26 August 2019

STAR TREK SPEAKS - AGAIN

Star Trek Speaks! [1] was a mass-market paperback, published in 1979. I picked up a copy at a secondhand book sale in Cheltenham nearly 30 years ago. Subtitled "Wit, Wisdom, Humor and Philosophy Culled Directly From the Scripts Of The Greatest TV Adventure Of All Time Created By Gene Roddenberry!", it's a collection of quotes from the Classic Trek TV series on various subjects touched on by the programme.

These are grouped into the chapters 'Universal Truths, Vulcans and Aliens, Emotion and Logic, War and Peace, the Military, Men and Women, Love, Life and Death, Society and Government, Science and Technology, Humanity' and 'Odds and Ends'. There's also an appendix, in which the authors thank those, who helped them, including Roddenberry for his optimistic vision of the future, and listing the individual episodes mentioned in the text, crediting the writers.

As is clear from the chapter headings, some of the quotes selected are merely about the fictional aliens of the Star Trek universe, such as the Vulcans and their logicality, the Klingons and their ethic of conquest and domination, Romulan militarism and the nature and ideologies of some of the other races that appeared briefly in the show. Like the Kelvans, invaders from the Andromeda Galaxy who appeared in the episode 'By Any Other Name'. But most of the quotes are comments on human nature and morality. It is this aspect of the programme that the writers found attractive, and which in their view caught the attention of millions of young people voicing their new, radical opinions during the turbulent decade of the '60s. In their introduction the authors state that
”Star Trek” spoke about aspects of life, death, humanity, society and a host of other universally understood concepts in a way seldom seen before on television. Indeed, its phenomenal success and loyal following is directly attributable to its unyielding optimistic outlook for the human race. The U.S.S. Enterprise is viewed by millions as our ambassador to the rest of the galaxy. Her crew is the embodiment of all the good we, as a race, can be, exhibiting the right combination of strengths and weaknesses that allow for the true human spirit to be evident to all.
Star Trek's audience, they state, was 'to a degree, in the forefront of a great change that swept the land. From the anti-war movement to the civil rights movement to the ecology movement, young-thinking people everywhere were expressing their opinions and deeply felt sentiments about the sorry state' of their country. Roddenberry, the show's creator, realised that he couldn't be as explicit in expressing his opinions as the people demonstrating in the streets. This was because television exists to sell sponsors' productions, thus giving the censors more power than the creator. And so Roddenberry had to put them in the vehicle of a Science Fiction show. This was not only good entertainment, but meant that 'no parallels could be drawn between purple, polka-dotted people and ourselves!' Roddenberry could put his observations on human nature and the future into the programme without appearing to rock the boat.

The show's fans love and admire it for its optimistic view of the future – humanity has survived the tensions of the Cold War and expanded out into space – and its liberal ethos. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise stood for peaceful exploration, democracy, diversity and inclusion. In an America still marked by segregation and very obvious entrenched, institutional racism, the ship was remarkable for having a multiracial crew including Black and Asian officers beside Whites. The Russians were also represented in the form of Chekhov, and Spock was created partly to show that the crew wasn't just international, but also interplanetary. This ideology of cultural and racial diversity was symbolised in the show by the Vulcan IDIC, an abstract pattern whose name was an acronym for 'Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination'. This was mean to express the way differences came together to produce a beautiful and harmonious whole.




At the same time, the show also had a progressive view of women's expanding role in this new universe. Roddenberry had initially wanted a 50/50 split between men and women, but this was turned down by the network. They feared that in the cramped conditions of a spacecraft, it would mean that there would be a 'lot of foolin'' going on. Nevertheless, women were represented on the Bridge in the form of Uhura, the ship's communications officer. In the first pilot, 'The Cage', the second in command was to be a woman. Down in the sickbay with Dr McCoy was Nurse Chapel, female yeomen worked alongside the men and brought Kirk his famous log. The show was nevertheless of its time in that the majority of its officers were male and humanity was described in terms of man or men.

Among the quotes about women are the statement that they are 'a mass of conflicting impulses', more easily terrified than men, and that 'worlds change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman remains a woman'. Contemporary women might find these comments sexist and patronising, and the last quote appeared on a programme a little while ago to show how creepy the classic Star Trek was in its attitude to women. At the time it was probably considered suitably appreciative and it and similar pronouncements were probably regarded as no more than banal truisms. Not that men entirely get off without a few adverse comments about them. One quote comes from a female character complaining about the male ego.

Other quotes celebrate democracy, freedom of choice and movement, the freedom of people to choose the form of government that suits them. Murder and violence are condemned. At the same time, the series also felt that humanity needed challenges without which it would wither and die. It also believed that society declined and stagnated when dreams became more important than real life, as happened to the telepathic aliens that kidnap the Enterprise's captain and manipulate him and the crew using illusions created through the power of their minds in 'The Cage'. It also saw gambling as a positive part of human nature.

On the negative side, there are quotes recognising that humans were also savage killers, who consciously had to resist the urge to kill, and that they found it easier to understand the death of a single individual than millions. And human history was also a long succession of tyrants seeking power, like Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler. At the same time, Kirk and the Federation weren't pacifists. They were locked in a cold war, often flaring into violent combat, with the Klingons and Romulans for control of the galaxy. In this tense situation, in which fiction mirrored that of the all-too real Cold War, the programme advocated instead a 'balance of terror' in which both sides possessed equal military strength, as a way of preserving the peace and each other. It's also very much of its time in that it rejects polytheism in favour of monotheism, coming as it did when the New Age movement was just emerging and modern paganism was still very much a fringe, countercultural phenomenon.

Looking back on the show, the Fantasy/Horror writer and critic Kim Newman once remarked that its liberalism was genuine, but limited from today's perspective. The short skirts worn by the female crew members were cited as evidence of this, showing that sexist attitudes still prevailed. But even if some of the show's observations now seem trite or even somewhat offensive, it probably was influential in spreading some of these liberal ideas. Through Star Trek ideas about racism and feminism could reach a far wider audience than the books and writings of anti-racist and feminist activists. Presented in a fictional form, it could also make them more attractive to people, who might otherwise be more conservative and resistant to them. People, who could respect Martin Luther King, but might baulk at more obviously radical Black voices, and those, who would not dream of reading anything by Gloria Steinem, for example.

But the book's also interesting for what it shows about Star Trek as a sociological and cultural phenomenon. Long before the emergence of the true postmodern religions of Jedi, various Churches of Elvis and the Church of the Subgenius, Star Trek was beginning to take on the form of a quasi-religion. This is the term sociologists use to describe those social, political or ethical movements that take on some of the character of religion. These include nationalism, Communism and Humanism. In the case of the latter, sociologists also use 'quasi-religion' to distinguish them from true religions, partly because so many atheists vehemently reject the idea that atheism, or forms it, can also be considered a form of religion.

The Church of All Worlds, [symbol left] a neo-pagan religion founded in the late 1960s, was consciously based on the Martian religion of Robert Heinlein's book, Stranger in a Strange Land. Frank Herbert's cult SF epic, Dune, and its sequels and prequels, are also admired by its fans for its observations and insights into power politics and religion, although these were lost when the book was filmed by David Lynch in 1985. And part of its attraction to some of its readers was its concern with spirituality. One writer, reviewing the film for the Observer, said that he had had the book recommended to him by one of his students, but it never spoke to his 'messianic needs'. The emergence of various forms of quasi-religion explicitly based on science fiction also mirrors the UFO phenomenon, which was also promoted by an SF magazine editor, Ray Palmer, and which frequently draws on the imagery of popular science fiction.

I've no doubt that to most of its devoted fans, Star Trek is no more than a piece of harmless fun. The people going to conventions dressed as Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans or Star Fleet officers are no different than the fans of other SF shows, like Dr. Who, who also go to conventions dressed as the Doctor and various aliens and characters from the series, like the Daleks. Or indeed Star Wars fans or those of various Marvel and DC comics characters, like Spiderman, the Hulk, Superman and Batman. But Star Trek's distinct and explicit moral and political outlook – its belief in progress, the peaceful exploration of space, anti-racism and anti-sexism – has meant that it's taken on the quality of myth in the religious and political sense. It's a narrative that provides the basis for a shared cultural ideology in which people can find meaning.

Thus in 1996 an American fan, called up for jury service, caused controversy when she turned up for court wearing a Star Trek uniform. She did so, she explained to the news media, because of the Federation's concern for equality. One young man interviewed said that his love of the show had led to him become active in advocating the exploration of space. Reviewing the show's history, the ' 90s television special Thirty Years of Star Trek also featured a 'church of Trek'. This was a Unitarian church in Florida, whose minister was a fan of the series and based his sermons on the show. He was shown preaching to his flock about how 'we are all on a Trek'. Among the music included in the programme was a song with the refrain 'Born again Star Trek', which had the lines 'We'll make the whole world follow Star Trek, and, if we must, use force'. Which was surely a comment on the show's obsessive fandom, comparing it to 'born again' Protestant revivalist zeal.

That said, there are no organised Churches of Star Trek like the self-conscious churches of Elvis, another centre of quasi-religious veneration. And the other Star Trek themed song the programme used was The Firm's 'Star Trekkin'', an affectionate, but less than respectful track that contained the lines 'Ever going forward 'cause we can't find reverse', 'It's worse than that, he's dead, Jim!' and 'We come in peace, shoot to kill'. Lines that gently spoofed some of the show's cliches.

If few Star Trek fans go as far as the above juror or the Unitarian minister, the show's quasi-religious quality, marks it as cult SF in a real, deep sense. Since then the fans of other shows have published similar books about the wisdom of their favourite SF/Fantasy series. Looking through Waterstones you can find books like The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister, a character from Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, Star Trek Speaks was one of the first such books. It would be too much to claim that it was in any sense a literal holy book for the show's fans, but it does show the desire to produce a central text of its core ideas. And in that sense it's similar to the writing and compilation of religious texts preserving the ideas and teachings of the religion's founders. -- David Sivier.


[1] Star Trek Speaks!, by Susan Sackett, Fred Goldstein and Stan Goldstein (New York: Pocket Books/ London: Futura 1979)


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