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.


Jason said...

I'd love to hear some more examples!

neilshyminsky said...

I can't believe that I never responded to this!

You mean examples of the smug, liberal-humanist politics of Star Trek: TNG? I think I'd have to actually put some time into looking at lists of episodes, but I can make some general observations:

-The Prime Directive. The rationale underlying why Star Fleet refuses to "involve" itself in the politics of species that aren't warp-capable is both patronizing and hilariously simplistic in the way that it reduces cultural development to one of two hierarchical states.

-The Federation. The Federation is utopian, multicultural, and every alien races is some debased form of it. (That is, they are not simply "different", but they are demonstrably worse. And their diplomatic proximity to the Federation - or, for aliens within the Federation, their similarity to humans - tends to also be indicative of their goodness of character and, often, intelligence.)

-Identity politics. In the way that, say, liberal gender politics and second-wave feminism rhetoric is often invoked and used to critique the Middle East, ("their women must be covered! that makes their entire society automatically worse in every way!") TNG often used a planet's state of gender equality as a short-hand for whether that society is a good one or a bad one. (We know that Ferengi society is irredeemable because they treat women like property; we know that Klingons have potential because women serve alongside men on warships.) Race was used more subtly but also more problematically - I don't know how it escaped them that the most violent and aggressive species (Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, and even the Romulans) were also often given the darkest complexions. (As opposed to Betazoids, Bajorans, Trill, and, to a lesser extent, Vulcans)