Star Trek Shows Demise of the American Idea

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/11/2011 12:01:00 AM
Having shattered foolish notions that the "American Dream" is encapsulated by plausible metrics of US political-economic performance--it is, quite simply, a fraud--let us now turn our attention to how this reality is being reflected in pop culture. With the exception of the most delusional, anti-factual USA#1-style cheerleaders, Americans have become increasingly pessimistic about future generations being better off than they are. In a recent novelty article in Millennium, English school of international relations stalwart and LSE immortal Barry Buzan argues that the TV series Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica increasingly reflect this kind of (warranted) pessimism as a reflection of how America increasingly views its diminished situation.

Star Trek once portrayed a quaint, kumbaya interstellar organization in operation in the United Federation of Planets. For instance, even the warlike Klingons were eventually integrated into interstellar society by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came around. Witness Worf. Note TNG's time frame, however: it made its debut at the tail end of the feel-good Reagan years and was very much in full flow as the events 1989 saw the demise of the Warsaw Pact. Fukuyama-esque triumphalism pervaded in TV as in real life. Later series, particularly those which came after 9/11, have a much darker tone. In English School terms, it's a regression from international society to a more primordial and conflictual interational system. From Professor Buzan:
For IR types, the obvious appeal of Star Trek was that it pictured a Westphalian international system set in a galaxy and universe filled with life and civilisations. This set it apart from the common Manichean streak in [science fiction] in which, as in H.G. Wells’ landmark War of the Worlds, the plot revolves around a zero-sum war of extermination between species in which there is no place for diplomacy. Star Trek was on board with the view of those such as Robert Zubrin, that there is a high probability of intelligent life in the universe being widespread.

Since this was America in space, the interplanetary relations in Star Trek are not just realist or apocalyptic, but contain a strong streak of liberalism. America has, with a bit of help from the Vulcans, a species with a rather Zen-like culture, fulfilled its liberal dream of remaking the whole world in its own image. Federal America has become Federal Earth, which then becomes the United Federation of Planets. The Federation has many of the qualities of a moderately solidaristic international society in terms of human rights and some (not always honoured) obligations for collective defence. There are to be sure also pluralist elements such as the right to cultural distinctiveness, and in the wider galaxy the Federation lives in a power political international system. This ‘America’ has left behind its isolationism and taken its liberal proselytism into space.
Well that was then. How did this American final frontier look like in a matter of a few years? While certain politically correct elements date these latter episodes, the mood is decidedly darker as prospects for the end of history fade:
Interestingly for an American television show, religion remains somewhat in the
background, associated mainly with more primitive and/or non-human cultures. The Star Trek universe, or at least the parts of it dominated by humans, is a pretty secular place in which religion is kept in the private sphere [cosmic Protestant work ethic?]. All of this could be seen as an expression of America in the 1960s, confident in its right to own the future, blithely imperialist in a cultural way, willing but not eager to use force, having no interest in conquest and occupation, and with a deep commitment to progress, humanism, anti-racism and liberal values. At its best, Star Trek represented an expansive and optimistic view of the human condition and its prospects without being naively utopian.

All of this was clearer in the original series of the late 1960s, though it remained
strong in The Next Generation during the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the 1990s, the Deep Space 9 and Voyager series, and the Next Generation films, turned darker and more apocalyptic with wars of survival against the Dominion and the Borg. During the 21st century, with the Enterprise TV series, and the 2009 Star Trek movie, Paramount ran out of visionary steam with the franchise, failing to take the story of the Federation further, and instead focusing on prequels to the original series. These are also darker and more apocalyptic in mood than the original series.
Think of it: in the real world, modern-day "Klingons" (cling ons? Think North Korea, Myanmar, etc.) refuse to take part in the international system. What's more, they have a strong backer that allows them to continue their existence outside of international norms--China (today's collective "Borg"?) Certainly, you don't expect a rehashing of the wilfully obtuse Star Trek: The Motion Picture in which a Voyager satellite obviously launched by Americans is used as shorthand for a shared human consciousness while encountering alien others. Metaphors of American exceptionalism in cinema have been, well, Guantanamo Ghraibed. But I digress. Here he is once again:
On a deeper level, there is an old theme in science fiction literature, and up to a point in world history, that differentiates between societies that look outward and venture outward, and societies that look inward and close themselves off. The turn inward lobby is always strong, saying ‘why should we spend billions going into space when we have more immediately pressing welfare and security priorities at home (the parochial version) or on the planet (the cosmopolitan version)?’ In today’s America such sentiments can play to the country’s isolationist tradition, seeing itself as the exemplary ‘city on the hill’, but eschewing external political engagements lest they corrupt the purity of its revolution.
Simply put, it's no longer an ambition "to boldly go where no man has gone before" when conditions sustaining such adventurism becoming increasingly unfavourable on the homeworld--I mean homeland. And in so doing, Star Trek mirrors the end of the American idea.