Half a century after its inception, Professor Joel Campbell looks back at Star Trek and explains why the cherished television franchise is a perfect tool for illustrating concepts of international relations in the classroom.
In one of my favorite episodes of the original series of Star Trek, Captain James T. Kirk encounters Zefram Cochran, one of the founders of a future United Earth, kept alive and young on a habitable asteroid for nearly a century. Cochran, out of touch with Earth affairs for decades, asks Kirk how humanity is doing. Kirk enthusiastically answers, “we’re on a thousand planets and spreading out!” That was a magical moment for me as a boy, when I pondered the shining possibilities of our collective endeavor. Maybe we could make it and find a bright home among the stars. Gene Roddenberry, creator and guardian of the Star Trek franchise for its first generation, crafted an optimistic future in which humans have solved most of the age-old problems: war, racism, inequality, poverty, hunger, and disease. We have emerged from our adolescence and we know the way to live, with ourselves and other intelligent species. At its best, Star Trek has been about ideas and inspiration, with action and romance secondary.
“That’s the beauty of science fiction: it tells us as much about our societies and politics here and now as it does about future societies out there in space.”
Now I’m all grown up and teach international relations (IR), and I have discovered that my cherished television franchise is a perfect tool for illustrating concepts of IR in the classroom. That’s the beauty of science fiction: it tells us as much about our societies and politics here and now as it does about future societies out there in space. The original series spawned three movie serials, plus four additional television series. Each is a reflection of the times in which it was made, and each instructs us about the changing nature of the international system. To the original list of problems overcome in the future the more recent series have added sexism, homophobia, and terrorism.
The original series aired on America’s NBC television from 1966 to 1969. This was at the height of both the Cold War and the Vietnam War, an era of civil rights, youth and antiwar protests. The series presented the basic elements that would inform all subsequent series: a multi-ethnic and multinational crew, on a peaceful mission serving the Federation of Planets, which is a kind of interstellar combined U.N. and NATO. Underlying it all was a mythic friendship among the three lead characters: coolly logical Vulcan Science Officer Spock, emotional and intuitive Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Captain Kirk, who has to combine reason and feeling to make the right decisions. Reflecting its Cold War origins, the dominant IR approach in this series is structural realism: the universe is a self-help system, in which planets (read states) seek to maximize their planetary (national) interests through balance of power, projection of military power, and alliances. Like the U.S. in the Cold War, the Federation faces off against two authoritarian rivals, the Klingon Empire (stand-in for the Soviet Union) and the Romulan Star Empire (China). In episodes such as “Balance of Terror,” it’s all about keeping the balance of power, protecting neutral zones, and not letting one’s enemy gain a technological or military edge. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” two planets have been waging a computer-driven war for generations, as a way to maintain a fragile peace.
A key plot device is the prime directive, a basic Federation rule to not interfere in the normal development of a planetary civilization. In the original series, Kirk and crew frequently violate the prime directive, yet seem troubled by stepping over the line. This may have reflected American preoccupation with intervention in developing countries during the Cold War, seen as necessary in pursuit of the Containment doctrine, but disturbing to many Americans who remembered America’s anti-colonial origins and wanted to respect those countries’ own paths of development. The series also contrasted democracy and authoritarianism, as Kirk and crew sought to spread democratic values to various closed societies. The Federation’s openness and inclusivity contrasted with the closed and oppressive Klingon and Romulan societies.
The original series was cancelled after only three years, but quickly found a second life in TV reruns due to its legion of young fans. The cast returned in a series of films, six of which premiered between 1979 and 1992. The movie most pertinent to IR is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Leonard Nimoy (Spock) helped draft the story idea, and suggested that the story deal with recent events. It thus became a parable of the fall of the Soviet Union. An explosion on a major energy facility (read Chernobyl) triggers a crisis in the empire, and a reformist Chancellor Gorkon (Gorbachev) comes to power. Like many leaders working for peace (Gandhi, Sadat, King, or Kennedy), Gorkon is assassinated. Kirk has to put aside his hatred of Klingons and work with Gorkon’s daughter to bring about a Klingon-Federation peace conference.
“Only the Cardassians support the Founders and, like the Japanese in World War II, are forced back to their home planet and suddenly surrender”
Due to the continued popularity of the franchise, Paramount Studios decided in 1987 to launch a new Star Trek television series, to be set eighty years beyond the original series and called Star Trek: The Next Generation, but could not find a network to carry it. The studio thus settled on an innovative approach involving first-run syndication, meaning a variety of independent TV stations would all run first-time episodes within the same week. The approach proved wildly successful, and by the early 1990s the series became the most popular in the franchise’s history. Captain Jean-Luc Picard embodied the more cool rationality that Spock carried in the original series, while his “Number Two,” Will Riker, was more the Kirk-like shoot-from-the-hip character. This series reflected the liberal-institutionalist values that came to dominate the post-Cold War world: the importance of diplomacy and negotiations, respect for diverse cultures, closer adherence to international law and humanitarian interventions to protect abused populations. As such, the Federation was able to reach a quasi-alliance with the Klingons and achieve peace with the Romulans. A new authoritarian foe, the Cardassian Empire, appeared but the Federation was able to make deals with them fairly quickly. The one foe with which the Federation was unable to accept was the Borg, a hive-like society that absorbed (or “assimilated”) as mindless drones all those it encountered. This may have reflected burgeoning concerns across the world about the advance of globalization.
The next two series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, continued in the vein of The Next Generation, but with slight variations. Deep Space Nine departed from previous incarnations in setting its stories primarily on a space station, using story arcs spread over several episodes, and introducing intra-Federation conflict. Commanding the space station was the franchise’s first lead black captain, Ben Sisko, assisted by Bajoran Colonel Kira Nerys. The longest and most fascinating story arc concerned the Dominion Wars, in which a group of shape-shifters (the Founders) try to invade this part of the galaxy (the Alpha Quadrant) through a worm-hole near the DSN space station. The Federation is able to put aside all conflicts and forge a World War II-like grand coalition with the Klingons, Romulans, and several other species to fight the invasion. Only the Cardassians support the Founders and, like the Japanese in World War II, are forced back to their home planet and suddenly surrender.
The eponymous Starship Voyager is stranded on the far end of the galaxy, commanded by Captain Kathryn Janeway, the first female captain to head a series. The journey home could take decades. Along the way, a crew cobbled together from Federation personnel and rebels encounters various new civilizations, but eventually meets some old foes from the Alpha Quadrant, including the Borg. The Voyager crew runs into a particularly implacable inter-dimensional enemy, Species 8472. In line with the liberal frame of mind of all the 1990s series, all it takes to reach a modus vivendi with them is improved communication, with Species 8472 representatives helping out by taking human form.
“It’s one of those unexpected exchanges that brings tears to the eyes as it reveals the wonder of a universe unfolding.”
Star Trek: Enterprise was the first series produced after the 9/11 Incident. A prequel set before the founding of the Federation, the show reflects the wonder of the human race as it first moves beyond the solar system, and the occasionally fumbling efforts to deal with strange new civilizations. 9/11 plays a particular role in the series in a season-long story arc about a sudden attack on Earth by the Xindi, a shadowy consortium of species (insectoids, arboreals, aquatics, humanoids, etc.) from a remote part of the galaxy called the Expanse. This perhaps illustrates Americans’ revulsion to al Qaeda and its radicalism, with the enemy reduced to a collection of uncomprehending animals.
Enterprise was considered the least successful of the recent series: unlike the others, it was cancelled after only four years on air. To many the television franchise had run out of steam, or perhaps the Next Generation moment of popularity was an anomaly in the glow surrounding the end of the Cold War. It seemed that Star Trek was, for the moment, dead. But Star Trek found an unlikely savior in the form of uber-director J.J. Abrams, creator of the wildly popular Lost television series. Like the nearly contemporary Dark Knight series of Batman movies, Abrams was determined to reinvent the movie series by going back to its origins. Thus, a rebooted Star Trek was introduced to a new generation in 2009. Also a prequel to the original series, it presents a younger Kirk, Spock and crew. Unlike the original series, it places action ahead of intriguing ideas. Both Star Trek and its sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness are essentially confrontations with implacable villains who cannot be reached through reason and negotiation. Star Trek has returned to realism, but a primitive variant wherein all that foes understand is force. This may demonstrate contemporary American lack of interest in the international system, and a growing disillusionment with traditional diplomacy, balance of power, and alliances as ways to structure the world.
But true Trek fans want to try. Another priceless Star Trek moment happens near the end of Star Trek: First Contact, probably the best of the films with the Next Generation cast. Picard and crew had to travel back to the late twenty-first century to stop the Borg from preventing the first meeting of humans and Vulcans. Toward the film’s end, Lily Sloan, a twenty-first century woman who helped Picard, tells him that she envies him and the world to which he is returning. Picard replies that he envies her being at the beginning of a whole new world. It’s one of those unexpected exchanges that brings tears to the eyes as it reveals the wonder of a universe unfolding. That’s the magic of Star Trek.
Joel R. Campbell presented “Nationalism and the Three Arrows – The Conservative Activism of Japan’s Shinzo Abe” at The Asian Conference on Business and Public Policy 2014.
Image | Skai Patras