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.
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.