No spec fic story is more iconic for optimism than Star Trek, with its post scarcity economies and its powerful message of equality. But how does that optimism actually manifest across a franchise that continues to grow by the day? It won’t surprise you that some Trek shows have lived up to the ideal better than others, but which ones, and why? That’s what we’re talking about today, plus a look at a certain other show which desperately wants to be like Star Trek but can’t quite manage it.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren with me today is…
Oren: It’s just the two of us this week. Chris, I’m going to need you to take the ship to red alert because we’re going to discuss Star Trek as an optimistic future, which is a fairly contentious subject. So we have to be ready for anything.
Chris: I don’t know. Red alert doesn’t sound very optimistic.
Oren: [Ironically] Ooh. Hmm. Yes. I suppose the very peaceful Federation would not have such a use for a red alert. That implies they might need to fight somebody.
Chris: Or they haven’t solved all of their problems.
Oren: Right. Why would they need alerts anyway? It’s like that one early TNG episode with the people who get unfrozen from the eighties. And one of them is like “Picard, if we’re not supposed to use the intercom, why isn’t there an access code on it or something?” And Picard’s like, “Well, nobody in Star Trek would ever misuse the intercom.” And you go back three or four episodes and Wesley used the intercom to take over the ship.[Laughter]
Chris: Human error also does not happen in the future.
Oren: No, we’ve evolved beyond the need for human error.
Chris: It gets pretty dark if you think about it. Have we genetically modified humans so they’re not susceptible to normal human error anymore?
Oren: Well, that’s one of the weirdest parts of the whole concept of Star Trek as an optimistic future. In early TNG is when it gets the weirdest, because that was the point where Roddenberry was talking about how in the future no one grieves.
Chris: Oh, yeah, that was weird.
Oren: We don’t have negative emotions. So when the writers wanted to do an episode where a kid was sad that his mom died, they had to do lots of weird maneuvering to get around Roddenberry’s bizarre ideas.
Chris: Was this episode where the kid starts acting like Data?
Oren: No, that’s later. This is the one where a kid bonds with Worf.
Oren: They’re kind of similar looking kids. I get those episodes mixed up all the time. It raises all kinds of questions like, first of all, if no one in the future has negative emotions, why do they have a ship’s counselor? What is the purpose of the counselor if nobody ever needs counseling? I’m confused. That’s less “optimistic future” and more, my characters are unrelatable because they don’t act the way humans act.
Chris: Yeah. Not grieving when your parents die is not exactly sympathetic. That’s just a hard thing for a storyteller to work with.
Oren: But that’s kind of an unusual bump in Star Trek. They gave that up after a couple of seasons and it wasn’t really that way before, and it wouldn’t really be that way after. For the most part, when we talk about Star Trek being optimistic, we consider things like the Federation being a “fairly good place to live.”
Chris: TNG especially does a lot of, “Oh, what do we do with our lives? Well, we’re here to better ourselves.” The idea that everybody who’s in Starfleet- nobody is there because they need a paycheck. Right? Everybody has all of their needs supplied. They do that to better themselves and because they aspire to something. I think that’s, at least for TNG, that felt like the core of the futuristic optimism in the show.
Oren: Also the idea that the Federation is legitimately well-run and is fair and doesn’t break its own laws because of racial prejudice or things like that.
Chris: They do promote jerks to admirals.
Oren: They do.
Chris: But other than that… They’re really struggling to create conflict. I definitely appreciate in TNG the lack of petty drama among the main cast members. Even if that’s something that they wouldn’t have done without Roddenberry being really demanding the first couple of seasons, I still think it was a nice result. It’s very refreshing, but in order to create conflict, they just have the occasional jerk from elsewhere come on board, usually an Admiral, sometimes there’s a captain or even an aspiring first officer.
Oren: You leave Shelby alone. [Laughter] And that’s also, I noticed kind of a weird thing where like Starfleet has admirals and we take that as a matter of course, but would it be pretty weird if you ran into a general in Star Trek?
Chris: Yeah. Should we get into the debate about whether Starfleet is a military?
Oren: Let’s not. [Laughter] Whether it is or not, it serves the same purpose. So it’s a moot point.
Chris: Well, let’s just sidestep this. I like how you immediately step into whether it’s the military arguments after refusing to talk about it.
Oren: Chris, you just have to accept this about me. [Laughter]
Chris: You can’t help it. You have to make the arguments.
Oren: When you were mentioning earlier about how TNG doesn’t have a lot of petty office drama, that’s another kind of optimism. It’s not a hundred percent the same. Technically you could have the Federation be a just society where everyone has enough and the rules are fair and there’s no discrimination, but also everyone is really mean to each other. Right? Those things could coexist. They just don’t usually.
Chris: Yeah. We’ll have to compare it to Lower Decks, for instance, which has plenty of weird character things going on that are petty. Did you want to talk about some of the other shows that are less successful at creating the optimistic Star Trek?
Oren: Yeah. So it gets kind of weird in Voyager and Enterprise because Voyager isn’t really hanging out in the Federation and Enterprise technically takes place before the Federation. So it’s a little hard to say what they’re going for. Voyager definitely talks about how they are the representatives of the great Federation and the Federation values. Although it’s never entirely clear what those are, right? Because if there’s one thing Voyager will always do it’s forget everything they previously established in the name of creating conflict for an episode. This is where Janeway’s famously erratic command style comes from because they don’t know how to create conflict without Janeway making bad choices. So in one episode, she’ll be like, no, we have to uphold Federation principles, no matter what, even if the ship explodes. And then in another episode, she’ll be like, actually I think we should give bio weapons to the Borg because the writers need that for their plot work.
Chris: And Janeway’s is always right on the show, too, which makes it even stranger. It’s that she always has 100% authorial endorsement. She is supposed to be right every episode. Just don’t keep track of the fact that what she believes in and the choices she makes just do a 180 between episodes.
Oren: It’s kind of hard to really say if Voyager has any particular relevance to this discussion. Enterprise is definitely, again, not a terrible concept where they’re like, “Hey, this is what earth was like before the Federation was formed.” In the first episode they make a point of how we’ve done away with war and we’ve ended hunger and poverty. That’s cool. And we’re supposed to show, I guess, kind of rough and tumble humans before they’ve been refined by the Federation. But what that ends up as is Archer being extremely racist.
Chris: It’s hard because I think the implementation of Enterprise is just so bad. That it’s one thing to just, oh yeah, by the way, somewhere in the background we’ve solved war and hunger, but then when the characters act petty and incompetent all the time, it certainly doesn’t feel optimistic. Even if it’s supposed to be.
Oren: The idea that someone like Archer could make it all the way to command of the most important ship in Starfleet. It really feels like it must have been nepotism because his father was the main designer. When you go into Archer’s background, his background is a test pilot. Which just doesn’t really scream, ship command, you know? So that definitely gives you a feeling of maybe this is not as optimistic. It also takes several steps back in terms of representation because we had Voyager and Deep Space Nine taking steps forward, if sometimes flawed, and then Enterprise rolls around and hey, what if the two senior officers were both white guys? The tactical officer was another white guy.
Chris: But you don’t understand, Oren, the tactical officer, he’s British. So he’s a lesser breed of white guys. [Laughter]
Oren: [Sarcastically] What if we dared to ask the question if British people should also have equal rights? So imagine a future in which the British are not discriminated against. Of course our two actual characters of color on the main cast are Hoshi and Mayweather. Mayweather famously gets nothing to do ever. Hoshi has a little more than Mayweather, but primarily because she’s written to be afraid of everything and that’s a shtick that they do for a while.
Chris: An obvious problem with Enterprise is… they weren’t going for as optimistic as TNG, partly because the opening premise is that Vulcans are ordering the poor humans around and now it’s time to rebel against those snooty Vulcans. At the same time, they clearly meant it to be more optimistic than it was.
Oren: I do have to praise Deep Space Nine. Back in the day before the Kurtzman-era Star Trek shows came out, Deep Space Nine was the one everyone got mad at for betraying the message. But I really liked Deep Space Nine and I think Deep Space Nine did a great job of portraying an optimistic future.
Chris: We do go to earth in DS9 briefly and earth still seems like a utopia.
Oren: It is. And we show the Federation in times of extreme stress. The Federation is fighting a war for its very existence.
Chris: And it’s doing a pretty good job. The command is making pretty good decisions.
Oren: And when we see bad things happen, they are treated as aberrations that need to be repaired. In the episode Past Tense, an Admiral wants to overthrow the government and basically institute a military dictatorship and you can see why he wants to do that, but he’s obviously wrong. Right? And we stop him and we don’t be like, well, maybe he had a point and Starfleet should run the show. The point of that episode is that he was paranoid and basically allowing the Dominion to get him to destroy the Federation for it. And I can’t imagine how that could possibly be relevant to our modern lifestyle. Who would have thought? We have other episodes that deal with real world prejudice, like Past Tense, where we go back in time to the 2020s, oh, no!, and have to deal with extreme income inequality and extreme classism. Of course there’s Far Beyond the Stars, which goes back to the 1950s. So in general, Deep Space Nine explored both modern problems and showed that the Federation could be put under strain, but in the end was resilient.
Chris: I do think that DS9 is a really hopeful story, ultimately. Just by going back and looking back at current day problems, the Far Beyond the Stars episode is very interesting because Sisco is basically living the dream of somebody hundreds of years ago, right? This fantastic dream that could never be real and he’s living it. And so differently presents a hopeful trajectory that things can get better. I think Bajor, despite not being part of the Federation, is part of that. It’s not exactly entirely an optimistic future because of what happened to Bajor. But at the same time, it’s still about Bajor’s recovery from being occupied and the discussion of it joining the Federation when it was ready and basically finding its feet again. I think that that storyline was just an optimistic storyline ultimately.
Oren: Yeah, and even the Dominion War, which gets very dark in places, ends on an optimistic note. They end the Dominion War via a negotiation, convincing the founder not to fight to the death. And they end by showing that hopefully Cardassia can be rebuilt to be a better place. And I just think it works quite well. I feel like even though it was dark and it took a while to get there, I feel like by the end I had genuine hope for the future, which I think is a powerful message that we could honestly do with some more of.
So shall we talk about Kurtzman Trek now, the current era of Trek?
Chris: Let’s do it.
Oren: Because oh boy, oh boy. First we have Discovery, which definitely wants to grapple with Star Trek’s role as portraying an optimistic future. But the problem is that it has no idea how. It just doesn’t know what it’s doing.
Chris: Or there was just too much of an emphasis on the dark and morally gray aspects. It honestly just feels like Kurtzman doesn’t want to do optimistic Star Trek.
Oren: So Discovery is extremely dark in tone, often gratuitously so. We’ve complained about how miserable the show makes Burnham for no reason and how they go to extremely contrived lengths to create pain and suffering when it doesn’t even make sense for that to happen in the story. That certainly takes away from any idea that it might be optimistic. But then there are other things. I can’t even tell if the stuff with Section 31 is supposed to indicate that something has gone wrong with the Federation, because we have Section 31 walking around, out in the open with black badges, and they straight up tell us that if Section 31 gets to Spock first, he’ll just disappear and he’ll never be heard from again. This is sort of treated like a normal thing. I don’t know if that’s even the intent. I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be like, well, the Federation sure has fallen or if that’s just something that they threw in there and it wasn’t really supposed to reflect on anything. Who knows.
Chris: Well, maybe we’ll find out when they start this Section 31 show.
Oren: Oh no, that’s happening. [Groans] Excuse me, pardon me.
Chris: The problem with this era of Star Trek, and this was something that was creeping up before, but it’s definitely true now, is that what all of these shows are trying to do is at some level subvert the idea of an optimistic Star Trek, but it’s been subverted so much in almost every show that the norm of optimism no longer exists. So there’s no compare and contrast and Discovery especially is about defending the Federation or, in the third season, sort of the rebirth of the Federation. But what is it? It’s like we’ve lost sight because it’s been so long since we’ve even depicted an optimistic Federation that it’s just unclear what it is anymore.
Oren: Yeah. Even in Discovery the characters talk about Federation values all the time, but they can’t ever pin down what those even are. I don’t think that I can recall a single moment, despite all the talking about Starfleet or Federation values, where they really define what that means. Even in the sequence when in season three, when the Admiral is negotiating with the main villain, Osyraa, I think is her name, I’ve forgotten her name. They have this long negotiation that’s supposed to be between Starfleet and its big rival. And I can’t tell what they’re saying. I have no context for any of it.
Chris: It’s interesting because one of the things that she supposedly wants is for one of the Starfleet stations to open its markets for trade. And it’s just like, wait, did the Federation not do trade before? They talked about not having money, but that’s not the same thing as not participating in exchange with other political entities.
Oren: Yeah. And she mentions allowing capitalism, but it’s really unclear what she means by that.
Chris: What even is capitalism?
Oren: What is capitalism? That’s a hard question to answer in the best of times. Discovery was definitely not up to it.
Chris: It’s clear that Discovery is trying to embrace the idea of the Federation without actually standing up for anything. Right? Because that might make some people mad. Right? So when we had earlier iterations of Starfleet TOS probably made some people mad that there was a black woman right on the bridge. But you had to make progress, you have to make some people mad. You have to stand up for something. If you’re going to state your values that comes with connotations, and it’s clear that the current iteration of Star Trek is just not prepared to do that in any meaningful way.
Oren: And to be clear, Discovery still makes people mad because it has a black woman now as the main character. And so to a certain extent, it has succeeded in that regard. But it seems like they are unwilling to do anything with their actual stories that might upset people. With their casting, sure. They’ll cast queer characters, although they will not treat them very well in a lot of cases. We have a fair number of women. We have a fair number of characters of color. That definitely pissed some people off. But they’re not willing to do anything along the lines of The Union episode from Deep Space Nine or The Drumhead from TNG, which was about how we shouldn’t go on witch hunts, essentially, for people who might be related to some vague enemy. That that kind of episode just doesn’t really exist in Discovery. I don’t know if that’s because they think that stuff’s boring. Actually, you know, nevermind. I take that back. I know they don’t think it’s boring because the characters constantly talk about it, they just never actually focus on anything.
Chris: Yeah. I think they just, for some reason, they don’t want to articulate anything that would give them some sort of political stance.
Oren: Then it might be worth mentioning Picard here, which at least does have a more unified vision of what it’s talking about because Picard is another, what if we subverted the Federation storyline. At least in Picard they have a clear statement of what is wrong with the Federation, at least sometimes, which is that the Federation in the face of a tragic attack, this time it’s androids on Mars, becomes insular, decides not to help the Romulans, and withdraws from the galaxy. Okay, that’s something. A little disheartening to me that Deep Space Nine had the Federation survive the entire Dominion War with its values intact and then in Picard all it took was one terrorist attack and that was it. But at least that’s something. I at least know what they’re talking about there.
Chris: Right. I would compare this in scope, though, to a TNG episode like The Measure of a Man. Where in that episode Starfleet orders Data to submit to these experiments that could kill him. That’s pretty dark, right? Starfleet made a bad decision that was violating Data’s rights and basically mandated he was property and not a person. But in that episode, there was a clear path for them to do something about it, right? To make the argument that he was a person and to turn things around. Whereas in Picard, it’s partly that it’s the premise for the show and not just one episode, but I think it’s a little bit more than that. Picard has already left Starfleet and did so a long time ago and has been gone for a while. And the scope of the problem feels overwhelming. And he’s only got a scrappy little band and not much resources, and it doesn’t feel like this is something that he can take on and turn around. Or make a reasonable case to Starfleet and Starfleet will actually listen to him. Or that those kinds of reasonable debates can still take place.
Oren: Yeah. And I guess maybe we’re supposed to feel uplifted by Riker showing up with a million bazillion spaceships at the end, but that just felt kind of random
Chris: Right. At best, they set up something that was too overwhelming to turn around and then pulled the contrivance out of their hat to fix it.
Oren: Even Picard suffers from a certain amount of, is this supposed to be that dark or are you guys just bad at plotting? Because Rios, their pilot guy, his backstory is that his captain was ordered to murder two androids that they found by Starfleet security and was told that if he didn’t, his ship would be destroyed. That says something extremely dark about Starfleet that that could happen and that a captain would take that order seriously. Can you imagine Picard even considering that? He’d be like, no, how are you going to blow up my ship, assholes?
Chris: Just like the Discovery, oh, by the way, if Section 31 finds Spock, he’ll just disappear forever. [Sarcastically] Can’t do anything about it! That’s just how things are now! It’s like, wait, why are things this way? That’s clearly not optimistic in any way.
Oren: Yeah. That’s honestly beyond even what happens today. If you told me that there was an incident where a captain of a US cruiser was told to execute prisoners or the CIA would blow up his ship, I would say that’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t believe that. And I definitely don’t believe it in Star Trek, even if the Federation is supposed to kind of suck a little bit now. So again, that’s just a case of probably not supposed to be as dark as it seems. It’s just that they don’t know how to put plots together. Fortunately, there is a bright light at the end of the current Trek tunnel and that’s Lower Decks, praise be.
Chris: As we were saying, the optimism here feels different in a lot of ways than the TNG optimism because the personal dynamics are so different, right? The main character is actually immature all the time so that she can avoid being in roles of responsibility.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, Lower Decks characters are all about drama and, you know, being really petty and spiteful. On a character level they’re nothing like the TNG characters, but on a setting level, it feels much closer to TNG. They even have an episode where they make fun of subverting the Federation. Because they’re on their way to what’s supposed to be a recovery center.
Chris: Is it called The Farm?
Oren: Yeah. The Farm. The whole episode is, oh, what if Starfleet was actually evil? Then it turns out to be a huge misunderstanding and they get there and everything’s fine and everything’s great. And Starfleet takes care of people who were wounded. Of course they do. Why wouldn’t you think they would do that?
Chris: It definitely creates conflict in some cases, by pretending, feigning that there’s more problems than there are. And the characters are really just worried about it because of course the characters are full of foibles.
Oren: You still see them doing also just kind of random side things. In the first episode, Mariner goes off to deliver some farm equipment to some aliens who needed some farm equipment. That’s nice. That’s something the Federation would do.
Chris: They also have, again, a Ferengi shows up acting like the classic, really racist Ferengi from TNG or DS9. Later we find out that the Ferengi was just faking it. The Ferengi is not like that at all.
Oren: There’s definitely some commentary there, too. And to be fair, it’s not like Lower Decks is perfect. Unlike Discovery, at least, Lower Decks is so far refused to commit to any queer representation despite often coding the characters that way, which is very disappointing. I’m really hoping they’ll fix that in the next season. Come on, guys. You still can. You can still pull this one out.
Chris: There’s queer baiting, but no people who actually get into queer relationships on the show.
Oren: Come on, Lower Decks. I’m rooting for ya.
Chris: Let’s fix this. We can do it. It is really impressive to see this incredibly silly show respect the Star Trek settings so much and adhere to all of the optimism in the setting and everything in the way the setting is supposed to be, and even make commentary on the times when parts of the setting have not been depicted so well, such as the Ferengi, and still make lots of humor really well and still be kind of silly about it.
Oren: No, I am really impressed with Lower Decks. It’s definitely a show for people who already know a lot about Star Trek, because half of the show is obscure Star Trek references. So, you could argue that’s a limitation, but whatever, I really enjoy it and I think that it does a better job of representing optimistic sci fi than the other current Star Trek shows.
Chris: Oh, hands down. Definitely. Should we talk about the Orville? Yeah, I guess we could talk about the Orville, which is really interesting because Orville’s just obviously Star Trek fanfic and intended to be like Star Trek. It has what should be an optimistic setting, but it’s kind of like Enterprise in that it falls short in many of the same ways where it’s at least lighter than Enterprise was. I don’t think that, at least from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t usually, with some exceptions actually, it doesn’t usually try for some of the same really hard moral dilemmas.
Oren: Although there are a few, like the stuff involving the species that kills all the women. Some of that stuff is very, very dark. Yeah, for the most part you’re right.
Chris: Yeah. And at least it doesn’t do it to the extent that Enterprise. It is intentionally a lighter, funnier show, but like Enterprise, the characters are so incompetent that it’s hard to imagine this being an optimistic setting because people are clearly… a man is promoted above a woman that’s way more qualified than he is. It emphasizes that over and over. Or, again, the security chief is a woman who’s really strong and we’re going to act like she can’t date because men are super intimidated by that. That’s obviously not an optimistic future thing.
Oren: Right. Or there’s a weird slime ball that is constantly sexually harassing people. I would like to think that in an optimistic future, that wouldn’t be allowed. In the name of being funny, the show has sabotaged its own optimistic ideas, which interestingly Lower Decks managed to not to do. I guess I would say be more like Lower Decks, but the Orville is canceled. So who cares? [Laughter]
Chris: The Lower Decks is just much more clever about its comedy, I think. The issue of it should be an optimistic setting, but then there’s a person in there who’s just being an asshole to other people or being harmful to other people that’s ruining… That also happens somewhat in Discovery, I think, with Georgiou, evil Georgiou specifically, where she goes around verbally abusing everybody and emotionally cutting everyone down. This is treated like this is an okay thing or a thing that we should tolerate. We should just let her do that. She’s being mean, but she’s been through a lot.
Oren: She’s supposed to be the straight talking truth teller, but she’s really just an asshole and also space hip. But she feels a little bad about it now, so I guess that’s fine.
Chris: But for instance, Tilly is taking command and Tilly is probably still insecure about it. And then she comes and just cuts Tilly down and just says really mean things and says bad things. It’s designed to inflict a psychological damage. It’s designed to make Tilly feel bad about herself. Tilly would have after effects about that. It would undermine her confidence in her ability to do her job. And they just let her do that to everybody.
Oren: And then when she leaves, they have a big dinner about how they’re all gonna miss her, because they loved her so much.
Chris: Well, I’m sure that people can expect to see more of that in this Section 31 show.
Oren: Oh, no, that’s still happening. Okay. Whatever.
Chris: Maybe if we just wish hard enough…
Oren: If we all wish upon a star.
Chris: Wish upon a star. [Laughter]
Oren: Okay. So real quick, we’re about out of time, but I do want to mention one more piece of Star Trek material that I think does a really interesting job of portraying an optimistic future. And that is Star Trek Six, The Undiscovered Country, which again, is another one that often gets blasted as betraying the message or at least it used to. I don’t think anyone cares anymore because of the New Trek. But before New Trek existed, people got really mad at Star Trek Six because it decided to do a cold war story using the Federation and the Klingons. As it’s a cold war story, it can’t just be that one side is evil. There have to be flaws on both sides. That’s how the cold war works. Star Trek Six does that very well. We see the people in the Federation who don’t really want peace with the Klingons. The reason I think this is not sabotaging the message is, again, I think that it shows how an otherwise well-made and just society can encounter problems when faced with moments of great hardship and through courageous action can overcome those problems. That’s what happens in Star Trek Six. And to me, that is very optimistic, even if it means that the Federation isn’t a hundred percent perfect all the time. Right? So I just wanted to put that note in there. Discovery also tried to do a Federation-Klingon conflict and it just decided to make the Klingons super evil and it was way worse. It was just way less interesting.
Chris: Oh no. We’re creating weapons to protect ourselves against the Klingons. We’ve gone too far.
Oren: Better play the danger music. All right. Well, that is going to be the end of our time for this topic. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we beam out of this topic, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. I’m sure she’d have plenty to say about this. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at Therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
If you enjoyed this podcast and want to slip us some gold-pressed latinum, head on over to Patreon.com/Mythcreants. We appreciate it.[Outro music]
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