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.
This was not just a political point; it was a metaphysical one. No episode expresses this more beautifully and more profoundly than “The Apple,” which may be the quintessential episode of the original Star Trek. In it, Kirk unashamedly violates the Prime Directive by ordering the Enterprise to destroy Vaal, the computer that rules over a planet paradise and its cowed inhabitants. Vaal is not just a totalitarian, he’s an omniscient god, and he demands sacrifices. Spock, remarkably, regards these last as “a splendid example of reciprocity.” When McCoy objects, Spock accuses him of “applying human standards to non-human cultures. I remind you that humans are only a tiny minority in this galaxy.” To this relativism, McCoy responds, “There are certain absolutes, Mister Spock, and one of them is the right of humanoids to a free and unchained environment, the right to have conditions which permit growth.”
Spock: Another is their right to choose a system which seems to work for them.
McCoy: Jim, you’re not just going to stand by and be blinded to what's going on here. These are humanoids, intelligent. They need to advance and grow. Don’t you understand what my readings indicate? There’s been no progress here in at least ten thousand years. This isn’t life. It’s stagnation.
Spock: Doctor, these people are healthy and they are happy. What ever you choose to call it, this system works, despite your emotional reaction to it.
McCoy: It might work for you, Mister Spock, but it doesn’t work for me. Humanoids living so they can service a hunk of tin.
Kirk agrees with McCoy. Like Milton’s Lucifer, he knows that Vaal controls the people’s lives “but to awe… / but to keep [them] low and ignorant, / His worshippers.” His devotion to individual liberation is not merely political, but metaphysical, and it is an absolute. Spock may cherish the notion of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” but Kirk knows there must be deeper, universal principles underlying and cabining that diversity, or it will become a dangerous nihilism and an excuse for primitive brutality. He knows that the logic of Spock’s non-intervention principle is only superficial—even a kind of condescending bigotry. Kirk refuses to think these people are fit only for slavery. He insists upon liberty—a liberty rooted in respect for the realities of life—and it is for all people, regardless of species and location. Of course, he knows all the while that freedom is not an easy road. But he also knows that utopianism is only a lie peddled by the power-hungry. After destroying their god, he tells the people
You’ll learn to care for yourselves, with our help. And there’s no trick to putting fruit on trees. You might enjoy it. You'll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves, work for yourselves, and what you create is yours. That’s what we call freedom. You’ll like it, a lot. And you’ll learn something about men and women, the way they’re supposed to be. Caring for each other, being happy with each other, being good to each other. That’s what we call love. You’ll like that, too, a lot. You and your children.
It’s tempting to snicker at that last part; that Kirk, the ladies’ man, wants only to free the people from their enforced celibacy. But think about it for a moment. This was written at the dawn of the Sexual Revolution, when women were being freed from their own stark confines. And prohibitions on sex—from Genesis to the Anti-Sex League of Orwell’s 1984—have long been a hallmark of repression. Kirk rightly sees that “original sin,” though symbolized by sex, is not just about sex. “Original sin” is knowing, asking questions, thinking for oneself. Kirk knows that freedom and responsibility are better than blissful placidity. Had Kirk been offered the choice in The Matrix between the harsh reality and the happy, perpetual illusion, he would unhesitatingly have swallowed the red pill. Kirk has no taste for illusions or euphemisms—one reason he’s a poor diplomat (“Earth! Hitler! 1938!”)
The writers of this series were rebelling, seriously, for serious reasons. Kirk’s decision in “The Apple” requires a moral confidence in the rightness of independence that was the lesson Roddenberry’s generation had learned from confronting the Nazis and the brinksmanship of the Cold War. That generation emerged from World War II committed to a Progressive liberalism that believed in prosperity, technological progress, and the universal humanity articulated in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Under John Kennedy in the U.S. and Harold Wilson in the U.K.—whose “white heat speech” was written by C.P. Snow of Two Cultures fame—this technocratic liberalism believed in raising the standard of living to foster individual happiness. But then came the rise of the New Left—a movement Ayn Rand called “the anti-industrial revolution.” This essentially Rousseauian anti-modernity movement saw the alleged evils of society as the consequence not merely of capitalism but of technology and reason itself. Civilization was not a protection against nature, but an alienation from nature. Throw off its shackles, and man would regain his union with the universe; injustice would fall away, and peaceful coexistence would reign.
“Peaceful coexistence” was especially critical. The war in Vietnam and similar crises helped give rise to a moral relativism that saw universal principles of justice as only a source of conflict. The New Left eschewed certainty to embrace toleration instead, and sought to substitute peace for liberty. In those lights, a man like Kirk, so committed to principles that he was willing, even eager, to fight for them, was out of place.
The original series not only rejected, but savagely parodied the New Left’s new Puritanism in “The Way To Eden.” There, the hippies’ longing for prelapsarian harmony is shown up as a deadly and hopeless illusion, however well intended. Eden is literally poison—and without science, the space hippies don’t realize it’s an illusion until too late. But illusion would gradually take over The Next Generation.
By the 1980s, when Next Generation was starting, things had changed a lot. The dramatic shift in the Democratic Party after 1968 had turned that party—the main articulator of American liberalism—toward moral and cultural relativism. Though the New Left had not completely come to dominate the Party (it’s never quite done that), it had made crucial inroads, particularly with the rise of the ecology movement (later renamed “environmentalism,” then “Green”). The Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the California Coastal Act, implemented extreme new curbs on growth and development. The space program was dramatically scaled back. Humanities departments at universities began to focus on ethnohistory and cultural sensitivty, adopting what in a few years would become known as “political correctness.” The artistic elites producing music, literature, and drama, felt the impact of the New Left most powerfully. Liberalism had changed so much that by the time Next Generation’s first episode aired, the Kennedy-esque anti-communist in the White House was now Ronald Reagan, a Democrat and former union leader who thought the Party had “left him,” and became the Republican’s Republican.
The Next Generation would reflect this change in the conscience of liberalism, and would feature a captain far less committed to universal principles of liberty and bold disillusionment. First, he would not be an American man of action, but a bureaucratized Frenchman. And he would be committed less to universal principles of justice than to coexistence and non-intervention. Picard would elevate the Prime Directive into the kind of morally obtuse dogma that Abraham Lincoln once satirized as the notion that “if one man should enslave another, no third man may be heard to object.” Kirk idolizes Lincoln. Picard admires—well, we’ll see whom he admires.
Fans have long enjoyed contrasting the two captains, but the differences are, well, “fascinating.” We have seen how, in “Errand of Mercy,” Kirk will fight the Klingons with all his energies, because they are brutal tyrants and killers. He does not fall for the mirage of the IDIC as Spock does—there are things worth fighting and dying for, and toleration must be skeptical. In “The Conscience of The King,” when the insane daughter of the mass murderer Kodos challenges Kirk—who is Kirk to judge?—he replies, “Who[m] do I have to be?”
But Captain Picard would seek ways to take shelter from principle and the responsibility of judgment. Consider his actions in “Redemption (Part One).” Picard has overseen the installation of Gawron as chief of the Klingon Empire. That decision follows Klingon law. The Empire is a Federation ally, and it had invited Picard to judge the leadership controversy. Mr. Worf has even joined Gawron as a member of his crew. But at this moment, the House of Duras, having fairly lost the dispute over their claim to leadership, revolts and attacks Gowron’s ship in full view of the Enterprise. Rather than defend the lawful leader of a Federation ally against a lawless rebellion of which he had been forewarned, Picard chooses to abandon Gowron—and his friend and shipmate, Worf—and orders the Enterprise to withdraw, rather than be “drawn in” to a Klingon Civil War. If that is not enough, Gawron—who happens to survive Picard’s craven abandonment—requests Federation aid against the rebels, who as they all know have been collaborating with the Romulans, deadly enemies of both the Klingons and the Federation. Again, Picard refuses, citing the non-interference directive that the Klingons waived by inviting Federation assistance. Alliance with the Federation, Gawron learns, is not very valuable.
What accounts for Picard’s incoherent foreign policy? His commitment to non-commitment. Picard was the creature of a new generation of writers devoted to non-involvement. His humanism is, accordingly, a shallow sentiment, not a firm grip on the great tragedies and possibilities of life. One of the most shocking examples of this is the episode “Symbiosis.” When he discovers that the Brekkians have been keeping the Onarans addicted to the drug so as to enslave them—just as Vaal had enslaved His feeders a generation earlier—Picard chooses the opposite course from Kirk’s, and refuses to tell the Onarans because doing so would violate the Prime Directive.
Crusher: These Brekkians have knowingly enslaved others. They have caused untold suffering and hardship, just so their pitiful lives could be easier. At least don't give the Ornarans more drugs.
Picard: It is not for me to make any of these decisions.
Picard caps off this refusal to decide with a self-congratulatory speech that Skeptic Ink rightly calls “a doctrine of moral laziness”:
Beverly, the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy... and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.
Invariably disastrous? This is clearly not the liberalism that gave birth to Kennedy’s Peace Corps, or to UNICEF and UNESCO. And it is definitely not the liberalism of the Kennedy inauguration, devoted as it was to ensuring the survival and success of liberty, for all people, at all times, in all places, forever.
Picard’s speech suggests that, just as Kirk’s commitment to universal principles goes deeper than politics, so does Picard’s sentimentalism. When it comes to the universe of real suffering, real need, and a real search for truth, Picard is content not to decide, not to take responsibility, and not to know. And when it comes to reality, Picard and his crewmates are satisfied with illusion.
Illusions play a shockingly large role in TNG—particularly in the metaphor of the holodeck. It’s hard to imagine James Kirk enjoying a holodeck for long. He rejects fantasy, time and again, most notably in Generations, when he’s offered everything he could possibly desire for retirement. “But,” he suddenly realizes, “it isn’t real.” And that is enough for Kirk to throw it all away. There’s an old saying about people who “navigate by fixed stars.” It’s a lovely metaphor, true of Kirk. But while it’s sometimes true of the crew of the Enterprise-D, they are ultimately more interested in emotional generalizations about human possibilities than in the harsh and serious business of living.
If the perfect expression of the older Star Trek was “The Apple,” the archetypical Next Generation episode is actually the film, Star Trek: Insurrection. It opens with Picard lamenting that he’s been relegated to boring diplomatic roles, bitterly asking his friends, “Anybody remember when we used to be explorers?” But soon he will learn better. The Enterprise crew are introduced to the Ba’ku people, who live in the kind of agrarian idyll that Tongo Rad and his friends sang about. Although filmed like a Crate & Barrel ad and scored with pastoral melodies, the Ba’ku’s village is shockingly primitive. They rake and hoe and weed and blacksmith by hand. But they do not do this because they do not know any better. No, they are idyllic—and are meant by the filmmakers as objects of admiration—because they deplore modern devices: “This village is a sanctuary of life,” Sojef tells Picard,
Our technological abilities aren’t apparent because we’ve chosen not to employ them in our daily lives. We believe when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.
Anij: But at one time, we explored the galaxy just as you do...
Picard: You have warp capability?
Anij: Capability, yes. But where can warp drive take us, except away from here...?
The Ba’ku would have nauseated James Kirk. Here is a species that lives “The Apple” not as captives but willingly. They have given up growth for stagnation which they have mistaken for life. And the audience is expected not to be revolted, but to appreciate it. And from this meeting, Picard learns not to long for his days as an explorer, or to dream the humanist dream. Indeed, at the end of the film, after the crew have saved the Ba’ku from danger, Picard encounters the Ferengi Quark, who fantasizes about developing the Ba’ku’s homeworld. He fends off Quark’s efforts to build. “This world is about to become a Federation protectorate,” he says, “which will end any and all attempts at exploitation by people like you.” Putting aside the strangely racist implications of “people like you” and “offlander,” which he calls Quark later—terms clearly aimed at the Ferengi race in general; no anti-Semitism here, move along—Quark asks “how five thousand time-share units... right there along the lake, would be ‘exploiting’ anyone.” It’s a valid question, but Picard is content with a horselaugh, and turning to the Ba’ku, tells them—amazingly—that “The ‘mighty’ Federation could learn a few things from this village.”
What, Kirk would ask indignantly, could the Federation possibly learn from this village? A village that has chosen not to explore, that has rejected the possibilities of modern agricultural methods, that has given up growth and life in exchange for an absurd romanticization of manual labor—for the fundamentally childish notion that you somehow “take something” from people when you create labor-saving devices and farming methods that increase crop yields and free them up to explore strange new worlds. Roddenberry’s generation of Star Trek writers would have regarded these ideas as hopelessly reactionary—as conservative—indeed, as literally inhuman. But by the climax of Next Generation, the ghost of Rousseau had taken firm hold. The last vestiges of the explorer in Picard—who so soon before was longing to again seek out new life and new civilizations—has decided that the UFP would be better off hoeing taro patches by hand.
Unknowingly, two years before Insurrection was released, Captain Janeway had pronounced the epitaph on Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. “It was a very different time,” she reflects. “Captain Sulu, Captain Kirk, Doctor McCoy. They all belonged to a different breed of Starfleet officers. Imagine the era they lived in: the Alpha Quadrant still largely unexplored... Humanity on the verge of war with the Klingons, Romulans hiding behind every nebula…. Space must have seemed a whole lot bigger back then. It’s not surprising they had to bend the rules a little. They were a little slower to invoke the Prime Directive, and a little quicker to pull their phasers. Of course, the whole bunch of them would be booted out of Starfleet today.” Of course they would. They were committed to a vision of justice, of liberty, of progress and humanist values that Star Trek had by then abandoned in the name of relativism, coexistence, and placidity.
I’ve gone on too long. The point here is not just to attack Next Generation. It has good episodes, and it can be thought-provoking. But what’s interesting about the comparison between the original series and Next Generation is how it charts the evolution of liberalism, from a philosophy devoted to technological progress and human liberation, into a philosophy of non-judgmental sentiment. The shift is deeper than politics, and is not just about the pre- and post-Vietnam experience. At its best, Star Trek talks about big ideas, in a big way. And the evolution of the franchise reflects a culture-wide change in how Americans have thought about the biggest idea of all: mankind’s place in the universe.