Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | May 19, 2013

Star Trek

1. This past week, Matt Yglesias managed to start a conversation about the Star Trek franchise with this article in Slate. Yglesias offers characterizations and post-mortems (post-mortes?) of all five television series (the Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise); he discusses some of the movies, but mainly as a way of setting up the transition between the Original Series and TNG:

Granted, when you judge it purely as television, the Original Series is a bit weak. (There aren’t many 45-year-old television dramas that hold up well.) Continuity is a mess; the sets look cheap; the acting is hammy. The show was a commercial failure and died after three seasons. But it was resurrected in cinematic form, first with Star Trek: The Motion Picture—which was forgettable, really, but made enough money to spawn an excellent sequel and two solid follow-ups after that.

The films showed the world that bigger production budgets and better special effects could make a dramatic difference. The new-look Klingons, with real alien makeup instead of silly goatees and bronzer, were a huge step up. Star Trek II reprised the Original Series’ best villain, and the light-comedy time-travel caper Star Trek IV showed that the franchise’s signature political concerns could be updated for the 1980s. (Kirk and company voyage to the late 20th century to try to forestall a future disaster caused by the extinction of Earth’s whale population.) Having demonstrated to Paramount that there was a lucrative market for quality Trek content, the studio then began to work on the best and most successful Trek of all, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Yglesias discusses some of the particular strengths and weaknesses of each series (e.g., the holodeck in TNG, an “entertainment device that manages to risk the ship’s destruction with surprising frequency and that proves a dangerous tool in the hands of lazy writers”). He also positions the various components of the Trek franchise within the evolution of television. For example, here he discusses Deep Space Nine and Voyager:

DS9 is the most narratively ambitious Trek of all; it even managed to pull off a good holodeck episode (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”). Voyager, on the other hand, was a deliberate and somewhat perverse effort to recapture the spirit of the (lest we forget) ultimately unsuccessful Original Series. Except this time, the characters were less interesting.

And both shows suffer for having been filmed during the awkward teenage years of television drama. Modern TV features a fairly sharp divide between shows structured around long plot arcs (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) and those built as a series of one-offs (CSI). But in the late ’90s, things were different. DS9, like Buffy and The X-Files, flits back and forth between a big-picture story and alien-of-the-week one-shots. This makes for disconcerting binge-watching. The sustained 10-episode narrative that concludes the series is the best run of Trek that’s ever been made. But it comes after years’ worth of television in which the grand clash between the Federation and the Dominion is regularly interrupted. Some of these one-offs—those set in the Mirror Universe especially—are fun. But others are dreadful (Sisko has to train his crew to beat a bunch of arrogant Vulcans at baseball) or simply bizarre (Sisko fights racism in the sci-fi industry of the 1950s).

Rather than build on the most promising elements of DS9’s narrative ambition, Voyager essentially retreats from them. The location in the Delta Quadrant allowed the writers to dream up brand-new alien races. Even better than that, the Borg—Trek fandom’s favorite rarely seen foe—lived in the Delta Quadrant and could be featured frequently. But the plotting is very much alien-of-the-week. Over the course of its seven-season run, the ship never feels like it’s actually making progress. By the penultimate episode, the crew is still stuck decades from home—then it’s rescued in the finale by a deus ex machina. That both those episodes are actually quite good only underscores the larger tragedy of the series: Thought through a bit better, it could have been excellent.

Finally, Yglesias notes throughout his article that all of the Trek series are pervaded with a certain optimism and, to be honest, a progressive political vision of the future. This is particularly significant when you consider the ascendancy of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories in modern sci-fi, especially in film and television. Consider:

Trek has a very particular take on what it means to be human. Part of what it means, the franchise teaches us, is participating in an ongoing progressive project of building a utopian society. Even though the bulk of Trek comes from the ’90s, the franchise launched in the mid-’60s, and the now-anachronistic spirit of midcentury optimism has remained at the heart of the franchise throughout. It’s a big part of what makes Trek great.

Typically, Picard and the Enterprise-D face problems—Wesley’s been sentenced to death, Riker is held prisoner on a pre-warp planet, Troi’s mom is coming to visit, Tasha Yar is being pressed into a forced marriage—that could be easily solved by photon torpedoes or a commando squad, and the real dilemma is how to get out of the jam without resorting to violence.* We also see the practical operation of a post-scarcity socialist economy. Picard explains in Star Trek: First Contact that “money doesn’t exist in the 24th century,” when “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives.” Instead, “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

Yglesias, I gather, found this pervading theme of progressive optimism inspiring; I for one found it cloying and preachy. The first two seasons or so of TNG are especially bad in this regard; just about every episode includes a veiled or not-so-veiled critique of capitalism and 20th Century free market societies. After season 2, TNG appears to have toned down this particular theme, in my opinion, although I’m sure it remained (e.g., it survived to resurface in First Contact).

Anyway, on the whole there’s lots of good stuff in the Yglesias piece–lots of though-provoking stuff–and it’s worth reading in full. Steve Saideman (who is more concise than I and less prone to block quoting) offers some of his thoughts here.

As Prof. Saideman says, Yglesias’s points in the main article are “not terribly controversial.” Yglesias followed up his 3,400-word article with a list ranking the Trek movies and TV shows from best to worst, and this list is far more controversial. Prof. Saideman offers his critique here:

He has Next Generation > Deep Space Nine > Voyager > Original Series > Enterprise. Really? Voyager is better than Classic Trek? I dare anyone to name an episode of Voyager that they can remember by name or even by description. City on The Edge of Forever, Let that be Your Final Battlefield (a standard for my ethnic conflict classes), Naked Time, Trouble with Tribbles, Devil in the Dark, Amok Time, Omega Glory, and so on. Sure, there was heaps of cheese and some truly awful (Spock’s Brain), but many thoughtful, interesting, challenging episodes. What do I remember about Voyager? That it was damned annoying. Next Generation had better acting and effects than the Original Trek, but its length meant that it had uneven parts, like whenever the writers got lazy and had a holodeck adventure.

And Tyler Cowen also defends the Original Series:

I think he undervalues the first series. Characters and script were excellent in about sixty percent of the original episodes. It is also noteworthy that the original characters have entered popular culture for an enduring period of time and we are still making movies about them forty-five years later. It’s not absurd to think of someone saying “Beam me up, Scotty” fifty years from now. I don’t see Data or any other later character receiving the same treatment, nor do I think that any of the later installments would have, on their own, generated an entire franchise of installments, spin-offs, sequels, and the like…

Indeed. (I think “sixty percent” is a high estimate, but that’s a minor detail.)

Along with Prof. Saideman, I would rank ST IV (the one with the whales) above ST VI; after ST II (Khan), ST IV was the best of the movies (so far).

2. In his article, Yglesias also attempts to rationalize Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a post-money, post-scarcity, post-capitalist society:

Picard explains in Star Trek: First Contact that “money doesn’t exist in the 24th century,” when “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives.” Instead, “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

And it could hardly be otherwise. Consider the miraculous technology of the replicator—a machine that can seemingly create anything out of thin air, based on rudimentary raw materials plus energy. When computers and energy can substitute for productive human labor, either the energy supply will be controlled democratically for Federation-style liberal socialism, or else it will fall into the hands of some narrow clique and give us the fascistic authoritarianism of the Klingons, the Romulans, or the Cardassians. Under the circumstances, nothing resembling capitalism as we know it could survive. As Marx wrote in his Critique of the Gotha Program, the material prosperity made possible by ever-better technology is the necessary precursor to an economic system ruled by the principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” And that’s the principle the Federation lives by.

Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy criticizes this part of the Yglesias article:

I have a much more critical perspective than Yglesias on Star Trek’s mostly left-wing politics… I like Deep Space Nine better than the other series in part because it is more willing to question the Federation’s values, though it ultimately does still endorse them. I also disagree with Yglesias’ view that the economy of Star Trek is post-scarcity, thereby making socialism workable (and indeed the only feasible economic system). As I discuss here, many important goods and services are still limited in the Star Trek universe, including the energy sources that power starships, planetary real estate, a variety of personal services, and – most importantly – replicators. The replicator – the very technology that supposedly eliminates scarcity – is itself scarce; the Federation and its various rivals apparently cannot replicate a replicator.

Even if scarcity were more fully eliminated than in the Star Trek universe, I don’t think it follows that socialism is the only viable response, or that the knowledge and incentive problems that make socialism a menace in our world would suddenly disappear. So long as there are any important scarce goods at all, a government monopoly over them would still be a terrible danger, even if the government were democratic.

Somin has addressed this issue before, for example in this post.

On the whole, I would say that Star Trek (and especially the early seasons of TNG) include an expression of Roddenberry’s socialist dream, but the economics of this futuristic socialism are not often very well thought-out. As a general matter, Trek writers tended to mangle economics. (See, e.g., this post on the crazy and inconsistent prices in DS9, where a pair of pajamas or a cadet’s uniform might cost the equivalent of several months’ wages for an hourly worker.) This is a problem not unique to Star Trek. For example, the economics of the Harry Potter universe are not terribly consistent or convincing (fortunately, one can read those excellent novels without thinking about that aspect much at all). Nevertheless, Star Trek posits a socialist utopia as a given, without too much explanation of how it works or how it came into being. (One of the reasons that I like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series is that it does seriously and thoughtfully explore economic issues, including problems of scarcity, the emergence of black markets, etc. But that is a topic for a different post.)

3. As I said above, Star Trek offers few details about how the post-scarcity, post-capitalist society depicted in TNG came about (although there are hints in First Contact and elsewhere). This Cracked.com article does look at the evidence that we do have, and the picture is pretty horrifying:

Roughly 90 percent of the time anyone in Star Trek mentions how wonderful the Federation is, they make some offhand reference to one of three major incidents in Star Trek canonical history: the Eugenics Wars, the Third World War, and the Post-Atomic Horror.

During this stunning trifecta of apocalyptic shame, every major city on Earth was destroyed, millions were killed in a nuclear war, and millions more, infected by radiation, were executed to prevent their damaged genes being passed on to future generations. We even get to see this period a couple times — Q, a recurring character on The Next Generation with godlike powers, recreates a trial from the Post-Atomic Horror on the bridge of the Enterprise, and it’s goddamn horrifying.

Star Trek implies that the human race needed to go through this dark era of near extinction in order to achieve the utopia that is the Federation. In an episode of Enterprise, one character (we’d specify which one, but let’s face it, nobody watched that show) says that after the Horror ended, it took only two generations to completely end poverty, disease, and war. Therefore, the only thing holding us back from a divine future is everything about contemporary society and culture. Our current way of life has to completely dissolve if we ever hope to zip around the galaxy in awesome spaceships with holographic sex chambers.

4. Ilya Somin also has a mostly negative review of the latest movie in the Trek franchise, Star Trek: Into Darkness, which came out this past week. Here’s an excerpt:

Unsurprisingly, Into Darkness has most of the same flaws as the previous Abrams Star Trek movie, which I criticized here. Both films essential turn Star Trek into an action movie that just happens to utilize Trek characters and settings. I am far from an uncritical admirer of Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry and his successors. Nor was I ever the kind of fanatical Trekkie who goes to conventions wearing Vulcan ears or signs up for classes at the Klingon Language Institute. But, despite its many flaws, I admired the Star Trek franchise’s willingness to take on big questions about the kind of future we should want for humanity. Abrams’ “reboot” essentially ignores all serious issues, and just ramps up the action. I don’t deny that a “reboot” may have been needed, given the poor quality of the last several old-line Star Trek movies; but not a reboot that jettisons almost everything that made Star Trek interesting and unique.

In addition, Into Darkness has huge plot holes big enough to fly a whole fleet of Romulan warbirds through. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go through them in detail. I will only note that, for the Federation to get into the predicament that is the main focus of the plot, Star Fleet’s leadership would have to be ridiculously stupid. …

5. On the general topic of the future and space exploration, John Quiggin at Crooked Timber expresses skepticism about the prospects of humanity ever colonizing other worlds:

I’m going to assume (generously, I think) that the minimum size for a successful colony is 10 000. The only experience we have is the Apollo program, which transported 12 astronauts to the Moon (a distance of 1 light second) at a cost of $100 billion or so (current values). So, assuming linear scaling (again, very generously, given the need to accelerate to near lightspeed), that’s a cost of around $100 trillion per light-second for 10 000 people. 1200 light-years is around 30 billion light-seconds, so the total cost comes out roughly equal to the value of current world GDP accumulated over the life of the universe.

There’s some pretty good push back and counterarguments in the comments on Quiggin’s post. A few key points:

  • There are returns on investment and (non-linear) economies of scale. It’s more expensive to send the first two men to the Moon than to send the next two. Or: think of the Mercury Program, the Gemini Program, and Apollo 1 through 11 as R&D, or proof of concept. Once the Mercury Program, the Gemini Program, and Apollo 1 through 11 had worked out how to send a manned mission to the Moon, those R&D costs can be spread out over all subsequent Moon-landing missions.
  • Jerry Vinokurov restates the point above: “I find it hard to believe that the research costs are linear as well. Although the research project of constructing a colony ship may cost untold trillions (let’s say), once that project is complete, the cost of actually manufacturing successive ships is not going to depend on the distance those ships are going to be traveling.”
  • prasad: “As others have said, this notion of ‘cost per light second’ is nonsense. You need to pull out of the earth’s then the solar system’s gravitational well. That’s the main cost, not some mythical cost per unit distance.”

I would also point to this recent post by Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings:

Any species that reaches a state of high technological sophistication and survives is presumably a species that has figured out a way to live within ecological constraints. That is likely to include a managed birth rate. If they can manage to overcome the biological imperative of ever-expanding numbers of offspring, I have a hard time seeing them choosing to move from the comfort of a planetary surface to the sterility of space stations.

OTOH, if humans ever developed the ability to terraform Mars I can totally see them moving there. Not for the lebensraum, but for the “Because it’s there” factor. Likewise, while I have doubts about the feasibility of interstellar travel, if people ever do manage it they will totally migrate to other stars. Again, not because they had to but because they wanted to.

Indeed.

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Responses

  1. […] Allen Foster of the Pub Editor blog has an interesting round-up of commentary generated by Matthew Yglesias’ recent Slate article on Star Trek, including my own […]


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