HUMANISM - KEYNOTE OF STARSHIP SPACE QUESTS. THE FREETHINKER June 1994
ARTHUR CHAPPELL has long been interested in the Humanist philosophy in Star Trek. He was surprised by recent criticisms of the show in The Freethinker, especially accusations that Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was guilty of militarism, racism and fascism. Chappell says, "Fascism in particular seems an odd a accusation when the 'Patterns of Force episode has the Starship Enterprise crew foiling an attempt to recreate Nazism on another world - a powerful attack on irrationalism and hate-mongering."
Few people know how deeply Humanistic Star Trek really is. It is essentially, a science fiction vision of mankind humanising a dangerous and exciting Universe.. .
Take the multiracial crew: Chekov, a Russian navigator (in a series made at the height of the Cold War); Sulu. the Japanese helmsman, and Scottie, a Scottish engineer. One episode, "Plato's Stepchildren,". was banned for decades for showing Uhuru (the black female Communications Officer, whose name is Swahili for "Freedom') and Captain Kirk sharing an interracial kiss.
Even less racist, the Enterprise has a real alien (the Vulcan, Spock) as Chief Science Officer. In Star Trek, Earth's racism has been abolished.
Some accuse the programme of stereotypical racism as the villains usually represent a "race," such as the Klingons and the Romulans. In fact, Klingons are depicted as highly individualistic, aggressive warriors, disliked but respected, in accord with the Prime Directive principle of not harming other cultures and races. In The Next Generation stories, the Klingons have freely joined the Space Federation, while retaining their warrior beliefs.
To accuse Roddenberry of racism in creating Klingons is like accusing Jews of being Jewish for eating kosher food. All races and cultures have their own distinctive identities and traditions.
In 'The Balance Of Terror," a member of the Enterprise crew hears that the fierce Romulans are distant relatives of Vulcans and turns his hate towards Spock - only to be admonished for his racism by Kirk. Lieutenant Stiles had lost relatives in a previous battle with the Romulans, but he learns in the end.
The relationship between the Captain, the Science Officer and the Medical Officer (Mcoy) is central to Star Trek. Kirk muses on his feelings, impulses and intuitions, often to the point of being a bore. Spock is cold and logical, sometimes appearing inhumane to those disagreeing with his difficult life or death decisions, until they see that he was right (cf. "The Galileo Seven"). McCoy, a true Humanist- Humanitarian, and possibly the most Roddenberry-like of the regular characters, mediates between the two men, setting life above all else.
Militarism in Star Trek'? With its crew being disciplined like navy personnel, this criticism seems reasonable - at a glance. There are captains, admirals, fleets of (Star)ships, strategic space battles, war-gaming, and courts martial. But the Enterprise crew often break the rules. Scottie holds drinking contests; Uhuru smuggles pets on board, as in the delightful "Trouble with Tribbles" episode. In this, Scottie Fights with the Klingons despite Kirk's orders. To the Captain's horror, and our chuckles, Scottie explains that he only started fighting after hearing his beloved starship insulted, even though the Captain has been called awful names in the same pre-fight argument. Scottie recreates the discussion for his Captain, down to the last insult both to Captain and to Enterprise. Kirk is upset that it wasn't a fight in his honour, rather than the Enterprise's.
Such irreverence for leadership is common in Star Trek. In the third film, Kirk steals the Enterprise, but is later forgiven for doing it in a good cause: try that in the navy?
Some might see heel-clicking, saluting, order-giving and instant, unquestioning obedience. I see instead the arguments over what actions are to be taken, and constant breaking of the Captain's orders, albeit without any lack of respect for his essential leadership. There is stress on the importance of team work in a human society.
The Enterprise is primarily a scientific research vessel, and its crew of 500 is interested in peace and pacifism. The deadly phasers are mainly used to stun, rather than to kill, though they do kill as a last resort (instantly and totally erasing the victims. (humane self defence?).
Without Kirk present, Mcoy and Spock fall out, as McCoy sees the Vulcan's logic as ruthlessly utilitarian, forgetting that Spock has saved his life many times. Spock, who’s mother is human, having learned to suppress emotion in favour of pure logical thinking, represents pure objectivity, though his human side often peeps through in his wry humorous asides. This intensifies the running love-hate working relationship he has with McCoy. This is based on McCoy, like the viewer, sensing that Spock is more human, and more envious of human feeling, than he ever admits.
This is taken further in The Next Generation, where Data, an android, tries to be human. with his only feeling being a profound sense of regret that he isn't a person. Data is not a new Spock. Data is Pinnochio, the wooden boy who wants to be real. He's more tragicomic than Spock; Data has pathos.
This idea of "being human," spreading human knowledge, wisdom, and exploring human attitudes as well as encountering bug eyed monsters and new technologies permeates Star Trek.
Science fiction rarely had any interest in people up to the 1960s. In Star Trek 's "Return to Tomorrow," the advantages of being humanoid are; fully explored. Bodiless aliens borrow human bodies in order to build themselves robot-selves which can then be used as artificial but insensitive bodies. 'The aliens grow to like their host human bodies too much, and face the horror of having to part with the unaccustomed ability to see. love, feel, eat & touch. They have to be forced into returning the borrowed live bodies to their rightful owners.
The most important part of Star Trek’s' philosophy is the Prime Directive: never to interfere in alien cultures and customs. This creates all kinds of dilemnas. In "A Private Little War' a brave parable on the then ongoing Vietnam (conflict, Kirk learns that the Klingons are smuggling arms to one of two tribes on u small planet, creating a military imbalance. Kirk's solution: arm the other tribe but not to superior force, merely an equal one. The tribes fail to see this gambit for what it is, and try to take the Enterprise crew's superior phasers. This is one of Star Trek's bleakest episodes but one of great humanity. The plot could easily have been written to wipe out the Klingons and the hostile army for the sake of a victorious militaristic ending, but Kirk comes to know that he shouldn’t. Moral: the human answer isn’t always a happy one.
Humanistic philosophy in what ought to have been formula space opera seems extraordinary; all the more so considering the backbiting political, financial squabbles which Roddenberry endured with the programme’s sponsors and studio politicians.
The credit for Star Trek’s moral integrity lies entirely with him. He was very questioning, a trait he learned from his cynical father, a Los Angeles cop, as Roddenberry would also be before becoming a writer. His mother was a Baptist who took him to church regularly, while his father told him that he ought to be "dammed careful of what the preachers say"
Biographer, James Van Hise adds (The Man Who Created Star Trek, Pioneer Books 1992) "At about the age of 14, he started paying attention to what was being said in the sermons, and he came to the conclusion, which he kept to himself, that it was nonsense. He became a good deal more interested in the Deacon’s daughter than in the Gospel".
Roddenberry wrote many TV shows, notably Have Gun Will Travel, an intelligent western based detective story. The hero, Paladin, played Richard Boone) quotes philosophy and prefers to outwit his opponents rather than shoot them. Roddenberry was unhappy with what remained a formula Western. The plot often involved bringing religion into the stories. Roddenberry regretted that one episode of Have Gun featured a priest who eulogised heavily on blood atonement and Christian salvation.
Roddenberry had no wish to compromise his own beliefs again. Asked to do a series set on an 1860’s Mississippi riverboat, but with no references whatsoever to Negroes, Roddenberry argued for realism and racial rights, and lost a potentially lucrative assignment His hard headed, uncompromising approach earned him a reputation for being difficult to work with - without which Star Trek would have been a very different programme.
Star Trek gave Roddenberry a vehicle for exploring delicate moral situations in a thoughtful way. Many episodes were criticised for being ‘too cerebral," but Roddenberry insisted that the audience was not as dumb as his sponsors imagined. In The Devil In The Dark the typical bug-eyed monster gains our sympathy when we learn why it kills people: it’s a mother protecting her eggs. Such ‘humanising of the monster’ often put Roddenberry in conflict with the studio watchdogs who wanted safe formula programmes which would need less supervisory interference.
Roddenberry was asked to put a padre in the regular cast in order to explain Christian values to aliens. He wisely put his foot down: "How could you have a chaplain if you’ve got that many people of different and alien beliefs on your ship? With as many planets as we were visiting, every person on the ship would have to be a chaplain." (Van Hise)
Roddenberry’s distaste for gods comes across frequently in Star Trek. In The Squire Of Gothos, Kirk meets a god who wants human playthings. Kirk realises the immaturity of The Squire whose parents arrive and punish him for being a tormenting child. The mature parents have no interest in human affairs and release Kirk safely. Roddenberry’s message is clear. Gods cannot interfere in human affairs without causing more problems than they solve.
Only one episode spoils the anti-religious trend. In Bread And Circuses, the crew finds a world order modelled on Nero’s Rome, where gladiatorial combat to the death is a televised event. The simple plot is complicated by occasional references to a group of dissenters who worship a rival god to the planet’s Caesar. We are led to believe that this god is The Sun, until in a final plot twist, we learn that it is ‘The Son.’ Yes, that one - although mercifully he doesn’t appear. We learn only of a cult surrounding him. Kirk murmurs that he’d like to witness that part of history repeating itself.
Roddenberry is careful, however, to keep the ‘religious’ side of this episode in Roman-Christian history discreet. He was of course, a passionate Humanist, occasionally contributing articles and interviews to Humanist journals, and receiving many fitting tributes in them on his death. Bread And Circuses was written as an imaginative idea, a parallel history story, not as a creed.
The article concluded in the next issue of The Freethinker; July 1994.
Alas, one current religious cult, Scientology gives its members the impression that Star Trek is a true story, and makes Roddenberry a part of its absurd doctrines. Scientologists believe in reincarnation, and that some of their past lives were lived on other worlds. They think the Star Trek creators write up actual events from their own subconscious past-life experiences.
Aside from that extreme, Star Trek fans who attend conventions, and acquire all the available merchandise are well aware that the programme is an imaginative production.
Star Trek was certainly flawed. Kirk had too many love interests. Though non-sexist in employing women. the first Enterprise crew was fond of nymphets, and every planet had its bevy of scantily-clad, photogenic models.
Interestingly, however, in The Next Generation adventures miniskirts were replaced by more practical uniforms, and even the famous split infinitive credit sequence speech on "boldly going where no man has gone before" was changed to a politically correct one of going where "no one" has been before. Some episodes Forget the internationalism of the cast. The aliens invariably spoke perfect English. In "The Omega Glory,"' Kirk finds a planet where the US Constitution has been misunderstood. He corrects this in the end by reciting it in great detail, which comes across as intensely patriotic. Roddenberry admitted that this was a mistake. He was taken by the Constitution opening with the words "We the People," and hoped to use it for the world as an international community in this episode, but failed spectacularly. . Some stories gain unnecessary notoriety, as with the maligned and very '60’s "The Way to Eden;' in which the Enterprise is hijacked by hippies looking For their own idea of Utopia. Critics compared the group's leader to Charles Manson, even though his murders occurred after the initial American airing on February 21 l1969. The episode plays for laughs. The naive young hippies mock the older generation's values; and yet the Utopian, communal, promised Eden-world proves too hostile to support the group who turn back to the Enterprise crew for advice, support and a way home. There is no Heaven. Roddenberry's world evolves; and that is the fascination of it. The Klingons, being space Federation members in The Next Generation adventures, much to the distaste of many Trekkies, have been replaced by new villains: Ferrengi and Q (based on "The Squire of Gothos ). In keeping with the Prime Directive the peaceful Klingons retain their own cultural values and self-identity. They have not been colonised or suppressed, but accepted and tolerated.
Some critics argue that colonising other planets is to applaud traditional earthly colonial values. Not so! Where colonists have upset a planet's culture, the Enterprise and the Federation quickly puts matters right. See, for example, The Next Generation classic Justice, in which a young crewman crushes a flower accidentally and is sentenced to die. ' The crew must rescue him without being seen to interfere in the planet's own legal processes.
The extent of the religious avoidance Roddenberry single-handedly introduced to Star Trek becomes clear in the occasional funeral scenes. In "The Tholian Web," Kirk - missing, presumed dead but later to turn up safe; and sound - is given a space burial service with no reference to religion (a Humanist funeral?), and a moment of silence.
Star Trek takes enormous risks and gambles. The biggest comes in the third film, The Search for Spock. Spock has killed himself so his friends can survive, an act based on the logical Utilitarian premise that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." Kirk and his colleagues discover r that Spock may yet live (surprise, surprise). They steal the Enterprise, commit court martial offences, head to a forbidden zone of space and fight the Klingons in Defiance of Prime Directive rules.
Kirk's son is killed in the conflict. and shock horror! - Kirk destroys the Enterprise itself. The Enterprise is an icon to the fans of the films and shows. NASA had actually renamed a space shuttle after r it in response to fierce letter-writing campaign. Now it was obliterated. Spock, found safe and well, understandably asks why. "Because the needs of' the one outweighs the needs of the many." replies Kirk emphasising that the human thing to do need not be logical or utilitarian, but must be compassionate. This was Star Trek at its best: setting one human (or Vulcan'?) life above all else in value.
Star Trek was a prophetic series; the first series ended just before the first Moon-landing in 1969. In Assignment Earth, the Enterprise crew help to prevent the American military of our own time from using a Star Wars (Strategic Defence Initiative:, not Luke Skywalker) style military system, because they know from the future that it will fail and destroy mankind.
There is no space here to deal with !he films, which revived interest in Star Trek. Suffice it to say that Star Trek Two and Three are among the first stories in science fiction !o look at terraforming: (making life on lifeless worlds, and the danger of men behaving like gods with such experimentation. (The terraforming device is appropriately called Genesis").
The fifth film is mess, in which William Shatner (Directing) has the crew discover and convert to God only to find it is really an evil force that only thinks it is God. The crew resolves to go on searching. This is the worst ever Star Trek, and Roddenberry had only a limited advisory hand in it.
Reduced to an advisory role in the end, he found his ideas constantly ignored (cf.; William Shatner: Star Trek Memories, Harper J. Collins, 1993). Shatner wrote that Roddenberry "lost final artistic control of his own creation."
The Next Generation adventures have been slow starters, rehashing plots from the first series, but now developing startling ideas and human values of their own, remaining close to Roddenberry's Prime Directive.
Imitative programmes have called themselves the ‘new’ Star Trek, but they fail for having cardboard cut-out characters in uninteresting, implausible situations, but with great looking gadgets and explosions. The most important assertion in Roddenberry's Star Trek is that humanity matters more than its own innovations and discoveries - something we should also remember in our own age.
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