civilizations it seeks out, opting instead for diplomacy, its robust military and its very endurance through time bespeak its violent capacities.
The third problem for the Star Trek timeline only becomes clear retrospectively. If Janeway’s spectacle resembles another moment in 2001, in which ideologues use aircraft to destroy the symbolic and tactical center of their enemy’s operations, the similarities are both coincidental and illuminating: Voyager’s finalé aired on 23 May 2001. We don’t have to read this episode as prophetic in order to appreciate the resonances, but following 9/11 we can’t help but retrofit our reading of the Borg defeat to remind ourselves that those very qualities that differentiate us from our enemies are also what throw us into relief with one another. As 20th century American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr once explained, “the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruits of illusions which are similar to our own.” It’s no secret that Roddenberry intended Star Trek to depict the best of American democracy in the process of becoming utopic. Putting this in context of Voyager’s “Endgame”, the similarities between the Federation’s and Bin Laden’s endgames speak to the contradictions inherent within Star Trek’s liberal democratic ideological project, and thus of Roddenberry’s idealized version of the American project.
The televisual timeline now terminated, Star Trek warped forward to its temporal endgame just once more, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation film Star Trek: Nemesis. The relatively anticlimactic film adds little to Federation’s list of accomplishments, but helpfully provides further elucidation about the boundaries of the Roddenberry ethos.
Written during the final season of Voyager, but not filmed until November, 2001, the film begins in the year 2379, one year after Janeway destroys the Borg transwarp hub. The titular nemesis is a genetic clone of Picard named Shinzon (Tom Hardy), raised by the bat-like, vampiric Remans in the hostile mines of the Romulan empire, who has developed a radioactive WMD capable of obliterating all organic life on Earth. While Shinzon has inherited Picard’s arrogance, intelligence, and affinity for hot tea, the brutal conditions of his life have rendered him anguished and desperate to destroy both Picard and the ideology he represents.
At one point, Picard stands presidentially in the center of the tomb-like Romulan senate room and explains to Shinzon: “If there is one ideal that the Federation holds most dear it is that all men—all races—can be united.” It’s difficult not to be moved by the sincerity and nobility of Picard’s rhetoric of unity. His mild self-correction reminds us of the Federation’s historical trajectory, traceable through the United States constitution to John Locke; whereas once “all men” included only landed white men, it came later to include all human races and, with the advent of interstellar space travel, all alien races.
What Picard’s repetition of the Federation mantra fails to account for is the type of hybrid identity embodied by his nemesis, whose genetic equivalency to the most celebrated starship captain in the quadrant still cannot compensate for the accident of his “birth” into such an inhospitable world.
To this conundrum, of course, Star Trek gives us Lieutenant Commander Data, whose emerging “humanity” is a central concern of the show from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s inception, and whose death during the climax of Nemesis feels so hasty and unearned that we can almost forget it even happened.
The final scene of Star Trek: Nemesis begins with a close-up of Picard’s face: “I don’t know if all this has made any sense”, he says, “but I wanted you to know what kind of man he was. In his quest to be more like us, he helped us to see what it means to be human.” He is speaking of course of Data, but to whom he speaks we do not yet know.
As the camera pans towards toward Picard’s interlocutor, we see a recently discovered childlike prototype of Data, ridiculously named B-4, bobbling unresponsively in yellow civilian get-up. Despite the fact that we know B-4 has been implanted with Data’s memories, and despite the fact that he is played by the same beloved actor, Brent Spiner, the interview is disappointing, as it is meant to be.
As Picard rises to resume his captaincy duties, however, B-4 suddenly begins singing Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”: a song Data sings during the opening scene of the film. “Never saw the sun”, B-4 mumbles, “never saw the sun, never saw the sun.” The words remind us of the conditions suffered by the Remans in the cold, moonlit mines, but Picard, suddenly vaulted back into his position as the light-bringing humanist subject, is there to help B-4 along. He prompts the android, saying: “shining so bright”--the next line of the song. With the captain’s help, B-4 is able to finish the musical phrase and Picard walks away smiling. The music swells into the familiar Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song, and we are meant to feel good.
Still, viewers remember that not only is B-4 a far less sophisticated technology, but he also lacks the singular microchip that helped Data experience human emotion. If Data is as critic Diana Relke argues: “Star Trek’s only consistently dependable repository of humanist values”, then we have just witnessed the loss of this repository and are witnessing the doomed project of recreating it.
We have also witnessed the enmity between the Romulans and the Remans, and the generations of hatred that have arisen from it, and we may find the Federation’s upcoming negotiations with the Romulan Empire less inclusive than their rhetoric would have us believe. We can see in exactly what manner the Federation will soon become complicit in the subjection of an entire population. These uncomfortable truths also echo the growing complications of the United States involvement in the Middle East in the wake of 9/11.
So, if, at the end of Nemesis, Picard’s smile fails to comfort us, it is perhaps because we have more difficulty situating ourselves comfortably within a narrative of progress that would require us to believe in the utopian future toward which he so stubbornly works.
What we’re seeing here is the Star Trek ethos, as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, colliding with the borders of its ethical frontier. It identified what “human” qualities make humanity worth saving, and, in killing Data, has destroyed them. Then again, the very forgettability of Data’s death demonstrates the continued viability of at least elements of Roddenberry’s project. It is here that B-4’s name is useful and prescient. Where we may not realistically look to B-4 to carry humanity’s “humanity” into the future, we can look before those events that have led the Federation to its conceptual and ethical endgame to see what we can salvage.
The enduring vitality of the Star Trek fan base across its five decades of existence speaks to the enduring appeal of its vision of a universe in which those people with whom we entrust our political and moral well-being are trained in the ethics and practices of Star Trek’s humanism, however malleable or internally contradictory that ethos may be. The immensely popular reboots suggest that the franchise itself is dipping into Federation history to see how we can rethink, refigure, and reimagine the origins of Federation ethics in such a way that they can more perfectly contribute to universal liberation.
Whether or not the new films will accomplish this task, I am not to say, but the enthusiasm of Star Trek fans new and old for the feasibility of a Federation future guides my proposal: that we keep our affectionate gaze fixed upon the Star Trek timelines in all of their iterations and tap into the deeply held optimism that persists against the darkly complicated historical and fictional landscapes against which the narratives take form. While it is important to identify and disown the elements of the Roddenberry ethos that lead our heroes toward the limits of their ethical frontiers, we need not close ourselves off to the promises and possibilities in which Star Trek asks us to believe. With or without the Federation’s future, we may ourselves boldly embark on our own speculative frontiers, and in this way Star Trek itself can exceed its programming.
Nicole Berland is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studies post-45 multi-ethnic American literature and culture with corollary interests in speculative fiction, comics, and television.