Politics & Policy

A Conservative Trek

Ride with me on the Enterprise.

Trek is often held up as a shining example of post-JFK liberal idealism, mainly because Kirk kissed Uhura. Supposedly this caused green gouts of bile to shoot out the ears of everyone below the Mason-Dixon line, because we just weren’t ready. Well, neither were Kirk and Uhura. The clinch was forced on them by lazy immortal Grecian-wannabees with telekinetic power, who amused themselves by testing the boundaries of the Network’s Standards and Practices regulations. Uruha even protested, somewhat — she confessed she had a little sneaker for the captain, but this moment lacked magic. Kirk understood, but he went along. You could say he did his part for God and Country, but of course Trek believed in neither.

Nevertheless, the best Trek was conservative: it was rooted in the unchanging nature of man, be they hooting hominids on the plains of Earth throwing rocks at prey, or civilized spacefarers Money, power, lust, war: These were the constants, and Star Trek knew they’d follow us to infinity and beyond. At best we could find enlightened, savvy ways to avoid the pointless fights. But some people only understand a photon torpedo up the dorsal vent port, and we’d best be prepared to deal with them. The Federation, after all, had something called General Order 24, which called for the total destruction of a planet’s surface if the civilization was considered a threat to the Federation. As Vader might have said: Impressive.

Kirk actually invoked General Order 24, in “A Taste of Armageddon.” He used it as a threat, and didn’t carry it out. You can imagine his relief; the paperwork alone would have been a nightmare. But he would have done it if he had to, and not just for the reputation you get back home at the Officer’s Club. Not for Kirk the niceties of diplomacy: If he had to violate a treaty, he’d do it. If he had to save a civilization from the lifeless machinations of an ancient operating system, he’d harangue its computer until it smoked and crashed. In “The Arena,” Kirk didn’t win the battle against a rubber-suit Gorn because they hammered out a six-point Roadmap to Peace. Granted, he got the thumbs-up from the League of Judgmental Effeminate Aliens because he didn’t cave in the Gorn’s head with a stone. But prior to that, he nailed him in the chest with an improvised cannon that shot diamonds. In a cannon-free zone, no less.

Or consider “The Immunity Syndrome.” The episode had a high-concept appeal: a giant simple organism floating in space sucked the “life energy” out of everything it passed, like a six-parsec-wide anthology of structuralist philosophy. Faced with such a nightmare, Kirk had a sensible approach: blow it the HELL UP and warp away. Picard, you suspect, would have wanted Troi to ask the organism what it wanted, and what it was feeling, and whether it had childhood issues, and felt alone. And then he would have towed it to a special Federation preserve for giant life-sucking single-celled organisms. But Kirk was a frontier runner with a git-‘er-done approach. If there were reservations to be voiced about destroying a one-of-a-kind giant biological marvel, it would come not from the Ship’s Ethicist, but Spock, the ultimate Mister Science:

Kirk: if we don’t kill that thing with ninety gigadrams of antimatter, it’ll suck the life out of the entire quadrant.

Spock: True. It is, however, a pity we cannot study it.

Kirk: There’s no time for science, Mr. Spock. Millions of lives are at stake.

Spock: Of course, Captain. I was merely lamenting the loss of an opportunity. I believe that 87 point nine gigadrams will suffice.

No, they were practical men. Sensible soldiers. Which leads us to the two worst liberal moments of Trek:

Omega Glory. This was one of the first scripts Roddenberry wrote for Trek, so you can’t blame the old “third season” curse. The Enterprise finds an empty starship around the usual Backlot Planet, where two groups compete for power: the Yangs, and the Coms. After much hugger-mugger Kirk finds himself in the presence of the tribal elder, He Who Speaks Without Contractions, and the sacred founding documents of the tribe is produced. What do you know: it’s the Constitution.

Kirk: “Spock, what are the odds that another planet’s evolutionary process would not only yield bipeds who speak English, but wrote a complex assertion of individual rights on parchment?”

Spock: “Theoretically, it is possible, Captain.”

Kirk: “Well, that settles it; I’d best reorder their society with some overemoting.”

Kirk upends their entire worldview by pronouncing the Constitution correctly, and sweatily insists that the words are not just for Yangs, but for the Coms as well, or else they mean nothing. Do you understand?

“We will try, Ham Who Rants,” the Chief says, and that’s that. But really: If there’s one thing we know about Coms, it’s that they use the freedoms guaranteed by E Plebnista to take power and put the Yangs against the wall. Of course, in this episode, the Yangs and the Coms had forgotten the ideas that had led to their all-consuming war. (No one in Trek ever had regional wars; everything came down to great planet-wide Manichean conflicts.) It would have been nice if Kirk had asked the tribes what they stood for.

“Free exchange of goods and ideas,” the Yangs might have said.

“Subordination of the individual to the will of the collective duty,” the Coms might have responded.

But no: This was one of those high-minded episodes in which the presence of conflict damned each side alike. Years later, Captain Picard would echo Roddenberry’s philosophy, muttering in disbelief how the people of earth had once found themselves at odds over economic systems.

It takes a well-paid screenwriter to come up with something that stupid.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Frank Gorshin chases a criminal around the Enterprise. Their faces are half-black, half-white — but one has a black left side, and the other has a white left side. They look like Cubist mimes. They hate each other and regard each other as inferior, even though outside observers don’t see any difference at all.

Some have speculated the episode may have been a commentary on racism.

The show’s much better when Kirk is running guns (“A Private Little War”), trying to get the locals to fight the Klingons before they’re all slaughtered (“Errand of Mercy”), or letting Joan Collins die so she doesn’t go on to found a Hitler-enabling pacifist movement. (“Yesterday is Tomorrow.”) Unfortunately, goopy multi-culti cant seeped deep into Next Generation — in the latter seasons, the writers actually imposed an intergalactic speed limit for ecological reasons. (Thanks to the efforts of Capt. Samuel Hagar and his stirring address — “I can’t warp 5.5” — the ban was eventually lifted.) Deep Space Nine got it right: We learned a lot about the bad guys, the Cardassians; we even heard professional Irishman Miles O’Brien refer to them as Spoonheads, which was just the sort of epithet the enlisted men would say. We understood the Cardassians; we learned much about their culture, and knew a few fine examples. In the end, though, their culture had taken a horrible turn, and there was no getting away from that. Much blowing up had to be done.

Voyager? I know it was on for seven seasons, and I know I watched every episode, but nothing ever comes to mind, except Seven of Nine. Enterprise, the last show, as much maligned. Don’t know why — the last season was pure fan service, as good as Trek got. Perhaps it was the opening credits, which tempered the glories of mankind’s first steps beyond the solar system with the knowledge that the power ballad will still be around 100 years hence. In any case, it was quite the neocon fantasy, right down to the Gallic Vulcans keen on restraining the brash Anglophones. One episode had the engineer, Trip — 65 percent Kirk, 35 percent Scotty, filtered through a slab of hickory-smoked McCoy — was taking a shuttlecraft trip with Malcolm, the bitter little Limey munitions expert. Trip, an American, was riding Malcolm about England’s faded glory, and noted just who came up with warp drive in the first place.

“Ah, if only Dr. Cochrane had been a European,” says Malcolm, referring to the inventor of the warp drive. “The Vulcans would have been far less resistant to help us. But no, he had to be from Montana. Probably spent his nights reading about cowboys and Indians.”

Says Trip: “Well, I don’t recall any Europeans knowing how to build a warp engine. No Brits, no Italians, no Serbo-Croatians…”

It’s one of the few times a character in Star Trek defends America. Kirk may have been born in Iowa, but as far as we know that was a county in the Quadrant Six of the Northern Hemisphere Co-Prosperity Domain, or whatever the world government named it.

Trip and Malcolm had a systems malfunction, incidentally. They lost power, and spent what they believed to be their last minutes drinking a bottle of scotch and talking about the Vulcan science officer’s posterior. Men of the West, in other words. Not to say that drinking and objectifying slinky Vulcan chicks is a conservative trait. But Kirk would have approved.

To be fair: Conservative Trek had its lousy moments, too. In “A Journey to Eden,” the Enterprise is taken over by space hippies, led by a Timothy-Leary type guru whose ears look like they’re growing brass knuckles. The space-hippies detour the Enterprise to a paradisal planet, only to discover that the fruit of the land is instantly lethal. O Irony, thick as a Tellurite’s nose. Even the Goldwater Republicans may have rolled their eyes at that one. It would have been better if Eden had snakes, and the space-hippies begged to return to the Enterprise. Kirk would have put them to work during the trip back home. He would have made them do something useful.

Those photon torpedo casings won’t polish themselves, you know.

James Lileks is a columnist for the Star-Tribune; a syndicated political humor columnist for Newhouse News Service.


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