Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part III: Star Trek is for Closers
by Travis Hedge Coke
The thing that breaks my heart about Star Trek is Dr McCoy. His life is spent mocking “green blood,” complaining of cultural differences, and weighing whether or not androids are not as bad as aliens.
The drive of Star Trek, ostensibly, is the mix of exploration and togetherness. The Federation goes places and they make allies, and the allies will be Federation. All very Cold War. All very union-strong, only in the way of police unions, which stands to reason, as the producer who grabbed the biggest part of the credit for Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, used to write speeches and missives for one of the most corrupt and brutal police dominations of Los Angeles in human history.
Leonard Nimoy – Star Trek actor, writer, director – on Gene Roddenberry: “His attitude toward women on Trek were miniskirted, big-boobed sex objects—toys for guys. He cleaned up that act gradually only because people pointed it out to him.”
Star Trek was never really only Gene Roddenberry’s. DC Fontana wanted to write oaters and crime; she shaped Vulcan and Romulan culture. David Gerrold submitted five premises after seeing the series premier of the original Trek and wanting to be involved. Robert Justman. Norman Spinrad. Harlan Ellison. Gene L Coon. Writers, producers, directors, prop wranglers and designers all made their stamp on the franchise early and strongly. Actors from the main cast and guest performers pushed storylines, redirected attention, created elements that crystalized the original television show and later the broad and variegated franchise.
“Gene Coon had more to do with the infusion of life into Star Trek than any other single person. ” – Director, actor, writer, William Shatner.
The Trek fandom not only rescued a three season show which would have been easily forgotten, but directed the franchise into the futures which actually culminated, the preempted Star Trek: Phase Two and the Enterprise redirect unable to wrest direction from slash, fanon, and interpersonal dioramas.
Star Trek became a world affected by fanon immediately, inside the first season of the first series. By engaging with the audience outside of the program, fanon and interpretation were strengthened in circumstances such as Beverly Crusher dealing with the loss of someone she had just fallen in love with and their return in a new body (and with a new gender). Sometimes, fanon was so willfully pushed despite actor or writer dismissal, as in the notion of a sexual element to Spock and Kirk’s relationship, something that eventually even some of the dismissing professionals decided was worth consideration if not canon-true.
The mirror universe, where good is evil, freedom is fascism, and Spock has a goatee, presented possibilities beyond space, and the time travel episodes altered the range of temporal exploration and knowledge. Novels, cartoons, coloring books, Halloween costumes, movies and technical manuals blurred the lines of canonicity and strong affect, with strong affect generally winning.
At its best, fanon and fan speculation have allowed the Trek universe to expand beyond broadcast standards, network worriers, production limitations, and commercial restraints. Star Trek has always been a collaboration. The Federation at the core of its narratives has always stressed an effort towards and a prizing for collaboration.
“To boldly go,” they tell us time and again, is the mission of the ensemble-protagonists of various Trek shows, movies, novels, comics, to go where no one has gone.
Over one hundred distinct planet’s people have joined the Federation by one point. Plenty of seats at the table and more out there, people who could be friendly, could be enemies, could be just not feeling either, but some day they could be all friends. They could be all Federation.
The politic is omnivorous. And, hungry.
Worlds are seen, generally, as having one or two cultures, unless we are touching on that world through someone raised in one of those cultures, at which point the world blossoms. Undoubtedly, Earth is seen as monoculture, as well, from non-human perspectives and in some cases, from human perspectives as humanity transcends earthbound births and even visitations.
Cultural relativism and a pervasive faith in a genetic or mystic component to cultural tendencies results in a Federation and other societies in which it is common and rewarded to assume a caricature from all sentient species. Vulcans, despite genuine evidence to the contrary, are gonna Vulcan. Romulans are Romulans are Romulans. And alien species can exist as a set of complex and less-than-complex metaphors for real world groups or dynamics while in-world being an arrested log line of definition for years or centuries.
Whether Klingon’s are all about honor or all about treachery has more to do with how we see them through the lens of the Federation than Klingon words or Klingon actions. What treachery and honor are, in Star Trek, is defined by the Federation gaze and that is applied with us in mind.
More complex than The Smurfs, at least in the sense that the map is more complex, the Star Trek world still embraces that these people from here are like this and these folks from over this place are like this, while we, in real-town, are living in and maintaining in our own small way, the society. It is provincial and unlike Smurf Village, it promotes a provincialist’s form of colonization, mirroring the Cold War race to map the Earth as First, Second, and Third World, then as First and Second, then as First long after the Cold War, itself, ended. Trek has not really given it up, yet.
We still use those First, Second, Third markers for the world today, but in order to understand both our contemporary use and their implication for how the Federation sees the galaxy, we have to step back enough to see how those terms came into play.
The First World is not about having access to electricity or phones or education or hot meals. First World nations were nations allied with, succinctly, the United States of America. Second World was countries who were Communist or Communist-aligned. Third, simply exploitable nations, as of yet not specifically under the control of either First or Second World dominants.
When Star Trek 6: Undiscovered Country effectively retires the version of Starfleet seen in the original Star Trek series, and their version of the Federation and the Klingon Empire, it is an attempt to retire this reflection of a real world politic, and to acknowledge how flawed, arrogant, and rooted in racism and xenophobia it always was.
“Gentlemen, I have no great love for you, your planet, your culture. Despite that Mister Spock and I are going to go out there and quite probably die, in an attempt to show you that there are some things worth dying for,” says Enterprise captain, James T Kirk, in Errand of Mercy, illustrating a kind of cultural relativism predicated on the superiority, and therefore the supremacy of his own.
In Undiscovered Country, the definitely retirement age familiar crew from the original Trek series are called to service once more, first as part of a diplomatic mission to broker peace with an enemy power they have fought for years, and then to save their captain and chief medical officer when they are sentenced as assassins. They are all, in various ways, concerned that peace with the enemy, in this case, the Klingons, and a dismantling of battle lines and de-armament at borders would mean the end, not just of explicit military, but of Starfleet, an ostensibly exploratory body whose primary purposes are scientific cataloguing and diplomatic outreach.
They are not incorrect, and this reflects not only on that crew and that Starfleet, but the crew and operations of The Next Generation, which ran concurrent to the movie’s release, and later forms of both in other shows, other movies, other media. Starfleet is a military and their actions are military actions.
Military is not only the formalized, by-name organizations designate as militaries. Military chain of command is not solely within military chain of command. A government’s actions are nearly all military actions as they are primarily defended and bolstered by, if not threat of military, the assurance of military.
The unarmed vessels of Starfleet, the less antagonistic or militant missions of Starfleet, come with the promise and attachment of photon torpedos, space mines, patrols, strike forces, a navy, Marines, arms trade, arms escalation, and while not specific to all militaries, specific to Starfleet: expansion.
Star Trek, while very socialist, has always been turned on a lathe of the American Lie. The complicated response of the Federation and Starfleet to religion and religious representation in dress, decor, and decorum centers invisibly around a desire to be atheist and promote atheism while not sacrificing a core that is Christian and especially American Christian, and within that framework actors infusing non-Christian religious gestures, writers invoking non-Christian ideologies and practices, and the very alluring use of religion to address intolerance. While not phrased, “Make them fight God” (that was supposedly Stan Lee to Jack Kirby), the idea of our Star Trek, our people, confronting God – probably at the end of the universe or some barrier – and coming into direct, questioning conflict, bounced around for many years before Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier, in which one of the intrepid command of the USS Enterprise asks, “What would God need with a starship?” Because Star Trek Gods are gods, even God, and they are weak, and fraudulent, nonsensical and targets, but holy wow your patriotism is not. Starfleet is greater than God.
Stark Trek begat modern anglophone fic and zine fan-content culture, but that fan culture almost immediately gave us the pretentious, sexist term, mary sue, because some folks were worried that the fandom would not be taken seriously enough if there were ducks on the pages of a Stark Trek zine or if someone thought the wrong character was handsome.
It is the Trek fandom which began, first, to apply mary sue to any competent young female character, found in A Female Quixote to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ranging from Rey Skywalker to Rory Gilmore to Eloise and Ms Marvel. We have seen it applied everywhere there are women in stories, from The Piano to The Bible to Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, reaching far outside Trek universes or Trek fandoms, but it came from there and in a way, could only have come from there.
It is Star Trek fandom which positions Miles O’Brien’s pro-union anecdotes as jokes and pranks, not Star Trek. In the unpredictable future, that false canon may become company line, as fans continue to professionally story the Star Trek reality.
Trek may give one of the most earnestly positive portrayals to a long-storied military in the history of fiction, but since the beginning, with Coon, it has been fans who were able to see the rhetoric for rhetoric and the flaws in the presentation.
The character of Kathryn Janeway, of the television series, Voyager, was a little rigid, definitely breathed and sweated the Federation even in her sleep, but she could admit when Starfleet was wrong, she had some empathy of things outside Federation standard line or approach. On the currently-serializing Trek program, Prodigy, aimed at preteens, a tutorial hologram based on Janeway is, so far, so propagandist it would make a Vulcan’s teeth hurt. Of course she is. She is the science fictional equivalent of mandatory flag pledges and educational videos that fade out from a a bald eagle into a red and white waving banner and then to the President or Governor, or teen sensation Name of Person Who’s Hot Right Now.
The youths who are under the tutelage of this hologram are not Federation citizens. They are not Starfleet recruits or cadets or officers. Raised in slavery and ignorance, they used the ship the Janeway program is attached to as an escape, and what the Janeway program tells them is not meant for them, but for Starfleet cadets. It is military reminder, but it is reminder written and directed by people without direct military experience, and it is a fictive military. It is a fictive government. Even the dialogue of the Janeway hologram defaults to slang that is outdated and was outdated two decades ago.
The world of Star Trek, inasmuch as it is focused on Federation members who voluntarily joined Starfleet and serve on Starfleet vessels or Starfleet stations, has always narratively and tonally rewarded company loyalty. Company-first moves and reaches.
In Voyager, when a group of people are pulled from a battle and left stranded on the other side of the galaxy, half Starfleet and half not-Starfleet, they all snap to following Federation chain of command, Starfleet protocols, Starfleet standards, even if they occasionally voice some concern that they are being overrun by and disregarded by Starfleet. They are being overrun and disregarded. They are being impressed into service, under the guise of achieving their mutual goals, but since the plan before they were displaced was also to bring them under Federation law and Starfleet jurisdiction, that goal is only a new, more attractive guise for the original: You will be Federation and you will do the Starfleet way.
The Federation proudly has done away with money, they are a post-scarcity free society. Except, Starfleet seems to own everything and they will lend it out to you at their largesse, but that is all.
The Federation has no cash, but they have all the cache.
Wealth is not simply liquid government-approved tokens and papers which represent wealth. Starfleet owns the best properties and they seek more. Starfleet controls travel, habitation, personal possessions, data transmission, personal data.
Starfleet has excitedly made claim to places, things, and people, while insisting they have an economy and culture not rooted in “personal wealth.” The upshot is, you owe everything, then, to the impersonal wealth holders, who are also very likely to be your boss. That is true, anyway, depending on the episode you watch, or the movie, or the comic book you read.
Starfleet and the Federation have to be magical. They have to be praised and you must have faith in them. Without faith they cannot be sustained. Or, so goes the rhetoric many times.
This is the American Lie. The United States has a longstanding practice of claiming they had so many decades of peace, when the country has been at war since its founding in a war. Other nations are presented as invasive conquerors, while the US is a benevolent, fatherlike entity of outreach and goodwill. Commercial, scientific, industrial and educational outreach are categorically not military, even if military-attended, military-sustained, pend and rely on military approval, or contain effort to promote and instill ideology related to US military.
And, before you say, “Not just…,” we are dealing here with an American franchise modeled on a moment in American history to capture the zeitgeist of another time in American history, directed, written, produced, and acted primarily by Americans for an America-first market. And, of course, they know it.
Star Trek, as a franchise, has been modeled on Westerns, with the original pitched as, “Wagon Train to the stars,” and later entries modeled after The Rifleman. Actors from the original series and The Next Generation have been no stranger to the horse operas of their time. Formative Trek screenwriter, DC Fontana wrote for Bonanza, High Chaparral, The Big Valley. Tom Paris is the self-destructive alcoholic used-to-be-somebody, Bones is the stock simple country doctor, Bashir calls a space station just outside Bajor, the “frontier.”
British and Irish broadcasters refused to show an episode of The Next Generation for decades, but it was never a concern during production of the episode the way that episodes which could have triggered similar response have been.
When, in Undiscovered Country, Azetbur refers to the Federation as a, “homo sapiens-only club,” she is speaking, too, to both the white American audience who were given deference, and to a longstanding practice in America to treat anyone outside that demographic is having one foot somewhere else. Played by California native (and California Native) Rosana DeSoto, Azetbur is an educated, erudite Klingon with no patience for bigotry or blind faith.
Some of her lines are the most cutting of any in all Star Trek, and her delivery is one of the finest of any of the made-for-the-movies characters. In both Star Trek fandom and their Federation-gaze world, she is a footnote.
Tilly and Michael, of Discovery, are the most forward-moving portrayals of humans in the Star Trek franchise, over the past several decades. That Tilly swears. That Tilly has a range of emotions and a range of competency. That Michael has a multicultural existence.
For all the fanfare of nonbinary and trans representation in Discovery, the presence of a nonbinary (albeit alien) character in the for-children, Prodigy, makes the fanfare look fairly silly. It was so easy to put an enby character in Star Trek that, obviously, all they had to do was do it.
The same cannot be said of Tilly and Michael, who are not replicable or surpassable in the same easy fashion. I am not slighting the queer characters of Discovery or any characters from any part of the franchise, nor is this an issue of complexity, accuracy in portrayal, screen time or representational affect. But, those two characters are leaps forward while much of Star Trek swims backwards or up its own stream.
As each new television production moved us forward in their internal timeline, I am reminded that when Enterprise moved us backwards, to before the original series’ setting, even, it was to present a more male crew, a more commercially militaristic tone, a centering again on white America, and during a time in our world, in our United States, which was described to me then, by a college student who thought I was much older than I was, as a, “more Conservative time.”
It had long been a joke, a pleasure, and a point of frustration amongst Trek fans and professionals, that Starfleet’s forms of entertainment were almost exclusively old timey, even for time of release, and were so with an anachronistic removal of racism, sexism, of any social imbalance. The most attractive thing on a space station built neither by nor for humans, was a Mid-Twentieth Century American lounge singer. The closest we got to complex arts was William Riker and his trombone. Everything else was dooting out basic tones on a flute or bizarrely simple ball-in-cup video games.
If Roddenberry had a real influence on Star Trek, it is foremost later producers trying to adhere to and define what they believed was Roddenberry’s vision, and just behind that, summed up by Ande Richardson in an interview for The Fifty Year Mission: “Gene Roddenberry was a sexist, manipulative person who disregarded women. I didn’t value and respect him. He was funny in his own way, but he was a man of no substance. No integrity … well, I can’t say no integrity, but he was paper-thin. He wasn’t substantial.”
Too much of Star Trek can be paper thin. The Vic Fontaine episode of Deep Space Nine which trades on a title evoking the song, It’s Only a Paper Moon? Apt in too many ways, and it is an episode I love. Nog, a young Starfleet recruit, is injured in war, losing a leg, suffering from post-traumatic stress and chronic depression. The message of the episode, which sees him gathering his strength and confidence a holographic fiction set in Mid-Twentieth Century Las Vegas, is that the injured leg has been repaired perfectly and all of his troubles are only in his head. The post-traumatic stress, the depression, the anxiety are in his head and he simply needs to get out of his head and into the world.
The writers of Deep Space Nine pitched this journey as a multi-episode arc, intending to earnestly and honestly deal with depression, with trauma, with disability, and instead it was tamped down into a done in one, done and done, and the substance of these issues is bled out before shooting took place. Only the intensity and subtlety of the acting does anything to preserve intent.
When Enterprise’s reset to an earlier future did not entirely pan out, that show’s narrative twisting on a “time war,” in the latter seasons, and then ending as if it was a historical reenactment scenario, a role-play, taking place during The Next Generation, that is the map for the reset of the timeline in the most recent three feature films, retelling the early adventures of the crew from the original Star Trek with new actors and visitations from a future that now could not be, by an actor from the original show. The upcoming season of Picard, a sequel to The Next Generation, will utilize time travel extensively, almost certainly mostly in the past. The show, Discovery, was set during the time period of the original series, but has now rocketed its crew further into the future than any of the shows have gone, albeit with significant detachment from what went on in the intervening years.
Star Wars has to be “long, long ago,” because it is a fairytale, a folk cycle. Star Trek is the vague future.
Star Trek’s future almost had to become a formless, atemporal future, a future of pasts, a future in stall. For it to progress and keep progressing the performers, writers, show runners, directors and producers, the costumers and makeup people would have to mature and grow as well, to self-check and push themselves to grow. That is hard, and it is extra hard while making popular entertainment.
The franchise appears determined to never cast a Sikh actor to play a Singh, from Khan Noonien Singh to La’an Noonien Singh of the upcoming Strange New Worlds series, to the degree that the joke in Galaxy Quest of a Lebanese actor playing an ostensible Korean actor playing a Chinese character on a show like Star Trek (and eventually admitted his surname really is not, “Kwan,”) becomes increasingly pointed and we do not want it to.
Undiscovered Country, Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek Beyond all did well giving nonwhite actors roles of substance, but too often, the franchise has been content to trade on our desperation for representation of any kind. The actors tend to have the heavy lifting while the writers are rewritten, directors overruled, or white men cast as Kahn Noonien Singh. Idris Elba playing a Starfleet man who was too burned by Starfleet, in Star Trek Beyond, carries the world of gravitas. In the same movie, Sofia Boutella, as an alien, unwilling to bow and scrape to Starfleet merely because it exists, is the boss of her house and lives on her own feet and from her own chair, not at the beck and whim of military captains from outer space. The bigotry of Admiral Cartwright and the forthrightness of Azetbur, both played by nonwhite performers in Undiscovered Country bring a politic that white, or even white-read actors might now. Or, they might.
It is Trek fandom which produced the op-ed, I (and Sharon) have been backed into a corner defending a single position over quality controls. Frankly, I rather resent this, about the tragedy of other fans not agreeing with some important fans important opinions about inferior fans fanning inferiorly and how bad this was making the fandom look inside and to outsiders, and this is very very important.
It is possible that I, that we, expect too much of Star Trek as a series of productions and as a fandom. That we expect too much from a world that is meant to be, on levels, an allegory of painted plywood sets, twinkle light special effects, and monsters we have to pretend to believe live.
To go back to Roddenberry, probably his most charming ideas, his most lauded notions, are the hardest to apply to actually entertaining and sustainable television. That humans, that the Federation and Starfleet have little to no internal conflicts, almost by nature makes terrible narrative television. And, it is always predicated on lies.
Dr Leonard McCoy, chief medical officer on the original Star Trek, feature player in the first set of movies, recast in the most recent movies, a beloved, storied, adored and admired character, starts out a bigot, stays a bigot. When he appears as an old man in The Next Generation, McCoy has nearly nothing left except his bigotry. He has his offensive jokes and his unnecessary, unprompted prods and jabs, and nothing more. Just a bitter old man pretending his bitterness is a sense of humor that current generations have lost. It is humiliating to watch, embarrassing on a spiritual level. Because McCoy could be the enlightened human, he might be – and this is not a compliment – the enlightened cishet white male American. God – who Starfleet would remind us is definitely not real or is an enemy – help us if that were true.
To be human should not be our flaws. To have come out of a history of systemic bigotry – and hopefully McCoy is not racist or especially sexist, and if he is, I leave that to your analysis – but his malice towards aliens, towards androids, towards inanimate objects, animals, frustrating situations, work schedules, medical realities, and diplomacy, is embarrassing. It cannot be human nature, root human nature, any more than Captain Kirk’s bravado or Uhura’s sexy dances to distract the unwary.