The most famous science-fiction program that has stood the test of time and continues to reinvent itself is Star Trek. For our purposes, we will limit our discussion to its first, and in many ways best, incarnation, the original Star Trek from the 1960s, now known as Classic Trek. Star Trek is more than a mere “space opera.” It is a thoughtful and thought provoking television show that is rich in philosophical insight.
For those of you not from Planet Earth, Star Trek chronicles the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a starship in the United Federation of Planets that is exploring the galaxy in the twenty-third century. Captain James T. Kirk, First Officer Mr. Spock, the irascible Dr. McCoy, and the rest are pop culture icons and contemporary archetypes, the stuff of modern mythology. You all know its mission statement by heart: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Of course, this mission statement was changed to “where no one has gone before” in Star Trek: The Next Generation — though Captain Kirk says it as the last line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last film to star the original cast. This cleverly makes Kirk the first person to say it, bridging the generations.
Captain Kirk and Humanism
This concept of men (and women) boldly going in search of knowledge, insight, and wisdom is the cornerstone of Renaissance Humanism. Indeed, the predominant philosophy that weaves its way through all the incarnations of Star Trek is Humanism. Humanism, you will recall from an earlier chapter, is a celebration of mankind in all his splendor and the many exploits we can achieve in our human endeavors. It places the onus and the credit for achievement and accomplishment squarely on the shoulders of Herculean and Homeric men and women, not on any divinity dropping down with a deus ex machina solution to our problems.
In the Star Trek universe, World War III was fought in the 1990s (Next Generation moved it up to the 2050s). The nihilism that many people felt during the Cold War, and that many feel today as we enter what is shaping up to be a not-so-brave new world, came to fruition in Star Trek: a nuclear conflagration in the immediate future, but the best and the brightest survived and thrived, creating a high-tech Utopia where all racial barriers dissolved, all diseases are cured, and mankind en masse begins a great journey of discovery. The tag line for the first Star Trek feature film was “The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning.” What better clarion-call for the Humanist philosophy?
Deities are not treated with much respect in Star Trek. They are usually false gods who do much harm and little good, or godlike creatures who represent the “Trickster archetype,” cosmic mischief-makers who bedevil the mere mortals. The Trickster is a mythological figure that appears in the myths and legends of every culture. This impish demigod loves to cause havoc among humans, but often the nuisance is designed to teach and assist mankind.
The notorious Q from Next Generation is basically a variation on General Trelayne, a character in the Classic Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos.” These characters torment Captains Kirk and Picard, but humanity and human values triumph in the end. In the Star Trek universe, super-intelligent beings are also intergalactic fops.
The “gods” encountered by the Starship Enterprise are beings that thwart the potential of the creatures they serve and turn them into virtual slaves. In “The Apple,” the inhabitants of a paradise-like planet worship a “god” called Vol. These primitive people live in an Eden where all their needs are provided for, given they periodically pay tribute to a fire-breathing cave god. Captain Kirk and company arrive on the scene and promptly function as the snake in the Garden of Eden. They destroy paradise for the simple folk, and they are better off for it, because mankind is meant to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Another dysfunctional god is found in the episode “The Return of the Archons.” Here the Enterprise, while searching for a missing starship, arrives at a planet where the inhabitants resemble dour, puritanical New Englanders (some of them complete with the regional accent) who live in what looks like a nineteenth-century small town. They are passive and placid as if on Prozac until the night of “Festival.” Festival is an orgiastic explosion of sex and violence. Property is destroyed, men are beaten with clubs, and women are raped. Festival is a mandatory affair, except for the elderly. One old coot who cannot attend chastises the Enterprise crew for refraining from participating in the Festival.
The “gods” that appear in Star Trek are usually false gods and meddlesome, if not downright hostile forces that try to prevent mankind from “boldly going.” This is another expression of Humanism.
The Festival is Star Trek's way of speaking to Dr. Carl Gustav Jung's notion of “the shadow.” The shadow represents our unconscious drives of lust and aggression, and unless these elements are integrated into the whole personality, the shadow will surface unbidden, usually with antisocial results.
It turns out that this planet is ruled by a highly moralistic supercomputer that functions as God for the citizenry. Kirk plays God by deciding that this society is stagnant and sterile because of its God, so with the aplomb in an avowed humanist, he makes good on Nietzsche's axiom that God is dead by talking the computer-god into shutting down.
The most notorious “anti-God” and pro-Humanist stance is expressed in one of the Star Trek feature films. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier deals with nothing less than the crew of the Enterprise boldly going on a quest for God Himself. The starship is hijacked by Spock's messianic and completely crazy half-brother, who believes that God resides on a planet in the center of the galaxy. This leads to an anticlimax for both the crew and the viewer. They do find a powerful entity that manifests itself as a white male with a white beard, but it is a demonic creature. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy barely escape with their lives, and Kirk later offers a “final thought” that God resides “in the human heart.”
The dominant philosophy expressed in Star Trek is Humanism, the belief that mankind's mandate to “boldly go where no one has gone before” is his and his alone to achieve. Mankind can do just fine without divine intervention.
Man versus machine is another expression of Humanism in Classic Trek. One of Captain Kirk's many gifts is his uncanny ability to be able to talk computers into self-destructing. In several episodes, including the aforementioned “Return of the Archons,” Kirk gives Landru the computer-god a good talking-to, prompting it to blow itself up. And in “The Ultimate Computer” the Enterprise becomes fully automated, and Captain Kirk is in effect rendered obsolete. Of course, the computer goes awry and destroys a couple of other Starships. Kirk is able to convince the computer to commit suicide to atone for its crimes.
Recall that the Deists believed that God was akin to an impersonal cosmic grandfather clock that kept things running smoothly, but with no interest in the affairs of humankind. The god of the Deists is no warm and reassuring omnipresence. Transfer the analogy to the Star Trek universe, and the clock would be a supercomputer. Not an indifferent celestial computer, however, as was the Deist's clock. Computers and false gods are malevolent forces in the Humanist universe of Star Trek.
One of the grand old Greeks takes a hit in an episode called “Plato's Stepchildren.” The Enterprise comes upon a civilization of aliens who visited earth in ancient times and modeled their own society after Plato's Republic. These aliens (who like almost every species the Star Trekkers encounter, look just like humans and speak perfect English) revere Plato, wear togas and laurel crowns (though this is more Roman than Greek), and devote themselves to contemplation and introspection. Unlike the ancient Greeks, these devotees of Plato have telekinetic powers. Oh yes, they also torture and humiliate the one misfit in the community who is unable to defend himself, a dwarf named Alexander. These sadistic pseudo-philosophers then subject Kirk and Spock to all manner of indignity, from causing Kirk to repeatedly slap his own face to making Spock do a flamenco dance over the prone Kirk, poised to stomp the good Captain's head. Kirk eventually saves the day and gives the haughty leader of the aliens a taste of his own medicine.
In Plato's Republic, there is a rigid caste system where the worker classes are given short shrift and limited enjoyment of what society has to offer. It is a flawed societal role model within which not too many of us would want to be a citizen, and Star Trek shows the flaws of absolute power corruption absolutely. Speaking of which, this is another recurring philosophical theme in Star Trek.
In the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Captain Kirk's best friend is affected by a spatial anomaly and begins to develop superhuman mental and physical powers. Does he become benevolent and godlike, and all-around cosmic muffin? No, he becomes a dangerous and diabolical megalomaniac who Kirk has to kill after a knockdown, drag-out fistfight. That Kirk! He can even defeat godlike supermen via the manly art of pugilism. However implausible the plot, the philosophical principle is a universal truth.
No discussion of Star Trek supermen would be complete without mentioning Khan, who appeared in the episode “Space Seed” and the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Khan is a genetically engineered superman who ruled one-quarter of the world between 1992 and 1996. Did you miss that on CNN? Khan is the perfect example of Nietzschean “superman” run amok. With both physical and mental prowess, often overweening hubris is attendant, and Khan Noonien Singh is no exception. Fulfilling your maximum human potential is one thing. That should always be encouraged. However, an aggressive contempt for your fellow citizens and a wanton disregard for civility and decorum should not be the byproduct of physical and mental superiority. A kinder, gentler superman is what we should strive to be, should we look to Nietzsche's superman as a role model.
Mr. Spock and the Objectivists
Even though Captain James T. Kirk is the swashbuckling hero of Star Trek, Humanist and babe magnet extraordinaire, his sidekick Mr. Spock embodies many philosophies, from Stoicism to being a poster boy for the Objectivists.
Star Trek's Mr. Spock is a hero for many Objectivists. He is the quintessence of the Rational Man, who despite internal struggles remains the epitome of logic.
Mr. Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan First Officer of the Enterprise, embodies the Stoic ethic. Vulcans long ago eschewed emotion, believing that logic is the path to the Truth. It is not that they are without emotions; they repress them through will power and discipline. The Stoics consider this a good thing. Passions were an unnecessary distraction and complication in leading a good life. Of course, the Jungian theory of the Shadow is present here. The emotions repressed by years of practice and discipline resurface from time to time. Every seven years, Vulcans must return to their home planet to mate (like the salmon on Planet Earth or the flying eels of Rigel IV). And emotions are also brought to the surface by space viruses and evil aliens.
These episodes reveal the inner torment of Mr. Spock and show that in many ways, he is more human than his earthling shipmates. This struggle with self-control and idealization of Reason had made Mr. Spock popular with Ayn Rand's Objectivists. Spock is a hero to those who value Rationality as a prime virtue. He embodies the heroism and drive that the Objectivists set as a standard for what it means to be a fully realized hero in a hostile world, or in Spock's case, a hostile universe. He also embodies the virtues of the Enlightenment in this regard. And, for those mere mortals attempting to emulate this ideal, Spock is a powerful example because it is never easy for him. He struggles to maintain his logical nature despite profound internal and external struggles. Half-alien and half-human, he embodies the existentialist belief that much of life is a sense of “alienation,” and he is also, to quote the title of one of Nietzsche's books, Human, All Too Human.