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We Come In Peace, Shoot To Kill

17/04/2010

How could I have forgotten how great Star Trek is? Now I’m talking about the series with the bald guy; everything else was either before or after my time. But somehow I repressed the memory of being a huge trekkie between the ages of I guess nine and twelve, until I discovered all the old episodes on YouTube (didn’t I once ask a barber for a haircut like Data’s? yeah I did). But while the acting, stories, and even production values hold up remarkably well, I’m noticing a dimension to Star Trek: The Next Generation that slipped past me when I was a kid. I’m talking about its handling of the issues of race and culture which, one could even say, is its major theme.

This won’t be a simple Star Trek is racist garbage post; I’m sure, literally, people have written graduate theses on the subject. I just want to offer my take on its complex take on a complex issue. I’m sure it’s been said before, but Star Trek in all its incarnations was pathbreaking in its multiracial cast and its unflinching exploration of cross-cultural exchange. But let me set out its premise in my own terms. Some time in the future, mankind has embraced science and rationality and thus solved all its problems. No more hatred, war or famine. Pretty much the whole negative aspect of what we call the human condition has been done away with. So we explore the galaxy seeking out alien cultures so we can learn more about them. See, this is why I tend not to like Sci-Fi in general; it’s anthrocentric fantasy that believes people can change what they’ve been unable to for like four thousand years, in which technology takes the place of religion and God. But I digress and I do like Star Trek.

Above: This scene has nothing to do with anything, I just think it’s funny

My favorite episode of TNG (which I’ve confirmed, by watching it again just now) is the one where Riker gets sent on the exchange program to serve on a Klingon ship. First of all, I just like it when they have to do these mundane things like attend boring cocktail parties (the future hasn’t invented a cure for Boring) or be exchange students. But it’s a great episode with witty dialogue and suspenseful action; and it plays on a theme close to my heart. So basically, the alien exchange officer on the Enterprise messes up and arouses the Klingon’s suspicion. So the white guy, I mean Riker has to use his cross-cultural knowledge and save the day. At one point there’s a memorable exchange between him and the Klingon Captain: he suggests the expression of feeling within Klingon families is too cold and inflexible. “Perhaps you should try things our way,” he suggests. “After all, I ate [unpronounceable and hideous Klingon cuisine].”

Well, there you have it. Federation culture is about Shakespeare and Westphalian sovereignty. “Alien culture” (and the word alien is used with odd frequency in Star Trek, even by “aliens”) is about eating live worms.

Above: Back in the Original Series, Klingons were all descended from Fu Manchu

The thing is as I see it, Star Trek didn’t really change anything. The situation two thousand years in the future is the same as it is now: a predominately white, European culture nosing around and encountering other cultures. Minority groups are accorded prominent roles in Starfleet (in fact, there is a suspiciously high incidence of female/black/Asian Starfleet admirals), but the cultural ethic is uptight, high-toned, rationalistic and bearing all the hallmarks of a liberal, upper-middle-class white attitude. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. White people can make art about themselves too. But it’s the illusion that mankind has made some sort of progress, that I find problematic.

Other species are rarely depicted as more than objects of curiosity for the Enterprise. Their civilization either outlines a social problem, or is idyllic and destroyed by contact with an outside culture, or is hostile (and if they’re more intelligent than humans, they probably live in a mysterious nebula and kill anyone who noses around). It’s almost funny how they had to keep making up new races (first the Klingons, then the Romulans, then the Cardassians) to serve as antagonists when the previous race had become humanized and sympathetic.

Above: I love Cardassians. If I were in Stark Trek I would probably be a Cardassian

The thing is, it’s very hard to imagine a human race existing on unfamiliar cultural terms. Projecting current trends into the future, the vast majority of crewmen on the Enterprise would probably be AsianMiddle Eastern and/or Hispanic; what if the whole crew of the Enterprise worshipped Allah? What if that was what united mankind in the year 2260? I find that more plausible, rationally speaking, than contact with the planet VulcanI would watch that show but I’m not sure anyone else in America would. All I’m trying to suggest is the difficulty of stepping outside one’s own cultural frame of reference (especially in a syndicated TV show)–in fact it reminds me of a different Start Trek episode; the one where Professor Moriarty traps some dudes inside the holodeck, so they trap him inside a holodeck inside the holodeck&etc…It’s hard to get out of there. The temptation always exists, as it well should, to repeat Lieutenant Barclay’s line at the end of that episode: “Computer, end program.” You know, just to be on the safe side.

Incidentally–I’m sure it’s just a coincidence–but how many Japanese girls were knocked up by white guys aboard the Enterprise? The correct answer is two: O’Brien’s wife Keiko and Nurse Ogawa. How many Japanese guys served aboard? Ze-ero. But I do recall an Admiral Nakamura so I guess it’s cool. Kokusaijin out.

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