Star Trek: sign of our times or out of touch?

Nathan Schneider of Religion Dispatches reviewing the new Star Trek movie says, “I liked the new Star Trek, I really did. Despite earlier concerns that it might ravage my Trekkie childhood, … But, having read this week’s proclamations that this was a Star Trek for the brave new age of Obama (in Slate and the Huffington Post), I found the film a political downer. If this is Obama’s Trek, it’s the Obama that makes me wish I’d voted write-in for Jean-Luc Picard.”

Society, Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, rests on a dose of healthy repression. This leads me to another point. The golden ages of Star Trek have thrived on prolonged meditations on repression. It began, actually, in the show’s original 1966 pilot, in which the character Number One (played by creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett) showed none of the emotional hysteria expected of onscreen women at the time. Deemed too racy by the network, her demeanor was given to Spock, the half-Vulcan who spent the next three years’ worth of episodes struggling to stay logical amid the raging passions of his friends. While Spock was always trying to shun his human half, The Next Generation’s android crew member Data wanted nothing more than to become more human. Still, lacking an emotion chip, Data blundered his way through personal interactions with what turns out to be an uncanny charm and wisdom. Star Trek, you would think, makes a bit of a case for self-control.


In this latest iteration, where we see Spock in both young and old forms, he really lets loose. His mother, father, and older self all give young Spock lots of encouragement to just be himself, dude, to feel stuff, and to talk about it. The parting advice that old Spock gives to young Spock is no less than a ’60s individualist mantra: “Do what feels right.” As opposed, of course, to what is logical.

I can’t help feeling that there is a connection between the loss of tortured-yet-sympathetic repression and the loss of political consciousness in the recent Star Trek. Our society, and consequently our science fiction, has gotten so uncomfortable with self-discipline that Data needs an emotion chip and Spock needs to go in for Primal Scream therapy. Meanwhile, politics goes off the map. What were once complex enemy societies that might someday become allies have turned into Saddam Hussein-style villains. Setting our emotions free, somehow, means the freedom to see our enemies as demonic madmen, to forget about a Great Society that might someday encompass us all. Maybe Freud was right; maybe it’s time to start thinking about mastering our passions again, rather than unbridling them.

Part of what has made Star Trek such a powerful franchise has been its eerie habit of taking the barometer of its times (often the best of its times), and of pointing a way forward. It showed the first interracial kiss on American television, and it invented the flip-phone. I hope, for our sake, that Star Trek has finally gotten out of touch.

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