Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.
No, I’m not going to be discussing the Borg. (Well, just a bit.) I am in fact referring to the Federation in the title of this Treknobabble. Yes, you read me right. Representing the Federation is the multi-racial crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Sure they’re seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no one has gone before, but their unstated mission is to make your planet a member of the Federation, and in the process, convert your ideals to those of the Federation.
Wait, you might be thinking. What about the vaunted Prime Directive that prevented interference with undeveloped civilizations? The Original Series (OS) was more flagrant in violating this Federation decree than subsequent series. Captain Kirk generally paid only lip service with Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy often having to remind him on more than one occasion.
It seems appropriate to discuss this topic given that Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving to commemorate the arrival of the Pilgrims on the shores of America at Plymouth Rock and the feast with the local Indians, giving thanks to God for the bountiful harvest. How sad that Americans would overlook the subsequent taking over of the continent from its original inhabitants.
Lest you think that nothing of the Native Indian culture survived, the American Constitution incorporates some of the governing principles arrived at by the Iroquois Nation. For over 300 years, 300 tribes across the American Northeast had maintained what they called the “Great Peace” with some central authority. Suitably impressed, Benjamin Franklin brought this Iroquois’ accomplishment to Thomas Jefferson’s attention.
Perhaps it’s only natural that in a melting pot of cultures that all cultural identities ultimately get lost and new traditions emerge. One interesting story from the OS involves Sulu who brandished a fencing foil in one episode. Originally, the writer of the episode had written Sulu waving a Samurai sword about. But it was George Takei who suggested the fencing foil, thinking that the Samurai sword was stereotypical and that Sulu was more of a Renaissance man.
There have been several academic papers and books shining an unflattering light on Star Trek’s penchant for highlighting American colonialism. Implicit in this attitude is that America has nothing to learn from anyone else. In all the hours of televised Star Trek, I don’t recall any episode where the humans learnt anything from another race beyond acknowledging its advanced technology or its know-how. When it comes to the social sciences, ethics, or politics, the Federation seems perfect, notwithstanding corrupt individuals or clandestine organizations like Section 31.
I think both the Borg and the Federation are similar in that they would use the best of another culture’s technology. I do wonder how one can separate value judgments in choosing how to incorporate new technology. I imagine that with the Borg, assimilation must work something like evolution where a technology is just used without foreknowledge of good or bad consequences. When some technology turns out not to be useful or inefficient, those Borg who use it die off and the “bad” technology doesn’t get passed on to the next generation.
The Romulans and Klingons share a cloaking technology that the Federation has not incorporated into its starships. Many Trekkies have wondered about this. The OS had a Mission: Impossible type of episode where Spock seduced a Romulan commander and Kirk, disguised as a Romulan with pointed ears and all, infiltrated a Romulan ship to “steal” the cloaking technology. With friends, you would trade technology, but I’m guessing it’s okay to steal technology from an enemy. So assuming that Federation scientists were able to duplicate the technology, one wonders why we haven’t seen the Enterprise go invisible. I think the official word from Roddenberry was that “good guys” wouldn’t use a deceptive technology like invisibility. The Next Generation offered an explanation in one of its episodes. A cloaking technology experiment went awry resulting in the Federation imposing a ban on the technology.
Dilithium crystals are a resource necessary for space travel. The Federation and the Klingon Empire are continually at odds with each other in trying to coerce dilithium rich planet societies to join their respective coalitions. The Federation is a benevolent oppressor, but an oppressor nonetheless. If you happen to share the same beliefs as the Federation, then all the better.
One episode of the OS had Kirk interfering in a war between two societies. The two societies had civilized war by using computers to determine battle casualties. So no actual fighting, bloodshed, or property destruction occurred. “Great!” you might think, except the computers also kept track of who died. Casualties volunteered to enter disintegration machines! This might seem unrealistic that people would voluntarily let themselves be disintegrated, but one only needs to think of Japanese kamikaze fighters or Islamic terrorists to see that people will go to extremes for their beliefs. What does Kirk do? He destroys the main computer and gives an impassioned and convincing speech that war is wrong and that by removing the horror of war, they’ve made war acceptable and a way of life.
Now most Americans would probably say that Kirk did the right thing, but when you think about it, did Kirk really make the situation any better? No one has ever solved the problem of hatred between peoples. I think one of the alien leaders even makes the point that Kirk has condemned them all to death. We know that war is good for the economy because it gives people jobs to manufacture weapons, vehicles and everything else that goes with war. Somehow, these alien societies have gotten around this benefit of war, and maintained a hatred that demands people be executed on both sides. I think that in all likelihood, they’ll just rebuild their computer and resume their war game.
The series Deep Space Nine (DS9) tended to show the darker side of the Federation. I suppose Gene Roddenberry would have preferred that the Federation people be “perfect” in order to serve as inspiration. Once Star Trek gained popularity, Gene Roddenberry became more philosophical about the show in trying to account for its success. One explanation was that Star Trek gave people hope in the future because humanity had overcome its flaws. When he had a chance to bring Star Trek back with the Next Generation, he became stricter with the scripts in the way Federation characters acted. Some people criticized that Roddenberry had inadvertently removed dramatic conflict from the show.
To be fair, Roddenberry had been strict with depictions in the OS as well. Originally, in the script for “City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison had Scotty dealing drugs according to Roddenberry. Granted, regular characters in a television series back then wouldn’t have such a major character flaw. Roddenberry rewrote Ellison’s script (and created a major rift between the two writers in the process). Though I suppose if Roddenberry had been as strict as he was by the Next Generation, then we wouldn’t have had the much enjoyed bickering between Spock and McCoy. (“You’re out of your Vulcan mind!” Classic.)
There was one episode of DS9 where the alien Quark gives a speech to Commander Sisko about how “hew-mans” claim to be so enlightened, but time and again, humans have displayed less than redeeming qualities. Quark is a member of the Ferengi race that unashamedly holds greed as a desirable character ideal. Humans despise avarice even going so far as claiming it to be a sin. But who are we to judge other life forms with our human-centric ways? With humans having become so “perfect,” it’s no wonder that the Federation has so many enemies who find humans so insufferable.
Just because Star Trek was created by Americans, I think it’s unfair to blame Star Trek for reflecting American ideals. I think every single culture is guilty of thinking that their way is the best way. After all, it’s only human.