Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Kirk (William Shatner) in Star Trek's first interracial kiss.

The Persistence of Vision: The Radical Liberalism of ‘Star Trek’

Star Trek speaks across cultures, emphasising tolerance, equality, freedom and fraternity; in doing so, it has never been more necessary.

A terrorist takes refuge in a distant third-party state. Without the formalities of arrest, charges and trial, assassination is opted for by the military chain of command. A naval asset is tasked to kill the target remotely using long-range weapons, violating the third-party state’s sovereignty in the process.

Sound familiar? Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) was derided by long-term fans of the series for a variety of reasons, not least its derivative nature. But despite their criticisms, it remained identifiably Star Trek, adding to the vein of social and political commentary which has characterised the franchise since its ‘60s beginnings. As George Gonzalez has recently noted in his The Politics of Star Trek: Justice, War and the Future, Star Trek is innately political and contemporary in the same way Star Wars overtly elects not to be, being set “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

Into Darkness’ commentary on drone strikes and the war against terror might have evaded some viewers, but it will have been apparent to many. Kirk (Chris Pine), on a personal quest for revenge against the man — first known as John Harrison, ultimately revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch) — who killed his mentor, is offered a mission straight out of the pages of Jeremy Scahill’s The Assassination Complex. Kill Harrison, pure and simple.

The mission appeals to Kirk’s bloodlust. But it’s not, as Spock (Zachary Quinto) reminds him, the Starfleet way to conduct summary executions. As Scotty (Simon Pegg) puts it more forcefully whilst resigning his post in protest, Starfleet’s purpose is to serve humanity as explorers, and emphatically not to simply be the military arm of the United Federation of Planets. Kirk ultimately elects to lead a mission into Klingon space to capture, rather than kill, Harrison, in order to return him to Earth to stand trial — a decision in direct violation of his orders, but one consonant with the values of the Federation and Kirk’s oath as a Starfleet officer.

For Kirk, read Edward Snowden or Daniel Ellsberg. All three are men who claim to have disobeyed orders in order to uphold their highest allegiance. Snowden, in the foreword to Scahill’s Assassination Complex, notes that CIA officers must swear an oath to the Constitution; it’s being asked to choose between competing notions of “duty” — that to the Constitution and its unyielding verities of freedom, liberty, and the process of law, and the other to the immediate exigencies of the political situation which prompts rebellion, in Snowden’s eyes. Crucially, such rebellion does not equal treachery, though that’s precisely what both Snowden and Kirk stand accused of.

Into Darkness — whatever its merits as art — represented an explicit investigation of the tensions at the heart of Star Trek’s radical liberalism. Star Trek, broadcast for the first time as the Vietnam War escalated, has always been an unlikely fusion of diverse tropes. These include the ostensibly martial values of honor, duty, and valor, juxtaposed with a propensity for conciliation over conflict (regularly evinced by Jean-Luc Picard [Patrick Stewart] in his tenure as captain of the Enterprise) and a profound respect for different cultures.

Most of all, the franchise features a “utopian” belief in humanity’s capability to progress, including, as Gonzalez notes, the rejection of capitalism. When Kirk (William Shatner) and crew finds themselves in mid-‘80s San Francisco during the events of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it’s a signal moment when the-then Admiral Kirk, again on the run after disobeying orders, offhandedly remarks, “They’re still using money here.” Though the Original Series was inconsistent about currency in the Federation, by the movie era and the arrival of The Next Generation, it was established that betterment in 23rd and 24th centuries wasn’t about material things, but the expansion of knowledge and personal development. As Gonzalez claims, Star Trek then manifests a radical critique of late 20th and early 21st century capitalism — but perhaps not the “Utopian Marxist” one he suggests.

Star Trek’s political philosophy is rooted in radical liberalism, not Marxism. It’s about radical change, and the abiding potential for radical change, but in a non-revolutionary context buttressed by respect for the rule of law. This is precisely why the tensions at its heart are made explicit. There’s no base and superstructure here, and though Star Trek appears to obey a law of history — a law of progress — this is only (as Gonzalez himself shows) insofar as it is punctuated with greater crises than those of capitalism, not least the Third World War which devastated Planet Earth before First Contact with the Vulcans raised Earth’s aspirations onto a higher plane.

Critically, the laws of Star Trek (rather like its laws of physics, as Scotty [James Doohan] might have been wont to exclaim) are not immutable. The Prime Directive — Starfleet’s General Order Number One — a policy of non-interference / contact with cultures pursuing their own path of development (until they become warp-capable) is both treated as sacred and frequently broken. Moral judgement, represented customarily by the starship crews and their captains, can intervene. Star Trek’s radical liberalism isn’t reducible to utilitarianism, as shown in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock when Kirk and his friends jeopardise their futures and risk their lives to resurrect their colleague Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), stealing and destroying the Enterprise along the way. The good of the many is outweighed by the good of the few, or the one.

At points, Star Trek verges upon John Stuart Mill’s “experiments in living”, though without the condescending overtones. There’s no assumption amongst the Federation that Starfleet always knows best, or even better; in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the Federation’s position in relation to the Genesis Project is at best morally-ambiguous. Though the Klingons under Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) make self-serving arguments to legitimate their brutal behaviour in the sequel The Search for Spock, this doesn’t undermine their validity. The Federation creates a device which, in the words of its principal architect, Kirk’s son, David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), might be “perverted into a dreadful weapon”. Neither the Federation, nor Starfleet, always knows best.

Sometimes Star Trek’s radical liberalism can be easily witnessed. The oft-discussed interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), which was so controversial in the mid-‘60s was not the first on US television, as some claim, but it was a powerful and important moment for race relations in the US (something both Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner were aware of when filming it). In a first season episode of the Original Series, The Enemy Within, Kirk is split into separate entities by a transporter malfunction. A classic liberal dilemma is revisited; Kirk’s “positive” half, which manages to retain his office as captain, cannot command effectively without the base, sometimes brutal, drives of his “negative” self. Liberalism is the marriage between freedom and authoritarianism, just as in Kirk’s personality. Freedom is the highest state, in the sense of the “true” freedom to exercise self-expression and self-development in peace and security. But it is only maintained because of a social contract which justifies an element of authoritarianism. Some rights, in true Hobbesian vein, are sacrificed in order to protect the whole from the state of nature.

Thusm Kirk’s “positive” half stands in lieu of the Federation; the brutal side representing the military aspect of Starfleet. Together they are humane. Sundered they are not. Starfleet guarantees the Federation’s security and in so doing its freedoms. But in doing so, it can be perverted to evil — as with the activities of Section 31 during the Dominion War, the usurpation of Starfleet Command in the Next Generation episode “Conspiracy”, or Admiral Marcus’ (Peter Weller) agenda to pre-empt a war against the Klingons. Power, hierarchy — these are things to be feared in the Star Trek universe.

So who watches the watchers? Again, a liberal conceit. The people do — represented here by the crews of the starships. That’s why Starfleet’s captains break the rules so often; Kirk in The Search for Spock. Spock in the Undiscovered Country. Picard in First Contact and Insurrection. Kirk again in Into Darkness. When they do keep to the rules — as with Captain Janeway’s (Kate Mulgrew) destruction of the Caretaker’s (Basil Langton) array in the Voyager pilot — it’s for the same reason, to uphold the Federation’s ideals against the exigencies of the present.

Star Trek was born alongside the ‘60s counter-culture. It sought to enshrine the vitality and utopianism of that period in a peculiar context; a naval one. Captains, commanders, lieutenants are odd vehicles at first glance for the promotion of a different, more optimistic vision of the future, but for all its military overtones, Star Trek has always been, as Gonzalez notes, appealing to the mind as well as the heart. A rational show, it has had faith in rational thinking — and the possibility of convincing its audiences.

As the show celebrates its 50th anniversary, the optimism of the ‘60s is long gone. The United Nations, on which the United Federation of Planets is unmistakably modelled, is discredited. Populism is on the rise in numerous Western countries, not least the United States in the form of Trump, and the United Kingdom in the form of the Brexit vote. Internationalism, in an age of walls built in Calais and mooted for the Mexican border, seems to be waning. The deification of the market in Western societies, irrespective of the consequences of the crash of 2008, is far from the rejection of markets and currency promoted by the Star Trek vision. The environment, notwithstanding the best efforts of Kirk and co. in The Voyage Home, is in jeopardy, and with it the fate of the planet itself.

Star Trek, then, has never been more necessary. It speaks across cultures, emphasising tolerance, equality, freedom and fraternity. It’s a liberal vision of the future, which believes in the possibility of humans and aliens to change and to compromise. It’s radical in that the reforms it dreams of are profound, but are encapsulated in its view of a common humanity and its betterment. It’s a vision which has spoken to millions over five decades. This persistence of vision shows no sign of abating. Trekkies might be nerds, geeks or the target of any number of supposedly-pejorative epithets, but they are also the custodians, wittingly or unwittingly, of a vision of humanity and politics which offers hope for both the present and the future. Live long and prosper.

Mike Finn is Principal Teaching Fellow in Liberal Arts at the University of Warwick, and Honorary Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Buckingham. A contemporary historian, his latest book is The Coalition Effect (edited with Sir Anthony Seldon, Cambridge University Press, 2015).