The final series of Star Trek marks a cowardly retreat from exploration-not just of the final frontier, but the entire mission of American liberalism once symbolised by Kirk and Spockby Mike Marqusee / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Like few television shows before or since, Star Trek has soaked deeply into the grain of contemporary popular culture. Appearing in four distinct incarnations over the past three and a half decades (with a fifth on the way), it is the longest-running and most popular television series of all time, as well as a highly successful movie franchise with nine feature films released to date and a tenth in preparation. Scarcely a day goes by without some headline punning on its catchphrases: “the final frontier,” “to boldly go,” “it’s life, Jim but not as we know it.” Lobby correspondents routinely compare John Redwood to a Vulcan, though politically-literate Trek fans are convinced he’s actually a Romulan.
The protagonists of the original 1960s series (Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, Dr McCoy, Chief Engineer Scott, Lt Uhura) and the actors who portrayed them (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols) have become folk heroes. Nasa’s first space shuttle, Enterprise, was named after the iconic starship featured in the original series and its successor, The Next Generation. Thanks to Nasa, the ashes of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, were scattered in space.
Why has Star Trek remained so popular for so long? Even allowing for the high quality of much of its acting, writing and design, the source of its perennial appeal is the commitment brought by all its makers, from Roddenberry to the current custodians of the franchise, to a guiding social vision and the exploration of a basic premise. Which is: that humanity can solve its domestic problems (though in the Trek mythos it takes the thermonuclear cataclysm of a third world war to provide sufficient motivation), and in the future will be able to export those solutions peacefully to much of the galaxy via a United Federation of Planets, with Starfleet as its operational arm. In charting that master narrative, the programme-makers have been guided, not always reliably, by the moral compass of a very American liberal humanism, with all its high-minded ideals and embarrassing contradictions.
Starfleet, according to Gene Roddenberry, wasn’t so much a military organisation as “paramilitary.” Though its jargon and hierarchy owe much to British naval traditions as transmitted through Roddenberry’s beloved Hornblower books (whence originated Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s catchphrase “make it so”), Starfleet’s brief is not imperial rule. The driving impulse is exploration for its own sake and much of the work is…