The space race may have been launched in 1957 with Sputnik, but it really heated up on TV. How did the Cold War play out on the small screen? Was the Enterprise a multi-culti love-in? National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez recently talked to Paul Cantor, author of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, for the word on the politics of Star Trek.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is Star Trek really about the Cold War?
Paul Cantor: Of course Star Trek was about the Cold War. The United Federation of Planets was the United States and its free-world allies, the Klingons were the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, and the Romulans occasionally played the part of the Communist Chinese. The show was built on pure 60s rhetoric of liberal democracy vs. totalitarianism. That’s why the people who made the movie Star Trek VI were able to talk confidently about its dealing with the Berlin Wall coming down in outer space.
Lopez: Spock as McGeorge Bundy? For real?
Cantor: Let me tell you: I knew McGeorge Bundy and Spock was no McGeorge Bundy. McGeorge Bundy was probably the most aristocratic American I’ve ever met; Spock never had that kind of dignity and bearing. And Bundy was smarter. But I have to admit that Spock had pointier ears.
Lopez: What would Star Trek doctrine be today?
Cantor: I suppose the show would try to be even more multicultural than it was in its later versions. Perhaps the show might try to overcome its speciesism and present its intelligent lifeforms as less uniformly humanoid.
Lopez: Would conservatives want Captain Kirk as president?
Cantor: Kirk was always too liberal for conservatives. Come to think of it, with his cosmic womanizing, love of hearing himself talk, and penchant for overacting, he was a remarkable anticipation of Bill Clinton.
Lopez: Is the Prime Directive a religious thing?
Cantor: The Prime Directive was a political, not a religious principle. It was an early formulation of multiculturalism, premised on the idea that all cultures are equal and their integrity should be respected.
Of course, Kirk and the Enterprise never respected the Prime Directive, especially when religion was involved. They wiped out most of the truly religious civilizations they encountered; belief in divine beings was always linked with belief in hierarchies that turned out to be incompatible with the liberal democracy the Enterprise championed.
Lopez: Which was the smartest Star Trek series?
Cantor: Without a doubt The Next Generation. A lot, of course, has to do with Patrick Stewart, who was by far the smartest, the most elegant, the most cultured and cultivated captain. But I think the scripts for TNG were the most intelligent too. In my opinion, it’s head and shoulders above the other series, though I still have a kind of affection for the original.
Lopez: Which Star Trek warnings should we heed most?
Cantor: Personally, I think the warnings about technology are the most important — the various series continually suggested that human beings might become the slaves of the technology they themselves created, and I believe there’s a lot of truth to that. If anything, the show was too optimistic about the potential benefits of a world ruled by a scientific elite. Fortunately, it often corrected itself with episodes about the dangers of scientific elites running the world.
Lopez: Why do I always seem to encounter conservatives who LOVE Star Trek?
Cantor: I think the original series was more liberal than conservative. There are just a lot of people who love Star Trek. Therefore a lot of conservatives love Star Trek. But a lot of liberals do too. In general, it’s one of the more intellectual shows to have appeared on television — especially for its day. By 1960s standards, Star Trek was incredibly intellectual — it used polysyllabic words. So it’s one of the TV shows int
ellectuals tend to love. And there are a lot of conservative intellectuals.
— Paul Cantor, a visiting professor of government at Harvard this year and the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author of Gilligan Unbound.