"The most common characteristic of all police states is intimidation by surveillance. Citizens know they are being watched and overheard. Their mail is being examined. Their homes can be invaded." ~ Vance Packard
The Trouble With Star Trek
Exclusive to STR
August 23, 2006
It's no secret among libertarians that Star Trek (in all of its various incarnations--the "classic" 1960's and more recent "Next Generation" TV versions, along with their respective motion picture counterparts, and even the Filmation cartoon version from the early 1970's) contains a great deal of Statism. This is even admitted by actor Walter Koenig (who Trekkies know as Mr. Chekhov, weapons officer aboard the 1960's Starship Enterprise ). After all, what is the United Federation of Planets other than an interstellar State, interlocuting its tentacles throughout the galaxy, comprised of both terrestrial and alien beings alike? And observe the command and control military structure of the Enterprise crew itself, with Captain Kirk (or Jean-Luc Picard, if you prefer) as its titular head. Alas, Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future was never as bold as that of Robert Heinlein or L. Neil Smith.
But especially shocking is one particular "classic" Trek episode, in which Kirk and his esteemed shipmates visit a planet which had been a Federation colonization effort some years earlier, which, for some unknown reason, had gone incommunicado. Upon teleporting to the planet's surface to investigate, they find that the colony's "leader" had long since transformed the entire society into a replica of Nazi Germany, replete with brownshirts, SS uniforms, fossil-fuel burning 1930's-era automobiles, and bullet-shooting firearms (no phasers or photon torpedoes). Stunned by this intentional regression into one of the darkest chapters in Earth's past, Kirk asks aloud to his crew: "Why? Why Nazi Germany ?" To which one of the colonists present replies: "Efficiency." Then, that supposedly unshakeable logician of Vulcan (well, half-human, half-Vulcan) origin, Mr. Spock, says: "Captain, Nazi Germany was the most efficient State in Earth's history." Kirk then replies, in ever-escalating shock: "But it got out of control! It had to be destroyed!"
Let's analyze this vignette just a little with a measure of logic which Mr. Spock, in at least this instance, fails to attain:
1.) When Captain Kirk asks "Why Nazi Germany?", therein is the unspoken implication that there ought to be a government of some sort ruling this colony -- just not a Nazi one.
2.) Spock's subsequent assertion does, admittedly, imply that states, in general, are inefficient. His contention that Nazi Germany was the most efficient of the lot, however, is questionable. Are we to believe that the efficiency of the ultra-repressive Nazi German State was greater than that of the quasi-free United States , for example? Upon what does Spock base such an assertion? That a fascist economy is more robust than a psuedo-capitalist one? Granted, the setting of Star Trek is the 23rd Century in our terrestrial terms, and so, views history from an imaginary vantage point which we have yet to attain. However, we can say that Spock's observation makes no suggestion that a State of any kind is inferior to a laissez-faire free-market society in which there is no State whatever -- a viewpoint which, one would hope, both Earthlings and alien races would full well understand by the 2200's, if not much sooner.
3.) Lastly, but certainly not of the least significance, is Kirk's rebuttal. To wit, its essential premise is that there is nothing wrong with the existence of a State, so long as it does not cross some arbitrary threshold beyond which, it becomes intolerable and counterproductive. Thus, in Kirk's view, not all states need, or even should be, dissolved -- only those which "get out of control." As if the control which states wield over their subjects is, in certain cases, "under control" and not only easy but also desirable to live with.
I once interviewed Walter Koenig for an article I wrote and published in the Portsmouth (NH) Herald newspaper, and subsequently met him at a science-fiction convention held at the University of New Hampshire 's Durham campus. During that interview, I asked him why he thought Star Trek, a television program which, originally, lasted barely three seasons (and only that long because of throngs of telephone calls and piles of fan mail pouring into the network), has endured and expanded in popularity to this day. He responded, in part, by saying that, unlike other sci-fi shows and movies of its day, which offered an apocalyptic view (such as Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green), Star Trek holds a more positive vision of the future.
At the time, as now, I tend to agree -- at least to the extent that the future which all things Star Trek prognosticates does not involve apes ruling men in the aftermath of atomic Armageddon, or human corpses being turned into mint-green Saltine crackers for mass consumption in a world where the eco-sphere is dying, and a steak costs the price of a good used car. The trouble with Star Trek, however, lies in the insistent reliance upon the false framework of the State, even in the futuristic space-traveling universe in which Kirk, Picard, and their respective crews hypothetically exist. That such a debilitating, wasteful, arrogant monstrosity should still exist in a time where men can travel freely among the stars, teleport to and fro at will, and intermingle with beings from other worlds, is to me, an unthinkable horror.
If we truly wish to "boldly go where no man has gone before," we need look beyond Star Trek. To do that, we need look beyond the State, as well.