Star Trek Goes All Right Wing On Us
March 11, 2002 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Star Trek Goes All Right Wing On Us This week's The Nation brings us a treatise on how all the post-Kirk Treks were really progressive and groovy, and how the new Enterprise is racist, misogynistic, and perhaps even crypto-anti-semitic. Quote: "interplanetary politics seem to have been framed by Pat Buchanan" and "The women were like insects themselves...and in the time we spent mentally fondling their bouncy, soulless bodies, I felt, for the first time, that Star Trek didn't consider me a person." Oy veh.
posted by lisatmh (27 comments total)
 
Mr. Spock, the Vulcan in the original series, has been widely read as either a Jew or an Asian, but he was also the sexiest and most popular character on the show. If he represented a nonwhite race, he was one that the viewers desperately wanted to be.

Sorry, the article lost me there.

Spock, the ladies man? The guy everyone wants to be?

Is she talking about a different Spock, that might have been a minor character on a few episodes? I hope so, because otherwise I really don't see it.
posted by dogmatic at 9:40 PM on March 11, 2002


Looks like the author of that article was really afraid of reading too little in to the plot lines of Star Trek. As Freud might have said if he were alive today, sometimes a Vulcan is just a Vulcan.
posted by epimorph at 9:44 PM on March 11, 2002


The article seemed perfectly sensible to me, as a reading of the metaphors embedded in the various Star Treks.
As for Spock, it seems self-evident to me that he is far more sympathetic, far more humane, far more human, than Kirk and McCoy, both of whom seem to me like inhuman monsters in comparison.
posted by Rebis at 10:56 PM on March 11, 2002


I'm not sure how many episodes of Enterprise have aired in the US, but it doesn't sound like Ms Minkowitz (as I'm sure she likes to be called) has seen anything other than the pilot. Let's not forget that at the beginning of Alien (and Aliens), Ripley didn't exactly seem like she was a futuristic role model for women either. At least T'Pol doesn't have a haircut that falls in her face everytime the ship gets attacked (unlike a certain starship captain I shall leave nameless).

I think it's quite interesting to see science fiction set in a future where the people are still very much as they are today: imperfect and human.
posted by Lionfire at 11:30 PM on March 11, 2002


sorry, what was the article saying? i think those detox gel fumes have eroded my brain. oh wait, that's exactly what she was saying, isn't it?
posted by juv3nal at 11:37 PM on March 11, 2002


Ah, yes, time to break out that contrarian essay, The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek -- and in fact, the author is referring to what Minkowitz seems to view as the socialist utopia. And one libertarian blogger thought Trek lost its way between TOS and TNG, seeing the former as a cheering section for individualism (which would probably surprise Roddenberry at least a little). More, and more, from the same source; and a comment on same.

But you don't have to be a raving Randoid to have ultimately been disturbed by some of the aspects of the Trek universe. Almost universally, the Starfleet brass were portrayed again and again as REMFs (rear-echelon mofos) at best, or corrupt, fascistic, imperialists; the "utopian" government of the Federation seemed to be entirely dominated by Starfleet policy, with occasional civilian politicians shown but no sense of political life among its citizens. There was a certain sense to the use of Starfleet captains as roving ambassadors -- even to the point of critical peace missions -- which echoed the dual roles played by military commanders in empires from Rome to Britain, before instantaneous communication freed them. The ruling principle of the Federation was said to be the Prime Directive, that all cultures must develop on their own without interference, but this frequently was shown at odds with Federation cultural imperialism -- and yet there were no guiding principles shown at work such as a Federation constitution, and at other times horrendous situations were permitted to continue in the name of non-interference. In this way the Federation empire was shown to be expanding without the responsibility of defending its raison d'etre; painless empire, imperialism without the guilt. I truly think that this worldview has contributed to people today often being unable to reconcile their own situation in regard to the world. Of course we could "untangle" ourselves from the world, "free" them from American influence, but at tremendous cost to ourselves. The Trek universe people were never presented with anything but isolated moral conundrums that would truly affect their own lives. They acted time and again for a goal of guilt-free intervention. We'll fly away from this planet knowing we done right. Yet rarely were they truly presented with stark moral choices between bad and worse, which is unfortunately the stuff of life -- of, for instance, war.

The first inkling that they tried to address this problem, really, was the introduction of Seven of Nine. More than just a pretty, um, skintight catsuit, she was a Borg -- and for better or worse, the Borg had become the supposed Manichean opposite of the Federation during TNG's run. A metaphor for all that the Trekkers saw as bad -- mechanized, totalitarian, worker-bee-hell, spreading inexorably throughout the universe, absorbing and transforming all that they saw -- the Borg represented in many ways a disturbing parody of the Federation. They weren't created to be that, and they weren't consciously manipulated into that role -- but as time went on it became clear. The VOY writers sometimes grasped this, and Seven of Nine became a terrific foil for the pieties of Federationism as expressed by Janeway. This wasn't exploited to the fullest, and as the character became more a part of the crew the technique was dropped. I thought the series, any Trek series, could use more of this, a kind of internal Platonic dialogue (a role played, somewhat disappointingly, by the "token Republican" advisor-girl on The West Wing). It's unfortunate, because especially as the brand ages, the pieties become fixed as natural rock, and harder to dislodge. That they were passed on without question weakened the show.

I don't want to say it was a bad show; they often tried hard, and even sometimes created really lovely episodes, like Yesterday's Enterprise, or All Good Things, that made choices matter. And sure, it's just entertainment. But it disturbs me when someone holds up the Trek universe, uncritically, as some kind of utopia. Because the implications behind that utopia are very disturbing.
posted by dhartung at 12:17 AM on March 12, 2002


Mr Spok read as a Jew or Asian, why? Because he's smart? Cold and emotionless? A minority? Unless you read him as what he is, a Vulcan, it seems you're making some pretty racist assumptions.

There's a heavily Freudian element in all this: His father's failed big ship is referred to in most episodes, and we get frequent flashbacks of little-boy Jonathan playing with a remote-controlled toy rocket with his father, literally trying to get it up.

Yes, it's all about penises. All of Enterprise is penises: stories about penises, using penis metaphors to make penis points to a penis audience.

I agree with Dhartung above, that it's worrisome to see people point to TNG as a perfect society, but I don't think that's really what the author means. They seem to be referring almost exclusively to the show as a metaphor for current society, and not something that has to stand up on it's own.

There were a few good points, though I have issues with the presentation and assumptions made using those points. The Vulcans do seem out of character, and the mood is over-the-top gung-ho. The Vulcan thing is easily explained if you assume we are getting only the human side of the story (which, of course, we are), and the mood, it's not too surprising considering their mission. MY only real problem is the whole Human ethics versus the rest of the galaxy thing, and that's been a staple of Star Trek forever.
posted by Nothing at 12:56 AM on March 12, 2002


Whatever. The writer of the article hasn't seen the original Trek in a while, where Kirk banged some alien bimbo in a miniskirt on every planet he visited, and then left her there (that's part of why Wrath of Kahn was so cool; Kirk's coming-of-old-age story involved him confronting his cowboy-like youth). And what about Harvey Mudd and his sexbots?
posted by bingo at 1:39 AM on March 12, 2002


Yeah, or what about that episode where a planetful of women steal Spock's brain because they're too dumb to run their machines themselves? "Brain and brain -- WHAT IS BRAIN??" the leader cries when Kirk confronts her.
posted by coelecanth at 4:15 AM on March 12, 2002


All the Treks are arguably flawed, each in their own way. That's part of what makes them charming. I do agree with Ms. Minkowitz that Enterprise is the most flawed of the lot, and the furthest away from Roddenberry's original vision for the series. However, the choices Minkowitz made to prove her point didn't get it across properly. She dissected it too much. One could tell from Deep Space Nine that Berman's vision of the future simply didn't mesh with Roddenberry's, and he didn't deserve to carry on the tradition of the Trek franchise. Far as I'm concerned if they never produced another episode or another movie, I wouldn't be disappointed. Was Roddenberry's vision socialism? Maybe. Was it entertaining? Arguably. Is his vision no longer represented in the new movies and tv shows? Definitely.

There's no reason for Minkowitz to give the franchise a complete autopsy to know whether or not Star Trek is dead on arrival.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:25 AM on March 12, 2002


Is this thread the appropriate time to bring up the albums (singing & spoken-word) by both Shatner & Nimoy...?
posted by davidmsc at 4:48 AM on March 12, 2002


Nichele Nichols came out with an album too, but it's more rare, and actually almost tolerable if you happen to be into ethereal weird stuff. Nothing beats Shatner's rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds though. Primo stuff.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:57 AM on March 12, 2002


Roddenberry was asked to create a "Wagontrain to the stars" by NBC, creating a American Western genre show set in the far future. The pilot episode for the original series, called "The Cage" was too cerebral and had to be retooled with more gung ho action and a can-do captain.

Enterprise is a return to this American Western theme. I have been watching the series thinking that it's been a wishful, revisionist version of how we explored and settled North America, but this time by inviting the Native Americans over for coffee instead of massacring them.
posted by stevis at 5:42 AM on March 12, 2002


I think Trek is actually laden with contradictions in so far as left/right is concerned. If you look at an episode like Time's Arrow, where Troi explicitly says that Federation society has abolished poverty etc, there is certainly a suggestion of socialist utopia. But in DS9 there seems to be more suggestion that the Starfleet characters have monetary concerns. Perhaps sub-consciously there has been a gradual return to what might be called American values, and this has become more or less explicit in Enterprise.
posted by Gaz at 5:51 AM on March 12, 2002


Nothing beats Shatner's rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds though

My son has the "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command" video, and over the final credits, guess who sings "To Infinity and Beyond"? It's positively soul-stirring.
posted by groundhog at 7:16 AM on March 12, 2002


Hang on.. isn't this whole discussion a bit pointless.. 'Enterprise' is set before Kirk's time. All of the nouveau-communist thing hadn't yet been invented. 'Enterprise' is set back when men were men.
posted by wackybrit at 7:17 AM on March 12, 2002


The "Past Tense" two-parter on DS9 was probably the last overtly socialistic Trek produced (and actually quite prescient in its view of San Francisco developing into a class-oriented dichotomy). It also took Roddenberry's brand of socialism (perhaps most ignobly portrayed in the ridiculous speech that Edith Keeler gives in "City on the Edge of Forever") and matured it into something that was considerably more palpable than the juvenilia that Roddenberry and his producers tried to throw in every episode.

From Voyager on, however, the show has essentially abandoned much of these roots, good or bad. Not that they were really there to begin with, considering how the Federation transmuted into a more military-oriented organization in the movies and perpetuated this irony in all of the series from Next Generation on.

I don't think the politics of Trek were ever that much of a redeeming quality, certainly not during the TOS days. They were ham-fisted at best. I'd agree with dhartung that the central theme of the various shows has always been the Prime Directive. Ironically, as it was adhered to more and more, the side effects of the utopia in question became more exposed.

Personally, I thought the politics within Blake's 7 (which explored the consequences of a revolution) were considerably more interesting than those in Trek.
posted by ed at 7:32 AM on March 12, 2002


I agree with the author in so far as her analysis of TNG. (I've not watched Enterprise.)

I always thought that TNG's Federation and Picard's Enterprise represented an almost absurdly perfect version of Western post-war left/socialism, combining (on the one hand) a radical commitment to self-actualization and self-expression free of the constraints of family, religion, tradition, patriotism or economics and (on the other hand) the total destruction of the market and free choice as a source of communal decisions or as an allocator of scarce resources or a metric of individual worth and achievement, with technology and benign authoritarianism (rule by liberal military-scientific elite) substituting for those needs.

I personally theorized that this orientation was not so much the consequence of the writers and producers' political ideologies, as it was their reaction against the economics and practices of Hollywood: the overwhelming imperative to sell soap and curry to (a) the lowest common denominator of the audience and (b) the often crude, ill-educated, and fiercely capitalistic network and studio bosses.
posted by MattD at 7:42 AM on March 12, 2002


dhartung - there were no guiding principles shown at work such as a Federation constitution

This is wrong. The Federation has (shocka) Articles of Confederation. The Federation also has a Bill of Rights analog including at least 7 Guarantees, the seventh of which provides Fifth Amendment style protection from self-incrimination. This is featured prominently in the TNG Episode "The Drumhead," which is crackling good tv, especially in light of the Current Situation.

Also, keep in mind that these discussions of the Trek Universe are woefully inadequate as they neglect many of the non-Federation cultures that also make up the Star Trek universe, especially the Klingons, one of the favorite cultures for the writers to play with and subject of many of the finest TNG episodes produced.
posted by NortonDC at 8:16 AM on March 12, 2002


All of the Star Trek shows deal with ships from a paramilitary organization that are on exploratory missions at the fringes of the Federation-"civilized" area of space, so I don't think it's accurate to make generalizations about the entire society based on the portrayal of life on the ships.

Nichele Nichols came out with an album too

She actually did several albums, including, um, Dark Side of the Moon.

Spaced Out: The Best of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner has all of the classics. Nimoy sings Johnny Cash! Shatner sings Sinatra! Nimoy does several songs in character as Spock.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:20 AM on March 12, 2002


I am not even a trekkie but having watched a few episodes i think the author of this article is preventing annoying details from getting in the way of her ideology.

TPol as incompetent Vulcan: If this is true why is she leaned on like a crutch by the Captain everytime they encounter something. If she were forced on the Enterprise by some sort of Affirmative Action why did the captain ask her to stay onboard after the Klingon council order her off the ship?

The treatment of TPol:The mockery of the rigid Vulcan logic has been a constant theme is Star Trek. While it is unambiguously anti-intellectual is a pretty big leap to being mysogynistic and requires that you ignore the larger star trek context.

Hoshi as helpless female:From the pilot it was clear that Hoshi was an academic. A gifted linguist and academic, teaching at the academy. Clearly someone who wouldn't be a fighter. Yet the author believes they should be.

There were points to be made in the article, such as how 150 years in the future seems more like 1950 than 2150, but the barrage of misconstruals and fact stretching left me feeling like I just shook hands with a politician. Donna Minkowitz strikes me as a slight variation on a television executive where instead of ruining shows by pandering to all the marketing demographics, a utopian ideology is the hammer that blunts the creative edges.
posted by srboisvert at 8:24 AM on March 12, 2002


Forgive me, but could the reason that Enterprise is less progressive than other of the Trek series be that it takes place over a hundred years in the past of all the Treks?

It seems to me that the promise of Enterprise lies in attempting to show how an organization which ends up bringing a great deal of peace and prosperity (in addition to miniskirt uniforms) to the galaxy ends up being formed out of a simple drive to explore.

To quote William Gibson:

while there's a convention in science fiction that one is writing about the future no one can really write about the future and I think that science fiction novels, by and large, reflect the decade that they were created in. You know the fifties SF, you look at it and it's the fifties."

What Enterprise then says about our time, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something about how to move from base, human desires and problems to a point where poverty and other fundamental problems of the human condition can be overcome.
posted by artlung at 8:26 AM on March 12, 2002


I generally like the new series, and see it all little different than you guys seem to. I think there is definitely some proto-worldsocialism going on, along with a health dose of the authoritarian behavior I associate with it. There was an episode early this season that involved some human cargo shippers at odds with an alien race. It was set up so that we knew the shippers were highly individual types, and mostly took the jobs because Earth society was not a good fit for them. They most surely did not want Star Fleet involved. The Captain thought about this for a bit, and interfered with the situation having decided all human matters fell under the authority of Star Fleet, no matter where in the universe they might happen to be. I did not like that episode too much.
posted by thirteen at 8:46 AM on March 12, 2002


I'm more offended by the cheesy theme song than anything else.

If anyone doubts that PC leftism has devolved into farce, this essay should put those doubts to rest. This piece should have appeared in the Onion. Ms. Minkowitz, who seems to have written by numbers, flogs her predictable thesis, throws in the requisite reference to phallocentricity, objectification of women, etc. YAWN.

I thought one of the points of Enterprise was that the characters and plots appear within a context more recognizable to us, and part of the fun is watching how Starfleet culture evolves, how the Vulcans eventually chill out, how humans grow out of their parochialism, how the Prime Directive is developed.

The political lines that Minkowitz sees are not nearly so clear as she imagines. In the pilot episode, Trip watches an alien child being acclimated to an oxygen atmosphere, wheezing and gasping in his mother's arms. Trip, in his ignorance, thinks the child is being harmed, and moves to help. T'Pol stops him, explains the situation, and tells him he must learn to "objectify other cultures." Several times, Capt. Archer has exemplified the liberal impulse to fix problems in alien societies, and has been advised against it by T'Pol, who takes a more conservative line. Often T'Pol serves as a foil for the boys' male chauvinism, showing patience and wisdom. Sometimes she advises doing nothing when doing something is clearly called for. Of all the characters, I find T'Pol the most complex and compelling.
posted by Ty Webb at 9:31 AM on March 12, 2002


At least in TNG and later, they have the "replicator," which apparently uses very little, if any, fuel, and can basically make anything smaller than a breadbox, from food to tools to weapons. Any society that has such a thing available to the general public (and maybe they aren't, but I imagined they were, back on Earth anyway), has gone into an economic model where concepts like socialism and capitalism are hardly applicable anymore.

For you fans of bizarre Shatner performances, check out (if you haven't already) the terrible yet occasionally cute film Free Enterprise, in which he performs a rap rendition of the Ides of March speech from Julius Caesar.
posted by bingo at 11:27 AM on March 12, 2002


I loved Free Enterprise. I am beginning to tire of MeFi.
posted by tcobretti at 1:41 PM on March 12, 2002


As intimated by Ty Webb above, it's precisely that Enterprise is trying to show the interim step between us 'now' and us 'then' (all the previous Trek series) that makes it interesting. I remember thinking that the same scene in the pilot was a great indictment of the (all-too-real) human tendency to judge others by our own standards.

Somewhere between that point and the 'later' series, humanity (at least as depicted in The Federation) has whole-heartedly adopted a principle of not judging, and has shifted form being a relatively late-starter to one of the primary forces in our corner of the galaxy. Enterprise seems to have set out to try and show how that happened, which I think makes it potentially the most interesting of the Treks. I accept that some of what it therefore depicts can seem a little unpaletable (to me too), but there's a general subtext of criticism of the human standards that I find quite healthy.
posted by jonpollard at 6:42 AM on March 13, 2002


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