Star Trek — the Kirk version — was the first television show I ever watched regularly. By age three, I had become convinced that, just as mid-afternoon was naptime and early morning was breakfast time, Sunday nights were always and forever to be designated as Star Trek time, and I began a lifelong interest in all things science fiction. My social life has been in decline ever since.
To a small town, midwestern boy still learning to read picture books, Star Trek seemed both awesomely exciting and delightfully familiar. On one hand, I revered Kirk, Spock, and McCoy as space-faring titans, legendary futuristic nomads who spent their days gallivanting amongst the stars and doing as they pleased. These were men who had escaped the world of plastic toys and parental authority for something far better: a universe filled with bigger toys, like phasers and space ships, and broader authorities, like Starfleet and the Federation. At the beginning of each episode, Kirk proclaimed that the crew’s mission was “to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” In other words, they ran around getting into trouble and figuring out how stuff worked, which is a pretty accurate summary of the job description for most little kids.
Eventually, the local affiliate cancelled the Sunday-night reruns, but it wasn’t long before the franchise returned with a new crew piloting a new Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. And my how things had changed. Klingons were no longer the enemy, and they had evolved rather quickly from leering, brawl-crazy drunks with strange bumps on their nose bridges into honor-obsessed, vaguely feral warriors. And, in a triumph for diversity casting, one of them was even on the crew of the Enterprise. In the future, apparently, we will rise above any qualms about illegal aliens to embrace — and employ — actual aliens.
Also new were the room-sized virtual reality playgrounds called holodecks. With the touch of a button, these snazzy rooms could put you into any environment you could imagine, even letting you play out your favorite novels as one of the characters. Not wanting to fail on my duties as a child, I immediately began pressuring my parents to begin the conversion process on my bedroom.
In another important change (for me, at least), I was six years old, not three, and already well on my way to becoming both a full-fledged geek and a conservative. Even to my gestating right wing sensibility, changing “no man” in “to boldly go where no man has gone before” to simply “no one” seemed needlessly P.C., an evisceration of one of the original’s most important and traditional lines. Also, it may have made some difference that I still believed girls had cooties. Such are the limits of gender politics to a six year old.
Still, even if my burgeoning conservative radar alerted me to a few of the show’s ideological underpinnings, I managed to completely miss its larger political posturing until far later in life. Where Kirk-era Star Trek took what was essentially a Cold War liberal view of society, arguing for racial tolerance while wrestling (in Kirk’s case, often literally) with relations to foreign — or more accurately, alien — entities of overwhelming power, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted as little more than an hour long commercial for socialism.
The show was almost Brechtian in its explicit endorsement of some of the wackiest tenets of the left. In the series pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” the crew is put on trial by Q, a sarcastic, temperamental, all-powerful being who reflects the show’s disdain for God-figures. During the course of the trial, Lt. Riker proclaims that “Humanity is no longer a savage race!” Roughly translated, this comes out as, “Hey there God, not only are you a belligerent twit, but we don’t need you any more — nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah!” Somewhere, a cranky tenured professor is telling the same thing to his freshman lit class.
With that, the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, reintroduced the series as a vision of the future in which in humanity has transcended its pettiness and imperfections, taming its baser instincts so that it might teeter on the edge of Utopia. Taking place in a moneyless, peaceful, egalitarian society, it announced triumphantly that man, through socialism, can do all — and that when we do, we’ll be lead by a tea-drinking, smartypants Frenchman named Jean-Luc.
The pilot episode’s story is a classic tale of the evils of the market economy, in which a sniveling capitalist overlord withholds all but the most meager resources from his workers. The Farpoint of the title is a grandiose, technologically advanced city built when a developer finds an alien species that can convert energy into matter. The creature feeds on raw energy, and it is starving, so the developer doles out just enough of his planet’s rich geothermal energy resources to keep it alive, forever enslaving the creature to its energy-hording master. In the end, the crew of the Enterprise dishes out a full meal of the ship’s energy and set the creature free.
The episode comes across as a sort of inverted Randian parable that shames anyone who would withhold anything from a person — or in this case, a glowing, city-sized, tentacled alien — who claims need. Society’s job, we’re to understand, is to give freely without regard to cost. True, this works somewhat more plausibly in a society with almost infinite energy resources. Forget ethanol and wind turbines; let’s start funding research into dilithium crystals!
Other early episodes were similarly well-stocked with absurdity. We see short-lived security officer Tasha Yar participate in a tribal fight to the death using a weapon that appears to be a cross between a baseball glove and a spiked, copper-plated watermelon. Somehow this seems like a less than efficient killing device, but I’m sure the prop department thought it looked cool at the time.
Later, young Wesley Crusher, the ship’s requisite brainy, annoying kid, meets up with The Traveler, a sort of interstellar metaphysical shaman. He helps little Wesley to come to the conclusion that “space and time and thought are essentially the same thing,” which sounds like the sort of loopy declaration Barbara Streisand might make on one of her more cogent days.
But despite all this, I remained a Star Trek devotee. As far as pop culture obsessions go, one could certainly do worse. Star Trek products, like the energy provided by dilithium crystals, are nothing if not abundant. With five live action series and one cartoon comprising 30 seasons and 722 episodes of television, as well as 10 movies, a handful of video games, and hundreds of officially licensed novels, reference books, and short stories, it’s entirely possible to become completely drunk on Star Trek and its ancillary material. It may not be as potent as Romulan ale, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to come by. For a show that despised capitalism, it sure knew how to make money selling stuff.
In some ways, it’s strange to think that so many conservatives — and, as evidenced here today, so many conservative pundits — are also science-fiction fans, and even stranger to find that they’re fans of a show as vigorously liberal as Star Trek. Last I heard, conservatives were supposed to stand athwart history yelling “stop!,” not peer into the future drooling “cool.” But in another way, it makes sense. Star Trek, like all good science fiction, encourages its fans to spend time considering how society will evolve, and what societal consequences will result from changes in technology, media, and government policy. It’s punditry as pulp adventure. From Star Trek to National Review — surely that must qualify as “to boldly go…”