Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Star Trek, technology and being human

When I lived in the US, I made sure to catch at least one episode of the original Star Trek television series, conceived by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s, which has spawned at least 10 feature films to date. Had I wanted to, it could have been up to half a dozen a night, on different channels. What has always fascinated me about Star Trek is its experimentation with otherness – not merely racial, gender or cultural otherness, but alien otherness, the very idea of irreducibly different life-forms – its flirtation with, and valorisation of, advanced technology, and its resolute affirmation of being-human, or more generally, of the value of life.

Through the years the various feature films and successor television series (like Star Trek – The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987) have remained true to these signature preoccupations, something brought home to me recently when I watched the latest Star Trek prequel (Into Darkness), with the young Captain Jim Kirk and Mr Spock (his first officer), flanked by an equally youthful Bones (the Enterprise’s medical doctor), Scottie (the chief engineer) and Mr Sulu (the pilot).

The opening scene-sequence, before the start of the main narrative thread, already features all of these hallmarks of Roddenberry’s original Star Trek formula. Here we have a primitive, pre-wheel-invention society on an alien planet being explored by the crew of the starship Enterprise, a hasty retreat by Captain Kirk and Bones before a mob of pursuing natives, an active volcano in the incipient stages of eruption, and planet-shattering decisions to be made by Jim Kirk. Do they obey the “prime directives” of Star Fleet exploration, which stipulate non-interference in the evolution of alien worlds, as well as a strict prohibition regarding visual sighting of a starship by indigenous populations, or not?

If they adhere strictly to these rules, the natives would perish. Kirk ignores both rules, and a heat-protective suit-wearing Spock is lowered into the seething volcano from a shuttle, to detonate a neutralising device that would arrest the lethal eruption and save the indigenous humanoids from certain destruction. However, unforeseen events lead to Kirk flouting the second directive, too. The shuttle piloted by Mr Sulu proves unable to withstand the extreme heat emanating from the volcano, and Sulu is forced to return to the Enterprise, leaving Spock stranded on a floating rock surrounded by a sea of churning lava. Here the crucial difference between Spock and Jim Kirk – thematised throughout the Star Trek oeuvre – is foregrounded.

Knowing that the Enterprise is strictly forbidden to show itself to the aborigines, Spock prepares to die, but Jim Kirk being the kind of leader who knows when rules are there to be broken, and who embodies the constitutively human tension between reason and affect (feeling), lets feeling in the guise of empathy with his friend and officer prevail. He gives the order for the Enterprise to leave its ocean sanctuary (where it has been hiding) to be able to rescue Spock by beaming him up to the ship.

The magnificent starship rises like a phoenix from its ocean lair in full view of the natives – who end up prostrating themselves in worship of this divine epiphany; a sideways comment on the origin of religion – and the first thing Spock does when he materialises aboard the Enterprise is to accuse Kirk of having transgressed the prime directives by revealing themselves to the indigenous beings, and to have put the needs of the one (himself) above those of the many (the Enterprise and its crew), which he regards illogical. With characteristic Vulcan prioritisation of logic over feeling, Spock was ready to accept his own death stoically, while Kirk did not hesitate a moment to set logic and rules aside in favour of rescuing Spock, another living being and his friend.

Here, in a relatively brief scene-sequence, all the paradigmatic features of the Star Trek saga are impressively assembled. There is its fascination with otherness, its valorisation of technology (without the starship Enterprise and its technologies, none of these rescue actions could be performed), but simultaneously of life; the lives of the indigenous humanoids and that of the Vulcan, Mr Spock. And there is its thematic interest in the question, what makes humans human – is it their rationality, or their affectivity, or both?

As always in Star Trek, it is both, bound together in an indissoluble embrace: Kirk is by no means irrational, but shows that rare ability to position reason within an encompassing context, perhaps best described as a constellation of values, the brightest star of which is the supreme value of life itself. To be sure, not “bare life” – when assessing the value of life, the question about the quality of life cannot be ignored. A seriously injured human being attached to a machine that keeps him or her biologically “alive” indefinitely, without a trace of being able to live a recognisably human life, lacks that sustaining quality. But a supreme value nevertheless, because without life to begin with, no vindicating quality of living could be attained, anyway.

Values are not merely rationally recognised or acknowledged, however. Unless there is an affective bond between a person and what she or he values, one can hardly expect them to promote or advocate those values, except in a machine-like fashion, perhaps. Reason without passion is barren, lifeless; passion without reason is all sound and fury, but lacking direction. Jim Kirk is exemplary in this regard.

He is also exemplary when it comes to the recognition of authority, which he does not do blindly. When the admiral of Starfleet admonishes him about disobeying these rules later in the film, it is clear that Kirk disagrees with him, even if he is eventually shut up by the admiral. And when the supreme commander of the fleet orders him to fire 72 nuclear warhead missiles at an out-of-bounds planet – an act that would almost certainly trigger a war with their arch-enemies, the Klingons – Kirk refuses, despite it being a direct order from a superior officer, because he has information which makes the order suspect.

One of the best examples of this distinctive trait on the part of Jim Kirk occurs in an earlier film where the Enterprise stumbles upon a planet where they encounter God – at least, what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be God, given the performance of astonishing feats that seem to be consistent with the omnipotence of the Creator. At one point in the film “God” instructs Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise to render him/her/it their assistance, and while the others, including Bones, are ready to comply, Jim Kirk demurs. With a puzzled expression on his face, and to the utter consternation of his companions, he asks the question: “But if you are God, why do you need our assistance?” Here he is hinting at God’s presumed omnipotence, and this proves to be sufficient, in the end, to unmask “God” as an impostor.

There are valuable lessons to be learnt from Star Trek, therefore. Among them the most important ones seem to me to be these. Respect otherness. Never valorise reason above feeling; rather think of feeling as being part and parcel of a more encompassing reason. Value life – it is the first step towards a life qualitatively worth living. Don’t submit to authority blindly – it may be hollow. Insist on those in authority showing themselves worthy and capable of exercising their authority. There are other lessons too, but they will have to wait.

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    • Maria

      Unlike you to omit a word or two, Bert; I assume your first sentence should read: “When I lived in the US, I made sure to catch at least one episode every night of the original Star Trek television series, conceived by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s, which has spawned at least 10 feature films to date.”

      But more to the point – part of your argument/interpretation here seems to be related to something you published in the US Journal Film and Philosophy a couple of years back on Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, where you made a strong case, along Kantian lines and augmented by a reading of Shakespeare, that imagination is inseparably conjoined with reason, and not inimical to it as philosophical tradition before Kant had it. Am I right?

    • john b patson

      One of the best lines from a TV series (watched on a sanctions busting screen thanks to the RBC) :
      “It’s life Scottie but not as we know it.”

      It has kept me amused ever since.

    • Paul Whelan

      A very, very nice piece, Bert. Of course humans are a compound of reason and feeling in proportions that vary according to context but also – here’s the final mystery – to the individual.

      It is this that gives life its (grim) fascination, for to be only one or the other would result in something other than human, which the endearing Mr Spock is supposed to be. (‘Endearing’ here betrays that the human writers cannot avoid making Spock a ‘human being’ also, in that his apparently unfeeling loyalty to rigid principle is merely a different manifestation of sensibility – loyalty, courage, steadfastness and sacrifice being ‘affective’ human qualities that impact inescapably on others).

      But however reason and feeling mix, Kirk exemplifies the most important point for us: the centrality of the individual who is the master of his fate and captain of his soul.

    • george orwell

      Seems the head of Panopticon Central, Gen Alexander, loves Star Trek and has indulged his fetish.

      See ‘NSA: Inside the Mind of Keith Alexander at his Star Trek control room’, penned by top journalist Glenn Greenwald, who helped break the Edward Snowden leaks and expose how the NSA spies on everyone – including South Africans.

      Writes Greenwald:

      “[A] disturbing and revealing vignette into the spy chief’s mind comes from a new Foreign Policy article describing what the journal calls his “all-out, barely-legal drive to build the ultimate spy machine”.

      “The article describes how even his NSA peers see him as a “cowboy” willing to play fast and loose with legal limits in order to construct a system of ubiquitous surveillance.

      “But the personality driving all of this – not just Alexander’s but much of Washington’s – is perhaps best captured by this one passage, highlighted by PBS’ News Hour in a post entitled: “NSA director modeled war room after Star Trek’s Enterprise”. … read the rest of the article at the link.

    • Bert

      Thanks, Maria – I wrote this quite late at night. You’re right about the connection with the Dead Poets piece, though, although there it is worked out far more at length.

      John B Patson, that quote sums up the gist of Star Trek’s exploration-ethos perfectly.

      Paul, thanks for that comment, especially what you say about Spock and Kirk. As far as Kirk is concerned, those qualities you mention amount to nothing less than autonomy; something that very few people truly actualize in their lives.

    • Bert

      Thanks for that link, George Orwell. It is not difficult to see how an information/surveillance fanatic like Keith Alexander could claim the Enterprise control room – a hyper-modern update of a captain’s berth in any vessel since time immemorial – for ‘total surveillance’ purposes. In the process he has vitiated the whole ethos of the Star Trek series and its spin-off films, however. The sustaining ethos of Star Trek is exploration, not optimal surveillance.

    • Momma Cyndi

      john b patson #

      Now I am going to sound like the biggest nerd ever!

      Scotty was the engineer (hence, ‘beam me up, Scotty’), That quote was from ‘Bones’ (Leonard McCoy), the ship doctor (and long time friend of Captain James Tiberius Kirk), and was normally ‘it is life, Jim, but not as we know it’.

      For a giggle, try looking for the song ‘Star Trekking Across the Universe’