Dr Joel Campbell, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Troy University, Pacific Region, looks back at Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica and reflects on how the socio-political ideas presented in these two popular TV series have gained greater depth and understanding of the world over the years.
Space: the final frontier. These are 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.
There is perhaps no television and movie genre that sparks more imagination than science fiction, especially among young people. Two major science fiction series of the 1960s and 1970s followed similar trajectories: a brief television run, a disappointing cancellation, a long hiatus in which a devoted fandom develops, and a revival as both a television and movie franchise. Perhaps the most commented upon SF series of the 1960s, Star Trek best embodied the optimistic and expansive ethos of the decade. It was developed by Gene Roddenberry, and illustrated his vision of a future in which humanity had solved most of its perennial political and social problems. Set two hundred years into the future, the show followed the exploits of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and focused on her captain (James T. Kirk), science officer (Spock) and chief medical officer (Leonard “Bones” McCoy), played respectively by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. The show attracted a rabid fan base of children, adolescents and teenagers, but was cancelled due to low overall ratings after only three years. Die-hard fans kept the idea of Star Trek alive at ad hoc conventions during the 1970s, and a brief animated series created more interest during 1973-1974.
A sequel TV series was being planned for a putative Paramount network in the late 1970s, but the movie studio opted to create a movie instead. That film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) launched a movie series with the original series cast that lasted until 1992. Meanwhile, in 1987, Paramount put forth a new Trek TV series, set some eighty years after the original series, called Star Trek: The Next Generation. Using the innovative technique of first-run syndication, TNG became the most watched and popular Trek series, and before its end in 1994 spawned two other long-running series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. A further prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise, aired from 2001 to 2005.
Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last battlestar Galactica leads a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest…a shining planet known as Earth.
It was the late summer of 1978, and Jimmy Carter was US president. Disco was the musical and dance rage, and Saturday Night Fever was one of the most popular movies of the year. It was only a year after the massive phenomenon of Star Wars, and viewers wanted more. Television producer Glen Larson had been working on a science fiction project for a number of years, and responded with an unusual TV series about humans in another part of the galaxy whose home was destroyed by a marauding robot civilization, and who escaped in a spaceship convoy to search for planet Earth. Starring Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict, the series pilot aired in September and was initially quite popular and generated a strong fan base. Ratings dwindled as the series ran on and, partly due to expensive production costs, the show was cancelled in April 1979. It was briefly revived as a summer replacement series a year later, called Galactica 1980. The series seemed yet another expensive failure for network television, and it quickly faded into the memory of science fiction geeks.
A committed fan base, not unlike the Trekkies of the 1970s (but smaller), would not forget their favorite series. Hatch proposed a sequel project to resurrect the series, but this never gained traction. In 2003, producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick developed a “reimagining”, not a sequel, which covers some of the ground of the original series but adds multiple layers to it. After an initial TV movie, the series ran for five years, and led to two series spinoffs. The new show was a much darker and more nuanced series that dealt with issues raised by the 9/11 Incident, the Global War on Terrorism and the Iraq War.
Classic Star Trek and International Relations
Science fiction was just coming of age when Star Trek premiered in the 1960s. The genre had been shaped by a long adolescence as a form of pulp fiction popular with teenage boys, but from the 1930s to 1950s had produced much sophisticated literature by budding authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. The film and television science fiction genre had a shorter gestation, as it quickly graduated from matinee serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 1930s to the first wide-screen SF epics in the 1950s. The latter included the movies of George Pal, such as War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide. A standout sci-fi film of the mid-1950s was Forbidden Planet, the first major picture to include an independent Earth ship manned by a crew which lands on an alien planet, starring the then unknown Leslie Nielsen as the captain. The movie highly influenced a young screen writer, Gene Roddenberry, who went on to incorporate various elements from the movie in his nascent SF television series. The 1960s film with the biggest impact was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, based in part on one of Clarke’s short stories. The blend of mystical elements, the realism of space travel, and cutting edge special effects made the movie an instant hit.
Upon Star Trek’s debut in 1966, America had a new type of science fiction TV series. No longer the kind of camp tale of space monsters and over-the-top villains often seen on US television, this was a show with a bright vision of a future humanity united in exploration. Roddenberry’s dream was of a human race that had conquered most of its age-old problems: starvation, poverty, racism and discrimination and war. The new series blended several key elements common in other genres, but often rare in broadcast SF: a multi-ethnic crew and that crew as surrogate family, and a mythic friendship among the three lead characters. Much commented on was the subtle socio-political commentary on important issues of the 1960s, especially racism, sexism, the generation gap, nuclear war and arms races, and the Vietnam War. As a science fiction series, Star Trek could get around network censorship since it did not deal directly with those topics, but set them on other planets.
“The United Federation of Planets was an inclusive organization of states, a stand-in for both the UN and US in the series.”
Star Trek represented all that was bright and optimistic about the 1960s. Its guideposts were the liberal values that America promoted around the world (rhetorically, if not always on the ground…): freedom from oppression, human rights, acceptance of minorities and equal opportunity for women. The United Federation of Planets was an inclusive organization of states, a stand-in for both the UN and US in the series. The crew of the Enterprise approached every planet as a nation in development, sort of modernization theory in overdrive. The Prime Directive dictated that the Federation should never interfere in the normal development of planets, yet the crew frequently violated this nearly sacred norm, perhaps showing America’s ambivalence about intervention in developing countries during the Cold War. Captain Kirk and his crew used a mixture of diplomacy, guile and force to solve every puzzle box in which they became trapped, but over time a degree of world-weariness crept in, just as Americans became weary of foreign entanglements during the Vietnam War.
The original series has much to teach about international relations, and presents a mix of liberal ideals and a realist universe. The crew are guided by liberal notions, but operate in a sector of the galaxy divided into two empires and the federation, with neutral zones and fragile peace agreements. The Klingons are stand-ins for the Soviets, while the Romulans look a bit like the Chinese, who had no diplomatic contacts with America until 1971 (their relatives, the logical Vulcans, are part of the Federation, just as the Japanese have an alliance with America). In Balance of Terror, the Romulans make their first appearance. Both Kirk and the Romulan commander press the limits of the neutral zone. The Romulan intends to test the border with a raid on Federation outposts, while Kirk is determined to stop the incident from boiling over into a new war. The Enterprise Incident continues the Federation-Romulan stand-off, as Kirk secretly steals a cloaking device so that the Romulan technological advantage can be neutralized. Errand of Mercy presents the Klingons as an oppressive conquering race seeking to subjugate a peace-loving planet, which Kirk seeks to save. Both are almost willing to go to war until stopped by the local inhabitants, who reveal themselves as superior aliens. A Taste of Armageddon shows two planets that had been fighting a centuries-long war by computer, tallying casualties and ordering citizens to report for liquidation.
Classic Battlestar Galactica and International Relations
For a while in the 1970s, Star Trek was the only major sci-fi TV program many people were watching, thanks to syndication in America and other countries. The debut of Star Wars in 1977 changed everything. Here was an exciting movie series popular with both kids and adults that drew on mythological themes and blended elements of various movie genres. The dirty, well-used droids and speeders showed that the future could have a past. The family story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader demonstrated that the personal is political. And following on to Kubrick’s SF masterpiece, no movie more effectively employed special effects. Television’s answer came expeditiously in the form of Battlestar Galactica. An unusual story, it appealed directly to 1970s tastes: the big hair and disco clothes, toying with pop mythology of the 1970s with references to ancient Egypt and Greece and astrology, characters with mythological or literary names (Apollo, Starbuck, and Adama, played by Hatch, Benedict, and Bonanza pater familias Greene). The new series played with post-Vietnam security anxieties with a Pearl Harbor-style attack that nearly destroys the Twelve Colonies, an implacable authoritarian enemy bent on the humanity’s destruction, and betrayal by one of the most brilliant humans. It also affirmed that Earth’s humans are special, since Earth became the fleet’s destination.
Galactica thus began with the Cold War in its blood, and so constituted a dark vision of IR. The robotic Cylons, like the Klingons before them, come close to representing the Soviets (as recognized by Moscow in a screed against the program). The Nixon era détente had run its course, neo-conservatives suggested that the Soviets were gaining an advantage in the nuclear arms race and, with Soviet meddling in Afghanistan, the US public was becoming suspicious of Moscow again. Unlike the Klingons, Cylons were emotionless, authoritarian monsters with whom negotiation is futile, and we had to fear being sold out by traitors in our midst (Baltar). Amid the oil crises, stagflation and the deep recession of 1974–1975, widespread discontent at ineffective government, and the bankrupting of the welfare state, the West was reeling. Rising concerns over multiculturalism appeared with difficulties among ships of Galactica’s fleet and, for nearly the first time in a network series, Muslim-like extremists planed possible terrorist attacks.
“The end of the Cold War shifted Western strategic thinking like no other recent event.”
With only a one-year-plus production run, Battlestar Galactica never got a chance to develop into the syndication phenomenon that Star Trek became, but neither fans nor producers forgot it. The end of the Cold War shifted Western strategic thinking like no other recent event. For a while, with the United States facing no superpower competitor, America had supremacy (the unipolar moment), and Western liberal values seemed to have permanently triumphed (Fukuyama’s “End of History”). The last of a movie series starring the cast of Star Trek: the original series (Star Trek: the Undiscovered Country) was an allegory of the fall of the Soviet Union, as the Klingon empire develops a severe energy crisis and has to reach out to the Federation for peace. Kirk, whose son was killed by Klingons, is reluctant, and a faction within the Federation seeks to sabotage the talks. Kirk overcomes his hatred to expose the conspiracy and save the talks. Star Trek thus had completely embraced neo-liberalism.
Star Trek enters the post-Cold War Era
The 1990s were a golden age for Star Trek, and it was the period in which the Trek phenomenon was most popular and influential. The Next Generation was first new series since the animated series in the early 1970s. Without a network of its own, Paramount came up with the innovative method of first-run syndication, meaning new episodes of the series ran sometime during the same week throughout the United States. The series modified some dynamics of the original series, such as making peace between Klingons and the Federation, giving leadership positions to women, presenting a more cerebral, diplomatic and less shoot-from-the-hip captain (Jean-Luc Picard, played by veteran British actor Patrick Stewart) than Kirk, and not sending all top ship’s personnel into dangerous “away missions” on hostile planets. The series started slowly, then built in quality as it powered through its seven-year run. The last year, it spawned another series, Deep Space Nine. DSN departed significantly from the conventional Trek themes of TNG, by setting the series mainly on a space station (with a starship added later), using long story arcs to link episodes together, and allowing significant conflict to develop within the Federation and its Bejoran allies. Two years later came Voyager, the first series to be led by a female captain. Set on the other side of the galaxy, the starship had to make its way back to Earth while encountering new and implacably hostile civilizations.
The three Trek series of the 1990s developed more nuanced approaches to IR. Building on the neo-liberalism of The Undiscovered Country, TNG especially sought diplomatic and multilateral solutions to most problems, and suggested that military solutions should be last resorts. This was particularly true when encountering new civilizations, such as the Cardassians and the Ferengi. However, the relentless and assimilationist Borg seemed immune to negotiation, though the Enterprise crew began to undermine the Borg by appealing to the innate individualism of particular Borg drones. The Borg were uniquely frightening, as they attacked the individuality that makes us human, and may have reflected real fears of advancing globalization. TNG also was in tune with the political correctness of the time, as various episodes dealt with feminist, human rights and even gay issues. Both DSN and VOY took more mixed stances, as the negotiation imperative continued, and the Federation was able to make deals or accommodations with such fearsome species as the Founders and Species 8472. On occasion, captains and crew became elemental realists, focusing on self-interest and survival. Captain Sisko of DSN expressed this most forthrightly in the episode, In the Pale Moonlight.
“The Bush administration, like many before it, came to office shunning nation building and promising to focus on domestic policy, but after 9/11 concentrated on what it perceived as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil.”
The 9/11 Incident (2001) changed everything. Foreign policy wonks could dream of an American-led New World Order after the Gulf War, but the ugly realities of terrorism, religious extremism and ethno-political conflict made the millennium seem to be a more dangerous era. The Bush administration, like many before it, came to office shunning nation building and promising to focus on domestic policy, but after 9/11 concentrated on what it perceived as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil. Many of America’s allies, used to more nuanced foreign policy, accepted war in Afghanistan but were reluctant to go along with the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration called those few countries who supported the Iraq War “the coalition of the willing”. Star Trek: Enterprise was the first Trek series to appear after 9/11, and reflected these new realities. The prequel series crew stumbled as they confronted all manner of unfamiliar civilizations, and did not even get along with the Vulcans very well. Then, in season three a 9/11-style attack on Earth forced Starfleet to launch an expedition to go after the shadowy Xindi, who had launched the strike. Making the Xindi potentially scary was the consortium nature of their alliance, including humanoid, arboreal, insectoid and aquatic species. Just as al Qaeda was an international terrorist consortium, the Xindi was more dangerous together than separately — a fact the Enterprise crew use to pry away some of the species from the organization.
A grittier Battlestar Galactica, a rebooted Star Trek
Enterprise, fatally, was not a popular series, even though it lasted four seasons. Just as it was winding down came a much more robust SF response to the post-9/11 world in the form of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Shedding the disco era look of the original series, this was a much grittier, murky series. While it turned off some fans of its predecessor, it gained widespread popularity and critical acclaim as “the best TV show of all time”, according to one poll. The reimagined Galactica updated and altered most of the key characters and plot elements. Adama, Apollo, Starbuck, Boomer and other key human characters were no longer merely heroic, but flawed people who could make bad decisions (and Starbuck and Boomer were now female). The Cylons were not relentless robots, but genetically engineered and emotional humanoids with their own religion (monotheists vs the terran polytheists). The series addressed myriad topics raised by the Global War on Terror and the Iraq War: torture of suspected terrorists, profiling of terrorist-prone groups, curbs on democratic freedoms, enhanced executive powers for national security imperatives, and discrimination based on security fears. The season arc containing the Cylon occupation of the terran New Caprica colony was a parable of the Iraq War, involving common elements of Bush’s conflict: insurgency, foreign occupation/suppression, collaboration with occupiers, and even suicide bombers.
The new Galactica’s grungy, unvarnished approach to politics presented a murkier and messy reality than any of the recent Star Trek series. It was also a return to an elementary realism that Hans Morgenthau and even Niccolo Machiavelli would have easily recognized – not the systemic neo-realism of Kenneth Waltz. Ideals are lost, and survival becomes the only imperative. Everyone becomes tarnished and hurt by the to-the-death struggle in which they are locked. But, just as the victorious Allies of World War II were able to operate a grand alliance against the Axis powers and then build a new postwar world order based on alliances, maybe it is possible for the terrans to make peace with the Cylons. In the end, everyone’s ideals, ideology and religion are somewhat off kilter and in need of rethinking, as it turns out that the terrans and Cylons become the ancestors of modern humanity when they arrive at the Earth of 150,000 years ago.
The latest Star Trek movie series, starting in 2009, was also a return to basic realism. The Federation was threatened by unstoppable enemies bent on destruction or domination, i.e., Nero, Khan and Krall. Such enemies could be bargained with only for temporary advantage, as Kirk made a short-term alliance with Khan to gain control of the ship threatening the Enterprise. Ultimately, these enemies cannot be accommodated, and must be either destroyed (as with Nero and Krall) or neutralized (as happened to Khan). This kind of roots realism is all about human drives and personality.
“Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica have come a long way since their respective television debuts in the 1960s and 1970s.”
The world has turned over many times since 1966. Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica have come a long way since their respective television debuts in the 1960s and 1970s. As both have developed in dramatic complexity and technical sophistication, so the socio-political ideas they have employed have gained greater depth and understanding of the world. If Captain Kirk and Commander Adama were ever to meet, perhaps their most recent incarnations would be able to understand each other, and the international system with which both series have played. So, where do they go now? The current Star Trek universe is alive and well, with other movies planned and a new subscription-only television series about to start. We may see a continued unfolding of basic realism in the movies, but a return to liberalism on the small screen. Various new Galactica projects have been suggested. Just as the rebooted series commented on the Bush era, perhaps another TV incarnation could have something to say about the Trump era.
In an earlier THINK article, Dr Joel Campbell looks back at Star Trek and explains why the television franchise is a perfect tool for illustrating concepts of international relations in the classroom.
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