Star Trek IS Political, and That’s the Way I Like It

James T Kirk

The 2016 US Presidential race has already devolved into something of a circus, and while I generally stay out of politics on this blog a recent article about one of the potential candidates caught my eye. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a conservative, recently did an interview with New York Times magazine where he talked about his preference for Han Solo and Spider-man, but what really stood out was what he had to say about Star Trek. Cruz has mentioned being a Star Trek fan before, and it wasn’t a surprise to hear him say he prefers Kirk to Picard, but he went on to make some very incorrect claims about Star Trek that came to the attention of none other than Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. But before we get to Shatner’s response, here’s what Cruz had to say:

You’re also a fan of ‘‘Star Trek.’’ Do you prefer Captain Kirk or Captain Picard? Absolutely James Tiberius Kirk.

Well, that goes with being a Kirk person. It does indeed. Let me do a little psychoanalysis. If you look at ‘‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’’ it basically split James T. Kirk into two people. Picard was Kirk’s rational side, and William Riker was his passionate side. I prefer a complete captain. To be effective, you need both heart and mind.

I thought your critique might go in a different direction, because ‘‘Next Generation’’ is more touchy-feely in its politics than the original. No doubt. The original ‘‘Star Trek’’ was grittier. Kirk is working class; Picard is an aristocrat. Kirk is a passionate fighter for justice; Picard is a cerebral philosopher. The original ‘‘Star Trek’’ pressed for racial equality, which was one of its best characteristics, but it did so without sermonizing.

Do you have a suspicion about whether Kirk would be a Democrat or a Republican? I think it is quite likely that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat.

Although Cruz is certainly welcome to prefer Kirk to Picard, there are several things very wrong with his assessment of Star Trek. Firstly, The Next Generation did not split Kirk into to people to make Picard and Riker, it reversed the Kirk-Spock dynamic by making the more rational, logical half of the character duo the captain and the more impulsive, passionate half the first officer. To call Picard half of Kirk is to clearly misread TNG, as well as ignoring the fact that Picard is probably more well-rounded than Kirk if for no other reason than TNG had more than twice the episodes as The Original Series to explore its characters. (Cruz, also clearly forgets that Kirk did a great deal of sermonizing.) But his claim that Kirk is a Republican while Picard is a Democrat is not only completely off base, but it’s a willful twisting of a character to suit Cruz’s own viewpoints. It’s as if he never watched the shows. Kirk and Picard certainly have different approaches to problems, but they both are passionate believers in and defenders of the Federation and its policies, and would probably agree on all major political viewpoints, which in a system based on taking care of all of its people and without money, would probably not align with Republican viewpoints. I wouldn’t normally be writing about this, because plenty of other people have already addressed it on various news sites, but then William Shatner had to get involved.

I think I understand what Shatner was trying to get at, that Star Trek shouldn’t be used by politicians to support their own agendas. But he is flat-out wrong to say that Star Trek isn’t political. (When an online journalist pointed this out, Shatner attacked her.) From its earliest days, Gene Roddenberry’s creation was more than just “Wagon Train to the stars” (as it was initially pitched to the studios), it was a tool for examining our current circumstances through the lens of an advanced, semi-utopian society. It wasn’t all space battles and aliens, it not only examined important issues and current events but frequently took a stand on them. It’s what set Star Trek apart from its contemporary science fiction peers on TV and in the movies.

Star Wars is fun, emotional stuff, but except from some moments in the prequels it’s generally pretty light on politics. Star Trek, on the other hand, loved to look at our world, often offering direct parallels what we’re going through here in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Original Series did allegorical episodes about the Vietnam War, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country paralleled the end of the Cold War, the Cardassian-Bajoran conflict in Deep Space Nine echoed Israeli-Palestinain tensions, while Enterprise dedicated an entire season to examining the War on Terror. Beyond straightforward allegory, however, Star Trek frequently and often forcefully had an opinion on a variety of political issues, typically challenging the status quo of our society in favor of a better, more progressive viewpoint. It was a franchise filled with optimism, even at its darkest moments, imagining a world where everyone was equal and cared for, where people worked together for the common good. That may not sound political to Shatner, but it certainly does to me.

And despite the fact that the rebooted version of Star Trek has been something of a disaster, the shows’ universe still carries strong messages about the way we relate to other people, the responsibilities we have to the world, to nature, and each other, and the sort of society we should be striving toward. Here are just a few of my favorite moments when Star Trek took a political stance on specific issues.

Racism

The Original Series made waves right from the start with its inclusion of Lieutenant Uhura, the ship’s communication officer. The inclusion of an African-American woman as an officer was radical in 1966, just two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and in the midst of high racial tension in the US. To Whoopi Goldberg, who would play Guinan on The Next Generation, Uhura was a role model and the first time she had seen a black woman on TV who wasn’t playing a maid. Martin Luther King, Jr. even talked Nichelle Nichols into remaining on the show, because he knew how important her role was in breaking barriers. The Original Series also featured the first interracial kiss on scripted television in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”.

But it wasn’t content to merely break barriers and silently lead the fight for civil rights, it addressed racism head-on in the third-season episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. In the episode, the Enterprise encounters a refugee from a nearby planet being pursued by others from his world who want to hunt him down. The pursuing alien wants the Enterprise to turn over the refugee, who is a member of a savage, dangerous race, but the Enterprise has to wait for instruction from Starfleet. In the scene below, you’ll see Kirk and Spock finally learn the source of the two aliens’ animosity.

Obviously, aliens hating each other because their face colors are swapped is ridiculous, but it’s no more ridiculous than the racism that still plagues our society today, fifty years later. The episode’s writer went out of his way to mirror some of the language people use to talk about race in an attempt to make the episode even more connected to the politics of the day. It may seem heavy-handed (or even “sermonizing”), but it was still a bold statement at a time when the country was perhaps even more divided on the issue of race than we are today. Race as a subject wasn’t confined to the Original Series, but as a timely statement its impact was certainly the biggest back in the 1960s.

Environmentalism

Star Trek is full of examples of strong environmental messages, particularly during the Next Generation era. As explorers, the crews of the Enterprise and various other Federation ships that roamed the galaxy had a responsibility towards the planets they encountered not to disturb their ecosystems and to do no harm to any lifeforms they encountered. A sense of environmental protection was always an undercurrent to the franchise, but TNG took things a step further with an episode directly about climate change. In “Force of Nature”, it’s discovered that warp travel has damaged space and formed a “subspace rift” (think hole in the ozone layer). The Federation acts immediately to restrict the use of high warps speeds in order to stop the growth of the rift and prevent further rifts from forming until further study can find a better solution. It’s not any stretch to see how the Federation would handle the way our current modes of transportation are damaging the planet.

But my favorite environmental moment in Star Trek is of course Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I’ve already written about the film previously, but the gist is that the movie is all about saving the whales, or more generally doing all we can to protect and value all of nature, if for no other reason beyond the fact that there might be unforeseen consequences to the destruction of our environment and the extinction of species. Most people would consider it incredibly cheesy, but can you imagine any other giant sci-fi franchise doing a movie that ends with a race to stop some whalers? Star Trek has always had an interest in protecting environments (both ours and those of other planets), and viewed environmentalism as a natural byproduct of the advancement of science.

(As a perfectly-timed side note, Patrick Stewart is currently promoting a whale researching tool called “Snotbot” on Kickstarter! Go pledge some money to help study whales in a way that is safer and more stress free than chasing them down with boats to take blood samples!)

Economics

One of the most overlooked aspects of the Star Trek among casual fans is that the Federation operates mostly on a socialist economy, something that flies in the face of Ted Cruz’s claim that Kirk was a Republican.  There is some confusion about certain specifics of how the Federation economy works, but we know that poverty, disease, and hunger have been eliminated by the 23rd and 24th century, as had the drive for property or material goods.  The existence of money in our day typically confounds characters from Star Trek who travel to the past, while those from our era who travel forward are equally shocked by its absence.  It’s an idealized view of the future, sure, but a definite political stance against the plethora of corporations and corporate interests that seem to define our country and our politics.

Our current economic situation is routinely condemned by members of the Federation, while Star Trek gives us a vision of the other extreme in the Ferengi, who value profit over all else. The idea that improving and enriching yourself is more than enough of a challenge to motivate people, and one that works far better than money and material wealth, is at the heart of Star Trek. It ties into Star Trek’s view of science and exploration, which is portrayed as its own end or as a means of advancing society, not as a means to greater wealth. The various Enterprises aren’t on a mission to plant flags in order to conquer territory and resources for the Federation, but instead exploring in order to see what’s out there, for the challenge of boldly going and the joy of discovery. Picard in particular loves giving speeches about life in the Federation, and he gives a particularly good explanation in Star Trek: First Contact (one which is hilariously lampshaded in Deep Space Nine).

The Outcast

But my favorite political moment in all of Star Trek is one that also carries with it a lot of frustration.  Across five series and ten movies there has never been an LGBTQ main character, or even really an acknowledgment of the variety of sexualities in our real world.  Admittedly, it would never have happened in the 1960s when The Original Series debuted, and The Next Generation was off the air before Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet on her show and changed the face of TV, but with a world as inclusive as that of Star Trek it’s still a shame it was only filled with straight characters. But The Next Generation almost completely redeems this for me with one episode, “The Outcast”. In it, the Enterprise encounters a race of non-gendered aliens, one of whom develops an attachment to Riker. She eventually confesses to him that she is one of a small minority who have inclinations to a particular gender, in her case female, which is forbidden in their society. If she’s discovered she will be “reeducated” with the use of “psychotectic therapy,” something that sounds very similar to the “conversion therapy” still forced on some LGBTQ in our society by those who feel they are “unnatural.” In the end of the episode, she has been discovered, and before undergoing the therapy she gives an impassioned speech defending her way of life and who she is, and if you remove the statement “I am female” from the beginning of her speech it could easily be used for many various types of relationships.

I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings, all of my life. It is not unnatural. I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured. What I need, and what all of those who are like me need, is your understanding. And your compassion. We have not injured you in any way. And yet we are scorned and attacked. And all because we are different. What we do is no different from what you do. We talk and laugh. We complain about work. And we wonder about growing old. We talk about our families and we worry about the future. And we cry with each other when things seem hopeless. All of the loving things that you do with each other – that is what we do. And for that we are called misfits, and deviants and criminals. What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?

This was over two decades before marriage equality finally came to the US, and is my favorite of the many political statements made over the past fifty years by Star Trek. I love that Star Trek is a franchise full of hope for the future, and in many cases a specific vision for how we get there. Gene Roddenberry’s vision for where we should be headed was one of peace, inclusiveness, environmentalism, and science, a world where money and other corrupting influences have been largely left behind in the pursuit of improving our lives and the lives of others. That’s as political as it gets.

4 thoughts on “Star Trek IS Political, and That’s the Way I Like It

  1. Pingback: Star Trek IS Political, and That’s the Way I Like It | swordwhale

  2. I was in middle school when the original series aired. I didn’t relate it to stuff gong on in the “real world” at that point, I just liked the adventure and the characters, whose diversity made a huge impact on our little whitebread town and my point of view. I will point out how important Nichelle Nichols was to us, a bunch of Pennsylvania Dutch kids in a town where being Italian/American was exotic. We were impressed. We thought she was beautiful. We saw a woman on the bridge of a starship. She carried herself with a dignity, a classiness that spoke volumes to us. Most black actors, male or female, on TV at that time were comedians or singers. Uhura was freaking flying a starship and exploring alien worlds. Well named (Swahili for freedom). Sulu was an antidote to the stereotypical Asian characters we saw, when we saw any. We also thought he was awesome (um, middle school crush…). I wonder if they have any idea of the impact they both had.

    Spock was the character I gravitated to. Then Piccard. At some point I realized what Star Trek had been telling us, that stories are important, not just as escape but as education, as connection with our own world, and as a way of walking out from under the trees (or flying above them) to see the forest so much better.

    Some friends and I went to the Smithsonian for both the Star Wars exhibit and the Star Trek exhibit.

    It was kind of mindblowing standing under the real Enterprise and realizing it was a little model the size of a swimming pool raft. Or that the Romulan tunic was in fact made from a towel, and the crystal alien thingie was a styrofoam ball with holes poked in it and the tribbles looked exactly like the ones I’d made (and I can’t sew for diddly squat).

    The big thing the exhibit pointed out was how Star Trek reflected the issues of the 60s… and how it influenced them. A conversation between the Story and the Culture that is still going on today. (George Takei’s facebook is a veritable mine of awesome… and cultural commentary).

    The thing I always liked about Trek is what you pointed out in Tomorrowland. It was optimistic. It poked at our assumptions and asked “how do we fix it?”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: I have mixed feelings about a new Star Trek TV series | The Love Pirate

  4. Pingback: Jurassic Park and the Responsibility of Good Scientists | The Love Pirate

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