Some of us Star Trek nerds—including Matthew Yglesias, Ilya Somin, and now Virginia Postrel—have spent the week talking about which series and which movies are best, and why. Yglesias thinks the Next Generation was the franchise’s best, and rates the original series surprisingly low on the list. Tyler Cowen rightly chides him for that; the original series had many strong episodes with boldly portrayed characters, where the Next Generation got awfully preachy and bland, especially at each ends of the series. Deep Space Nine got really good. And it’s true that Star Trek II is the best film—but as I argued here, Star Trek VI isn’t that good.
Both Yglesias and Somin concede that their views are influenced by their political opinions. That’s understandable, but what’s interesting is that both of them are types of liberals. Yglesias is a modern liberal; Somin a classical liberal. And viewed as a whole, the Star Trek franchise is generally an expression of liberalism in its various phases since 1966. That makes Trek an interesting reflection of the history of liberalism in the United States.
Gene Roddenberry and his colleagues were veterans of World War II, who were then fighting the Cold War against a communist aggressor which members of their generation rightly regarded as an “evil empire.” Except for those who went so far left as to support the USSR—of which there were not a few—liberals of that time regarded Russian and Chinese communism with horror, and considered the western democracies as the only thing standing against worldwide totalitarian dictatorship. The best expression of this was John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, which might as well have been written by the Ronald Reagan of a quarter century later. That address was devoted almost entirely to foreign relations—and to supporting those threatened with communist domination:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Not only could Reagan have spoken these words; they could have been spoken by the James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. In episodes like “The Omega Glory” or “The Apple,” Kirk stands boldly, iconoclastically, for principles of universal freedom and against collectivism, ignorance, and passivity. In “Errand of Mercy,” Kirk literally cannot comprehend why the placid Organians would sit back and let themselves be enslaved into the bushido Klingon Empire. Such pacifism literally disgusts him. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” he actually forces two worlds to bomb each other. Because he loves war? Of course not. Because he will not allow these people to delude themselves about the harshness of the war they are fighting. Kirk, like Kennedy, recognized that a peace without justice and without freedom is not actually peace, but the misnamed stillness of death.