Sad Trek

How an exhausted liberalism killed sci-fi’s sunniest franchise
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If the future is anything to go by, the republic is in trouble. In the twenty-fourth century, Captain Picard explores the galaxy as a representative of the United Federation of Planets, a liberal technological utopia of freedom, equality, and prosperity. Yet, by the thirty-second century, Commander Burnham faces a collapsed Federation, unsure of its ideals and suffering an environmental catastrophe.

These two different images of the future come from different parts of the Star Trek franchise. From when Captain Picard debuted in 1987 in Star Trek: The Next Generation to Commander Burnham’s first appearance in 2017 in Star Trek: Discovery, the future has become freighted with pessimism, not mainly due to a change in creative vision but rather to America’s changing conception of itself. Star Trek’s evolving understanding of liberal ideology, its visions of utopia, history, and otherness, reveal America’s gradual loss of faith in liberalism itself.

The Star Trek franchise began in the Cold War, with gleaming hope that liberalism would triumph throughout the galaxy. Now, the show is clouded with cynicism about race, technology, and the environment.

The vast Star Trek franchise can be seen as emerging in three distinct waves, each corresponding to a different cultural moment.

The first TV show, now known as The Original Series, was a sci-fi refraction of the genres of Westerns and naval exploration. Running from 1966 to 1969, it saw Captain Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise on a mission of exploration of strange new worlds and split infinitives. Each episode would see Kirk, Spock, “Bones” McCoy, and their comrades engaging in fantastical adventures with new species on new planets, and Kirk doffing his shirt to fight the natives (or bring them freedom).

The creator of the show, Gene Roddenberry, took his ideological bearings from Kennedy- and Johnson-era progressive liberalism. America’s world-historical struggles against first fascist and then communist totalitarianism were reflected in the Federation’s tensions with the alien Klingon and Romulan empires, even if the show was generally critical of aggressive foreign policy. In the classic episode “Balance of Terror,” for instance, a World War Two–style game of cat and mouse between the Enterprise and a Romulan ship leads both sides to a mutual recognition of each other’s nobility. The show likewise drew much of its cultural force from the social and scientific ferment of the time — the existential threat of nuclear weapons, the Baconian awe of the space race, the socio-political struggles over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. And it became admired for its progressive optimism about a peaceful and prosperous future, reflected above all in its multi-racial crew in an era of network TV when segregation was still often the rule. While canceled after only three seasons, the original Star Trek gathered an intense following, fostered by reruns, a short-lived animated series, and a sequence of films.

The starship Enterprise debuted in The Original Series in 1966, shown here with updated graphics in the blu-ray release.
Courtesy Paramount Television

A new wave began with The Next Generation (1987–1994), followed by a spate of spin-offs in Deep Space Nine (1993–1999), Voyager (1995–2001), and Enterprise (2001–2005), and another series of films. The Next Generation, initially overseen by Roddenberry, repeated parts of the formula of The Original Series, but was set some hundred years later, with a new crew led by Captain Picard. It was, as described by critic Neima Jahromi, “one part Margaret Mead among the Samoans and one part undergraduate ethics course.”

In contrast to The Original Series, this second wave’s defining context was the short-lived liberal triumphalism at the end of the Cold War, as represented in the uneasy but durable new galactic peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. History’s long unfolding of the enlightened mind had finally come to fruition. But reflecting contemporary changes in progressive ideology, The Next Generation took a more pluralist stance, more skeptical about the universal claims of liberal dogma. Picard, for instance, in an episode tellingly titled “Ethics,” rebukes his second-in-command Riker for having a “very human perspective” in taking a principled stand against the Klingon requirement of suicide for paraplegics. This skeptical tone became increasingly evident as the spin-off series grew darker and distanced themselves from the more utopian aspects of the original conception. Deep Space Nine, for instance, took inspiration from post-colonial thought, with a plotline about the planet Bajor recovering from a brutal occupation.

All these shows, nevertheless, possessed a fundamental continuity of vision in their humanistic progressivism. The liberal Federation was a perpetual force for good in the galaxy, possessing the key to material abundance and the universal values of freedom and tolerance. And almost every leading character in every series was driven by an unambiguous moral righteousness and nobility of spirit.

This continuity was broken with the third wave, launched by J. J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot film Star Trek. Abrams infamously claimed in an interview that he “never got Star Trek.” Obviously so: In his hands, the franchise became a more generic version of the space fantasy Star Wars. More telling, however, has been the suite of new shows, especially Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered in 2017, and Star Trek: Picard, launched in 2020. These reflect the more pessimistic progressive sentiments of the post-Trump era, a recessive liberalism weighed down by social conflict, government failure, and a newfound difficulty in plausibly hoping that the future will be better.

From the start, an underpinning of utopianism provided the philosophical and moral structure for the franchise and its characters. In Star Trek’s future, the United Federation of Planets is a liberal-democratic regime encompassing hundreds of different alien species, all devoted to peace, freedom, and equality. The Federation is the United Nations writ galactic, led by an Americanized humanity. It possesses a post-scarcity economy, where there is no poverty, inequality, or social conflict. Technological progress has allowed food and materials to literally appear out of thin air from “replicators.” In a future where, as Captain Picard states, “material needs no longer exist,” life’s challenge has become “to improve yourself. To enrich yourself.” People, in an almost Marxist conception of the future, are liberated from the drudgery of labor, free to fulfill their higher callings, whether they be scientific exploration, civic duty, or creative expression. The crew of the Enterprise have embraced discipline and danger for the sake of scientific curiosity, galactic peacekeeping, and, up to a point, a humanitarian mission.

We may trace some of this utopian vision back to the beginnings of modernity itself, to modern philosophy’s promise to transform human life permanently for the better by mastering the whims of chance. In the realm of nature, Bacon and Descartes established a scientific process for the improvement of the human condition through the discovery of nature’s secrets and their exploitation for technical advancement. In the realm of politics, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke attempted to free humanity from superstition and oppression by advocating for political institutions that could channel the ineradicable selfishness of human nature into benevolent outlets. It was arguably this pessimistic view of humanity that inspired the founding of the United States. Rather than expecting political conflict and division to be resolvable, the Founders attempted to rationally design a regime to manage them.

But like most utopias, Star Trek abandoned the hard-headed realism of this classical liberal tradition, which refused to imagine “republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist,” as Machiavelli put it. Star Trek instead took its bearings from the later, twentieth-century progressivist evolution of liberalism, where progress came to be seen not only as a matter of technological or political improvement but of boundless moral improvement too. For Gene Roddenberry, humanity is “an incredible species” but it has so far been stuck in its childhood. “We’re growing up, we’re moving into adolescence now. When we grow up — man, we’re going to be something!” Thus, in the series premiere of The Next Generation, Picard defends humanity against the god-like being Q by claiming that humanity has evolved away from its behaviors of centuries past. There are even hints (such as in the Voyager episode “Death Wish”) that the Q race had evolved out of their material limitations into creatures of pure spirit, suggesting perhaps a picture of where liberal progress is ultimately headed. Roddenberry’s initial conception for The Next Generation was that human consciousness in the future would have transcended all negative emotions, and hence human nature as we knew it — an idea that was understandably resisted by the writing staff and soon quietly dropped on the reasonable grounds that compelling drama needs conflict.

Star Trek retained its optimism in the late 1980s, though increasingly under this rather Hegelian conception of History as the unfolding of enlightened self-knowledge. As long as the Cold War lasted, the show’s liberal Federation needed to battle ideological rivals, or rather their stand-ins, the Klingons. But by the second wave, that need had passed. Even though The Next Generation premiered before the fall of the Berlin Wall, already it offered the telling symbol of a Klingon, Lieutenant Worf, on the Enterprise bridge crew. The era of the franchise emerged alongside the collapse of the communist world, immersed in a spirit of liberal triumphalism briefly proclaimed as the “End of History,” as Francis Fukuyama famously called it. Fukuyama heralded “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” We had reached the end of the millennia-old unfolding of the human spirit as it sought its own self-consciousness and realization. The passage of time would continue, but it would now lack the tragic, inner necessity of historical conflict. All that would remain would be the practical realization of the universal idea of liberalism: the slow overcoming of pockets of local resistance.

In the Next Generation episode “Darmok” (1991), Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) struggles to understand the Tamarian captain’s cryptic language.
Courtesy Paramount Television

By the 1990s, then, the future utopia of the Federation had already come to exist, at least in its infancy, in the real world. It required no further political struggle to be achieved; all it lacked was the futuristic technology. This End of History, as Paul Cantor has brilliantly written in his essay “Shakespeare in the Original Klingon,” was most explicitly explored in the 1991 movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which focused on the signing of the peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire and thus depicted, in analogue, the triumph of America over its ideological rival. This optimism ran more generally throughout the second wave of the franchise, especially in its complacent assumption of the literal universality of the Federation’s liberal ideology. This was seen, above all, in the seemingly inevitable and desirable expansion of the Federation across the galaxy. A constant theme was that myriads of worlds across the galaxy wanted to apply for membership in the Federation, mirroring the millennial hopes for “post-national” liberal regimes such as the European Union and United Nations. The challenges around Bajor’s application provided a unifying plot thread across all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine.

Despite its optimistic instincts, the second wave also implicitly raised the specter of Nietzsche’s “last man” — people of the future who, no longer having any ideals to fight for, inured to comfort and security, lack genuine greatness. As Fukuyama lamented, “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” Just so in The Next Generation. Yes, freed from want, the crew members paint, perform in symphonies, stage plays, do yoga, read, and generally better themselves. But these figure largely as hobbies, exercises in roundedness. High creativity, the kind that even in these characters inspires awe, seems mostly to be the product of past or alien cultures, not of present humanity. Picard, as the most humanistic and cultured of the characters, dwells in the past, with his love of pre-twenty-first-century literature, classical and jazz music, history, and the traditional production of wine in the French countryside. All the characters are faced with a postmodern bricolage of history and culture. Freed by time-travel and holographic technology, they can visit any moment of history, abstracted out from the context that gave it meaning, and use it for their own purposes. But they cannot create anything substantial of their own.

Yet Star Trek manages to cheat history of its finality. Post-historical humanity no longer internally faces interminable political conflict, but it does externally in the infinite number of other species and regimes of the galaxy that remain incorrigibly “historical.” The republic must eternally renew itself in its confrontation with outsiders.

The Original Series reflected the tensions within a dogmatic liberal foreign policy, the need to make the galaxy safe for American-style liberalism. In its quest, the Enterprise ultimately became another vehicle for liberal evangelism. While the show recognized the evil consequences of the Age of Exploration, it sidestepped any notions of European moral culpability or agency by suggesting that the destruction of alien ways of life was the inevitable consequence of their contact with superior forms of civilization. This is precisely the import of the Prime Directive — one of the foundational principles of the Federation’s defense force, Starfleet — which forbids interference with the internal affairs of other peoples, especially more primitive ones. Species must be protected in order to let their process of development unfold organically. Yet, this rule was more honored in the breach than its fulfillment. As Cantor points out, Kirk’s mission seemed really to be “‘to seek out new civilizations and destroy them’ if they contradict the principles of liberal democracy” and “to eliminate any vestiges of aristocracy or theocracy in the universe.” When the utopian Federation encounters competing utopias, they must be crushed in the name of freedom and equality.

In The Next Generation and Trek’s second wave, the Prime Directive became an increasingly inviolable principle. Thus, Picard in the episodes “Homeward” and “Pen Pals” was even prepared, slightly confusedly, to allow entire peoples to perish rather than risk culturally contaminating them. This reflected a growing skepticism about the universality of liberalism, though one still ultimately underlaid by an implicit conviction of the truth of many progressive dogmas, including the moral absolutes of pluralism and toleration. The increasing ideological tensions in America’s conception of itself came to the fore in the portrayal of alien races, precisely because they were meant as metaphors for cultural difference. The aliens, with their caricatured prostheses, strange costumes and rituals, often represented mere exaggerations of liberal vices or virtues. There was little room in the depiction of the alien races of The Next Generation for real spiritual difference, for genuinely alien consciousness, ways of life, or conceptions of the good. The Ferengi were caricatured hyper-capitalists with a mincing gait and large ears, whereas the truly villainous Borg, the ultimate technocratic collectivity, obliterated all individual difference. Even the Klingons, as supposed stand-ins for the communists, were transmuted from ideological rivals in The Original Series to atavistic representatives of a warrior aristocracy and traditionalism in The Next Generation. Indeed, this built-in obsolescence became a constant justification of rogue Klingon villains during the second wave, seeking to subvert the decadent peace that reigned in the galaxy. 

Star Trek’s cosmopolitanism was literally cosmic in scale, and yet even its inclusion of post-human beings did not stray far from ideals that were comfortable to end-of-history Americans. In The Next Generation, the sentient android Data, a slightly transmogrified Spock figure played with consummate comic timing by Brent Spiner, emerges out of the long literary tradition of outsiders who complicate the boundaries of the given and the commonplace. To the human viewers, the effect is often funny, often touching, but never especially alienating. For Data is driven by an intense desire to realize his “humanity” — which, of course, means the particular liberal version of humanity that underlies the show. He pursues a professional career, picks up hobbies and a pet cat, Spot, and eventually gets in touch with his feelings. The theme emerges again in later shows, such as in Voyager, where the holographic Doctor strives to be an autonomous individual. In the future, the technological singularity is content to be the comic relief. Sentient technology is depicted not just as benevolent and easily regulated, but as having a built-in telos toward liberal humanism.

Nevertheless, Star Trek at its best has resisted, as do all genuine works of art, the ideological frame imposed upon it. The slightly incoherent pluralism of The Next Generation — its denial of the universality of liberal values was driven by a deeper version of those very values — paradoxically gave it the moral and intellectual space to aspire to the philosophical. Often driven by wonder, it tried to use its sci-fi premises to distance itself from the social realities and ideological certainties of the present. And in the first two waves, the nature of the Enterprise’s adventurous quest sat in fruitful tension with liberal assumptions. Kirk was heroic, fighting hostile aliens bare-chested and bare-knuckled. So was Picard, played by Patrick Stewart as wise, stentorian, and stern, driven by a deep passion for goodness, truth, and beauty. The crew broadly were driven by the pursuit of virtuous excellence, by a devotion to honor, community, and truth that denied their status as “last men.” People still loved, fought, and died trying to realize their higher selves.

Today we are amid the third wave of Star Trek, and it offers us no vision of the future worth longing or hoping for. The most prominent current series, Discovery, shows no interest at all in discovery, or in science, wonder, or philosophical reflection. It represents a new type of cultural myopia and chauvinism, different from that seen in The Original Series in its total closure to worlds outside the ones run by its protagonists. Indeed, it seems not even to recognize the existence of alternative conceptions of the world. The one major new alien species fully introduced in the series, the Kelpiens, do not enjoy the kind of world-building given to the Vulcans, Romulans, or Klingons, only a crude morality story about oppressors and oppressed. Far from the literary pretensions of the earlier waves, this show struggles to achieve anything more than violent spectacle leavened with sentimentality and generic tropes.

While Discovery’s third season is set in a distant future where the Federation has all but collapsed, the first two seasons are set during the supposed historic height of the utopia, and yet lack any recognition of it. The show evinces no interest in any positive aspects of the Federation, nor do its characters seem to be driven by any higher principles or ideals. Discovery has quietly abandoned the moral superiority of the future: The barely-developed characters are almost entirely unlikeable, highly flawed, some explicitly mentally ill, others ill-tempered, bickering, ruthless, or vain. Captain Lorca, a character in the first season, turns out to be his own evil doppelganger from the Mirror Universe. Lieutenant Stamets’s persistent meanness is played as dramatically redeemed by his being the first openly gay character of the franchise. The names of many of the bridge crew are likely unknown to any but the most dedicated of viewers. And they are comically ready to violate command hierarchies whenever their personal judgment requires.

Discovery’s Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is first introduced in 2017 as an anthropologist of extraterrestrials.
Courtesy CBS Studios

Whereas in the earlier waves of Star Trek the ideals of equality and freedom had triumphed and become permanently available to all, these ideals are now fragile and ephemeral, relative products of a particular time and place, lacking any real grounding and perhaps even any desirability. They are under siege, whether by Trump-era fears of violent messianic religious figures and white supremacists (the Klingon T’Kuvma and Captain Lorca, respectively, in Season 1), the very technology that was meant to facilitate utopia (the galaxy-destroying data-gathering technologies of Season 2), or environmental disasters (the “Burn” of Season 3, which caused mass death and crippled interstellar travel). This conflict-ridden, crisis-driven Federation is not a place where anyone would choose to live.

This abandonment of Star Trek’s utopian pretensions is not due just to poor writing, or to the inevitable fatigue of a long-running franchise. We can see it in the genuinely good first season of Star Trek: Picard (2020), which was created in part by Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon. This show remains anchored, by the character of Picard, in humanism and wonder — yet this makes its disillusionment with liberal premises and promises even starker. Set twenty years after his last appearance, Admiral Picard has resigned from Starfleet in protest against its failure to live up to its ideals, its increasing corruption and xenophobia in the face of a massive refugee crisis from the planet Romulus. The great statesman has, like the great in all periods of political turpitude, retired from public life. Once the plot develops, Picard operates with a private crew outside of the official aegis. Just like in Discovery, the good can only emerge now in defiance of the regime.

Beyond “science says”

The New Atlantis is building a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.

This new wave of Star Trek is internally consistent, then, in harboring a pessimistic view of the future, one that seems to emerge from a particular contemporary sensibility. Implicit in these shows is a sense of the end of history as overdeveloped cul-de-sac, a place that is bleak but offers nowhere else to go. In these visions of the future, consciousness has indeed reached its final stage, which is not rational self-realization but the recognition of history’s true nature as a long series of oppressions. People seek emancipation from this oppression to fulfill their authentic group identity. In a permanent reification of difference, sexual and racial identities are treated as changeless through the ages. Life remains a perpetual power struggle between these incompatible identities and ways of life, whose standpoints are relative and incapable of transcendence by universal reason.

Government is somehow both the only possible guarantor of justice and also structurally implicated in all social evils. The current system is therefore illegitimate and needs to be dismantled in favor of some sort of utopian solution. But this utopia no longer has a clear content, such as that provided by Marxism or earlier forms of progressive liberalism. Ultimately, there is little hope of its realization, or even desire for it. No matter how far we go into the future, the ideal society remains a mirage on the temporal horizon. Not even Picard can make it so.

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