Thursday, 13 August 2009

Star Trek Essay: An Ideological Analysis

Having been so proud at finally making a splash into the blog-o-sphere, I've been too busy with uni to put anything together. So, as I used to publish these on Facebook, I'll now share my essays with you here. Comments always welcome.

COM2409 Media Texts - First Essay

Star Trek is one of the most successful and enduring entertainment franchises of all time. Encompassing six television series, eleven feature films, a plethora of licensed merchandise such as video games, toys, hundreds of novels, and even a theme park, not to mention a horde of mobilised active fans, Star Trek is a significant cultural phenomenon. This essay will discuss the claim that Star Trek (like all contemporary science fiction) can never escape dominant ideologies of politics, race, gender and sex, in its depiction of a supposedly utopian/progressive future. The aim will be to demonstrate that whilst the text carries an intentional liberal-humanist agenda, in presenting a utopian future it necessarily relies on ideological markers which work to undermine its supposedly progressive viewpoint. This will be achieved by providing examples from two episodes: “A Private Little War”, from The Original Series; and “A Perfect Mate”, from The Next Generation.

Originally pitched by its creator Gene Roddenberry as a ‘wagon train to the stars’, Star Trek was envisioned as a science fiction series, which would carry Roddenberry’s unashamedly liberal-humanist agenda into the future (Gregory 2000:25; Bernardi 1997:214). In situating the dramatic narrative in a science fiction universe, Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to go boldly where no television program had gone before; to develop a show that was intellectually stimulating and addressed social issues (Johnson 2005:72). This was achieved through Roddenberry’s meticulous planning of every detail, whereby he created not just a new show, but an entire new universe with customs, morals, a complete technology, and an entire rulebook for operating in that universe (Theall 1980:248). According to Roberts (2006:15), the attention to detail and the comprehensive description of reality in science fiction texts means that, very often, they read like realist texts.

This idea of realism is significant for the conception of ideology, which Marx describes as the ‘beliefs, values and ways of thinking and feeling through which human beings perceive, and by recourse to which they explain, what they take to be reality’ (Abrams 1993:24). He argued that the ruling elite, through controlling the means of production, also control the means to which ideas, meaning and reality, are disseminated through society, whereby ‘the ruling ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (Eagleton 1994:7). This Marxist approach to ideology was developed further by later theorists and the concept has become a critical tool for textual analysis. According to Hartley:
it is useful in insisting that not only is there no “natural” meaning inherent in an event or object, but also that the meanings into which events and objects are constructed are always socially oriented – aligned with class, gender, race or other interests (2002:106).
With regard to ideology, television is interesting in that ‘it uses codes which are closely related to those by which we perceive reality itself.’ In other words, it appears to be the natural way of seeing the world (Fiske and Hartley 1978:17). Therefore, with such a close relationship to realism, the writers of Star Trek could infiltrate contemporary concerns of its production time, such as civil rights and the Cold War, into its diegesis (Gregory 2000:25; Bernardi 1997:214). Fiske (1987:44) suggests that where there is social change and a shift in ideological values, television can be part of that change.

At the time of the show’s conception in the 1960s, the myth of the frontier and its attendant utopianism was re-awoken in the American psyche through Kennedy’s Cold War political rhetoric about ‘the new frontier’ in space (Bernardi 1998:79). In his use of the ‘western’ trope, Roddenberry was also able to couple his vision of the future to the past idea of manifest destiny (Bernardi 1998:78-79). These observations are exemplified in the voice-over at the beginning of each episode:
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Just as the wagon train connotes an idea of adventurism, and a Puritan ethic of conquest and civilising the ‘new frontier’, the ‘voyages of the starship Enterprise’ also invoke such a reading (Bernardi 1998:77).

However, if the future was to be a utopia, the past crimes of racism, colonialism and genocide had to be forgotten. Instead, in the fictional futuristic world of Star Trek, the people of Earth will have united across class, gender, and racial divisions, and war, poverty, disease and the nation-state will have been eliminated (Bernardi 1994:61; Gregory 2000:18). Earth would also be a member of the United Federation of Planets, a powerful interplanetary body with similarities to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) (Bernardi 1994:64).

In Roddenberry’s outline for the original series, he insisted that, by the twenty-third century, racial discrimination would be a thing of the past (Banks and Tankel 1990:31). This is demonstrated in the deliberate multi-cultural composition of the Enterprise’s crew in both series, which further suggests that in the future, the contemporaneous concerns of civil rights, Cold War tensions, and later neo-conservative racism, and gender bias, will have been overcome. Whilst this may appear as progressive, racism does still exist, not between humans, but between other races, whereby race essentially signifies ‘difference’ to humans (Wagner and Lundeen 1998:169).

The Cold War has also been transformed into a battle for galactic supremacy between the Federation’s main enemies, the Klingons and Romulans, with the three powers separated by a neutral zone, or if you like, an ‘iron curtain’, that prohibits one side crossing into the territory of another (Bernardi 1994:63). This idea becomes more apparent when you consider that the Klingon Empire is actually an analogue of the Soviet Union - roughly equal in power and influence to the Federation, it is imperialistic and totalitarian; and like China following the communist revolution, the Romulans are a secondary yet formidable regional power (Worland 1988:112).

In the episode “A Private Little War”, which was broadcast on 2 February 1968, just two days into the bloody Tet Offensive, and two months after opinion polls registered opposition to the Vietnam War, there is clear evidence to suggest that not only was the episode playing out a Cold War scenario, but its message was a self-conscious Vietnam War allegory. (Worland 1988:113). Thirteen years after an initial survey, Kirk has returned to the planet Neural, a primitive Eden inhabited by humanoids who hunt with bow and spear, and is shocked to discover that the Villagers are hunting down the peaceful Hill People with flintlock firearms.

As explained by Spock, the normal innovation time from bow and spear to firearms is 1200 years, which arouses Kirk’s suspicion that the Klingon’s have been tampering with development on the planet. On investigation it appears that the Klingons, to allay detection of their intervention, have been gradually introducing the new technology in small increments. Faced with the moral dilemma to arm the Hill People with equal technology, or allow them to be wiped out, Kirk reluctantly decides to maintain the ‘balance of power’.

In defending his decision to violate the Prime Directive, the overriding Federation law of non-interference, Kirk, in explaining his action to the outraged McCoy, refers to the “twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent”, which, he claims:
proved the desirability of maintaining a balance so that one side (presumably the Communist bloc, represented here by the Klingons) could not achieve the military domination that might have escalated regional struggles into a global holocaust (Wagner and Lundeen 1998:154).
The most telling quote, which demonstrates a political sensitivity and perhaps ambivalence to the Vietnam situation, is at the end of the episode. However, instead of finishing with a tidy light-hearted resolution as was the norm, Kirk calls the ship and bitterly orders Scotty to start manufacturing a hundred flintlock rifles, or “a hundred serpents…serpents for the garden of Eden.” Whilst Kirk is reluctant and conflicted in his decision, this clearly demonstrates an imperial mentality which is still dominant in the twenty-third century.

Skipping ahead eighty-five years to the timeline of The Next Generation series, the crew is still multi-cultural and under the command of a male captain, however, the mix of men to women has improved to reflect the prevailing real world concerns with women’s sexual and socioeconomic status, and their personal and professional positions (Bernardi 1998:106; Joyrich 1996:64). The deliberate attempt to improve gender representation is illustrated through the alteration of the opening prologue, changing ‘to go where no man has gone before’ to ‘to go where no one has gone before’. However, whilst women have greater representation, their roles are still in traditional caregiver roles. Rather than presenting a utopian future of equality, the viewer is invited to imagine a future in which the social hierarchy is still dominated by an authoritative, active and autonomous masculinity, against a supportive, responsive and passive femininity (Ott and Aoki 2001:404).

Furthermore, the heteronormativity which has been portrayed through both series is still the dominant. This is exemplified in the episode “The Perfect Mate”, which tells the story of Kamala, an empathic metamorph with the ability to “sense what a potential mate wants, what he needs, what gives him the greatest pleasure, and then to become that for him”. She is to be ‘gifted’ as a diplomatic ‘bride’ to encourage a truce between her people and an enemy they have been at war with for a long time. This reduction of her ‘womanness’ to that of commodity is troubling, and whilst Kamala says that she is doing it of her own free will, she admits that she has little choice in the matter.

The moral difficulty of the situation is played out in an exchange between Dr Crusher and Captain Picard, in which she accuses him of supporting forced prostitution. Picard defends his position by citing the Prime Directive rule of non-intervention, and refers to the use of arranged political marriages in other cultures. According to Joyrich (1996:68), Crusher’s failure to question the heterosexist demands of Kamala, simply assumes (and perpetuates) normative heterosexuality.

In conclusion, it has been demonstrated that whilst Star Trek has attempted to present a utopian progressive future, in articulating a discourse against dominant ideologies of politics, race, gender, and sex, and by appealing to a deliberate liberal humanist agenda, contradictions of representation have slipped into the text. Furthermore, these contradictions have limited the text as progressive, instead demonstrating that in the utopian future of Star Trek, imperialist wars are still fought, women continue to be fetishised as objects of male desire, and men continue to hold the highest positions of authority.


Abrams, M. H. (1993) “Marxist Criticism” in A Glossary of Literary Terms (6th edition). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Banks, J. and Tankel, J. D. (1990) “Science as Fiction: Technology in Prime Time Television”, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7: 24-36.
Bernardi, D. (1994) “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: Diegetic Logics and Racial Articulations in the Original Star Trek”, Film & History, XXIV (1-2): 60-74.
Bernardi, D. (1997) “Star Trek in the 1960s: Liberal-Humanism and the Production of Race” in Science Fiction Studies, 24 (2): 209-225.
Bernardi, D (1998) Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.
Eagleton, T. (1994). Ideology. London and New York: Longman.
Fiske, J. and Hartley, J. (1978) Reading Television. London and New York: Routledge.
Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
Gregory, C. (2000) Star Trek: Parallel Narratives. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Hartley, J. (2002) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd edition). London and New York: Routledge.
Johnson, C. (2005) Telefantasy. London: British Film Institute Publishing.
Joyrich, L. (1996) “Feminist Enterprise? Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Occupation of Femininity”, Cinema Journal, 35 (2): 61-84.
Ott, B. L. and Aoki, E. (2001) “Popular Imagination and Identity Politics: Reading the Future in Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Western Journal of Communication, 65 (4): 392-415.
Roberts, A. (2006) Science Fiction. London and New York: Routledge.
Theall, D. F. (1980) “On Science Fiction as Symbolic Communication”, Science Fiction Studies, 7 (3): 247-262.
Wagner, J. and Lundeen, J. (1998) Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos. Connecticut and London: Praeger Publishing.
Worland, R. (1988) “Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 16 (3): 109-117.


“A Private Little War”, Star Trek: The Original Series, airdate February 2, 1968, dir. Marc Daniels, Paramount Television.
“The Perfect Mate”, Star Trek: The Next Generation, airdate April 27, 1992, dir. Cliff Bole, Paramount Television.


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