Star Trek Fans Can’t Tell you why they Like It

Matthew Yglesias has an article about Star Trek which is triggering all of my normal rants. Really, it’s fascinating stuff. One day in the distant future when the dust has settled and alien anthropoligsts are digging through the ruins of AMERICA, they’re going to be utterly baffled by Star Trek fandom. So what did I learn from Yglesias take on the same tired material that I didn’t already know? That self-delusion is a big part of the Star Trek fan’s relationship to Star Trek, that’s what.

It’s something I’ve always known but never really noticed, actually. I used to be – still am – a Star Trek fan myself, and my long years of liking Star Trek were definitely marked by self-delusion. I don’t have any real answers, but one of these days someone is going to write a cultural studies dissertation on the extent to which Star Trek fans lie to themselves and others about what they like so much about the show.

Here’s a list of what Yglesias says he likes, and why he can’t possibly actually mean what he says.

(1) Star Trek is optimistic.

Trek has a very particular take on what it means to be human. Part of what it means, the franchise teaches us, is participating in an ongoing progressive project of building a utopian society. Even though the bulk of Trek comes from the ’90s, the franchise launched in the mid-’60s, and the now-anachronistic spirit of midcentury optimism has remained at the heart of the franchise throughout. It’s a big part of what makes Trek great.

Now see, this is one of those things that should be great about Star Trek, and one of those things that high-browed Star Trek fans like to cite in evidence, but then they do things like rank Deep Sleep Nine SECOND on their list of favorite Star Trek series. If optimism is what you’re tripping on when you watch Star Trek, then there is simply no way that Deep Sleep Nine is not your least-favorite of the shows – ’cause that’s the one where they threw out the book on future optimism and instead got all dark about the Federation, the future, the intentions of other species out there, even our heroes to some degree. In short, it’s the show where Star Trek became like every other show on TV: “Shit’s fucked up. Our heroes deal.”

(2) Star Trek is diverse. After quoting Nicholas Meyer dismissing Star Trek‘s diversity as “tokenism,” Yglesias writes

To dismiss Kirk’s multiracial crew as blatant tokenism seems unfair, given that it piloted the Enterprise at a time when legally entrenched segregation was a subject of ongoing political controversy. Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura is a black woman whose name means “freedom” in Swahili and who served as an officer aboard a starship at a time—back on Earth, I mean—when there were no female astronauts or military officers and black characters on television were more likely to be maids than professionals.

Which is great, as far as it goes, and absolutely on point, but the problem is that Next Generation continued to take the Original Series’ approach to diversity well into the 1990s. Sure, in the 1960s Star Trek was bold in having a black, female bridge officer, or a Russian navigator. But then it’s 1987, and they’re still pulling the same stunts. There’s one black guy, and he’s culturally whiter than me, and he’s a navigator. They promote him to Chief Engineer in season 2, but only because they did their darn-tootin’ best to find someone else first. There are no Asians or Arabs or Indians or Hispanics or Aboriginals – and on this ship where the Captain is meant to be French, absolutely everyone else would appear to be North American of some kind. Also, the Captain is not French. He’s clearly from the UK, and as the show continues, the pretence that he was ever supposed to be French just kind of (mercifully) fades into the background. This is diversity?
Right. There’s Worf. But the same guy who says this about Chakotay

First Officer Chakotay progresses from non-entity to flat, Native American stereotype who occasionally solves problems with spirit visions. (There are no practicing Christians, Muslims, or Jews remaining in this time period, but Native American culture seems oddly frozen in amber.)

cannot possibly think Worf is an interesting character – because what is Worf but a Native American stereotype who occasionally solved problems with spirit visions? Seriously, just imagine that “Klingon” is the name of a tribe like “Cherokee” and then tell me I’m wrong.

Data is the only remotely “diverse” character on Next Generation, and he’s pure science fiction. What boldly went where no one in the 1960s had gone before was unwilling to go where so many in the 1970s lived. Ah well.

(3) Star Trek is clever and peaceful. Again, I like this about Star Trek, and many high-brow fans cite this in evidence, but then look what Yglesias does next:

Typically, Picard and the Enterprise-D face problems—Wesley’s been sentenced to death, Riker is held prisoner on a pre-warp planet, Troi’s mom is coming to visit, Tasha Yar is being pressed into a forced marriage—that could be easily solved by photon torpedoes or a commando squad, and the real dilemma is how to get out of the jam without resorting to violence.

You wouldn’t notice it unless you’re a dedicated Star Trek fan, but all of those stories are from the much-maligned first season. STTNG season one was the stunt Dukes season of Star Trek – the one where it’s essentially the 4th season of the Original Series, but without the characters we knew and loved. Point being, Yglesias isn’t describing the Star Trek he purports to love. The rest of Next Generation wasn’t really about things like that. More often than not, it was about people talking about their feelings, meeting some aliens for dinner, or getting trapped on the holodeck. Gee.

(4) Star Trek is utopian.

We also see the practical operation of a post-scarcity socialist economy. Picard explains in Star Trek: First Contact that “money doesn’t exist in the 24th century,” when “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives.” Instead, “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

From which we learn that Yglesias just completely missed the existence of the Ferengi. It’s like they were never there. And it isn’t just that – there are actually plenty of episodes of every series (except Voyager) where we see people spending money. I can even cite an example off the top of my head that I saw two weeks ago: Captain’s Holiday. And it isn’t just money. Too many plots hinge on items (vaccines/miracle cures, dilithium crystals, rare minerals) that only exist on one planet and yet are essential to the operation of the Federation economy. Sure, the writers just do this for MacGuffins (the Romulans and the Federation have to fight over something), but the point is that this was never a show that showed us “the practical operation of a post-scarcity socialist economy.” It seems to want to do that at times, but it fell far short of its goal. And the handful of timesit did sorta-kinda pull it off, it was just smug – which rather ruins the effect, you know, because Picard’s cold condescension in, say, The Neutral Zone isn’t the attitude of someone from an enlightened society talking to someone from the past. Quite the contrary, it only makes sense if the Federation’s conversion to currency-free utopia happened in Picard’s own lifetime. There’s no reason to be this smug unless you fear the return of the attitudes you’re criticising – so even on those rare occasions when Star Trek managed to show a utopian future, it went about it the wrong way.

But I guess the more damning bit of evidnece on that front for me is the Klingons. Hardcore Next Generation fans will invariably tell you that Worf or Data is their favorite character. The ones who like Data possibly are interested in Star Trek‘s utopian side – but the ones who like Worf? Please. Worf comes from a ridiculous fratboy culture which couldn’t build an outhouse in the 1880s, let alone an intersteller empire in the 24th century! If your idea of utopia is the Klingon homeworld, you’re doing it wrong.

(5) Star Trek has interesting characters. You know, sometimes it does. But Star Trek fans are frequently wrong about which characters are interesting. Yglesias certainly is:

Janeway’s crew is the most diverse ever featured. The writers just forgot to make them interesting. B’Elanna Torres reduces the Klingon character to nothing more than a bad temper while Tuvok devalues Vulcan logic into little more than sneering condescension. First Officer Chakotay progresses from non-entity to flat, Native American stereotype who occasionally solves problems with spirit visions. … Harry Kim is perhaps the least interesting character in the entire franchise.

Huh?

B’Elanna is quite a bit more than a bad temper – but even if that’s your opinon of her, is Worf any deeper? Worf basically participates in rituals and has his opinion rejected at staff meetings. Sometimes he also gets his ass kicked. There is, quite literally, nothing going on with that guy. B’Elanna develops as the series progresses, and there are complex interactions between her and Janeway and Paris. Harry Kim may be a naive mama’s boy when the show starts out, but he has more personality in his little finger than any/all of Beverly Crusher, Wesley Crusher, Reginald Barkley, Quark, Deanna Troi, Worf, Scotty, Chekhov, O’Brien, and a whole host of other characters that Yglesias evidently consideres superior. And don’t get me started on Tuvok. That was a Vulcan done right. Tuvok didn’t just talk about being logical, or pretend it was part of his DNA. It was a philosophy with him, and the conflict with his inner emotions was quite close to the surface if you looked hard enough. He was masterfully played by Tim Russ, and treated with respect, for the most part, by the writers. He was also, to put a fine point on it, a lot more consistent than Data.

But the bottom line is that Star Trek does NOT, as a general rule, have interesting characters. It has likeable characters, and that counts for a lot – but one thing that show is just not good at – in ANY of its incarnations – is character depth. With some individual exceptions (Picard, Kirk, Spock) on other shows, Voyager is the outing that gave us the most distinctive and best-developed characters, and the fact that Star Trek fans don’t seem to notice says a lot about how much importance they actually place on character depth.

*****

So we’re left with a mystery. If it doesn’t seem like Star Trek fans can possibly mean what they say when they tell us why they like their favorite show, what ACTUALLY explains its appeal?

Alright, I exaggerated one of the points above for effect. Can you guess which it is? Yeah, it’s point (4). It’s pretty clear to me that the Star Trek universe is far less utopian than advertised … but the microcosm of the central ship/space station often comes pretty close. I know, it might be a little contentious to call life aboard a military vessel “utopia,” but I think along the relevant dimensions it fulfills a lot of wishes. For example, characters have everything they need without having to use money. It’s true that there are some people who want piles of money and lots of toys, but in my experience the overwhelming majority of people aren’t like that. The majority wants more or less what they see on Star Trek: a fulfilling and meaningful job in a non-competitive, completely meritocratic environment in which all their needs are provided for and they have a reasonable amount of leisure time with immediate access to whatever toys they need to enjoy it. Also, they like and trust the people they work with. This is, of course, a complete fantasy, which is why no contemporary show can really pull it off. Here in the 21st century, reality intervenes. There is no precinct office, for example, where some hard-nosed bureacrat doesn’t eventually get transfered in and make everyone start punching the clock and filling out paperwork when they shoot people. But in a science fictional universe, we actually CAN show the Job That’s So Awesome You Want to Live There Too. So in a backhanded way, I have to admit that “utopian” plays a role – but not in the philosophical way that most fans claim.

I suppose another one that people won’t argue with too much is “scientism.” It’s interesting that Yglesias doesn’t mention this one, because I think most Star Trek fans also claim to appreciate Star Trek‘s scientific accuracy. Never mind that Star Trek is actually about as scientific as a steaming pile of rainbow-colored unicorn poo, the point is that it flatters the viewer’s need to think of himself as Scientific.

Beyond that, I’m not really sure. Given Yglesias’ ranking of Next Generation first and Deep Sleep Nine second, I’d say he’s a pretty run-of-the-mill Star Trek fan. I’m not. I like the Original Series and Voyager – because I have this crazy old-fashioned notion that science fiction is good because it’s fictionalized philosophy with a sense of wonder. Boldly going where no man has gone before is what it’s all about. TOS and VOY definitely have their flaws, but at least they’re not about politics and stereotypes and dinner meetings about diplomacy. What do “standard” Star Trek fans see in Next Generation and Deep Sleep Nine? Really couldn’t tell ya. But I CAN tell you with a great deal of certainty that it has little to do with optimism, diversity, utopia, clever plots, or science. So why they keep shoveling that bullshit is one for the ages.

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