Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Star Trek's dangerous, savage child race

I was talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation with some people in my department last week, and it gave me a renewed appreciation for the show's ability to be reflexive about its own liberal progress narrative.

Now, to be fair, the examples of TNG's failure to note its own racism and neocolonial attitudes greatly outnumber the contrary examples. (Which, it should be added, are mostly confined to the show's final season, too.) A cursory look at the show's first season, especially, reveals some hilariously racist stuff, especially with the utopian planet of beautiful white people and the dystopian planet of murderous, polygamist, black tribes. (Admittedly, there is a dark-lining to the silver cloud in the former episode, but there is nothing to redeem the latter one.)

What specifically occurred to me, though, was that the show both begins and ends with episodes that challenge its own teleology and smug self-righteousness. Take, for instance, the pilot, where the omnipotent Q puts humanity on trial for being a "a dangerous, savage child race" that goes looking for wars. Picard's response to the charge is to ask Q to "test us", noting that "our mission is long". And while Picard passes the test in the pilot, we eventually learn in the finale that, to quote Q again, "the trial never ends" - that the entire series has been a continuation of the test that began six and a half year earlier, making the show one gigantic exercise in allaying Q's concerns.

In the end, Picard convinces Q to spare humanity because, for "one iota" of a second, the captain realizes that the laws of science are being broken and they need to roll with it rather than waste time figuring out ways to make it conform to their expectations. There's no assurance that humanity is
not essentially barbarous, and no confirmation that humans have indeed evolved - only the realization that we're still, and always will be, on probation.