The Covid-19 pandemic has caused marked shifts in Western thought that just a few years ago would have been inconceivable. The sudden appearance of the phrase “essential workers” came with an almost universally agreed upon definition and the quick realization that half the people that fit that definition are chronically underpaid. This understandably led to questioning of the free market capitalist worldview dominant in the West; if “essential workers” aren’t paid a living wage then surely the “free market” has failed to appropriately value their work. Some are even questioning what has long been held to be the only natural way of structuring a society: meritocracy.
If you’re not familiar with the term meritocracy, that’s okay, because I can assure you that you almost certainly live by it. Meritocracy is the idea that goods (money, resources, etc.) and political power are given to people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than on the basis of heredity, wealth, or social class. To most, this seems like the most natural thing in the world. Work hard and you will live a more comfortable life. Good things come to those who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Meritocracy, put quite simply, is the realization of The American Dream. Because it is so deeply routed in our culture it has permeated science fiction which aims to portray an ideal future. As a result, when Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 he turned that shit to eleven.
There is much debate among fans as to whether the Federation from the period of Next Gen on is socialist. (Just Google “is Star Trek socialist” to see what I mean.) That debate is largely irrelevant here, as I’ll show. Whether and how Federation citizens get paid is immaterial to the concept of meritocracy, as the latter only demands that goods be distributed based on merit. As evidence I submit to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation season two episode “The Schizoid Man,” which for me is one of the most baffling episodes of the entire series.
Our episode starts with the Enterprise en-route to answer a distress call from Ira Graves, who is described as “arguably the greatest human mind in the Universe.” Graves and his nurse are the only inhabitants of an entire planet – called Graves’ World – which affords him the opportunity to conduct his research in self imposed isolation. Captain Picard clarifies for the crew that Starfleet considers Graves’ work to be so important that responding to the distress call is a “priority one action.” This command is quickly put to the test as the Enterprise receives another distress call, this time from a transport ship ferrying over two thousand colonists. After a brief debate as to which emergency is more critical, it is decided they will quickly beam down a small away party to assist Graves while the ship continues on to rescue the transport vessel.
Seven minutes into the episode and everything is crazy. We have established that the Federation is a meritocratic nightmare. One man is seemingly so valuable that he is given an entire planet to himself, and is implicitly considered to be more important than two thousand men, women, and children, not to mention an entire starship capable of transporting that many people. “But wait,” I can hear you thinking, “that doesn’t sound like a nightmare.” The nightmare comes twice in the episode, later as the main plot point, but first in the form of the nurse and second inhabitant of Graves’ World. When the away team beams down they are met by Graves’ beautiful young nurse, who is also his assistant. When I say the assistant is young, I mean young. She looks to be maybe twenty years old. Upon seeing Worf (a klingon) she asks him if he is a romulan, which greatly insults him. Graves reveals that his assistant has lived on his planet since her father died when she was very young, and essentially everything she knows she learned from Graves, a dirty old man that doesn’t wait two minutes before hitting on both the vulcan doctor and Counselor Troi. Graves’ work is evidently so valuable that he is not only given an entire planet to himself, but also a young female slave nurse! Not a slave? This woman is terrified of Graves, and knows nothing outside of this old man for companionship. As with any true meritocracy, being a good person is no indication of merit, and Graves in an unapologetic asshole that everyone is all too willing to accommodate because he’s… really smart, I guess.
This characterization is actually critical to the plot (and second nightmare), as Graves is dying and takes the opportunity of meeting the android Data to upload his consciousness into Data’s body. The crew slowly begin to realize what has happened, and Picard tries to convince Graves to exit Data’s body after Graves’ temper and Data’s superior strength has resulted in the injury of several crew members. As is typical of Star Trek, a speech is made as persuasion.
Picard tells Graves, “You have extended your life at the expense of another… No being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another.”
Except… that Graves is that important.
I think this story is meant to say something about accepting death, that death comes for us all regardless of our accomplishments and capabilities. But the very meritocratic nature of the story world makes it a mess. If anything, Graves is the true victim here. For most of his life, Graves has been a man of unequaled skill, considered “the greatest human mind in the Universe.” So great, in fact, that he is given his own planet and live-in young attractive nurse. Along comes this humanoid machine that can let him live forever and continue his Great Works. Sure, the machine is sentient, but so is the girl. Sure, Data is unique, but the Federation saw fit to give him a whole planet that could have supported colonists – like those two thousand that were almost sacrificed just so a starship could find out what Graves’ distress call was about. Graves took Data, because society had told him he was entitled to. In reality this is not a story about morality or mortality, this is a story about what absolute hells meritocracy can create. A starship captain having to choose between one man who is a number one priority, and a ship of two thousand colonists. The hell experienced by a young woman with a dirty old man her only company, who is trapped with him because her government says he needs an assistant. The hell of immense resources devoted to sustain one man on a remote planet while countless others starve. The hell of an entitled man stealing the body of someone who has less right to it than him, Get Out style. Is it any wonder Graves did what he did? Everything about his life and his society told him it was okay. Picard’s righteous indication rings hypocritical because not long before he himself subscribed to the same ideology that trained Graves to take this final action. “The Schizoid Man” is such a baffling episode of Star Trek because it inadvertently decimates one of the core tenets of the franchise: that meritocracy is a natural, and good, thing.
Ironically, the term meritocracy was coined by author Michael Young in his 1958 dystopian satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young meant for meritocracy to be a negative thing, and was dismayed when contemporaries began to extol its virtues. Young was trying to warn us of a system of education that stratifies people. One that takes skills that were once “distributed between the classes more or less at random” but now have “become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.” Take for example Ivy League schools. Attendance at such schools is considered a key to success, simply because people that attend those schools have been successful in the past. Ivy League schools often employ the most prestigious and accomplished professors from across all fields of study, meaning an Ivy League education has the potential to be among the best educations in the world. In a capitalist meritocracy, those with success have money, and those with money can buy success. This leads to a system where success can have the appearance of being earned, when in actuality it was purchased by the previous generation for their children. Those with success look down upon those who struggle, and those that struggle view those who have success as being more worthy than themselves. In our everyday lives, meritocracy tells us that if we don’t accumulate accomplishments then we are failures. This is one of the many ways that meritocracy makes all of us miserable. We can’t simply be happy with what we have achieved, because if we’re not constantly moving up then we may as well be moving down. Meritocracy can be dangerous, and a supposed utopia that hands out planets and young women to old men who are really good at chemistry sounds like an absolute hell.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could be considered controversial if it wasn’t so well loved. Star Trek is so universal in American culture that almost everyone as seen at least some of it, and I’ve found that if people have an opinion at all then they either love or hate DS9. The series can be divisive among Trek fans depending on what it is about Trek that appeals to them.
Set outside the domain of the United Federation of Planets, the space station Deep Space Nine resides in a hostile part of the galaxy. Central to the story is the recently ended conflict between the Bajorans (who own DS9) and the Cardassians. The brutal Cardassian occupation of Bajor lasted several decades and ended shortly before the series begins. Themes of slavery, exploitation, pillage of native resources, capitalism, authoritarianism, and war are central to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unlike other Trek series, these themes are central to the show in that the characters are constantly surrounded by them, rather than passingly encountering them in “primitive” alien civilizations. At a time in the Trek universe when it is said that there is no poverty, hunger, or war, the Bajorans struggle to feed their own people, and mass hunger is the norm on their world. (Why the Federation doesn’t do more to help is perhaps the topic of another post.)
One particularly good scene comes in the second season episode “The Maquis, Part 2.” The multi-episode story introduces the Maquis, a group of human resistance fighters who oppose the Cardassian government. Due to events established prior in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a group of human colonies exist in Cardassian space. Years later, the human colonists claim they are being killed by the Cardassian government. With Starfleet and the Federation unwilling to intervene at the risk of starting another war with Cardassia, the colonists arm themselves and start the Maquis, named after the World War II French resistance fighters. The situation has direct comparison to the occupation of the West Bank, and parallels can be drawn to anyone that questions the “civilized nature” of those living in the territories.
The scene starts with a conversation between station commander Benjamin Sisko and a Starfleet Admiral. The Admiral doesn’t understand why Sisko can’t just talk to the Maquis. “Open a dialog,” she says. “They’re still Federation citizens, I’m sure they’ll listen to reason.” The Admiral leaves, and Sisko’s Bajoran first officer enters his office, interrupting him screaming to himself.
“Just because a group of people belong to the Federation it does not mean that they are saints!… The trouble is Earth. On Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet headquarters and you see paradise. Well it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.”
I love this speech as it – and much of the later seasons of DS9 – casts a shadow on one of the core philosophic tenets of all Star Trek, namely that humans are amazing. Star Trek has always portrayed a human utopia, where all humans come together and live in an educated and well cared for world. All creature comforts are met, and as a result there is no crime because everyone has what they need, and are able to earn what they want.
But out here, on the frontier, where basic needs are difficult to meet, where humans go out into new lands to build a home as we have so often done, suffering is waiting for us. On the core worlds of the Federation – Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, etc. – everyone has what they need. Out on the colonies, there aren’t enough omnipotent replicators to provide food and clothing for everyone. Farming is evidently still the most efficient way to get food, and the colonists strive and struggle to work the soil of alien worlds into new Earths. Humans are known throughout the galaxy as they exist in paradise, but take a human out of paradise long enough and these “highly civilized” people of the future look a lot like you and me.
This sentiment is reflected in one of the greatest scenes in Deep Space Nine, from the seventh season episode “The Siege of AR-558,” when the Federation is fighting a grueling war with the Dominion, which is functionally an anti-Federation. The Ferengi Quark tries to open his nephew’s eyes that the human soldiers he idolizes as heroes are not fit to be looked up to.
“Let me tell you something about humans, nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts – deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers – put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time, and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty, and as violent, as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”
Granted, this is little more than a sci-fi technobabble’d up version of the saying “every society is just three meals away from revolution” (often attributed to Vladimir Lenin), but what is remarkable is its inclusion in Star Trek. The sentiment that humans of the 24th century are no farther from barbarism than humans of today is generally antithetical to Trek lore. DS9 takes the stance that humans aren’t better than other races, they’re just a bit better at wanting to care for each other. The people that the aliens of Star Trek picture when they think of humans are those humans that live in paradise, and it’s easy to be a saint in paradise.
I’ve written about how Star Trek struggles to handle the concept of religion, but that doesn’t mean that Star Trek can’t be interpreted through the language of religion. In fact, the greatest messianic figure in all of Trek lore is undoubtedly Zefram Cochrane.
First off, we should establish that Star Trek can be interpreted as a system of mythology, with myth being defined as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people,” with those “people” being devout Star Trek fans – Trekkies or Trekkers. The idea being that the future-history of Star Trek shows us where our world can go if we put aside our hate; a future of racial integration, and a world without poverty or hunger. An alternative definition of myth is as a synonym for parable, being “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude,” which is a good description of how a lot of fans I grew up with thought about individual episodes of Star Trek.
According to Trek mythology, Zefram Cochrane was the human being that invented warp drive. He accomplished this task in a post-World War III apocalyptic waste, and almost single handed, with only the help of a Black woman that future-history has largely forgotten (which says a lot more than I can unpack here). As the story goes, Cochrane piloted the human race’s first faster-than-light spaceship, which attracted the attention of a passing Vulcan spacecraft. The Vulcans, learning that humans had discovered warp travel, land on Earth to introduce themselves.
These events are shown in the film Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Next Generation crew have to travel back in time to make sure the aforementioned first contact event happens as it is supposed to. Events force the crew to confront Zefram Cochrane and tell him who they are and what he has to do to bring about the human utopia portrayed in the rest of Star Trek lore. But the man they meet does not match up with the historical figure. This is not the visionary scientist they learn about in school. This man is a womanizer and an alcoholic. Cochrane later admits that he never built the ship for the reasons future generations think he did.
"I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity… I built this ship so that I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women. That’s Zefram Cochrane. That’s his vision. This other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will."
Cochrane clearly asserts that he is not a saint, and from our perspective he certainly isn’t. But according to the parable of first contact that’s okay, because he hasn’t yet been spiritually transformed.
Star Trek is fairly unique among science fiction stories in that it portrays first contact with an alien race as an almost universally positive societal transformation. A lot of science fiction views first contact as a threat leading to annihilation, drawing parallels to historical “first contacts” between societies on Earth (i.e. Native American Indians and Columbus, or almost any country and the British). Still more science fiction views first contact in more mundane terms, being just another amazing thing that happens to technologically advanced societies that they learn to live with (the television series Babylon 5 comes to mind). First contact is different in Star Trek. At least for humanity, the knowledge that we are not alone in the Universe sparked a spiritual awakening and a golden age. The crew of the Enterprise tell Cochrane that his warp flight will “change everything.”
"It is one of the pivotal moments in human history, doctor! You get to make first contact with an alien race, and after you do, everything begins to change… It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible when they realize they’re not alone in the Universe. Poverty, disease, war, they’ll all be gone within the next fifty years. But unless you make that warp flight… none of it will happen."
Warp drive is a transformative technology in Star Trek. It is the point in a species’ technological development where it becomes okay for other alien races to introduce themselves. In the same way that the atom bomb resulted in mass societal change, faster-than-light travel magically unites a species for the common good. As a result, Zefram Cochrane is a messianic figure for the humans of Star Trek. Once a man consumed by hedonism, alcohol, and greed, when he became the first human to shake an alien’s hand he was spiritually transformed. Within him resides all of humanity, because they too will set aside their petty conflicts and stand together to feed the hungry, sooth the poor, and bring about true peace on Earth. They can do this not because of some technological advancement, but simply because they choose to. News of first contact triggers a global spiritual awakening and transforms our species in a few short decades. In a way, this is Star Trek’s origin myth, because through this one event the story world that we watch is made possible.
At least, that’s one way to look at it.
Let’s get something straight before we begin: I am neither pro- or anti-religion. I feel it’s necessary to lay that out at the beginning because there is a natural instinct in our society when reading anything about religion in popular culture to divine through the tea leaves the spiritual orientation of the author. My interest in how religion is discussed in Star Trek (and science fiction in general) is in the undeniable fact that religion is something that a vast number of humans continue to practice in their daily lives and, as such, religion is fair game for science fiction the same way any topic of human society is. Of course, if Star Trek never addressed religion that would be a point in and of itself, but from time to time Star Trek does address the topic of religion in various alien cultures. Since the aliens of Star Trek serve as reflections of contemporary Western society, how Trek approaches religion is a reflection of how the writers view religion. So how does Star Trek view religion?
First we should acknowledge that science fiction generally does a bad job of addressing religion, and science fiction television is a particularly poor venue. Perhaps the most deep reflections on religion in science fiction television come from the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, in which religion featured prominently throughout. I’m a huge fan of that series, and if you’re familiar with the show you might be aware that the final episode was extremely contentious and angered many fans (I’m not one of them). The final episode of Battlestar is the clearest indicator I’ve ever had of whether or not someone is comfortable with the concept of religion in science fiction. Can an atheist accept that God can exist in a work of fiction? In my experience there are a lot of atheist fans of science fiction for which the answer is a clear “no.” Truth is that Star Trek addressing religion at all is going to put the show in a precarious position. Which is why it’s so surprising that the show not only decides to touch on the topic, but so often fumbles it.
There are two episodes of Star Trek that stand out in my mind when thinking about religion. The first is the Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers”. In that episode the Enterprise races to a hidden anthropology research station which is studying a primitive Bronze Age alien race called the Mintakans. The Mintakans are described as “proto-Vulcan” meaning that although they are primitive they are “highly logical” and thus not superstitious. One of the Mintakans witnesses the Enterprise crew beaming away while the hidden observation post is temporarily made visible by a malfunction, which quickly convinces the Mintakans that gods do exist and that Captain Picard is their leader. The episode focuses on Picard’s attempts to undo the damage the Enterprise has inadvertently done to the Mintakan’s culture. At one point Counselor Troi, disguised as a Mintakan, is going to be sacrificed to please The Picard. Troi asks the man about to shoot her if he is certain that her death is what The Picard wants. “That’s the problem in believing in a supernatural being,” she says, “trying to determine what He wants.” This is a fair and true statement, but it is also not the logical trap that it is portrayed as in the episode. The overt statement made in the episode is that by making the naturally logical Mintakans once again believe in gods, the Enterprise has reverted their culture to a less developed state. Secular logic good. Religion bad. Science good. Faith in god bad. In the end Picard convinces the Mintakans that they are actually just technologically advanced aliens from another planet, which is clearly easier to believe than that they are gods, and nowhere near as horrible for their culture. In the end the leader of the Mintakans asks Picard to remember her people, and I couldn’t help but think Picard was wishing that they would all forget about his. Undoubtedly this culture was contaminated by an understanding of aliens from other worlds, which is somehow less problematic than a very natural belief in supernatural beings.
Another standout episode is from Voyager titled “Prophecy”. Seventy years into deep space, Voyager encounters a hundred year old Klingon ship which has been converted into a generation ship by a group of Klingon pilgrims in search of a savior. Their search is based on an ancient scripture, and they have searched for decades for the Klingon messiah. They come to believe that the pregnant B'Elanna Torres is carrying the messiah, and paste together some Nostradamus logic to make the case. This episode intrigued me, as it is a setup to explore some interesting issues between religion and the Federation belief system.
However the episode quickly deteriorates. We learn that the Klingon’s leader posses no faith, and is simply trying to save his people after the destruction of their ship. He wants to settle on a nearby planet, and is willing to use his people’s beliefs to manipulate them into settlement, asking the Voyager crew to assist in the deception. Captain Janeway agrees, and Torres helps the Klingon leader to manipulate the story of her life to fit the sacred scrolls. In the end, stem cells from Torres’s hybrid Klingon-Human fetus heal a disease the Klingon pilgrims have suffered from for decades, thus the messiah has healed their people and they settle on a nearby planet, never to be heard from or discussed again. Religion in this episode is nothing but a flawed belief system that fools adopt, leading their families to suffering and pain, and that can ultimately be used by leaders to exploit the masses. It has to be the single most cynical portrayal of religion in all of Star Trek, and the ease with which the supposedly enlightened Starfleet officers agree to exploit a community’s spiritual beliefs is shocking.
Any discussion of religion in Star Trek has to touch on the whole of Deep Space Nine, whose main character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, is found to be the Emissary of the gods of the Bajoran people. The Bajoran people have just recently exited from a Holocaust at the hands of their nearest celestial neighbors, the Cardassians. The gods of the almost universally adopted Bajoran religion are the Prophets, who scripture says reside in a “Celestial Temple” that is meant to be a physical place. Sisko discovers a stable wormhole near Bajor that is the home of a non-corporeal race of aliens that live outside time, which he quickly realizes to be the Prophets of the Bajoran faith, as they admit to guiding the Bajorans throughout history. The series explores the themes of belief in enigmatic gods and the influence religion can have on a troubled society. Even in this fertile ground most of the storylines that come up portray religion as a system of control (one recurring villain is the Bajoran Pope) or which dismisses the Prophets as nothing more than weird aliens. In numerous episodes Starfleet leadership argues with Sisko about the Prophets, calling them “wormhole aliens” and trying to either distance him from his role as the Emissary, or to get him to exploit his position to convince the Bajorans to join the Federation. Even when faced with the fact of an alien race that lives outside of time which frequently guides the Bajoran race, the Federation citizens criticize the Bajorans for their faith in these same beings. The Prophets never claim to be something they’re not, but still, religion is bad, even when that faith is placed in scientifically verifiable claims.
The ultimate issue is that Star Trek can never bring itself to acknowledge the most basic fact about religion: that religious faith gives many people comfort. This form of spiritual comfort is fundamentally incompatible with the Star Trek ethos because the utopia that the Federation embodies is one of materialistic comfort. Nobody is hungry, there is no poverty, and war is largely unheard of. The body is nourished, leaving only the mind. In the Federation, the mind is nourished by science and the freedom to pursue your worldly desires. But the basic comfort of belief in a higher power, in an ordering force for the Universe… that is absent from this utopia.
There is a closed mindedness that comes from this worldview, because if we embrace an unbending belief that religion is nothing but a cynical system of control for fools, that ignores the appeal of religion for many in modern society. This belief robs us of the opportunity to understand one another. It is a fact that religion has sometimes led to human suffering, but it is a fact that science has as well. Religion, like science, is not inherently good or evil, it is what we do with them that matters. A belief that religion is always bad is a belief that is simply not based on factual evidence, and Star Trek itself would criticize such a belief.
My two favorite Star Trek movies (one from the original cast and one from the reboot) are thematically linked. It’s sort of a subtle link if you’re not well acquainted with the soul of science fiction, but they are undoubtedly connected.
At its height science fiction presents a reflection of some aspect of our world through the fantastical looking glass of a future existence. Simply put, we’re talking about metaphor. Once I became old enough to appreciate the historical context of a science fiction film I fell in love with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. At the start of the film an environmental catastrophe all but cripples the Klingon economy. Left unaided, Klingon society will undergo a complete collapse within decades. With no other option the Klingon government asks the United Federation of Planets for peace negotiations. They can no longer afford a state of constant war. When Star Trek first aired during the Cold War, the Klingon and Romulan species both represented different aspects of the Soviet Union. Star Trek VI premiered in 1991 and at the time the Soviet Union had been in a state of decline for a few years. Ironically, its complete collapse would occur within weeks of the film’s theatrical release!
Star Trek VI is all about change amid great political upheaval. When the Starfleet admiralty is discussing options going forward one member asks if they’re “talking about mothballing the Starfleet,” to which an admiral responds that Starfleet’s exploration mission will remain. This line always struck me because the Original Series made it clear that the primary purpose of Starfleet was exploration (an idea that we’ll come back to when we discuss the other Star Trek movie). This short exchange is pure metaphor. Without the Soviet Union what is the need for the military industrial complex? Well, there are still peacekeeping needs.
The Enterprise is ordered to personally escort the Chancellor of the Klingon government to the peace accords, when the Chancellor is assassinated aboard his own ship with Kirk and McCoy framed for the crime. Though not guilty, Kirk is not entirely innocent in all this. Kirk privately tells Spock that the smart move is to “let them die” because he carries racial hate against the Klingons for killing his son (Star Trek III). He’s not the only one. We learn that a lot of the crew hate the Klingons, in particular Scotty who is apparently a racist bastard. In the end, the Enterprise crew save the day and peace is made with the Klingon Empire, Kirk having been inspired by the words of the Klingon Chancellor who desired peace even with his dying breath.
The Chancellor quoted Shakespeare when referring to “the undiscovered country,” which in the film is little more than a code word for “the future.” What does the future hold after centuries of fighting the Klingons (or decades of hostilities with the Soviet Union)? What does such a world even look like? There are those that are entirely unprepared and unwilling to face it. Kirk has every reason to hate the Klingons, and through the events of the film comes to realize that he can no longer carry the hate he has inside him. He comes to this conclusion after seeing the hate of those like him reflected in a massive conspiracy that he was a partial victim of. The idea is that if Kirk can accept this change then most should be able to, though it won’t be easy.
Thematically this is similar to Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of the rebooted franchise staring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. Rejoining the crew of the Enterprise three years into their iconic five year mission we find a listless Kirk struggling to find meaning in the “episodic” exploration of space. One day bleeds into another as stability gives the impression of a lack of adventure. Kirk has applied for command of a massive star base, looking to leave behind the life of a starship captain. Fundamentally, he struggles to see his place in the Universe.
Unexpectedly the Enterprise comes into conflict with a powerful army led by a man named Krall who seeks to destroy the Federation in order to return the galaxy to a period of chaos, ideologically believing that only chaos breads strength. Through fortuitous circumstances the crew discovers that Krall is actually a hundred plus year old human Starfleet captain mutated by the ancient alien technology that has kept him alive. Krall (formerly Captain Edison) was made a captain and given one of the first ships after the Federation was formed. Before that he was a highly decorated MACO, a member of a tactical response unit in Earth’s military (first introduced in Star Trek Enterprise). He fought in both the Xindi and Romulan wars and felt he was discarded by the Federation and asked to “break bread with the enemy.”
Star Trek VI was a film of its time, reflecting a fear of the future that was very real to those living through it. Star Trek Beyond is the same, working through a fear of globalization.
Globalization has brought about an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in our world, but at the same time that stability has resulted in a loss of identity for some. For those of us that have grown up in this period of stability it is easy to forget the old warhorses that helped make it possible. Institutions like NATO and the EU have brought about the longest periods of sustained peace in human history, and as a direct consequence we now question what use they are because for us they seem to do nothing but rob each nation of its sovereignty. While globalization ensures peace by bringing all peoples closer to one another it simultaneously blurs cultural lines. Societies mix and blend into new flavors. Depending on ones perspective this blending can appear to be contamination, infiltration, or corruption.
When Krall launches his terrorist attack on the star base Yorktown we see Federations citizens running in fear. We see many races but a single people. The United Federation of Planets is the utopian vision of liberalism, its society a homogeneous blend of all cultures of the member worlds; an interstellar melting pot. Krall sees humans and aliens working side-by-side and can’t stand what that does to his vision of humanity, but more importantly he can’t reconcile what that means for his understanding of himself.
Krall is a veteran, having fought to protect the human race. He feels he was discarded and disrespected by the Federation. Out of “respect” they made him a Starfleet captain, dressing up a soldier as an explorer. Kirk tries to explain that the wars were won and the prize is peace, but Krall will hear none of it. He can’t let go of his hate for the alien.
Just like Star Trek VI, Beyond is about change in our world. Both films are about those that can’t move beyond the ways of the past. They would rather prevent forward motion and drag society backwards to what they consider “the good old days.” The only good thing about those days is that they felt they understood the world order. Where we are now, and where we are going, is confusing to them. When a personal value system is based on superiority and opposition, understanding and acceptance are hostile concepts.
Great science fiction is steeped in metaphor, and these two films explore important aspects of our culture in entertaining ways. Plus that Beastie Boys number is solid.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.