Saturday, January 08, 2005

Modern Aesop's Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 1 of 7

Written in 2002

“We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons, and for one brief moment, you did… For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you’d never considered. That’s the exploration that awaits you, not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.” -- Q in "All Good Things…"

Okay, I admit it—I am a Star Trek fan. However, that banal confession does not do my rabid fandom justice. I’m the guy you see at the conventions. You know the one—dressed from head to toe as a Tarkassian razorbeast, lugging around discarded engine parts from a ’63 Buick LaSaber pretending they are Sub-Quantum Spatial Singularity Tachion Burst Detectors with built in Cappuccino makers. Yes, I’m that guy. The one who eats, drinks, sleeps, breathes and, if it were possible for the show to be incarnated in female flesh, I’d be the one who’d…well, I think we all get the general idea. And all this time I seemed normal, didn’t I? Fooled you.

I admit it is fun to indulge the Trekker stereotype. Stereotypes are, after all, stereotypes for a reason. It is enjoyable to divulge an obsession many see as utterly preposterous just so you can see their faces drop in disbelief and incredulity. But the truth of the matter is that the veneer of Star Trek’s almost religious fanaticism hides a much deeper, much more substantial reality. Star Trek is so much more than Klingons, photon torpedoes, and warp drive. Within the Star Trek universe is a highly complex and structured ethical system that drives not only the characters, but also the very stories themselves. Always known for its amazing effects and exciting adventure, Star Trek goes much deeper than simple entertainment and amusement.

What is science fiction if not a way for modern humanity to test the frontiers of the future? There, in that fabricated but strangely familiar world, we can experiment with new technologies, explore our collective wanderlust, examine our continued desire for conquest and colonization, and pose questions about how we will behave when we get there—all without leaving the comfort of our living room chairs. With science fiction, the only limits are those we impose upon our own imaginations.

Admittedly, it seems an erroneous proposition at first, but science fiction— and Star Trek specifically—has assumed the place of modern morality plays in our culture. The weekly episodes are a way to flesh out our ethical dilemmas in such a manner remote enough to provide distance, yet expansive enough to probe tangents that could not possibly be feasible today. By dealing with abstract quandaries instead of the more everyday plebian problems, Star Trek, and indeed all good science fiction, is able to rise above common ethical conventions and challenge personal belief systems on a level not possible through any other medium. “One reason why Star Trek has endured from one generation to the next,” says Dr. Judith Barad, “is that most of the stories themselves are indeed moral fables. Though the episodes are obviously self contained, when taken as a whole they constitute a harmonious philosophy” (xi).

Far from pushing the ethical issues away from any sort of modern understanding, Star Trek invites the audience to glimpse how they might engage their beliefs in a future that at times seems immediate and at other times improbable. Some would argue that the premises shown are so outlandish as to defy application. They would insist that the situations are too far-fetched even to be germane to ethical discourse. But they miss Star Trek’s point, and indeed its shocking brilliance: “Though many theories are quite able to account for normal situations, if we can’t apply them to circumstances that are unusual, then their inadequacy becomes clear” (Barad 327). Because Star Trek’s characters constantly find themselves in situations where they are called upon to make snap judgments about what is right and wrong, the ethical system on which they base their decisions must be broad and applicable to any and all situations, be they great or small. The Trek characters cannot escape the moral implications of their choices. “[T]here is no end to human freedom and thus no end to human responsibility” (Richards 182).

Somewhere around 600 B.C., a former Greek slave wrote and compiled a vast collection of allegorical stories that have come to be known today as Aesop’s fables. These parables, usually involving talking animals or some other such fantastical plots, always ended with a moral lesson. Widely circulated by oral tradition, the fables took on mythical lives of their own and became key examples by which parents and teachers were able to instill ethical behavior in their children. This tradition continues today. The talking foxes and donkeys have now been replaced by alien races with names like the Vulcans and the Romulans; the Greek landscape has been replaced by the immensity of populated outer space; and the human laborers are replaced by explorers far from home who are daily presented with astonishingly difficult dilemmas. The moral lessons, however, are just as potent and just as real.

“[S]pace serves as a landscape, beautiful and distinctly pictorial, a background for human activity and intensely human concerns,” writes former Harvard professor, Thomas Richards. “Despite the incredible vastness of space, the universe turns out to be a very personal place. The farther the Enterprise strays from earth, the more each individual becomes an island of humanity in a far and desolate place" (64).

Star Trek has cemented its place in modern pop culture not only for its staggering creativity but also for the language and ideas it has contributed to our modern lexicon. Ignoring the obvious additions of the show’s catchy and amusing aphorisms and technological wizardry that now seems within reach, another substrata of subtle influence lies just below the surface. Perhaps Star Trek’s three most tangible contributions to the ethical debate are the Prime Directive, revolutionary utilitarianism, and the Vulcan IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations).

Star Trek’s most vivid philosophical statement is one that binds the entire show together and, at times, binds the very hands of its characters. This idealistic (and admittedly dramatic) tool is none other than the Prime Directive, which writer Dave Marinaccio describes this way:

"Central to everything in Star Trek is the non-interference directive, the Prime Directive. It may be the most important idea in the series. The way the directive is applied or not applied is as interesting as the concept of the directive itself. The Prime Directive prohibits the captain and crew of the Enterprise from interfering in the internal affairs of any planets they visit. This rule not only protects the people of the planet, it protects the crew. Noninterference keeps the crew from getting into the middle of a private fight. Since they don’t get involved, they don’t have to pick sides. If you understand the preceding, you should also understand this. Episode after episode, Kirk ignores the Prime Directive and does what he believes is right. What then is the lesson here? A great one. People are more important than rules. Enforce the spirit of the law above the letter of the law. The Prime Directive was instituted to protect people. When the directive gets in the way of protecting people, ignore it. A person who understands a rule knows when to break it. A person who understands a rule understands intent. Kirk does the right thing when he interprets the rule to fit the situation" (48).

The futuristic view of Utilitarianism was brought out most perceptibly in the motion pictures, The Wrath of Khan and its sequel, The Search for Spock. After sacrificing himself to save the imperiled crew of the Enterprise, a dying Spock explains to his captain and friend a theme that has been running through the entire film: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one. Fascinatingly, however, this philosophy is turned on its ear in the next film when Kirk demolishes his career and places the lives of his friends and shipmates in jeopardy in an uncertain effort to resurrect his dead friend. The reason? Sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

Star Trek’s final philosophical underpinning is the Vulcan IDIC, or the belief in “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” Celebrating diversity long before it became a catch phrase, Star Trek lauded humanity’s attempts to incorporate all views and all beliefs into one humanistic stew. “That some people’s beliefs, customs, color, size, or shape,” Majal Barrett Rodenberry said of her husband, Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry, “would prevent them from attaining the respect of others or from living the fullest life possible was unthinkable to him” (2). From its very beginning thirty-five years ago to its current incarnations, Star Trek has been about more than episodic drivel and cinematic escapism. More than any other show on TV, Star Trek has been about the great issues and the way in which we as human beings confront and overcome them.

“The great achievement of Star Trek is not the creation of a principle in theory but the staging of a variety of circumstances testing it in practice" (Richards 14). Very well. Let’s view the principle in practice. Let’s examine each of the five series, looking at the various captains for insight into that particular series’ overriding ethical bias. Furthermore, let us highlight one episode from each series in an attempt to distil from it what makes Star Trek such an influential and significant voice in our modern ethical and moral arena. Through this exposition, you will come away not only with a greater appreciation for the series as a whole but also with a greater respect for the role Star Trek has played in our cultural and societal worldview.

Tommorrow: The Original Series--"Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"


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