Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Fictional Sceptics #6: Star Trek (part 1)

Star Trek is one of the best-realised and most popular science fiction universes in the history of the genre. It is also fertile ground for musings on the subject of scepticism in its content; so fertile, in fact, that I've decided to give over more than the usual solitary entry to the discussion thereof.

In this, the first part, I want to focus on the secular humanism that can be seen in virtually every episode of both the original series (TOS) and the Next Generation (TNG). As noted in this thread on the Richard Dawkins forum, atheism and secularism is often portrayed as amoral; one of the best arguments against this (in the world of fiction anyway) is the Star Trek of Gene Roddenberry*.

If anything, the Star Trek morality is too prominent much of the time, and can make for some rather cheesy (some even tedious) moments of moralising. Wherever one stands on this issue, it's hard if not impossible to make a case that there is no moral message in Star Trek; and equally hard to make a case that the morality that is there is religious in origin. Indeed, back in the early days, it was quite the controversy that there wasn't a chaplain of any kind on board the Enterprise - despite the network executives' attempts to crowbar one in, Roddenberry was adamant.

What is also worth remembering is the radically progressive nature of TOS when it first aired. Not only were men and women portrayed working side by side as equals, but people of different races also. In fact, a previous draft of the proposal to the network for the show had Majel Barrett (later Roddenberry's wife) in the role of second-in-command. While this was more radical than the network could accept at the time, the version that finally aired was certainly still very progressive for its time.

This entry is not intended as an exhaustive essay on humanist morality in Star Trek; for more details on this fascinating subject, see this interview with Gene Roddenberry for The Humanist. Try to ignore the occasional typo or spellcheck error (though I have to say, "Captain Piracy" is one of the better ones I've ever seen). I also recommend the recent Point of Inquiry interview with Tom Flynn.

Tune in next time when I'll be discussing the numinous aspects of Star Trek, and how it shows brilliantly that secular doesn't mean soulless (except perhaps in the literal sense).

* Once Rick Berman took over, coming into the series of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, there is a noticeable trend of greater accommodation for the supernatural, religion, and things that cannot be explained by science. The Bajorans (particularly the crazy weirdness they had going on with Sisko) and Chakotay's Native American spiritualism are the obvious examples. While not intrinsically a bad thing, the secular messages took a substantial nose-dive with the departure of Roddenberry.


Jack of Kent said...

Happy new year Darkwinter!

Great and thought-provoking post, as always.

I am afraid that I always found Star Trek too preachy and smug.

The TV programme which most interested me from a skeptical point of view was the X-Files. Not so much the main characters and mythology, but the attempt to depict how the government WOULD actually act if they believed there was something in Woo-dom.

Long before that, though, what really booted me into the secular camp was Monty Python's Holy Grail, which seemed to me then (as a 10 year old) and does now as a incredibly plausible explanation of the origins of a religion.

I am looking forward to the next part of your analysis of Star Trek. Did it influence your outlook, or is was it that it resonated with an outlook you had already formed? Or a mix?

Best wishes, Jack

Darkwinter said...

And a happy new year to you, good Sir Kent. It's good to hear from you again.

I grew up with The Next Generation, so the preachy and smug aspects were less pronounced to my young mind - having, as I did, nothing with which to compare it. But looking back now, the Federation's do-gooder attitude does grate on me somewhat.

I've only watched the pilot episode of the X-Files, but I did mention it in my initial post inaugurating this series back in May. I did concentrate on the characters there, in that Mulder is the believer and Scully the sceptic - it's interesting to see how each react to the situations.

I don't think one thing booted me into the secular camp, as I was more or less raised secular; my parents were careful not to feed me any dogma and let me make up my own mind about these things.

That said, and to answer your question, I think growing up watching Star Trek (TNG) would have had quite an impact on my general outlook, most likely formative rather than informative.

Von said...

Holy Grail seemed a plausible explanation for the origins of a religion? Are you sure?

Your comments on the increasing mysticism in DS9 intrigue me - it's been a long time since I watched any Star Trek at all, but the more I think about the first series of DS9 the more sense it makes.

The curious thing is that I've always felt DS9 was improved by the differences from Roddenberry's original setting (it always feels like there are more moral ambiguities, more consequences to actions and more character developments that arise from a static setting, and a society with enough tensions to feel realistically cosmopolitan) - perhaps the occasional bout of borderline-loopy mysticism contributed to that?

Maybe it's me, but I prefer tension between ideas to secular utopianism. TNG had its occasional tours of the Prime Directive and similar moral dilemmas but I don't remember any low-key ongoing Issues.

That said, it's been a while.

Looking forward to part the two.