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 name 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 use 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 an 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 techhead 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.
The Final Frontier Within: Dystopian Genetics and Cyberspace
Starting in 2003 and still in play is the turn in sci-fi television from exploring the final frontiers of outer space to the internal frontiers of genetics and digital networks. As for the former, the Canadian show Orphan Black (2013–2017) starred Tatiana Maslany as a series of clones created by the Dyad Institute. These clones, who are scattered across the world, slowly discover themselves over the first season or two, and agree to band together to discover who is out to kill them. The main character is the English punk Sarah, who witnesses the suicide of one of her clones, a cop named Beth, in a subway station. She decides to impersonate her.
There are numerous threats to the clones’ well being: Beth’s boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce), who is really a plant by Dyad; Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer), the Neolutionist spokesman of Dyad; the evil clone Rachel, who works for Dyad; and the murderous Ukrainian clone Helena, who has been brainwashed by a religious cult into think that cloning is sacrilege. This show rarely strays from advanced technologies, and presents a model of civil society where anything goes as long as you have money and power. It also buys into the intersectional fantasy that most straight white men are corrupt or evil, but at least balances this with plenty of evil women.
On the other hand, Channel 4’s Black Mirror (2011-now) presents a world about 15-minutes into the future where contemporary or advanced technologies create an episodic series of dystopias where one or more new devices ruin people’s lives. Most episodes simply amplify the technologies we’re already addicted to in our daily lives — cell phones, computers, video games, social media, virtual reality — to see their impact on the lives of the episode’s characters. For example, in 1.3 “The Entire History of You”, Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell) becomes obsessed with replaying audio-visual recordings made by the “Grains” implanted in his and his wife Fee’s (Jodie Whitaker) heads, leading him to tracking down her infidelity with the slimy Jonas, and the fact that he may not be the father of their child. The episode imagines a society where everyone is always recording everything that happens around them, unable to forget past slights and painful experiences.
In 3.1 “Nosedive”, the culture is addicted to a Yelp-like personal ratings app that determines your status and access to goods, which turns most citizens into superficial conformist clones. Those who refuse are socially cancelled, or in extreme cases imprisoned. Charlie Brooker’s series confirms Michel Foucault’s notion that a Panopticon may be an efficient method of surveillance, but it’s crippling to the human spirit.
Finally, the best sci-fi series of the naughties, Battlestar Galatica (2003–09), combines these two themes. In the opening mini-series 12 human colonies named after zodiac signs are attacked by the long-absent Cyclons, sentient robots who have developed a way of replicating human beings almost perfectly (though they only make 12 models). Fleeing the devastation, a rag-tag fleet of civilian ships lead by what we assume is the last surviving battlestar, the Galactica, seeks out the 13th colony, Earth.
Commanded by the gruff Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), this aircraft carrier in space survived by not being networked to the fleet, and thus avoiding a computer virus that allowed the Cylons to disable the other colonial warships. Packed full of hotshot pilots such as Adama’s son Lee AKA Apollo (Jamie Bamber), Starbuck (re-envisioned from the 1978 series as female, played by Katee Sackoff), and Boomer (Grace Park), the colonials are on constant watch for the enemy within — Cylons posing as humans, of which there are many.
Though there is an element of discovery, the weapons are contemporary (guns, missiles and nukes), and the politics dystopian and conspiratorial. It was the perfect series for post-9/11 America. The last vestiges of Adama and President Roslin’s (Mary McDonnell) liberal sentiments are tested over and over, as in “Pegasus” when a second battlestar appears captained by the ruthless Commander Cain (Michelle Forbes). The crew of the Pegasus regularly torture Cylon prisoners for information, refusing to acknowledge them as sentient beings, as part of the savage war against the “toasters”.
Identity Politics and the Collapse of Liberal Utopianism
Somewhere around 2013 a relatively new political ideology swept across university campuses, leftist political parties, and the mainstream mass media. It has different names, though I’ll call it “intersectionalism”, or simply woke politics. It claims that Western societies are racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic patriarchies where people are divided into groups bitterly fighting for power, some of them oppressors, some of them oppressed. Individual identities, thoughts, and actions no longer matter. If you were in a victim group, you should be given wealth, status and power; if you were an oppressor, you should accept your collective guilt and atone for your group’s past sins in some sort of quasi-religious ritual. Though some refer to it as “liberalism”, it has no concern for traditional liberal values such as freedom of speech (see Twitter for evidence), as it cancels its enemies through social media hate campaigns and takes a supremacist rather than inclusive approach to sexual and racial equality.
Woke ideology has spread like a virus throughout sci-fi television since 2017, when Jodie Whitaker became the first female Doctor on BBC’s long-running series Doctor Who, and the stories ramped up the social justice themes started in Peter Capaldi’s run on the show. Rather than fun explorations of weird alien species and worlds powered by an inclusive romanticism, the show became a preachy series of moral lessons for recalcitrant toxic males.
The social justice virus metastasized rapidly throughout the casting, scripts, and direction of Star Trek: Discovery that same year. For the first time a Trek series focused on a single character, Michael Burnham, a Mary Sue-style “strong black woman” who can do no wrong, despite staging a mutiny against her captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and starting a war with the Klingons in the opening episode. She is eventually charged with her crimes, but is let off by Star Fleet to help them win the Klingon war she started. Burnham is continually praised by her crewmates, despite being arrogant and insufferable and making huge mistakes. She is an intersectional fantasy.
To make things worse, until Anson Mount’s Captain Pike appears in season two, all the straight men on the show are either quickly killed off — Admiral Anderson (Terry Serpico) in the opening battle, a mansplainer named Connolly (Sean Affleck) in the opening episode of season 2 — or turn out to be villains — Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) is a surgically altered Klingon spy, while Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is a violent neofascist refugee from the mirror universe. The Klingons 3.0 seen in the series are given a bizarre orc-like appearance whose mantra “Remain Klingon” is an admitted dig at President Trump.
This banal allegory will have all the staying power of acid-washed jeans. Gone is the canonical view of the Klingons as honour-bound warriors: they are now a thinly-veiled allegory for white nationalism. To make things worse, Burnham becomes the narcissistic center of the whole “red angel” time-travel plot in the second season, since the universe isn’t big enough to contain her ego, though she saves it anyways.
Added to the magical politics of the show are magical technologies, devices that not only destroy the Star Trek canon, but make no narrative or scientific sense. Chief among these is the Tardigrade drive, which hooks up the ship’s engines to a giant bug which allows it to instantaneously travel to anywhere in the known universe, powered by mushroom spores, moving through an inter-stellar network of fungus roots. Besides wrecking Star Trek continuity and any sense of exploring a distant frontier — which is, after all, only a bug-jump away — it turns out that CBS probably stole the idea of a spore drive from an indie video game developer named Anas Abdin, whose 2014 game Tardigrades contains not only characters suspiciously similar to Burnham, engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Dr. Hugh Cubler (Wilson Cruz), and Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), but an almost identical spore drive.
This idea of magical technology is repeated in the current (2020) series Star Trek Picard, from a similar production team headed by Alex Kurtzman. So far we’ve learned about androids made entirely of flesh that can leap like Superman through the air, a forensic machine that can scan a room for past events, a magical Borg gate that can transport its users anywhere in the galaxy, a set of brass knuckles that can repair machines with the power of imagination, and the fact that an entire artificial brain can be re-constituted from a single positron. Picard continues the post-millennial theme in popular culture of preferring magic to science, in keeping with intersectionalism’s rejection of the biological basis of sex, the structural basis of grammar, the logical basis of philosophy, and the market basis of capitalist economics.
The writing in the show is once again sloppy — Admiral Picard is somehow held responsible for the loss of millions of Romulans after their sun goes supernova, despite the vastness of the Romulan Empire and fleet, and the fact that the rescue fleet being built on Mars is destroyed by rebel sentient androids. Set against Picard’s feeble and guilt-laden character are a series of strong women — the super-powered android twins Dahj and Soshi (Isa Briones), the Star Fleet security chief Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), the ever-whining Raffi (Michelle Hurd), the sinister Romulan agent Narissa (Peyton List), the brilliant scientist Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) — only partly alleviated by Santiago Cabrera’s suave and funny Captain Rios. Once again it’s a rogue ship theme, this time with the mission of saving a single android. No final frontiers or inclusive liberalism here.
To end on a positive note, the best sci-fi series of the last decade is The Expanse, like most of the superior post-1995 sci-fi series filmed in Canada. Though it does make most of the villains white males, it returns in part to Star Trek’s inclusive liberalism on the bridge of the Rocinante, with a nice balance between the visionary captain James Holden (played with dignity by Steven Strait), the thuggish Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), the charismatic Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and the warm and sympathetic “Belter” Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper).
In it, our solar system is divided between a United Earth, the Mars Congressional Republic, and the rough-and-ready inhabitants of the asteroid belt and outer colonies, who form the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA). All are threatened by an alien “proto-molecule”m which takes over the Eros station and travels to Venus, where it creates a stargate that is launched toward Uranus. The science is realistic in terms of gravity creation, space travel, and weaponry, although the actions of the proto-molecule are mysterious. Though at heart a return to the rogue ship theme, there are hints of utopian dreams in the Martian attempt to terraform the planet, the OPA’s attempt at independence, and the urge to explore new worlds now accessible through the alien-created stargate. The Expanse represents a firing of the retro-rockets on sci-fi television’s crash into woke dystopias. Stay tuned for more.
This essay was originally presented at a science fiction club in London, Ontario, Canada.