The Essential Unreality of Star Trek

Discussed in this essay:
  • Star Trek (1966-1969)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
  • Star Trek V: The Undiscovered Country (1989)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
  • Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)

One of the features of Star Trek that I have always found most striking is the show’s essential unreality. I don’t mean the fact it’s science fiction (obviously), the fact its plots are of the adventure-escapism style (common enough), or the fact its deals largely in exaggerations and archetypes in order to make its points (necessary in an episodic one-hour television format). Even given all the assumptions of the form and the genre in which Star Trek operates, the show has a degree of essential weirdness – a weirdness of a very narrow, particular type, mind – that runs through every incarnation. It was probably at its lowest ebb in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and at its highest in the original series, but for the purposes of this post, the examples I have in mind are mostly from the original series and Star Trek: Voyager.

The unreality of Star Trek manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is of a single essential type. I think of things like the child-captain of the Fesarius (and the ship itself), the Crystalline Entity, the many episodes concerned with interiority and mental landscapes, and the way that the omnipotent aliens the series inevitably encounters have the strange habit of transposing the various crews to other times and settings, to play out stories in genres not their own. Much of this is common to the type of science fiction that prefers to play faster and looser with things like physics, the suspension of disbelief, and consistent writing, but even when Star Trek is doing nothing unusual for the pulpier kinds of science fiction, its manages its own special brand of weirdness.

An example: In Caretaker, Voyager is, after the introduction of a starship full of obvious redshirts, transported to the far side of the galaxy at the behest of the series’ plot engine. After the immediate consequences are dealt with (swept away the dead crew members, put out the fires, stopped a warp core breach), the first proper scene set in the Delta Quadrant is aboard the Caretaker’s Array – in a holographic simulation made up like a creepy Southern farm, like something lifted straight from the pages of Ray Bradbury. This is a choice made time and time again in Star Trek: something weird has happened/is happening, the crew approaches the liminal threshold, the edge of what has been established as normal in this science fiction universe, and bam, they’re ejected from the premise entirely. The 24th century peels away, and something else takes its place.

Why? Well, it could be shoddy writing – writers who can’t come up with anything better or weirder than a fallback to Alien Simulation of Earth History. The trouble with this hypothesis is that Caretaker is easily one of the strongest episodes in Voyager’s whole seven-year run (a problem which will be the subject of a different post entirely), and use of this trope has produced both very strong episodes – Far Beyond the Stars – as well as more middling ones and some outright stinkers. Translation of time and place (often using time travel or the holodeck) is common in a more general context, even outside the immediate concerns (indeed, some would say any of the concerns) of a franchise set mostly in the context of space exploration.

The common factor here seems to be liminality. Star Trek is all about thresholds – barriers of knowledge, barriers of space and time, barriers of memory, and barriers of human capability.1 The essential weirdness of Star Trek is, in part, a way to confront those barriers, and as often as not, the (sometimes gossamer-thin) science fiction premise is just a way to set up a threshold, one of interiority, essentially psychological in nature, and then attempt to see what’s on the other side. The interior aspect of Trek’s approach to the liminal is most chronically apparent in the original series – episodes like The Corbomite Maneuver, The Menagerie, A Piece of the Action, The Immunity Syndrome, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, and The Savage Curtain2 all have premises that are, no two ways about it, weird. They’re strange even for science fiction, apparently razor-thin justifications for far-out ideas whose unusual nature is hardly justified by things like the expense restrictions for television shows and the excuse-generators of the setting; and the list above is hardly exhaustive. Trek is plainly not concerned with exploring science fiction concepts in a science fiction setting, though it does do that sometimes, too, as a means to an end. More generally, it seems to be concerned with posing a kind of searching self-examination – an examination essentially psychological, and inwardly-directed. To put it another way: I don’t think Star Trek has ever genuinely sought to pass comment on broader philosophical or social issues. Something inherent in the nature of the series prevents that, and it is only able to deal with such matters when it does so through the lens of self-examination – how the individual must position him- or herself with respect to the social or theoretical complex under consideration. One of the most obvious examples is the original series episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, which treats racism through the lens of personal hate, or the countless forays of the series into questions of religion and belief, always in the particular sense: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Mortal Coil, Barge of the Dead, anything in Deep Space Nine involving the Prophets.

The inward-looking nature of Star Trek goes a long way toward explaining why it is so different from other science fiction, even other adventury or Utopian soft sci-fi. There is very little of the Flash Gordon, the John Carter, or the Culture here, and if this vision of the galaxy often seems hallucinatory and claustrophobic, it’s because the various captains and crews the franchise follows are engaging us on a journey as much internal as external, as much about dealing with psychological constructions as space adventures. This is an area that has traditionally been a domain of fantasy, legend, and myth: works like Gawain and the Green Knight that use external landscape, reflected through a kind of psychological form, in order to probe interior spaces in the guise of adventure to far-off countries. Tolkien is also good for this in spots, especially in his short works like Farmer Giles of Ham and Leaf by Niggle. So is China Miéville. But this has rarely been the raison d’etre of science fiction, and still more rarely is it competently done. There were occasionally shades of this in the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Roger Zelazny, but they never developed it really well; the only author I can think of who did it with anything like the thoroughness in Star Trek is Philip K. Dick, though his particular brand of weirdness often put him so far into the inner territory he came right out the other side babbling on like an acid flashback (here’s looking at you, Liars, Inc.).

It is of course nothing new to observe that science fiction often deals in exaggerations and archetypes – indeed, it’s so obvious as to be trivial. But I don’t think that straight-up simplifications of reality are what Star Trek is about, and it would be a mistake, even when it’s at its most preachy and ham-handed, to write Trek off as a stab at a simplified model of our own world, defamiliarized through the lens of science fiction. There is a more fundamental negotiation going on within Star Trek, one which I haven’t often encountered in television shows, and if for no other reason I think it is why Trek’s popularity has endured, despite its obvious shortcomings. It isn’t because sci-fi fans devour it indiscriminately. While that might have once been true, the market has been too large now for decades, and the demand for good sci-fi too strong. Rather, I think it is because Star Trek shows us our compelling desire to know ourselves, as well as the world around us, and it’s capable of tapping that desire and pulling something interesting out of it, even in its weakest moments.3

  1. Or, in the case of Threshold, the barrier on how much suck human intelligence can cram into forty-five minutes of television. [back]

  2. Can we just take a moment and appreciate the glory that are the titles of episodes in the original series? [back]

  3. Except Threshold. Seriously, fuck that episode. [back]