The Star Trek critical corpus is lengthy enough — with hundreds of books; thousands of stories and articles; and millions of nerdy, pedantic, or mildly pornographic blog posts — to encompass just about every genre, taste, and rhetorical stretch. There are substantive works devoted to exploring Trek’s science, morality, religion, psychology, business strategies, leadership lessons, and recipes for barbecue targ (or perhaps I dreamed that last one, can’t remember). Much of all this is profoundly silly. Actually, a good bit of it is the opposite of profound, plus silly. Trust me — I’ve read it.
Which is my point. Trek is a marketing monster, and I have been helpless in its clutches since the days of watching the original series in syndication on a snowy black-and-white set in the 1970s and listening to new adventures on tacky 45s purchased with a few extra dimes at K-Mart. When serious people seek to draw serious lessons from a goofy sci-fi series of the 1960s and its pop-culture progeny, please consider cutting them a little slack. For one thing, they may not be able to help themselves. For another, Trek fans worldwide number in the many hundreds of millions. I’m a writer, not a sociologist, but even I can see that there might well be significant insights about human behavior and modern society to be gleaned from a cross-cultural phenomenon so pervasive.
For me, the great lesson of Trek — both internal and external to the stories themselves — is the Law of Unintended Consequences. A basic insight of the social sciences, it refers to the fact that human actions often yield results far different from the intentions, or even the preferences, of the actor. Unintended consequences are evident within all sorts of institutions, from business and government to church organizations, art forms, and personal relationships. In public policy, we talk about them routinely. Minimum-wage laws create unemployment among the least-skilled workers. Rent control destroys affordable housing. Above a certain rate, tax increases can reduce government revenue by reducing reported incomes and investment. And so on.
No matter what flavor of Trek you imbibe, you can’t help swallowing story after story about unintended consequences. It’s one of the stock plots (I’m a policy wonk, not a Hollywood scriptwriter, but I know formulaic television when I see it). Indeed, a central element of Trek lore is the Prime Directive, a Federation rule barring interference with other cultures, and was explicitly advanced as a precaution against the explosive combination of the Law of Unintended Consequences and the Federation’s advanced technology.
As a plot device, the Prime Directive has changed a lot over the decades. In Star Trek: The Original Series, creator Gene Roddenberry apparently sought to use the device to criticize the Vietnam War, and more generally what he and other liberals of the day considered to be America’s neo-imperialism. Importantly, though, if that was his intention, it didn’t pan out. If Federation starships weren’t supposed to “interfere” with the natural development of alien cultures, how could they safely interact with aliens at all? And if they weren’t supposed to interact, what were they doing out in space in the first place? Just taking pictures of gas clouds?
If, on the other hand, the rule applied only to races with inferior technology, how would such a status be determined? The Federation might be more advanced in one field than, say, the Gorn, but not as advanced in another. (In fact, Gorn starship weaponry is more powerful and has a wider firing arc; trust my extensive Star Fleet Battles tactical experience on this.) The rule was neither clearly defined nor consistently applied — not that most Star Trek viewers, admiring the fetching guest stars and accompanying “Headin’ Out to Eden” on their imaginary Vulcan zithers, seemed to care much at the time.
By the time of The Next Generation, the Prime Directive was restated to apply most clearly to pre-warp cultures — that is, to cultures lacking the antimatter-based technology to travel at many times the speed of light, and thus limited to their own planets or solar systems. This made a lot more sense. Once a civilization reached warp status, it was capable of wreaking great havoc on the outside world. Non-interference was no longer a practical option, and the Federation developed First Contact protocols to seek to introduce the new space-faring civilization to its neighbors and to basic rules of galactic civil society. (In today’s world, the appropriate analogy would be when a Third World state goes nuclear.) Eventually, it came out that a key reason for adopting the Prime Directive was the example of the warlike Klingons, who had first obtained antimatter technology from another race before evolving the cultural maturity required to handle it. The result was incessant piracy, militarism, and brinksmanship.
What I find most fascinating about the Prime Directive, and indeed about much of Roddenberry’s attempts to inject his own political and social mores into Star Trek, is that the subsequent development of the series often deviated significantly from the original vision. Federation captains from Jim Kirk to Kathryn Janeway found themselves in extreme situations where the rule didn’t seem to work, where they were forced to bend, if not break, that strict non-intervention policy in order to save lives. The proper conclusion is not that such rules are useless and their enforcers hypocrites, but instead that it may well be valuable to have a clear rule even though it is understood that well-trained and ethical leaders, acting on their own authority, may on rare occasions find it necessary to break the rule for a greater good. I’m a writer, not a justice department lawyer, but even I can see how this insight may apply to current controversies.
The extent to which Trek subverted the original intentions of its mostly liberal creators lies far beyond the Prime Directive. For example:
‐ In both The Original Series and The Next Generation, Roddenberry started out by foolishly insisting that money no longer existed in the world of the Federation. But other than playing this notion for comic relief, Trek writers found it impossible to come up with credible ways to describe how any complex, interstellar society could function without large-scale, money-based commerce. When merchants and trading ships played a role in a story, they were sometimes depicted as clumsily bartering their wares, hardly an uplifting alternative to 20th-century American decadence. In an attempt to demonize capitalism more explicitly, The Next Generation introduced a sniveling, scheming, cowardly race of ugly little trolls, the Ferengi, who were compared to “Yankee traders.” Yet contrary to the original intent, the Ferengi became popular characters, lovable even, with their absurdly amoral Rules of Acquisition joining the paperback libraries of many a Trekker. The absurdity began, of course, with the notoriously avaricious Roddenberry creating a profit-seeking franchise based on the preposterous notion of a future world without money. In the end, of course, the Trek universe required money to make sense. Enter Federation credits, Triskelion quatloos, Orion sinics, and the wonderfully Roman-sounding gold-pressed latinum.
‐ Roddenberry, ever the progressive, used Trek to model a society free of sexism. In the original Trek pilot, the first officer, Number One, was a woman (Majel Barrett, his future wife). At the same time, Roddenberry, ever the skirt-chaser, populated the Enterprise with bare-legged female officers and gorgeous guest stars in strategically placed wisps of cloth. Subsequent series would each declare a clean break from the sexiness of the past, only to fall back eventually on sultry aliens, space vixens in miniskirts, and pulchritudinous crewwomen with robotic faces and hypnotic torsos.
‐ Trek’s creators weren’t pacifists, but they did exemplify a pattern of thought — evident in certain political quarters today — that international conflicts are the result of misunderstandings and are resolvable by dialogue. Although organized along naval lines, Star Fleet vessels were not intended to be military craft, but were intended for exploration, research, and diplomatic missions. As each series unfolded, however, war stories typically became the most interesting and popular. Viewers gravitated towards the villains, becoming fascinated by the Klingon warrior code, Romulan strategy, and the nature of the Borg. Jim Kirk may have talked many a computer to death, but most major inter-species conflicts were resolved by recourse to phasers, photon torpedoes, and Kirk’s patented “space karate chops.” An oft-reproduced line of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott typified this unintended peace-through-strength tradition in Trek: “The best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser bank.”
In each case, the intention of Trek’s creators may have been to smash the boundaries of weekly television and surpass the conventions of adventure stories. But the interaction of harried writers and picky viewers rendered a different outcome. There were, of course, plenty of intended consequences, too — Trek did help break down barriers of race and ethnicity, and particularly in the later iterations brought inventive ideas and challenging themes to a medium often lacking them. Still, what makes Trek really special is how it evolved, in reaction both to the inescapable parameters of popular storytelling and the unprecedented role of fans as participants in and creators of the fictional world.
Speaking of unintended consequences, I was hoping in this piece to make a quasi-serious point about the lessons of the Star Trek phenomenon. Upon reflection, what I mainly accomplished was to out myself as a hapless, hopeless sci-fi geek.
– John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C., and a renowned commander of Klingon battlecruisers and Romulan destroyers.