Comics Ate My Brain

June 21, 2006

Ride Captain Ride: The Grand Unified Theory Of Star Trek

Filed under: star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 3:25 pm
Well, it’s about time to unspool my Theory, and incorporate my thoughts on Modern Trek in the process.

(This means, unfortunately, that I will have to abandon a more comprehensive look at the 24th-Century shows, which I was really hoping to call “It’s Just My Job, Five Days A Week.”)

First, though, an explanation of what my Grand Unified Theory is, and is not. It aims to identify commonalities among the five series, and from them explain what Star Trek has become. It is not a baseline for determining “good” or “bad” Trek. There are more qualified people than I who have invested a lot more time doing that. In effect, Star Trek is now its own genre, but considering its roots as a new sci-fi TV storytelling style, that’s not so bad.

As we know, each Modern Trek series subtracted something from the series which preceded it. Thus, the GUT must take into account the lack of Kirk & Co. (“TNG”), a starship (“DS9”), Alpha Quadrant politics (“Voyager”), and indeed the history of the 23rd and 24th Centuries (“Enterprise”). That still leaves a number of distinctive elements.

First, of course, is the Captain. The Captain is the Decider, and the ultimate interpreter of Federation ethics (about which more later). The Captain might not be the focal point of every episode, but sets the tone for the show as a whole. The buck stops with him/her.

Star Trek requires that the Captain’s authority derives from a larger organization which facilitates his mission. At first this might not seem that critical of an element, inasmuch as Gene Roddenberry could have made Kirk, Spock, et al., unaffiliated types wandering around the galaxy getting into trouble. (Indeed, that’s how things looked at the end of Star Trek III.) However, not only does Starfleet (including the Earth Starfleet of “Enterprise”) provide continuity between the various series, it provides a continuity of ethics for the Captain to uphold.

Starfleet is described consistently as having a combined military/explorational mission, modeled on the 18th Century’s British Navy. Starfleet’s Captains are equal parts soldiers, diplomats, and astronauts, having to deal with a wide range of scenarios virtually as the only representative of their government out on the frontier. Still, although a Starfleet Captain may be on a very long leash, with very broad discretion, the leash is still there, and the discretion does have limits. No Star Trek show to date has given its Captain complete autonomy, or stated that its Captain was not the representative of a benevolent government. More specifically, Star Trek’s Captains have consistently been portrayed as upholding the ideals for which their government stands. (The glaring exception, again, is Star Trek III, but there, even indirectly, Kirk protects the Federation by keeping the “secret of Genesis” out of Klingon hands.) Thus, not only the existence of a benevolent government, but the Captain’s fidelity to that govenrment’s ideals, is a critical element of Star Trek.

To me, a large part of Star Trek’s separation from other space shows comes out of the synergy between the Captain and the Federation’s ethics. “Firefly” turned this on its head, making its Captain a rebel from a defeated cause who despised the central govenrment’s patronizing omnipotence. “Battlestar Galactica” 2.0 has taken a two-headed approach, with Roslin and Adama trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in their new post-apocalyptic reality. This ends up making Star Trek look a bit naive in comparison, but if that’s the way its viewpoint will be judged, then I suppose it will always have that naivete.

Another element that “Firefly” and the new “Galactica” eschew, at least for the most part, is the Friendly Alien Outsider. I’m not talking about “Galactica’s” Cylons here, because while Six and Boomer are critiquing the human condition, they’re hardly working with the humans to make things better (at least, not from the humans’ perspective). Also, they’re outside the organizational structure, and that’s antithetical to Trek’s worldview.

The FAOs serve a couple of purposes: they highlight Starfleet’s diversity (more on that later), and they offer different perspectives on human behavior. The Modern Trek shows usually have at least two FAOs: a Happy one who enjoys humans and may even want to become more human; and a Grumpy one, who doesn’t see why humans do such stupid things. Happy FAOs include Data, Jadzia Dax, Neelix, the holographic Doctor, and Doctor Phlox. Grumpy FAOs include Worf, Odo, Tuvok, Seven, and T’Pol. Spock started out Happy in “The Cage,” and his replacement Xon would have been Happy in “Phase II,” but otherwise he stayed in the middle. The expanded casts of the Modern Trek shows, plus the conscious desire not to copy Original Trek, resulted in Spock’s role being split into Happy and Grumpy parts.

There are other character types, too: the Stiff (Riker, Chakotay), the Kid (Chekov, Wesley, Kim), the Good-Hearted Dope (LaForge, Bashir, Mayweather), the Activist (Kira, Torres), the Telepathic Babe (Troi, Kes), the Quirky Tinkerer from the British Isles (Scotty, O’Brien, Reed), and even the Bartender (Guinan, Quark, Neelix). However, these aren’t represented in every show; and by and large, they tend to be less memorable than the FAOs and the Captains.

Anyway, the Outsider element reinforces another key Trek tenet: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. I’ll leave it open whether IDIC is best served by being under a big Starfleet/Federation umbrella, but again, that goes back to the series’ optimistic conceit about a benign galactic government and its seemingly omnipresent military/exploration arm.

A crew’s diversity can also extend to the integration of disparate factions. This was the case in “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager,” where circumstances forced Starfleet officers to work with Bajoran militiamen and Maquis terrorists (respectively) on a daily basis.

Because the Bajorans and the Maquis didn’t have quite the same interests as the Starfleet crews, conflict was supposed to be hard-wired into the shows’ formats, but ultimately everybody got along fine. The Maquis wore Starfleet uniforms, only with different rank insignia. Kira Nerys, the highest-ranking Bajoran officer on DS9, even got a temporary Starfleet commission towards the end of the series. T’Pol started out as part of the Vulcan military, but eventually became a full member of Enterprise’s crew. She didn’t wear a regulation Starfleet jumpsuit, though, perhaps as a visual nod to her status as the ship’s only nonhuman officer (Dr. Phlox wasn’t part of Starfleet). In fact, every Modern Trek series had characters with some uniform latitude, including Worf, Troi, Wesley, Neelix, Kes, Seven, T’Pol, and Phlox.

I mention this because in the end, even Star Trek‘s costumes seem to say that the organization’s interests (“the needs of the many…?”) trump those of the individual, although the organization is dedicated to the protection of the individual’s freedoms. I know that opens up a whole can of philosophical nightcrawlers, but I won’t take it much farther than that. Original Trek overthrew totalitarian societies all the time, and Modern Trek has made its two main villains the hive-mind Borg and the Great-Linked Founders of the Dominion, each of which fold individual interests completely into the whole. Of course, the tension between Starfleet’s rules and individual needs has also been played out intramurally in various episodes across all of the series, and perhaps on its largest scale in (you guessed it) Star Trek III. Because Starfleet is a series constant, such tension has become a constant as well.

Accordingly, without getting too much deeper into the particular philosophical concerns Star Trek has explored, it may be sufficient to frame the Grand Unified Theory partly in terms of the individual’s role within such a benevolent governmental entity. Thus, the GUT would describe Star Trek as a series

1. dedicated to a wide range of storytelling possibilities, but
2. promoting a particular egalitarian philosophy, which is
3. personified by the Captain of a diverse crew, which contains
4. at least one Friendly Alien Outsider who comments on humanity, and all of whom work for
5. Starfleet, the military/exploratory arm of a benign, benevolent government.

There is another element which, unfortunately, I can’t describe any other way except attitude. Rooted in the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship, it has been diffused among Modern Trek’s ensemble casts. To me it’s the sense of looking into a world that’s not quite real — not in the “I can see the zipper” way, but more like the realization of an alternate reality. Focusing on the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic was a stylized way of doing drama, but an unrealistic way to run a starship. Thus, Modern Trek emphasized how non-allegorical its casts were meant to be. You couldn’t swing a dead sehlat in the Modern Trek era without hitting a couple of characters pedeconferencing about some staff meeting, rendezvous on the holodeck, or other bit of mundanity meant to show Starfleet wasn’t all phaser battles and stellar anomalies. Still, though, each series had this … attitude … that it was doing something important.

Ironically, for all the efforts from fans and pros alike to unify Star Trek‘s history, technology, etc., into something that could actually work, the shows themselves seemed to know they were just make-believe. Again, that may come off to viewers as naivete or self-righteousness, and maybe my rose-colored glasses need cleaning.

Nevertheless, at its best, somehow this attitude exemplifies the joie de vivre of Kirk’s famous “Risk! Risk is our business!” speech. At that point in Trek’s history the world-building and continuity maintenance weren’t nearly as ingrained as they have become, and as the years went by a kind of workplace familiarity would replace Original Trek’s derring-do, but Kirk’s sentiment still burns in Star Trek‘s core. On one level the idea of serving in a galactic navy with the ideals of the Peace Corps and the firepower to raze planets is preposterous, and Star Trek occasionally seems to acknowledge that with a wink — but on another, it occasionally succeeds in convincing the viewer that the preposterous might just work after all. And that, ultimately, is the point of Star Trek: demonstrating that humanity can rise above its failings and differences and create a future that approaches utopia.

Hmmm … still seems a little fuzzy in spots, and I’m not perfectly happy with it, but that should do for now. What do you think?


  1. Well, this works pretty well for me, Tom! Although I’d still like to see “It’s Just My Job, Five Days A Week”, sigh…You could expand a bit more on how the loss of the original ST dynamic is compensated for in Modern Trek, I think…to me, that’s the most compelling part of the whole GUT, how the symbolic things that made the original work so well got replaced with other purposes as time went on. In fact I have a theory of my own about this, that the way of doing television at the time Star Trek was made (and for a couple decades later too!) had an inherent symbolic oomph to its productions, a stagecraft-y interest in the motions of blue shirts and red shirts and yellow shirts, that TNG and its successors ended up being nearly the antithesis of. Less Gunsmoke and more Alien Legion, if you will…although suddenly I have the sinking feeling I’ve already blathered on about this in my other comments…uh, whoops…Additionally I can’t help but think that after DS9, the ST franchise seems to run out of much to say about the relationship of Captain to Federation…but then what can you say about this after you’ve already had Sisko confront his divided loyalties as both Commander and Emissary, and to a lesser degree Maquis sympathizer? In your analytical scheme this strikes me as a very significant detail…I thought Enterprise was an effective show in many ways, but as much as I appreciated its back-to-basics “what it means to be human” thing, it didn’t develop Captain/Federation tensions much beyond what we already find in the Kirk model. Although maybe it might’ve, if it hadn’t gotten bogged down in tiresome storylines! Certainly it had all the necessary elements to do so, sort of a pleasant blend of Original Triad symbolism with the various other character-types you wittily describe here…and would I have noticed that, particularly, if not for your writings here? No I would not, so thanks…And, I also note with interest that your “attitude” comments fit pretty well into my contention about ST, that no matter what people like to say about its philosophy, deep down it’s just about the old SF concern of “how does Technological Man retain his humanity?” It seems to me that’s the real meaning of the Peace Corps With Nukes contradiction, that human idealism is what balances the destructive force human technology represents…and perhaps that overwhelming capacity for destruction is even necessary, to keep the idealism freshly honed and properly valued? Hmm, so Treknology can be seen as a constant and ongoing moral and ethical test, that seems pretty clearly borne out in all the series…but more importantly, I think the “attitude” that (you’re right!) makes Star Trek work in the first place is something that mostly comes up when the technology is insufficient to deal with whatever crisis looms, but the idealism is sufficient to deal with it, and then just so we don’t miss that point the Captain gives a big speech about it to drive it home. And is this not the very thing the FAO is meant to observe? So for just a second it becomes clear that occasionally the FAO stands-in for the viewer, too, and becomes the face in the mirror, an unacknowledged-if-winking participant in the Humanity he/she/it is ordinarily supposed to stand in contrast to.Whoops! Just went on too long, didn’t I? Nice work, Tom; I’d love to see an expansion of this some time, I think you’ve left plenty of doors open, and the moral dialogue of Captain/Federation in particular seems to me to have lots of room to move in it.Worth the wait!

    Comment by plok — June 28, 2006 @ 8:02 pm

  2. Aw shucks, glad you liked it! Part of the reason this took so long to post was that I basically felt obliged to compare and contrast the differences in TV production from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s. First-season TNG was, to me, a ’60s show dressed up in ’80s style, and it wasn’t until DS9 that a Trek show really started to feel like it had caught up with the times. However, I always ascribed that to Roddenberry’s influence, and wasn’t sure when Roddenberry and the TOS holdovers’ influence started to wane and Berman, Piller, et al., started really taking over. That warranted more research, and I decided to focus more on what was on screen as opposed to behind the scenes. However, even with that there is just so much to Modern Trek that I settled for looking at the big picture and leaving the nuances for later.So yes, there probably will be a TNG/DS9/Voyager follow-up, if only so I can use your language of consolidation and call Rick Berman the Roy Thomas of Star Trek….

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — June 28, 2006 @ 9:36 pm

  3. Ha! I’d be grateful if you’d take that language off my hands, in fact!

    Comment by plok — June 29, 2006 @ 4:20 am

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