TREK ETHICS

Glenn Reynolds, in his MSNBC column, explains the appeal of the Star Trek vision of the future:

In the pre-George Lucas days, science fiction futures tended to be gloomy: the Malthusian disaster of Soylent Green, the post-viral world of The Omega Man, the post-nuclear world of Planet of the Apes (Hmm — gloomy science fiction futures also tended to feature Charlton Heston, didn’t they? But there were plenty of others, as demonstrated by the post-deforestation world of Silent Running, a film that deserved more attention than it got.) In fact, the Seventies were a time in which people in general were profoundly gloomy about the future, and Star Trek represented one of the few non-gloomy alternatives. The Star Trek future was one in which, in William Faulkner’s terms, mankind did not simply survive, but prevailed. I think that that attitude, that sense of possibility, has encouraged a lot of people not simply to hope for a better future, but to work for one.

Reynolds thinks this optimism, with its view that we can change the very nature of mankind, could conceivably help us bring peace to the Middle East and solve other conflicts.

While I like this idea and indeed enjoy the Trek universe, I find it unrealistic. In its most utopian form, as seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation (admittedly, mainly post-Roddenberry), humankind has essentially been transformed into the what John Lennon envisioned in “Imagine:” no possessions, no countries, no religion, nothing to kill or die for. Very sweet but rather unlikely.

I don’t think, though, that “Soylent Green” or “Logan’s Run” or any of the other apocalyptic views of humanity are our likely futures either. We will continue to evolve, our wealth and health will improve, and spread. It isn’t even entirely unreasonable that we’ll one day eliminate hunger and large scale war. But the idea that doing these things will eradicate evil from the world, let alone ambition, greed, jealousy, and conflict from the human condition is just unfathomable. Indeed, I’m not sure that a species without those attributes would even properly be called “human.”

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ian S. says:

    Actually, TNG probably had the heaviest utopian influence of the 4 series, especially in the first 3 seasons before Roddenberry started dying. (Not coincidentally, most of the show’s most watchable episodes are from after that shift). Compare the treatment of the Ferengi on TNG vs. DS9: in the former, they’re cardboard-cutout eeevil capitalist bogeymen, and in the latter they’re actual characters.

  2. James Joyner says:

    You make a point. The socialist tendency is more pronounced in TNG than any other Trek incarnation. But you have a point on Berman vs. Roddenberry. Indeed, while I’m still lukewarm to Enterprise because I find the characters still rather undeveloped even after nearly two seasons, I do find its view of humanity much more realistic.

  3. My favorite bit of internal dismissal of the utopian vision in Star Trek was in the first Jonathan Frakes’ movie,
    Star Trek: First Contact, when Alfre Woodard’s character responded to Picard’s emotional outburst by saying, “you broke your little ships.”

    It made the Star Trek universe, which I had dismissed as woefully inconsistant, a lot more enjoyable to me. But I usually lose interest; anytime the movies are better than the books, there’s usually a problem somewhere. The only exceptions I can think of are: Quick Change, in which the movie ending was more satisfying than the book’s, and Bull Murray’s performance was outstanding; and Jumanji, where they took a small, children’s picture book, and expanded it to fill almost two hours.