Star Trek As Progressive Mythology

by: Chris Bowers

Fri May 08, 2009 at 19:00


In celebration of the new Star Trek movie, which I will be watching tonight, I am taking the liberty of re-publishing an old article of mine: Star Trek As Progressive Mythology. My view is that science fiction that takes a positive view of the future, perhaps best exemplified in popular culture by Star Trek, is a progressive shift in the use of mythology. Instead of taking our ideal of society in an unattainable past, as conservatism does and as mythology has usually done, Star Trek views the ideal of society in an as yet unattained future, ala progressivism:

[L]ike with the X-Files, there are basically two types of Star Trek episodes. While the X-Files has "monster of the week" episodes and "myth" episodes, Star Trek has "ethical problem of the week" episodes and "galaxy politics" episodes. While I love both kinds of episodes, the focus on this post is on the "ethical problem of the week" type. Specifically, they always seem to resolve their problems by being, well, liberal humanists.

Star Trek is a rare phenomenon in popular culture: a detailed, future fantasy universe that is both based on our own past and that takes an overwhelmingly positive view of our future. Most popular culture science fiction either views the future in negative terms (The Matrix, Phillip Dick) or as an indecipherable "other" (X-Files, Arthur C. Clarke). Star Trek is an unusual view of our future simply because it is so darn positive. Poverty has been eliminated. Humans are free and united. People live to be over 100 years old on a regular basis. There isn't even any money! As Jean Luc Picard puts it, in the future world, individuals do not search to acquire wealth or power, but rather "to better themselves." As we travel around the galaxy making more new friends all the time, our beliefs in equality and self-determination always serve to make us stronger, even against totalitarian adversaries such as the Borg that in many ways are more powerful than the United Federation of Planets.

Star Trek not only shows what is best about liberal political structures and philosophies, but it is fundamentally a representation of the culmination of modernism and the great march of progress. It shows us what liberalism and modernism hope to eventually achieve, rather than what they have already achieved. It is, in that sense, a powerful mythology of modernism, of liberalism, and of progressivism. That works perfectly for those beliefs since, in contrast with conservatism, progressivism always sees the ideal of society as lying somewhere in the future, rather than in the past. As a result of our march of progress, things will be better in the times to come. Even for the characters in Star Trek, rather than trying to live up to some past ideal, rather than trying to imitate the unmatchable actions of super-human archetypes from the past, the best is always yet to come in new worlds and new cultures that are not yet known.

One of the problems with the mythology of almost any culture is that it tends to find our ideals in the distant past. The ways we should act as members of a family, as citizens of a public society, or simply as social animals have always been laid down for us by people who lived long ago (or who didn't live at all). In this way, most of mythology has been inherently conservative, depicting contemporary society, and indeed all societies, as but a poor imitation of the greatness of the past. However, if we are always trying to live up to the greatness of the past, we may have difficulties imagining a better future, which is a necessary aspect of any progressive. By taking the unusual step of placing your mythological greatness in the future--and not in an eschatological future, as the rapturists would have it--then what we are ultimately trying to live up to is the fulfillment of the promises inherent in our own liberal democracy: equality, self-determination, prosperity, and friendship. With this shift, mythology can become a progressive vision for self-improvement that is not bounded by the dictates of the past. Hell, San Francisco even becomes our capital. Hard to imagine a better place for the capital of a progressive future.

Dif-tor heh smusma. (Or, for you humans out there, live long and prosper.)

Chris Bowers :: Star Trek As Progressive Mythology

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Star Trek definitely was a counter to the greed oriented 80s (0.00 / 0)
One interesting thing I have been watching recently http://www.crunchyroll.com/lib... for example deals with a future in which a carbon tax has been enacted in response to natural disasters.  

One thing I have noticed recently are the concept of superhero types that actually try to change the world they live in.  Like The Authority by Warren Ellis.  Where it asks what responsibility would superheroes have to actually change the government rather than just defending against the latest crisis.

The best example of all this stuff to me though would be one of the ghost in the shell movies.  Where it turns out that one of the members of the futuristic police force tackled the problem of children who suffer from child abuse.

This is all to say that there is actually a lot out there that is like Star Trek.  It just tends to not be in the most mainstream areas and it tends to dominate in the young adult category.

http://transgendermom.blogspot....


very true (0.00 / 0)
As with the Twilight Zone, Star Trek could address questions that otherwise were censorable.  Though I recall writers complaining that some scripts were watered down.

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

President Obama likes Star Trek, too.... (0.00 / 0)
He wants a private screening of the new movie at the White House...

http://news.yahoo.com/s/politi...

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REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!


I agreeish (4.00 / 1)
While I generally liked how most of the ethical puzzles were resolved in Star Trek,* and I liked what little I saw of their civilian society, the hierarchies of the ship and Federation always rubbed me the wrong way back when I was a kid watching the show, particularly The Next Generation.  I know, I know, just like a liberal to object to the captain-centric organization and prefer, I don't know, a ship steered by committee -- but still, the flow of information up the hierarchy and decisions down it, and the invisible and expendable crew actually doing the work of making the ship go, bothered my budding lefty sensibilities.  But as I said, civilian society seemed pretty good, I guess, given that they were eternally at war and al.

(* That said, they rarely confronted what would have really been the hardest and most common problem, what to do about the Prime Directive in the face of hundreds of worlds with billions of people dying from, say, easily-curable diseases.)


The Fourth Reich (0.00 / 0)
I think your instincts are correct. Star Trek struck me as a proto-fascist universe where everybody is under the dictates of the quasi-military. They're able to come in at any time and pull rank on civilian colonies. There's no voting or opt-outs. If the "captain" decides the ship needs to dive into that black hole then everyone including the nanny is going with. "Make it so!"

[ Parent ]
Networks don't buy negative shows. (4.00 / 1)
The "message" of Star Trek was peace-and-love-for-dummies, but the method was whatever we can sell.

Sell whatever sells!

It's the only thing TV got right about the future.

...a powerful mythology of modernism, of liberalism, and of progressivism.

Harharharhar!!!

Maybe where "modernism" means "Chevrolet" instead of Ezra Pound and Picasso, and "progressivism" means Barack Obama instead Henry Wallace and Dennis Kucinich.

On some other planet, where words like "progressivism" and "modernism" aren't just meaningless blather...

You couldn't even sell brain-dead shit like Star Trek as a Saturday morning cartoon.  


Seeing it Tomorrow (4.00 / 4)
I'm very interested to see how Kirk is re-done. People lampoon Shatner's acting, but the character of Captain James T. Kirk is one of the most complex in the history of television and movies. He's far more complex than Picard's character or any of the subsequent incarnations of Trek captains. In fact, the painfully boring/two-dimensional nature of Captain Archer (too much of a flawless golden boy) in Enterprise was probably the biggest disappointment of that show.

Kirk's 1/3 Marshal Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke: the epitome of law and order and always doing the right thing.

But he's also 1/3 Jack Bauer from 24: a man who will break all of the rules to protect his ship and The Federation.

And then there's the 1/3 James Bond part: somehow seducing your female adversary is always a key part of the solution.

I suppose that's why he's such a compelling character. He's the sci-fi version of Bill Clinton. He represents many of the extremes of human nature combined and focused toward the mission of protecting and spreading the values of The Federation (humanity). And then you've got the constant struggle between his technocratic/logical side (Spock) and his instinctual/humane side (McCoy).

Best of luck to Chris Pine trying to win me over. I don't know how you go from The Princess Diaries 2 to being Captain Kirk in 5 years and come out convincing on the other side, but he's got my $14 and 2 hours to prove to me he can pull it off.

As an aside, am I the only one who feels a little bit cheated that JJ Abrams is re-doing Trek and not Ron Moore? Moore did the screenplay for the only watchable TNG movie, First Contact, and obviously just completed what was, IMO, the best done Sci-Fi show ever with BSG.  


Blasphemy (4.00 / 1)
I grew up a huge Star Trek, and Captain Kirk
fan, and saying that Captain Kirk is 1/3
Jack Bauer (who is a truly evil character)
is pure blasphemy.

[ Parent ]
Oh, come on... (0.00 / 0)
Maybe you don't like what Bauer does and how the show presents torture, but a "truly evil" character?  Not exactly how I'd describe someone who has saved the "24-land" USA from some kind of horrible catastrophe.. what are we on, 8, times?  Not like he's Darth Vader going around blowing up planets, which is what I'd consider "truly evil". =)

[ Parent ]
If torture isn't evil, then there is no such thing as evil (4.00 / 3)
"Maybe you don't like what Bauer does and how
the show presents torture, but a "truly evil"
character?  Not exactly how I'd describe someone
who has saved the "24-land" USA from some kind
of horrible catastrophe.. what are we on, 8, times?"

24 and Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland)
have been incredibly effective at promoting
torture. Just because you "know the difference
between fact and fiction" does mean that you
aren't effected by fiction. And it doesn't
mean that other's aren't shaky on the
"difference between fact and fiction".

There are a lot of thugs out there who
are very happy to have Jack Bauer justifying
and glorifying their sadistic urges.
I think that's why so many people on the
right worship Jack Bauer.

so yes, Jack Bauer is "truly evil" despite
the producers efforts to portray a torturer
as a wonderful person.


[ Parent ]
Season Two: A Private Little War (0.00 / 0)
Kirk armed a peaceful, primitive race in order to maintain a strategic balance with the Klingons (which was, at the time, a not-so-subtle embrace of the principle of containment and the Vietnam War).

Does that make Captain Kirk "evil?" He obviously broke The Prime Directive in order to protect the greater strategic interests of The Federation. You could argue what he did in that one episode had greater moral implications than what Jack Bauer did in 8 seasons of 24, because he was making a choice to militarize an entire planet (granted, his hand was forced by the Klingons arming the villagers.

http://trekguide.com/padd/tos4...

When you try to tackle serious, dramatic topics with any sort of realism, your characters eventually will wind up in situations where they have to make pragmatic choices between the lesser of two evils. If they didn't, then there would be no realism to the story. In those cases, just like in the real world, moral absolutes aren't always viable options. Sometimes good characters have to do evil things (every single character in BSG did several awful things to survive). Similarly, in real life, sometime good people have to do the same. That's why moral absolutes are such a bitch.


[ Parent ]
militarize an entire planet (0.00 / 0)
"Does that make Captain Kirk "evil?" He obviously
broke The Prime Directive in order to protect the
greater strategic interests of The Federation.
You could argue what he did in that one episode
had greater moral implications than what Jack
Bauer did in 8 seasons of 24, because he was making a
choice to militarize an entire planet (granted,
his hand was forced by the Klingons arming the
villagers."

So you are arguing that militarizing an entire
planet is morally equivalent torture?
Just about every country on planet earth actually
has a military, and you're arguing that that is
just as bad as torture? really?

What 24 does so brilliantly is portray torture
as just another essential technique in keeping
America safe (no worse than having a military).
24 makes the argument that the "ticking time bomb"
justifies torture, and that "ticking time bomb"
scenarios happen all the time.

See also:

http://www.humanrightsfirst.or...

24 and Jack Bauer, by persuading real people in
the real military that torture is ok and even noble,
is having a real and evil effect on the real world:

http://www.newyorker.com/repor...


[ Parent ]
Is Giving Peaceful People the Implements of War Morally Worse Than Torture? (0.00 / 0)
Are you kidding?

You really believe the Vietnam War, which was that epsiode was basically endorsing, was less morally offensive than the torture policies of the Bush Administration, which 24 endorses?

Over 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. 1.1 million Vietnamese, according the Vietnamese government. 1.5-2 million died in Laos after the war was over. There's nothing noble about war. People die. By the thousands.

You give me a moral choice between ending war and ending torture, I'm ending war every day of the week and twice on Sundays.


[ Parent ]
Insight (0.00 / 0)
Well  ecotect the link that you provided, describes what Kirk did this way:

"The Hill People are at war with the Villagers, who have been taught to make guns for nearly a year by the Klingon Empire, in violation of its peace treaty with the Federation. To balance the Klingons' aid to the Villagers, Kirk teaches the Hill People to use firearms as well, but he realizes he has introduced the serpent into the garden of Eden."

(Actually the Klingons had already "introduced the serpent into the garden of Eden")

http://trekguide.com/padd/tos4...

Sooo, basically you are arguing that helping the "Hill People" defend themselves from being slaughtered is morally worse than torture? Really ??

Well, at least this has given me some small insight into the thinking of a Jack Bauer fan.


[ Parent ]
Not exactly nostalgia, no.... (4.00 / 1)
I kinda liked it as a whole, although the stupidity bothered me -- liberalism as imagined by parents who didn't want their five-year old seeing anything nasty. By the standards of the day, though, the coding was remarkable. Smart people were actually running things, and they came from San Francisco, not Dallas or Biloxi, or even New York.

I didn't mind Spock representing intellectuals. I suppose it was the raised eyebrow instead of the lecture that endeared him to me, and given the Pon-Far, or whatever the hell it was called, at least they didn't make him entirely sexless, although he was portrayed as rather spectacularly out of his depth once his id did make an appearance.

Shatner as the man of action, though...God forbid. An American meathead, plain and simple. The casting director should have had him pushed him out of an airlock, and found someone who could be decisive without chewing the arms off his captain's chair.

In an era which produced The Beverly Hillbillies, Mr. Ed, and The Monkees, Star Drek, as we called it then, was bad, but not as bad as it got.


Kirk Had To Chew Them Off (4.00 / 2)
I agree that Shatner's acting was often over-the-top ("Kaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhn!"), but Kirk's character was comprised of so many extremes, it actually made a degree of sense.

You can't mention Spock without mentioning Bones. They were like the two little consciences resting on Kirk's shoulders. The interplay between those two characters (as ham fisted as it was at times) was so critical to original Trek. And yeah, there wasn't any subtlety to it. It was formulaic (although I think you could make an argument TOS's formula was smarter than TNG's more techno-babble driven formula). You could argue it was "stupid." But, then again, it was the sci-fi trailblazer, so it had to be digestible. The foundation is often the ugliest part of any building, but everything you construct afterward is dependant on it. Darn near everything sci-fi that followed Trek owes its existence to Trek. That's why I still enjoy watching the original series so much. Old Trek contains within it some of the DNA of not only every other show in the Trek franchise, but Star Wars, both incarnations of BSG, Babylon 5, etc etc.

And, yeah, San Francisco as the capitol of half the galaxy (or at least a good third of it): eat that conservatives. Ha!


[ Parent ]
And yet, there are tons of right wing star trek fans.... (4.00 / 1)
I don't know how they manage to get past the obvious liberalism of the show...  

REID: Voting against us was never part of our arrangement!
SPECTER: I am altering the deal! Pray I don't alter it any further!
REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!


[ Parent ]
Makes Sense (4.00 / 1)
"And yet, there are tons of right wing star
trek fans.... I don't know how they manage to
get past the obvious liberalism of the show..."

Star Trek is a very liberal show (that I've
always been a fan of), but it is also (like most
action flicks) profoundly reactionary. Namely it
glorifies violence and macho swagger.

So it makes sense that right-wingers would
also love the show.


[ Parent ]
New movie actually owes a lot to BSG as well... (0.00 / 0)
The space sequences looked and sounded a lot like BSG with the "handheld" look, etc... And, well... there are some minor plot elements that are similar as well.

[ Parent ]
Really? The future is... the fuckin NAVY? (4.00 / 1)
I'm sorry, but I don't see any progressive anything in having to kiss the ass of my "commanding officer." I want to use the gifts of the future to research the boundaries of human potential, of the human capacity for pleasure, of exploring what we can do as a species once we have no need to fear for our shelter and sustenance and health.

The faux-NAVY crew of Star Trek is what the prude and reactionary Roddenberry wanted the ACTUAL navy to be like in 1966 - and he wanted them to be supported by a docile society who don't even consider second-guessing their militaristic adventures. (Subtext: Don't be hippies. Get a haircut, dress monochromatically, follow the orders of the Admiral, and love it!)

Star Trek is the totalitarian future we need to prevent. Star Trek is what you'd expect from a writer who wanted desperately to shout to everyone that the 50's will win in the end, no matter what you ill-behaved Woodstock hoodlums say.


Well... (4.00 / 2)
Yeah, I think the point is that Starfleet basically IS the military of the future... A military based on exploration and furthering knowledge ("seek out new life and civilizations", etc), rather than conquest.  That's a fairly progressive view of the military.

And, not everyone in the future is in Starfleet... though, I admit I don't understand how their economy works and what people outside of Starfleet do, since they supposedly don't have any money (though we do see them trading with other species, and other races like the Ferangi are obsessed with the acquisition of wealth... speaking of which, I didn't watch a lot of DS9, but was there not a pay-bar in it?)


[ Parent ]
"One of the problems with the mythology of almost any culture" (4.00 / 1)
"is that it tends to find our ideals in the distant past."
As long as the right conclusions are drawn from the historical evidence, I don't see what's necessarily wrong with that. One of my favorites among science fiction novels, Jeff McDevitt's "A Talent for War", exploits ancient Greek democracies as an inspiration for the pioneer worlds of the future, and succeeds in showing that the past is relevant, even though the truth about it is difficult to find.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A...

A Sci-Fi recommendation (0.00 / 0)
Any science fiction readers here at OpenLeft should check out the works of two strong, liberal writers: Iaian M. Banks and Charles Stross. Banks's "Culture" novels, especially, give a picture of the future that conveys a positive view of liberal social values. (Banks also writes mainstream fiction, but he leaves the "M." out of his name on those novels.)

My Reaction (0.00 / 0)
OK, I'll try not to spoil too much for the folks who haven't seen it:

If you're looking for a deep sci-fi drama like BSG, you're going to be disappointed. If you are interested in seeing a good action movie laced with Star Trek nostalgia, you'll like this movie. And, you don't have to be a big Star Trek fan to enjoy it, which is key for a franchise in desperate need of a future.

I didn't hate the new Kirk. I thought I would. I didn't. That's partly because there was so much action and so little dialogue there wasn't really a chance for anyone's acting to be disappointing.

Casting, as a whole, was awesome. Karl Urban is DeForest Kelly reincarnated. I was blown away by it. The scene in the shuttle craft where he's freaking out about flying and explaining that the only reason he's joining Star Fleet is because his ex-wife now owns everything he owns on this planet is priceless. Simon Pegg as Scotty was fantastic. I don't know why they decided to give him a scaley little person as a sidekick. He's plenty entertaining on his own.

The best/most interesting thing they did is basically set this movie and the subsequent sequels they're planning as an alternate timeline. So the rest of Trek is compartmentalized and the canon is protected. I like this because it frees Abrams from being a slave to the canon and also prevents him from committing any crimes against it as well. I do hope that in 3,4,5, or however many of these movies they make, they end by having some nice sci-fi explanation that restitches the two timelines. But, for now, I think what they've done is a very good device for re-exploring the original series characters.

My hope is that in the subsequent sequels they'll ratchet down the action and pick up the drama. In terms of Chris' original post, this was a fairly ideology free movie. Hopefully you'll get more of that progressive, positivist, humanist morality shining through in future films now that people have been introduced to the new Trek and some new fans have been added to the franchise.

I still wish this had been Ron Moore's baby, though.


One Other Thing (0.00 / 0)
Tyler Perry runs Star Fleet? I thought Madea was in jail?

[ Parent ]
Simplist Future (0.00 / 0)
The idea that Star Trek is the example of a progressive future is simplistic at best.  In the Star Trek future, two of the biggest problems affecting us today have been solved, Power and Medicine.  Technological advances have created an environment where all medicine and power are seamingly free to all.  This is not a strictly progressive or liberal trait, and it is not a problem that we can just wish away or throw money at and hope that some people will figure it out.

This is the main difference between most on the left and the right.  Those on the right tend to be more realistic, while those on the left tend to be dreamers.  Not that there is anything wrong with dreamers, but you need the realists to make those dreams come true.

The social aspects of Star Trek are largely based upon the fact that the Enterprise, is for all intensive purposess, a military vessel, and all characters are effectively in the military.  The social structure is then based on a millitary heirachy with little need for money.  It is therefore quite ironic that a progressive mythology is based upon a military lifestyle, something not progressive in the least.  

So, word to all the progressives out there.  If you want life like Star Trek, join the military today.  Free Power, Free Medicine, equal social structure outside military ranks and little direct need for money while on missions.  

Personally I would like the technology of Star Trek, it would solve many of our current ills, but most like reveal many new ills that we could debate.  


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