Sunday, January 09, 2005

Modern Aesop's Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 2 of 7


The beginning of it all. Who knew that when this show, dubbed “Wagon Train to the Stars,” premiered it would revolutionize science fiction and television as we knew it. People tuned in each week for an exhilarating and optimistic view of the future and got far more than they expected. “Like any great work of art or literature, the Star Trek universe has an integrity and a resonance all its own, a completeness unrivaled by any other kind of science fiction. Any great work of literature is great because it somehow supercedes that which has come before, and Star Trek is no exception,” claims Thomas Richards. “It utterly supercedes both in depth and breadth the science fictions which have come before it. There is really nothing like Star Trek” (4). This new show did not, by a long shot, fit the standard mold. It was unique in every possible way. Here was a universe populated by people of all different shapes, colors and sizes who lived their lives in drastically different ways than ours, and seemed to have moved beyond the things we so graphically found ourselves viewing on the nightly news. Here was a group of people who lived not only at peace with one another, but also in an enriching and symbiotic environment in which they genuinely learned from one another. “In each of the television series, the most interesting characters frequently are those who are like us but also not quite like us. Star Trek encourages us to imagine what life is like from the nonhuman point of view,” declares philosopher Richard Hanley. “It teaches us something about ourselves and it exposes to popular consciousness (and so calls into question) the common conviction that members of the species Homo sapiens necessarily occupy a special place in the cosmos” (4).

One need only look at the bridge of the original Enterprise to see this multiculturalism at work. In turbulent 1960s America, entrenched in the Cold War abroad and race wars at home, Kirk’s bridge reads like a modern affirmative action advocate’s dream. The communications officer was not only a woman but a black woman. The navigator and helmsman were Russian and Asian, respectively. The second in command was a human/alien hybrid. The Original Series also presented a world in which the unknown was not to be feared but embraced. “In a very real sense, there are no monsters in the Star Trek universe, just living beings whose existence has yet to become familiar” (Richards 164). It taught us that just because someone is different than we are does not make that person someone to be feared or avoided. Additionally, Star Trek invested itself in powerful and controversial themes. “Star Trek routinely tackled subjects other shows were frightened to touch” (Marinaccio 52). The original series constantly pushed the boundaries of societal norms, at times making history, as when it portrayed television’s first interracial kiss.

The series’ ethical core can best be seen in the character of Captain James T. Kirk. An enthusiastic and often cavalier leader, Kirk took his uniform and obligations with grave solemnity but, as aforementioned, was not afraid to bend the rules. His duties to Star Fleet are prima facie, or conditional to the greater duty of beneficence. He sees his obligation to help others in opposition to his upholding sweeping rules which could not possible pertain to every specific situation. The Aristotelian ethic, that all relevant factors must be taken into account before any decision is made, rules the day. Additionally, Kirk always attempts to achieve balance in all he undertakes, which is nowhere more obvious than in the advice he consistently asks of his diametrically opposed friends, the logical Mr. Spock and the emotional Dr. McCoy. The controversial stands that the show was willing to take are splendidly shown in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield".

Summary: When the U.S.S. Enterprise intercepts a stolen Federation shuttlecraft, they discover the pilot is a humanoid named Lokai from the planet Cheron. Lokai, whose skin color is distinctly split between black and white, demands asylum aboard Enterprise. Soon after, Kirk and crew are visited by yet another inhabitant of Cheron, a man by the name of Bele. While at first glance it appears Lokai and Bele are identical, close observation reveals that the colors of Bele’s skin are exactly reversed from Lokai's. Bele claims he is a law enforcement officer sent to apprehend Lokai, who is accused of political treason. As the two men exchange venomous insults with each another, Kirk realizes that the fundamental issue between them, and indeed their entire race, is their opposite coloring. When Kirk refuses to indulge their racial rhetoric and instead concentrates on the Enterprise’s priority of decontaminating a nearby planet, Bele takes control of the Enterprise and leads it back to Cheron. What they find there is a long-dead planet where the inhabitants annihilated themselves by their bigotry. Lokai beams down to the surface to evade the enraged Bele, who quickly follows. Kirk and the Enterprise leave them on the planet’s surface to decide their own fates—the final survivors of a dead race.

Here, the race wars that enflamed America were presented as the loathsome and self-destructive one-sided squabbles they most often were. The two aliens’ irrational and depraved views of one another mirrored a society in which fire hoses and nightsticks were repeatedly being turned against African-Americans demanding nothing more than social equality. Additionally, Kirk’s seeming inability to see the glaring distinction between the two aliens’ appearances pointed the way to a more advanced society, one in which skin color was both irrelevant, and no longer perceived. Even after their entire race had obliterated itself in madness, the two men were still willing to pursue each other until the bitter end; this quest provided a stark and unsettling example of what unchecked bigotry has the potential to become. The message was not subtle. It was not meant to be. By tweaking reality in a way that made it astonishingly obvious, the writers of Star Trek were able to weave a powerful and timely story that rings as true today as it did when originally aired. The moral is as clear as “black and white”.


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