Star Trek at 50: An Aesop for Today?

Thursday, September 8th, 2016. To most, this day did not stand in distinction to any other day of 2016, a year filled with political, moral, and theological upheaval, but for me and millions of “Trekkies” around the world, that day was the 50th Anniversary of the premier of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. This was a series doomed from the get-go. It was not picked up after the networks turned down the original pilot. However, that first pilot eventually made it to television in 1986, the 20th Anniversary of the day the U.S.S. Enterprise first “whooshed” across television screens for the first time. It was a television show that went over budget and was deemed too controversial for the times, as it featured an interracial (and interspecies) cast. Eventually, the five year mission ended up being only three, as NBC cancelled the series in 1969. But the iconic franchise gained new life in the 1970s, thanks to a tremendous fan base, and now, 13 films, 6 series, some 700 episodes later, Star Trek is a multi-billion dollar property. The story continues to grow, in fact, as 2017 promises to see the return of Trek to the small screen with Star Trek: Discovery.

Why write about this for a theological blog? As a fan of Star Trek from my earliest memories (thanks, dad!), I can safely say that the best thing Star Trek offers to us (mostly in the television series) is an interesting look at serious questions of morality. Dr. Albert Mohler, speaking on the September 8th edition of The Briefing, seems to concur with this analysis. He says,

Star Trek is often described as being ahead of its time, and no doubt in some sense it was, especially now at this late after the development of the space-age. But from a worldview perspective, perhaps what’s most interesting is the fact that when the Wall Street Journal and theFinancial Times and other papers look at this 50thanniversary, they note the fact that the very serious television program of the 1960s was not all that successful. It is the blockbuster films of later decades that have brought the real wealth to the Star Trek brand, but as virtually every major observer has noted, those blockbuster films came without all the moral seriousness of the television series. When it comes to the big budget of blockbuster Star Trek films, it turns out that in terms of worldview there’s less there than meets the eye. But 50 years ago there was a television series in which the opposite was true, there was more there than often met the eye.

While it is the films that have filled the coffers, Star Trek‘s greatest value is found in its ability to wrestle with difficult questions in one hour television increments.

Indulge me, if you will, as I point out a few examples that quickly come to mind.

  1. In one of the best episodes of the original series, Dr. McCoy is rendered temporarily insane and accidentally changes the timeline of Earth’s history, which prevented the formation of Star Fleet (“The City on the Edge of Forever”). This episode poses a question most professional historians hate, but armchair historians love: what happens if a single event in history is changed? In this episode, Kirk must decide if he will save the life of a woman he’s fallen in love with (no real surprise to Trek fans, of course), and contribute to a pacifist movement that will delay the United States’ involvement in World War II, enabling Germany to develop the atomic bomb and win the war. The moral question arises: How do we measure the life of one person against the lives of countless others?
  2. In season 2 of the second Trek incarnation, The Next Generation, ship’s counsellor Deanna Troi is impregnated by an unknown alien species (“The Child”). The crew, seeing this child as a potential threat to the safety of the Enterprise and he passengers, urges Troi to have the pregnancy terminated. Troi famously refuses, sending, though quite unintentionally, a strong pro-life message through television screens across the world.
  3. In what has become my favorite Trek incarnation, Deep Space Nine, the franchise takes an honest look at human nature, something noticeably missing in the previous series. Instead of whitewashing humanity with an evolved sensibility, Deep Space Nine seriously engages issues of war, commerce, religion, and sin in ways previously not seen. One episode in particular, “In the Pale Moonlight,” depicts Captain Sisko wrestling with the ethics of falsifying information in order to draw another power into a war against a threat from another part of the galaxy. How should one approach the ethics of war? Is it morally right to use one evil to prevent a greater one?
  4. In season 2 of the later Trek incarnation, Voyager, two members of the crew (Lt. Tuvok and Neelix) are combined into a single life form, Tuvix, in a transporter malfunction. Over the course of this episode, the crew must wrestle with losing their old friends and getting to know an altogether new person. A way to “save” Tuvok and Neelix is devised, but it must come at the expense of Tuvix, who has gained friends among the crew and decided he does not want to be “killed” by being separated back into Tuvok and Neelix again. In the end, Captain Janeway makes a unilateral (and rather monstrous) decision to have Tuvix undergo this procedure. This episode provides a good starting point for talking about issues related to personhood.
  5. Star Trek: Enterprise was the last of the television series but takes place chronologically before the original series. This series is also a point of much contention among Trekkies that like to debate its rightful place in the canon. That aside, the episode “Dear Doctor” gives an interesting look into how Enterprise‘s writers viewed the development of Star Fleet’s Prime Directive (primarily about non-interference with technologically inferior species). The crew of the Enterprise is forced to decide if it will help one species over another in a world they’ve discovered on their journey. How should cultures relate to one another, especially if one is superior to the other in many external ways? What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself, especially if it benefits one group over another?

These are just a few of the numerous examples of moral wrestlings found in the various television incarnations of Star Trek that are worthy of our attention. In an age of nudity and violence for the sake of those things, Star Trek offers something different: an engagement with the mind and conscience. My hope is that this will continue with Discovery in 2017, but the popularity of the most recent reboot films, which feature flashiness without substance I’ve come to love from the television series, tempers my expectations.

Readers will note that the Star Trek universe has little room for religion of any kind, especially Christianity. Roddenberry was a devoted anti-theist who saw a future without the Church. Additionally, Roddenberry was highly influenced by the ancient Greek writers, especially the playwrights. Much of the earliest Star Trek shows how Roddenberry attempted to take universal truths and reconcile with the world as he saw it now, and how he hoped it would turn out in the future. Though I am reluctant to place someone in a category that belongs to such a pillar of literature in the ancient world, Roddenberry almost becomes an Aesop for the modern world. Perhaps the most famous student of Aesop in Lutheran circles is Luther himself, the reformer of blessed memory. In a table talk, Luther said,

It is a result of God’s providence that the writings of Cato and Aesop have remained in the schools, for both are significant books. Cato contains the most useful sayings and precepts. Aesop contains the most delightful stories and descriptions. Moral teachings, if offered to young people, will contribute much to their edification. In short, next to the Bible the writings of Cato and Aesop are in my opinion the best, better than the mangled utterances of all the philosophers and jurists, just as Donatus is the best grammarian. (AE:54 p. 211)

Although Roddenberry himself was not Christian, and this certainly comes through loudly in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there is some real value in looking at Roddenberry’s work in Trek (and in the later incarnations after his death). I am of the mind that when Star Trek is at its best, it becomes almost a new mythology and fables that often illustrate what God’s Law requires of us and what the consequences of ignoring the Law are. Armed with God’s revealed Law in the Ten Commandments, then, a Christian may find much to be commended in the Star Trek universe.

It is a well-established fact that Roddenberry envisioned a future free of Christianity and often portrayed religion, in general, as nothing but a superstitious evil to be gotten rid of. His stories, however, give us a vehicle (a wagon train to the stars, if you will) to think about hard moral questions of our time, because as much as Roddenberry would have fought against this notion, he still lived in a universe governed by God and His Law. And so, as you boldly go into this 50th year of Star Trek, set aside your preconceived notions about how nerdy we Trekkies are. Watch a few episodes and consider the moral question at the center. But don’t just let it wash over you. Listen. Pay attention. If you’re really in for an adventure, how does the conclusion of that moral dilemma stack up against what God has demanded in the Ten Commandments? That, dear reader, may lead you to where no man has gone before. Live long and prosper!

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