06 March 2015

Star Trek, modern conflict and propaganda

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

In light of the recent, lamented death of Leonard Nimoy, the celebrated actor best-known and best-loved for portraying Commander Spock, science officer of the Enterprise, on the original series of Star Trek, I thought it might be a good idea to explore some of the continuing relevance and prescience of the series he pioneered. On occasion, I’ve half-seriously proposed that the original run of Star Trek ought to be required viewing for all American policymakers. But it is sadly somewhat fashionable nowadays in American media and pop culture, particularly that surrounding science-fictional works and space dramas, to rag on Star Trek – even by the people responsible for continuing it, and the people who have built careers emulating it. The vision of Gene Roddenberry regarding humanity, it is far too often said, is far too naïve – the humans he envisions in the future are too idealised, too rational and too pacifistic. Joss Whedon, the creator of Firefly (which he described as an anti-Star Trek), critiqued the universe Roddenberry imagined as far too ‘sterile’, not a place where real people are allowed to live. Even the franchise has become a critic of itself: J. J. Abrams’s rebooted movie series first advertised itself as ‘not your father’s Trek, and it has actively tried to shed the stodgy formulas of the original series and The Next Generation even as it has capitalised on original-series nostalgia.

There are elements of this Star Trek critique that have merit, and that I will readily agree with. All the same, I find this overall trend rather unfortunate, in part because the original series is actually becoming more and more relevant again as our political culture regresses daily to the cultural and geopolitical madness of the early 1960’s. And far from being a series in which human beings (as the Trek stereotype often goes) have already been perfected and purged of all traces of prejudice, the original series very often held up a mirror to the very real human weaknesses it saw around it. In ‘A Taste of Armageddon’, the writers actually did more to examine human frailty and short-sightedness than many of the television shows which came after it. Far from having all his imperfections glossed over, the makers of Star Trek recognised the human being as fallen: ‘a killer first, a builder second; a hunter, a warrior and… a murderer’, and as fighting a protracted ascetic struggle against his own nature: ‘we can admit that we’re killers; but we’re not going to kill today!’

In addition, ‘A Taste of Armageddon’ highlights the very real dangers of a technological war that has been sanitised, that is fought by computerised simulation from a distance, while the ‘casualties’ of each simulated strike are herded into disintegration booths. Given the current debates amongst leftists and civil libertarians around drone warfare, this particular episode could very well have been written last week, and it would have been every bit as relevant and poignant. In the end, Kirk, Spock and McCoy destroy the simulators which regulate the war between the planets Eminiar VII and Vendikar. Captain Kirk tells the administrator of Eminiar after he destroys the simulators: ‘I’ve given you back the horrors of war.’ But more than that, the deeper point is that what Kirk has restored to Eminiar is a basis for solidarity between the warring parties. Though it’s unlikely Vladimir Solovyov’s personalism was directly on the minds of Gene Coon and Robert Hamner as they wrote it, the point they reach is ultimately a Solovyovian one: a just peace (or indeed, any just outcome) can only be reached if war is no longer abstracted from the society that is fighting it, and if human beings on both sides bear analogous human costs and risks.

Likewise, though ‘A Private Little War’ was written explicitly – and even somewhat pedantically – with the Vietnam War in mind, the episode could indeed very well have been written about the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or the Ukraine. It is a remarkably and ingeniously ambiguous in its writing – it yields neither to brute calculation nor to sentimental pacifism, and doesn’t attempt to paper over the tragedy at the heart of the story. Though Kirk waxes poetic on how at one point in human history ‘our weapons grew faster than our wisdom’, he nonetheless finds himself essentially honour-bound to supply equivalent (but not superior) armaments to the ‘hill people’ to keep them from being wiped out by the ‘village people’, the interstellar proxies and cultural subjects of the Federation’s adversary, the Klingon Empire. It is unclear in the episode if we are supposed to accept this as a success or a defeat for Kirk specifically, or more generally for Roddenberry’s evolved portrait of humankind. Unfortunately, if we are being honest with ourselves, we have to read ourselves into the shoes of the Klingons in this episode. The American government seems to be the one which wants, through our interventions, business contacts and sales of arms, to transform the peoples of Afghanistan, of Syria, of Iraq and of the Ukraine into our cultural and political proxies. Whereas, as between Tyree and Kirk, there exists a long, involved and very real history between (for example) the Ukrainian and the Russian people – even if that history has been sullied by jealousy and recrimination.

The last episode I want to consider here is another Klingon episode: ‘Day of the Dove’. In many ways, this episode is far more radical in its implications than I’d imagined when I first watched it. In it, we are first led to believe that the Klingons have attacked a defenceless colony; the Klingons, by contrast, believe that the Enterprise has attacked and destroyed their own spacecraft with a new and advanced weapon. Events are carefully engineered and manipulated such that the Klingons and the Enterprise crew are drawn into a close-quarters mêlée onboard the ship, and slowly the entire crew – including the main bridge crew – are subject to increasingly hostile, bigoted and jingoistic attitudes toward the Klingons; on the other side, the Klingons likewise grow increasingly distrustful and belligerent. The bridge crew ultimately discover that their perceptions, attitudes and memories are being manipulated by an alien lifeform that has come aboard the Enterprise, which feeds on their hostility and hatred. ‘Has a war been staged for us?’ asks Kirk. ‘Complete with weapons and ideology and patriotic drum-beating?’ Again, long before The Undiscovered Country or First Contact, the ‘evolved sensibility’ of the Star Trek-era human being is being questioned.

Propaganda, distortion of reality, manipulation of memory and language that deliberately obscures the actual motivations of ‘the enemy’ are the main tools which the alien lifeform uses to keep the Klingons and the Enterprise crew at each other’s throats. And the alien derives sustenance from the violence that results. Even if the parallels were not deliberate, they are close enough for one to wonder if this was a prescient, Vietnam-era form of media critique. It is unquestionable nowadays that commercial news media are driven firstly by the need to turn a profit, and that in the modern 24-hour news cycle (far more so than the days of network television!) exogenously generating and then reporting on conflict is one of the quickest and easiest ways for commercial news media to ‘derive sustenance’. Hostility is generated in the public and political sphere by the selective reporting of reality and by the manipulation of public memory.

It’s clear they didn’t have The Daily Show or Jon Stewart in mind, but the conclusion of ‘Day of the Dove’ somewhat prefigured it – what thwarts the hostility-breeding alien, in the end, is ‘good spirits’. Kirk and Kang each throw down their weapons and begin laughing together. The ending of the episode is indeed a bit too pat for my tastes; the writers still weren’t quite able to jettison the idea that individual independent reasoning (or laughter) alone is capable of overcoming that inculcation.

As I said above, I can sympathise with some of the critiques of classic Trek, particularly as regards religion. But as our country continues down a path where ideology and geopolitics again are becoming all-too-relevant, the leaven of Star Trek, as it was in the 1960’s, is once again very much needed. It may be that the character of our society as it acts on the world stage is too grimly fixed, that we haven’t yet outgrown our own bad habits. Or it may be that the authors of the series wrote better than they knew. Either way, Roddenberry’s voice is still one worth heeding today.

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