In recent months, The Girlfriend and I have undertaken a task that would have warmed my heart as a 13-year-old boy: we have worked our way through nearly the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Of course, the notion that I could undertake such a project with a woman, much less that she would be the one to suggest it, would have boggled my mind completely.) While the first season and much of the second was trying, I have to say that it holds up well as drama — so that this particular viewing project was less purely nostalgia-driven than our slog through MacGyver. I’d even be so bold as to claim that it represents an improvement over the original series, retaining some of the philosophical ambition without veering into the pretension and heavy-handedness that marred so many of the original episodes. In short, the writers still fundamentally want to explore what it means to be human, but they are also comfortable letting the show be a show.
One area where they generally struck a good balance was preserving the illusion of consistency in their technology without harping excessively on the world-building element. There were cases where they “forgot” certain newly-discovered technological capabilities, but their motivation seemed to be that they would make plots too easy to resolve (such as a maneuver pulled off in one of the season 2 Dr. Pulaski episodes where it was implied that the transporter could automatically cure any acquired genetic disorder, which are apparently legion in space). Nowhere is this technological flexibility more apparent than in their complete bracketing of language problems with any humanoid race. They do make reference to universal translators (which they have to use with non-humanoid life forms), but overall I’d say their approach is delightfully incoherent. The Klingons, for instance, still have their own language that non-Klingons sometimes claim to be able to speak — yet they carry out all their political deliberations among themselves in English. There are never communication problems with humanoid races, even on first contact or in situations where crew members have been deprived of their comm badges (which I assume must be the seat of the translator?).
Simply leaving aside the problem of language does introduce a certain narrative economy, but it also resonates uncannily with the dream of globalization: we can encounter all the most exotic cultures, and lo and behold, they speak English! One can see a similar effect with the majority of the alien races themselves. Though the early seasons had many encounters with non-humanoid creatures, the majority of aliens (increasingly so as the series progresses) are humanoid — and they can interbreed! I’ve long suspected that the desire to contact alien life is fundamentally a desire to contact ourselves, and a late episode of ST:TNG makes that explicit in an episode in which representatives of four major species must cooperate to decode an ancient message hidden in DNA sequences spread throughout the galaxy. As it turns out, there’s a reason all the aliens seem so alarmingly similar: they all descend from a common ancestor, a technologically advanced species that existed billions of years before and seeded the galaxy with their DNA so that they could never truly die off. (This is part and parcel of an increasing political literalism toward the end of the series’ run, so that we are treated to a heavy-handed episode where it turns out that warp engines are damaging the fabric of space — and just in case you don’t get the connection, the effect is literally causing climate change on one particular planet.)
There is one key area where the show sits askew the ideology of globalization, and that is in the fundamental ethical principle of the Prime Directive. This principle mandates non-interference with any other species’ cultural or technological development — indeed, the Federation only contacts planets whose inhabitants have reached a certain level of political and technological advancement (a single planet-wide government and access to warp engines, respectively). The sequence of steps seems to be more or less unvaried, which is itself interesting, but for me the more interesting thing is the absolute respect for planetary sovereignty. Surely this is a product of the show’s historical moment: running from 1987 to 1994, it spans the tail end of the Cold War and the halting emergence of the new monopolar world order. In that setting, insisting on national sovereignty seems like a reasonable political course that cuts against both of the Cold War powers with their imperial ambitions (and against the emerging hegemony of the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”).
The faith that all cultures, if left to themselves, will ultimately converge on something like the peaceful and humane model of the 24th-century Federation is certainly optimistic. At the same time, the writers show their awareness of the dark side of this conformity with the Borg, the race of drones who are joined into a hive mind by means of technology and insist that every race be “assimilated” and incorporated into the Borg collective. While one could certainly equate the Borg with Communism (and perhaps specifically China, given Orientalist stereotypes), I think the Borg is best read as a kind of preemptive protest against actual existing globalization itself, wherein all cultures are flattened out and their “best aspects” (mainly their food, but sometimes their spiritual practices, etc.) are incorporated into the global mainstream culture.
In other words, the Borg isn’t China, it’s America, or at least a certain America — just as the Earth that forms the seat of the United Federation of Planets is a certain America. The future that the Federation shows us is certainly optimistic, perhaps overly so in the early seasons, when so much is made of the recent alliance with the Klingons, etc. In fact, one could even say that the Federation seemed too monolithic in the early seasons, so that the writers felt that a plausible “mythology” (i.e., overarching plot) would be an attempt to subvert the Federation from within by a mind-melding species of bug-like creatures. The attempt to introduce this mythology resulted in one of the worst episodes ever (with particularly horrible special effects), and the fan reaction was so negative that they returned to the drawing board — and came up with the Borg. But the Borg are only the biggest threat, as there are also the Romulans and, later, the Cardassians to contend with.
The peace seems more and more fragile as time goes on, and we are frequently treated to alternate timelines in which everything has collapsed into brutal wars that kill off entire planets full of people. The Star Trek franchise as a whole takes on a darker tone as it expands in the waning years of Next Generation and beyond — Deep Space Nine focuses on a more squalid space station and on various convoluted political machinations, while the crew on Voyager is literally lost in space. Much of Star Trek is utopian fantasy — economic want has been abolished, the ship (along with Data’s body) is apparently a kind of perpetual motion machine that can generate its own power, etc. — and many of its ideals (individualism, cultural autonomy, etc.) may seem naive in light of critical theory. Yet I think it’s still interesting as a thought experiment insofar as it tries to think out new problems and new possibilities that arise once, for example, the material conditions for full communism have been achieved. It stands in a certain relationship with its time and can’t be fully understood without that, but in many ways it transcends it.
In short, it is a good show, and it might even be an optimistic sign for the human race that it’s one of the most popular shows of all time. I’m glad I’m finally fulfilling my childhood ambition of watching it all.