1987 – Star Trek: The Next Generation

30/03/2015

29 May 1987 – Los Angeles

I grew up with Star Trek. Between 1987 and 2005, a new series1 of the franchise aired on US television, and so I watched quite a bit of it during my primary and secondary school education. Despite its status as a science fiction classic (and the general reputation of science fiction fans), it seeped into the popular consciousness in the way that few series ever have. And while it’s a massive stretch to argue that Star Trek “invented” much of the technology which would go on to be commonplace in the twenty-first century, it probably isn’t that far fetched to say that many of the technicians and inventors at Google, Apple, Microsoft et al were also glued to their TV screens every week watching Picard, Sisko, Janeway and Archer fight the good fight against the evils of the galaxy.

The Next Generation was announced on 10 October 1986.2 Filming began on a pilot entitled Encounter at Farpoint in May 1987, and the series finally aired in September. 3 But, of course, this was not the first crew to boldly go where no crew had gone before.4

The original Star Trek series was created by Gene Roddenberry, and was first broadcast in 1966. It made stars of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, while the crew became household names. ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ , ‘He’s dead Jim’ and ‘Live long and prosper’ are phrases as well known as ‘My kingdom for a horse’. And, of course, there was that interracial kiss that broke television taboos during the height of the civil rights movement.

Roddenberry’s vision was of a united Earth, in which petty squabbles over money, religion and political ideology had long-since been consigned to history. Following the Third World War, humans invented a faster-than-light engine that allowed them to explore the stars. First contact with the emotionless Vulcans brought homo sapiens sapiens into a galactic community. Yes, there were dangers from the militaristic Klingons or the duplicitous Romulans, but humanity would face them together. With a multi-ethnic crew, women in senior roles and story lines that tended to explore deep philosophical issues, Star Trek was in many ways the quintessential expression of 1960s optimism. Some day, science and reason would lead humanity to total enlightenment. And we could explore the beauty of space together.

This is what I loved about the Star Trek universe too. Ignoring the deep tricky questions of “so, what do we do without money?” and “if Earth is united, why is there a disproportionate number of white male Americans in senior positions?”,5 the show did explore some pretty deep problems. Deanna Troi, the Enterprise’s counselor in TNG, was confronted with physical and psychic rape. Jean-Luc Picard, the captain, was assimilated into the Borg collective, and had to deal with severe post traumatic stress. William Riker got his end away. A lot. And Wesley Crusher had to deal with the pressures and social awkwardness of being a child protegé.

Since I grew up alongside the “reboot” of Star Trek, it’s been an important part of my cultural heritage. And while the show has obviously reflected the sensibilities of American audiences over the past fifty years, it has always challenged cultural norms. It’s hard to imagine any other shows which have put a disabled black man in a position of authority and made them central to the story arc.

Clockwise from top left: T'Pol; Seven of Nine (being held hostage); Dax; Troi. (Source)

Clockwise from top left: T’Pol; Seven of Nine (being held hostage); Dax; Troi. (Source)

In what has to be one of the most fun literature searches I’ve ever done, there has been an awful lot of work done by academics on the Star Trek universe. In particular, queer studies has found elements of the show which both reflect and challenge Western concepts of gender, race, sexuality and the body. Take, for example, Seven of Nine (Voyager) and T’Pol (Enterprise). Hey, perhaps even throw Dax (Deep Space Nine) and Troi (TNG) in there too. All four women were cast (in part) due to their sexual attractiveness. They were often seen in tight-fitting or revealing garb, and clearly served a… how to put this… aesthetic function.

In each case, however, the women were a vital part of the crew. Seven of Nine possessed knowledge of the region of space in which Voyager was stranded; T’Pol was first officer, send from the Vulcan high command to aid the inexperienced human crew; Dax had lived several past lives, making her an experienced science officer and confidant of the captain; and Troi was the ship’s counselor, and as an empath was invaluable during diplomatic missions. As Ulrich Scheck has argued, T’Pol and Seven use sarcasm and wit to go beyond their ‘stereotypical body image’.6 And the friendships between Crusher and Troi, Dax and Kira and Janeway and Torres would easily satisfy the Bechdel test.7

One criticism has been the lack of openly gay characters in Star Trek, although sexuality was often played with during the show’s run.8 Beverly Crusher, the doctor in TNG, falls in love with a Trill – a species whose memories are held within a symbiotic being that lives inside the humanoid. When the human (male) part dies, the symbiont is implanted into a woman. The two remain emotionally in love, but Crusher finds it impossible to reconcile this with this new female body.9 A similar narrative is told with Jadzia Dax, when an ex-lover of Kerzon (her previous host) is dragged into a court case. Here the love clearly remains, but is not acted upon.10 One can add to this a number of races whose reproductive cycle does not involve traditional gender roles. Riker, for example, falls for a member of an androgynous species in whose society sexual behaviour is considered a mental illness.11 In another episode, a group of isolated colonists who have evolved a form of reproduction involving cloning have to stomach the unpalatable idea that sexual intercourse with another colony will help revitalise their damaged and shallow gene pool.12

While I could write about Star Trek indefinitely, the point of these articles is to show historically important events during my life time. Culturally – for me – this is one of the biggest. What I also find so interesting is that I can re-watch the episodes in light of events that have happened since. The terrorism narratives in Deep Space Nine can be quite harrowing, especially with the knowledge that 9/11 was only a few years after the show ended. Having gone through various stages of the education system, the historical allegories gained greater nuance. And, as seen above, re-watching some of the episodes from certain political stances can give a variety of new interpretations.

But more than anything else – I fucking love Star Trek. It’s going in the 30-for-30.

  1. I’m English. What Americans call “seasons”, we call “series”. What Americans call “series”, we just tend to refer to as “shows” or “programmes”. Apologies for the confusion.
  2. My first birthday.
  3. ‘Encounter at Farpoint (episode)’, Memory Alpha < http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Encounter_at_Farpoint_%28episode%29 > (accessed 3 March 2015).
  4. The kind of people who get bothered by split infinitives are the worst kind of bores. But if it makes you feel any better, the quote is attributed to Zephron Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive. He said the engine would allow man ‘to go boldly’. I am aware of how much I need to get a life. See: ‘Broken Bow (episode)’, Memory Alpha < http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Broken_Bow_%28episode%29 > (accessed 3 March 2015).
  5. Allen Kwan, ‘Seeking new civilizations: Race normativity in the Star Trek franchise’, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 27(1) (2007), 59-70.
  6. Ulrich Scheck, ‘Where no woman has gone before: Humour and gender crossing Star Trek’s Voyager and Enterprise’, Amsterdamer Beiträge zur Neueren Germanistik 69(1) (2009), 103-118.
  7. I wrote that last sentence with trepidation, but thankfully someone’s done the research for me. Jarrah Hodge, ‘How does your favorite Star Trek series fare on the Bechdel test?’, The Mary Sue (1 September 2014, 10.55am) < < a href="http://www.themarysue.com/star-trek-bechdel-test/">http://www.themarysue.com/star-trek-bechdel-test/ > (accessed 9 March 2015).
  8. Stephen Kerry, ‘”There’s Genderqueers on the Starboard Bow”: The Pregnant Male in Star Trek’, Journal of Popular Culture 42(4), 699-714.
  9. ‘The Host (episode)’, Memory Alpha < http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/The_Host_(episode) > (accessed 9 March 2015).
  10. ‘Dax (episode)’, Memory Alpha < http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Dax_%28episode%29 > (accessed 9 March 2015).
  11. ‘The Outcast (episode)’, Memory Alpha < http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/The_Outcast_(episode) > (accessed 9 March 2015).
  12. ‘Up the Long Ladder (episode)’, Memory Alpha < http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Up_The_Long_Ladder_(episode) > (accessed 9 March 2015). See also: Victor Grech, ‘Infertility in Star Trek’, Word Future Review 4(4) (2012), 19-27.
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