Guardians of the galaxy: the unlikely politics of Star Trek

How Star Trek could have averted the global financial crash, eradicated racism and kept Britain out of the Iraq War.

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It was midday and a Klingon couple dawdled at the entrance of “The Horse of the Year Show”, their plastic battle armour a dull grey in the exhibition centre’s soft light. The male scratched his head – or rather, the shaggy black wig on top of his head – and said, in a northern accent, “Oh, no. It must be over there.”

“It” was Destination Star Trek, a fan convention marking the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s science-fiction universe. “Over there” was in the direction of the stairs, where a busload of Starfleet officers in regulation red-and-black uniform were marching, one of them eating a Peperami. Up those stairs and in the large hall to the right were the reconstructed bridges of two starships. Somewhere close by were members of the original Star Trek cast – William Shatner, George Takei, Walter Koenig – and a smattering of others from the various later series. A white-faced android and a Vulcan discussed Brexit in the Starbucks queue, while the horse lovers, on the far side of the room, stole awkward glances.

The foyer of the Birmingham NEC is ­ordinarily a non-place, a 1970s dream-wish of supermodernity that looks out through glass doors at a sky filled with planes going in and out of the nearby airport. But on 8 October, the second day of the convention, it more closely resembled a bustling thoroughfare in the 24th-century satellite city Deep Space Nine, floating above the five-mooned green planet of Bajor. Humanoids of all species – even the post-human Borg, with their microchip implants and cables hanging from the sides of their faces – mingled and chatted, clutching paninis.

Star Trek first aired in the United States on 8 September 1966. It occupied the 8.30pm slot on Thursday nights, running against the sitcoms My Three Sons, Bewitched and The Tammy Grimes Show. A month earlier, Mao Zedong had launched the Cultural Revolution in China and Nasa had blasted the Lunar Orbiter 1 out into space. The Cold War was still at its coldest. There were 250,000 American troops in Vietnam.

For Roddenberry, the show’s creator, Star Trek was “something very personal . . . my own statement of who and what this species of ours really is, where we are now and something of where we may be going”. But in the half-century since it debuted, it has become something very personal, too, for its millions of fans, many of whom take “the Gene Roddenberry ideal” to be a coherent philosophy that is applicable to their own lives. In the smokers’ courtyard of the NEC, a 32-year-old Trekkie called Ross told me, “If the whole world was like the people in that conference hall, it would be a much better place.”

This was my first Star Trek convention and I had come here alone. Although I’d grown up watching the first spin-off series from the franchise, The Next Generation (1987-94), I was a casual viewer – like a football fan who only bothers getting excited about the World Cup. I wondered whether my lack of costume or deep knowledge about the intricacies of Vulcan-Romulan politics would mark me out as an interloper among the true enthusiasts, whom I imagined to be sci-fi’s equivalent of hardened Millwall faces. But
I needn’t have worried. Inclusivity, it seems, is part of the Trekkie’s creed.

Ross, who was wearing a replica of William Shatner’s red uniform from the 1982 movie Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, was also flying solo. When I chanced upon him, he was in a lively conversation with Toby and Rebecca, a couple in their late twenties from Derbyshire (they had come in the grey outfits from the 1990s show Deep Space Nine – a practical choice, as these had pockets). Ross was “absolutely knackered”, having woken up at 4am to get here from Oxford. I asked him if he knew the people he was talking to from earlier conventions. “No, no, we just met. We just popped out for a fag and said, ‘Hey, look, we’re all Federation!’”

By “Federation”, Ross meant the United Federation of Planets – the interstellar republic that Star Trek’s heroes belong to, encompassing roughly 180 civilisations and more than 8,000 cubic light years of space. Roddenberry originally envisioned it as a galactic version of the United Nations but, in the largely secular and post-capitalist future of the series, it serves as both a ­Vatican-like authority of moral guidance and a school of progressive thought. Characters cite its codes of conduct (its “directives”) with hushed reverence, and some fans do, too. Alex, a 35-year-old from east London, told me that the Federation’s “prime directive” – in essence, a doctrine of non-intervention – could have saved Britain from involvement in the Iraq War.

All in all, Star Trek has a liberal world-view that would make even Bernie Sanders blush. In a 1988 episode of The Next Generation, the captain of the USS Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), lectures a 20th-century executive who has been defrosted from cryogenic preservation about the Federation’s economic beliefs. “A lot has changed in the past 300 years,” he says. “People are no longer obsessed with the ­accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.”

The businessman protests that without money his life would have no purpose. Picard responds that “the challenge” of life is merely to “improve yourself”, and to “enjoy it”. If that sounds striking today, it was doubtless more so when the episode first aired in the United States, just a year after Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in Wall Street gave the free-market Washington consensus its most abiding slogan.

The original series featured one of the first interracial kisses ever broadcast on US television, when the black communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and the white Captain Kirk (Shatner) are forced to make out for the amusement of telepathic aliens in a 1968 episode called Plato’s Children. The TV network NBC was nervous. It feared an adverse reaction from viewers in the Deep South and insisted, according to Shatner, that the actors’ lips did not touch during filming. Nichols later recalled that they most certainly did.

Martin, a fortysomething YouTube host, told me that episodes such as Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (1969) had helped to “open up barriers and drop prejudice” in an otherwise dark decade of “paranoia”. In that story, two races of an alien species – one black on the left side of their body and white on the right; the other the reverse – fight a war based on skin colour that eventually wipes out both of their peoples. It’s a crude yet startling dramatisation of race hatred that still has resonance today, in our age of Black Lives Matter and the “ethno-nationalism” advocated by Donald Trump’s “alt-right” supporters. “When all the racism was going on in the real world, Roddenberry was saying, ‘Why not have a more positive vision?’ That’s why he was a genius,” Martin told me.

Another Martin – Martin Luther King – would probably have agreed. When Nichols mentioned at a fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that she was considering leaving Star Trek at the end of the first season, King told her, “You cannot do that.” Roddenberry’s show took it for granted that an African-American woman could serve as a high-ranking officer on the bridge of mankind’s flagship space vessel, and the civil rights campaigner recognised the radical potential of that assumption. “You are reflecting what we are fighting for,” he said to Nichols. She decided to stay on. A year later, King was shot dead.

 

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For the Trekkies I spoke to, Star Trek is a vision of utopia. (“I don’t think we’re anywhere near where they are in the 23rd century,” said Jan, a 54-year-old woman who works for a ventilation company in Wales. “But it’s something to aim for.”) Yet the word “utopia” carries with it some rather depressing connotations. In Greek, it means “nowhere”, as if Thomas More, who coined it, knew all along that an optima res publica could never be realised on Earth.

Indeed, for postwar writers and film-makers in particular, dystopias have proved far easier to imagine than the kind of prospective ideal society that William Morris conjured up in his 1890 novel News from Nowhere. Think of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Hunger Games, or Stephen Fingleton’s terrifyingly plausible 2015 movie, The Survivalist, in which resource scarcity returns mankind to a brutal hunter-gatherer existence: a world gone wrong has given storytellers endless ways to torment their protagonists, all in the name of entertainment.

The Welsh critic Raymond Williams wrote as early as 1956 that visions of “a secular paradise of the future” were increasingly being “converted into their opposites . . . stories of a future secular hell”. Across much of science fiction, the aesthetics of disaster usurped the aesthetics of hope, a development that was analogous with the souring of the communist dream, as Stalinism revealed how horrifically inhuman a utopian project could be once it collided with reality.

It was in such a context that Roddenberry began to construct his own secular paradise. It would be a world, he determined, of “people with goals in mind, with honesty and dedication”. It would be optimistic and grounded in a philosophy that the Vulcans called “IDIC”, or “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”. The Berlin Wall had gone up half a decade earlier, but that was the past. The future – his future – would bring an end to division. Instead of fracture, there would be federation.

When you rewatch Star Trek’s early episodes, however, it becomes apparent that, in many respects, its version of the mid-23rd century was very much a 1960s invention. The costume designer of the original series, William Ware Theiss, worked tirelessly to refine what he called the “Theiss Theory of Titillation”: “The degree to which a costume is considered sexy is directly dependent upon how accident-prone it appears to be.” In other words, the potential for women – whether alien or human – to suffer a wardrobe malfunction was an integral part of his futuristic designs.

For all his humanistic values, Roddenberry – a philandering former soldier and police officer – was a man of his time, and it showed in his work. Too many conflicts in Star Trek are solved by phaser or photon torpedo fire. And as his biographer Lance Parkin put it: “He was campaigning to liberate actresses from their clothes.” His was the future as seen through the horn-rimmed glasses of Austin Powers.

 

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In the convention hall, the post-capitalist world described by Picard seemed a distant dream. A girl of about seven or eight darted from her parents towards a stall selling “Tribble toys”. Tribbles are an alien ­species of fur balls that coo when stroked. The ones on sale here were deathly inanimate and were attached to key chains. A large Tribble cost £22. The smallest cost £3. The family bought two of the heftier blobs and put them in a white plastic bag that was already heaving.

Deeper in the hall was a stand selling “Eyewear to ‘Klingon’ to” – branded Star Trek glasses. The glitter paper on the table and the sign saying “The Federation” (just an A4 sheet of paper) couldn’t disguise that these were ordinary glasses with a logo pasted on the frames. The pair I looked at were £15. Elsewhere, 8in by 10in autograph holders were priced at £1 each. Star Trek umbrellas were £20. An issue of SFX magazine from 1996 with Data the android on the cover was £5. There were mugs, spin-off books, posters, trading cards, badges, beer, food, coffee. The event organisers had installed a massage service in the middle of the room, presumably to revive exhausted shoppers so they could shop some more.

Nearby, the actor Walter Koenig sat on the mocked-up bridge of the USS Enterprise as fans shuffled past, one by one, posing next to him for photos. The man who played Ensign Chekov was a headline attraction and a long queue of admirers looped around the set. There was a reverent mood about the place, as if something religious were happening. A punter in full original-series uniform skipped past the futuristic consoles towards the 80-year-old actor. He bashfully leaned in and mumbled something into his hero’s left ear as they stared into the official cameras arrayed in front of them. Koenig turned and smiled beatifically at him, like an old pope. Click. Then the fan was waved on by the cameraman, and another appeared.

Here Koenig was every inch a star. But this was Captain Kirk’s bridge and so, by extension, William Shatner’s. “Bill believed from the start that the rest of us were not significant – not only as actors, but as people,” Koenig told Weekly World News in August 1993. “No one liked him.”

But the viewers did. Today, the man who played Kirk remained the biggest draw. At 1pm on the “Excelsior stage”, named after the Federation’s first vessel equipped with a “transwarp drive”, cosplayers competed in a “Kirk-O-Oke”, which invited them to sing – or recite – pop anthems “in the style of your favourite captain”. (I watched a Borg intoning R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”.) Shatner had the main stage that evening for a solo show about himself. It was called Shatner’s World and the posters promised that he would talk about “love, death, motorcycles and gorillas”. The tickets were priced between £45 and £95. By midday, the entire front row and most of the second and third rows were sold out.

The photo shoot with Koenig on the Enterprise bridge cost fans £45. The one with Shatner cost £70. In a sense, the original Star Trek was always “The Adventures of Kirk and Spock”. The words “William Shatner” in the opening credits were 10 per cent larger than the names of his co-stars. The late Leonard Nimoy, who played the Vulcan, got the most fan mail. When The Animated Series was commissioned in the early 1970s, the producers wanted the vocal talents of only Shatner and Nimoy. Nimoy loyally negotiated the inclusion of the rest of the main cast – except for Koenig, the victim of the show’s small budget.

Another click from the cameras. Koenig became increasingly rigid, a smile still hanging mistily on his face. He looked resigned, kindly, perhaps a little ill. Roddenberry had originally hired him to play Chekov because of his resemblance to the Monkees singer Davy Jones. Both men had those earnest eyebrows, and those boyish cheeks like dumplings on a plate. Until Koenig’s hair grew to the right length, he had been forced to work the Enterprise console wearing an embarrassing Jones-ish wig, a mod in space. But there was no resemblance any more.

A few feet to Koenig’s left sat George Takei, who played Sulu. A social media star and gay rights activist, the Japanese-American is enjoying something of a second wind. He is a semi-regular on The Howard Stern Show, a popular US radio programme, and has almost two million Twitter followers. When Takei got married to his long-term partner, Brad Altman, Koenig was his best man and Nichols was maid of honour. Shatner was excluded from the wedding (no one likes him) and later ruefully wrote: “I can only assume that Yarnek, the rock creature, performed the ceremony and that the Green Slave Girl from Orion was the ring-bearer.”

Although Star Trek’s more recent iterations have not been so publicly plagued by fractious relationships between their makers and cast, the reality behind its on-screen utopia remains more mundane than many fans like to admit. The latest movie, Star Trek Beyond, grossed more than $343m worldwide and the CBS network has described the forthcoming series Star Trek: Discovery, scheduled for broadcast in May 2017, as a “marquee selling point for subscriptions” to its video-on-demand service.

Though Star Trek trades on the dream of an enlightened future, it is, in the end, a commercial asset – the product of our cash-money present. But perhaps none of that matters to those who are moved by Roddenberry’s creation. Just as, by 1980, American citizens had spent more on the arcade game Space Invaders than on the entire Apollo space programme, the global community of Trekkies values the fantasy over the reality.

 

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Before attending Destination Star Trek, I spoke to the Klingon language teacher Alex Greene on Skype. A softly spoken Welshman in his early fifties, he told me that he started learning Klingon in 1986 but had been a science-fiction fan since his early childhood. “It used to be very niche,” he said. “My memories of life as practically the only Star Trek fan in north Wales are not all that good.” He recalled how newspapers “always coated everything to do with the show with a veneer of ridicule – the ‘living in your mum’s basement’ image that people had. There was this awful image that we were unclean nerds with zero social skills.”

Yet he persisted in his interest, partly because he felt that Star Trek was more important than mere entertainment. “You develop an ethic in your own life as a fan,” he said. “Roddenberry believed that if we are to endure as a species, we must set aside all the petty differences that cause us to strike out at each other – creed, place of birth, skin colour. Working together, we can achieve things that can outlast this generation.”

Star Trek also gave Greene a community. He told me about the “glory days” of the fan circuit between the 1970s and the 1990s, when Trekkies “didn’t have the internet, but we had each other. All we could do was write letters, make lithographs. Everything was primitive compared to what you can do today, but there was a family atmosphere.”

Listening to Greene speak – and later talking to the Vulcans, Klingons and Federation officers at the Birmingham NEC – I was touched by the ability of Trekkies to love a TV show and let it change them, and inspire them to change the world. Their capacity for optimism in humanity’s future, so at odds with the cynicism of our times, was humbling for a paranoid bozo like me. Not long after the convention, I revisited the original series, now 50 years old but still a source of wonder for generations of viewers. And there on the screen, I saw hope, I saw the future we deserve, and I almost saw an alien’s boob. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016