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Tuesday 25 October 2016

What Some Nerd Thinks About Star Trek (I)

Part One : The Sociology of Star Trek

A long time ago on an island far, far away, I wrote about why Star Trek is a better show than Battlestar Galactica. That is, Trek is an optimistic piece of science fiction whereas BSG could be accurately titled, "The Very Depressed People Who Got Chased By Sex-Mad Emo Robots And Then They All Died"... and it still wouldn't distract you from its dark, depressingly accurate take on contemporary American politics that just happens to be set in space.

Which is not to say that I'm not a massive BSG fan too, just that Trek serves one purpose and BSG another.

But this is to do Star Trek a great disservice, which I shall here remedy. To be more accurate, BSG is a political show which frequently flirts and sometimes enthusiastically jumps into bed with science fiction, but always runs away in the morning and never leaves its phone number. Star Trek is sort of the other way around, only it's a bit more complicated than that. Billed by Gene Roddenberry as "morality tales in space", it's no stranger to politics, morality, or especially sociology. Sometimes, when it's at its best as a science fiction show, it explores social issues that can't even exist except when driven by technological advances, and sometimes those scenarios are plausible and other times they're less credible than Donald Drumpf's hair.

On other occasions it's fair to state that yes, alright, things just happen to be set in space but there's no science driving the story at all. My mum had an unfortunate and uncanny habit of only watching not merely those episodes that didn't really need a spaceship, but a particular subset of episodes which are like the least interesting episodes of any soap opera. When you've got a show that runs in batches of seven series, you're gonna get a few of those.

Trek is also frequently and entirely justifiably accused of resorting to essentially magic when it comes to the science and technology aspect. This is absolutely true but mostly irrelevant. The thing that fans clamouring for more realism are missing is that Trek is to some degree sociological fiction, not science fiction. Alien species aren't usually there to speculate on what alien species would actually be like, they're plot devices. They're there to explore some aspect of human societies, usually to contrast with the utopian Federation to examine why they don't work. Sometimes they've developed advanced tech that's caused social chaos or cohesion, other times they've got some arse-backwards political idea that's easily exposed as nonsense when you compare it to Federation benevolence.

It's the same with treknology. Whether it's realistic or not is completely missing the point. The point is to ask the fundamental question of all good science fiction : what if ? It's the exact opposite of Jurassic Park : the writers are so preoccupied with whether or not they should they never stop to think if we could. Accuracy is a nice bonus, but as long as the sociological explorations are interesting, that's all it will ever be : a bonus.

Some examples are probably called for. The original series introduced us to the Eugenics Wars and one of Trek's greatest villains : Khan Noonien Singh.

Not exactly a different species but a genetically modified super human, Khan and his followers remind us not so much of the dangers of genetic engineering (although that's part of it) but of one group of people thinking they're better. "Superior ability breeds superior ambition", or as Captain Archer puts it in Enterprise, "When one group of people starts thinking they're better than everyone else, the results are always the same." This was one technological problem the Federation was never able to solve, with a strict ban on genetic engineering remaining in place four centuries later : "for every Julian Bashir that can be created, there's a Khan Singh waiting in the wings".

Genetic engineering itself isn't the root of the problem but it's symptomatic of one of the most dangerous human tendencies of all : the concept of the other. Humans have always tended to form groups - it seems that we're physiologically programmed to do so - but in the Trek universe the ability to directly manipulate the genome is just too powerful to avoid corruption. Trek's answer is that this is one technological route that must not be explored (except to repair serious damage), though it does note that other species handled this without any problems.

We see something quite similar in The Next Generation episode "The Hunted". Instead of modifying their entire species, the peaceful Angosians modify a select group of soldiers in order to fight a war they were otherwise ill-equipped to handle. Through genetics, chemical engineering and massive psychological programming, they create a group of super-soldiers who are basically the same people they always were... unless they're threatened, in which case they react with instinctive, extreme violence. The soldiers don't see themselves as superior - quite the opposite. They want to re-integrate into Angosian society, but, as so many governments have done throughout human history, these war veterans are treated disgracefully by their leaders. When Captain Picard asks if the soldiers had any choice in their treatment, he's rebuffed :

Technology plays a role in the societal evolution of Angosia and humanity's own Eugenics Wars, but it's closely coupled with politics and human/Angosian nature. Sometimes technology plays no role at all : in Justice, the Edo are your standard uber-utopian species of hot alien babes except that they've achieved utopia by a rather unusual means : the punishment for every crime is death. That's a theme I've already explored in detail, so no need to go there again.

Another more long-running example : the Ferengi. Here technology and science again play no role whatsoever - the species is an archetype, a way for the audience to examine the effects of pure, unrestricted avarice :

This is why most alien species in Star Trek share a single political and moral ideology : they're not supposed to be like real species with all the factionalism that would necessitate. They're plot devices, and sometimes, I daresay, they're also commentaries on contemporary politics :

But more on them next time. Despite being greedy, misogynist, treacherous and cruel, even the Ferengi are not without virtue.
Other sociological themes run through Star Trek without such personifications. The balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the state has been there since the very beginning :

While this certainly does sum up the overall mood of the show, it's by no means a definitive answer - because there isn't one. There are many exceptions and the state is far from all-powerful. Just because the state is important doesn't mean the rights of the individual don't matter, and vice-versa. One film later, Kirk throws Spock's logic back in his face, saying that sometimes the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

It's a choice that faces starship captains countless times throughout the show : save my friend or save my ship ? The answer usually (but not always) being "both", because Trek is a family show and fundamentally optimistic. Which doesn't stop it dealing with some pretty hard-hitting issues. In the Voyager episode Death Wish, the crew encounter an omnipotent being who wants to die. The rest of the Q continuum do not approve. For them, their omnipotence and omniscience is unarguably the most perfect form of existence possible. Quinn (as he is later known) disagrees, stating that as the Q became omnipotent, they have "sacrificed many things along the way, not just manners, but mortality and a sense of purpose and a desire for change and a capacity to grow." This is something the other Q don't know how to deal with.

Here we have a purely hypothetical omipotent being contemplating assisted suicide to provide commentary on the rights of the individual versus the state in our own society. I submit that at its best, Star Trek is a sophisticated piece of both science and sociological fiction. And did I mention that this episode is also very, very funny ?
Trek explores a wide spectrum in terms of balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of the state. Some societies value individualism to an almost absurd degree, like the Klingons or the Hirogen, an advanced predatory species in Voyager who allow their hunting instincts to utterly dominate their way of life. Although technologically sophisticated, it seems that this is almost entirely due to a previous, less aggressive lifestyle, with Hirogen scientists (a profession which necessitates stable co-operation) being almost banned.

Donik, the unhappy Hirogen technician - the nearest thing
left to a Hirogen researcher.
Many societies in Trek examine the reverse : the dangers of the power of the state overwhelming the rights of the individual. Sometimes this results in good old-fashioned fascism like the Cardassian Union. Which is exemplified in the beautifully terrifying speech of Gul Dukat in the Deep Space Nine episode Waltz :

Cardassian fascism has little or nothing to do with any kind of sci-fi reason - it was borne of a simple famine on Cardassia, a radical solution to a radical problem. As Gul Madred explains in Chain of Command :
We acquire territory during the wars. We develop new resources. We initiated a rebuilding program. We have mandated agricultural programs. That is what the military had done for Cardassia. And because of that, my daughter will never worry about going hungry.
Picard responds, "Her belly may be full. But her spirit will be empty."

In other cases state power (or something very much like it) has a far more sci-fi origin, for example as an inevitable consequence of the nature of the species. Most notably the Changelings of Deep Space Nine are a shapeshifting lifeform whose natural state is a big pile of orange goo.

Goo that brings the Galaxy to its knees.
Changelings exist on their home world in their natural gelationous state, in which they exchange ideas in a sort of telepathic orgy-pool. For them the very nature of individuality is wholly different to ours :

Changelings were feared and hunted by other species, leading them to fight back and seize control. They did this by artificially breeding a race of ferocious soldiers : the Jem'Hadar. The Jem'Hadar are a living embodiment of the will of the state, with almost (but not quite) no desires or ambitions of their own. They've been engineered to be utterly servile to the Changelings to the point of being virtually suicidal, as Captain Sisko discovers in the episode Rocks and Shoals :
He does not have to earn my loyalty, Captain. He has had it from the moment I was conceived. I am a Jem'Hadar. He is a Vorta. It is the order of things. It is not my life to give up, Captain. And it never was. 
But the Jem'Hadar are nonetheless living, sentient, independent entities. On rare occasions they disobey orders. They rebel. They do what they do because of psychological and genetic conditioning. There is of course another more iconic species in Trek which takes this to a whole other level, with individuality entirely suppressed, reducing them to a race of drones : the Borg.

The Borg are a hive mind generated not through natural telepathy but through technology. They are singularly dedicated, laudably enough, to the pursuit of self-improvement. The problem is that they view the rights of the individual as non-existent because they don't have individuals : the rights of the species are the only thing that matters. They don't conquer other species, they assimilate them into their collective consciousness. Nothing expresses the overwhelming will of the state as forcefully as the Borg Collective. Borg individuals may seem to exist, on occasion, but they don't really. The species and the state are one.

Borg technology isn't perfect. If the telepathic link to the Collective is blocked, or the technology disrupted, drones can revert to a state of individuality. If they haven't been assimilated for very long they can fully regain their former identities, as happens to Captain Picard. More interesting are the cases of those who've been Borg for many years. We don't know much about the identity of the drone later known as Hugh - it's possible he was born Borg or assimilated as an infant. But when he becomes disconnected from the Collective, he slowly begins to exert a will of his own.

We don't get much screen time with Hugh, a.k.a. Third of Five, but Seven of Nine becomes a pivotal character in Voyager. Seven not only has to come to terms with being an individual, but an individual subject to the power of the state. And an authoritarian state at that, because a starship simply cannot function as a democracy. While the other crew have been accustomed to this way of thinking for their whole lives, for Seven it's a new and often difficult experience. The notion that someone else might have her best interests at heart and have better judgement than her is not one that comes easily.

But despite these many warnings about the abuse of state power, Trek has an overwhelmingly positive role for the state, with its anarchist societies being largely non-functional. Same with technology : used properly it's of immense benefit (more on that next time), but it's not a magic bullet - sociology and technology cannot be decoupled. The message is balance : too much individualism or collectivism, too much reliance or under-utilisation of technology leads to self-destruction. While Federation worlds are democracies, even on starships (which are not democratic at all) the captains are not merely benevolent despots. They are leaders who listen to the advice of their colleagues and change their minds accordingly. Federation society, as we shall see in more detail in the next post, is all about balance - a striving for the centre ground whereas other species tend to take things to absurd (but very interesting) extremes.


Trek examines sociological issues primarily by means of other species. Sometimes it does so by asking purely speculative, science fiction questions to examine how some technological development might affect us. Sometimes it looks at purely societal issues, often pointing out the flaws of taking things to extremes and the virtues of moderation. Usually, it examines the effects of both technology and politics simultaneously. Because that's the thing about the human condition : you can't fully examine humanity without considering both. Humans like building clever gadgets, and those gadgets influence and change their politics and philosophy, which in turn influences the clever gadgets they build.

In general, good fiction doesn't have to have to incorporate any scientific advances to be interesting. But when (specifically) science fiction does so, it becomes immeasurably weaker if it doesn't attempt to examine the sociological effect of those advances. The "oh but this is a special case" approach - i.e. the US military has a secret Stargate that no-one else knows about - is rarely as interesting as considering the impact of technology if we all had access to it.

It's through a clever management of this interplay between science and society that the Federation worlds have achieved Paradise, whereas most other Trek societies have at least one fatal flaw because they didn't get the balance right. Every week we meet some new species who've tried really hard, but have one teensy-weensy flaw like being a big bunch of racists/extremely paranoid/closed-minded idiots/bureaucratic pen-pushers/obsessed with self-gratification, and the Enterprise or Voyager* flies off, somewhat smugly secure in the knowledge that the Federation way is best.

* Not so much the Defiant, which tended to just blow things up.

Why is that ? What is it about the Federation that means that society is so incredibly perfect ? Is it really as utopian as depicted or does it too have fatal flaws ? Examining alien societies and the sociological implications of new technologies is all very interesting, but Star Trek's central theme is that it's possible to achieve an ideal society - not perfect, but far better than what we have now... if not a utopia, then the best society possible. That deserves more than the superficial examination I've presented here, so stay tuned for the next post.

1 comment:

  1. Star Trek's Federation as a precursor to Banks' Culture?


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