Trek in the Age of Trump

There’s a meme floating around the Internet that I like a lot. It has a picture of a braced-for-impact Captain Picard sitting in his chair on the Enterprise-E’s bridge. Above Picard’s head, words read, “How it feels waking up every morning in 2017:” On the bottom of the picture, a caption, meant to be a quote from Picard, says, “Damage Report.” I like this meme for two reasons. First, it pretty much nails how I feel on a regular basis. I’m not exactly someone comforted by a good 3:06 a.m. Trump Tweet. Second, it shows, in a very succinct way, that Star Trek can be a warm home for its fans when everything else feels cold and dark.

There are many examples of Star Trek’s positive influence, which is surely a major reason why our fandom is so huge. When we don’t know what to do, we turn to Trek, and we get some ideas. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the power of a Black woman on Star Trek when he asked Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show. NASA scientists often point to Star Trek as their inspiration for going into, and advancing, science. Plus, closer to home, this blog posted a wonderful article by Erica McGillivray about how Deep Space Nine offers lessons in political organizing.

I’d like to explore more of those comforting, instructive moments in Star Trek and talk about how the show might provide a roadmap for the political landscape of modern-day America. I’m going to do this by honing in on select episodes spanning the Trek canon. This approach allows me to explain my examples of the ways Trek can help us live in (and survive…) Trump’s America, but it will no doubt miss some of yours. I hope you will fill in the blanks that I leave.

Garth of Izar in “Whom Gods Destroy”

Star Trek (TOS)

Season 3, Episode 16: “Whom Gods Destroy”

“Whom Gods Destroy” speaks volumes about the Federation. Through the backstory of Fleet Captain Garth, we learn that the heroes of Starfleet are not always the cream of humanity’s crop. During its period of intense war, the Federation promoted officers like Garth, people who knew how to use violence to achieve maximum results and efficiency. Once the phaser banks cooled, such leaders were glorified even further. Even Captain Kirk remarks that Garth was one of his personal icons. However, as this episode points out, the taste for blood that earned these officers acclaim was also uncontrollable, and, when that bloodlust is pointed in the wrong direction, a hero is given a new title: “criminally insane.”

American culture creates the same heroes, and those of Trump’s ilk worship them as Kirk did Garth. During his campaign, Trump told a false story about U.S. General John Pershing executing Muslim insurgents in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, adding an element of religious offense to their deaths. By all accounts, the story of Pershing isn’t true, but it highlights our need to glorify men (and they are most often men) who not only kill, but kill brutally, kill massively, and kill the right sets of people.

Trump is not the only one who has placed such brutality on a pedestal – American history has been doing this since Columbus – but “Whom Gods Destroy” illustrates this deification in a way that prompts us to question the acts of our would-be heroes before they are given such illustrious titles. If we want a society that rejects the violent language and acts of Trump and his rallies, we have to start by thinking critically about our own past and who represents it.

“We’ll all die here.”

Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS)

Season 1, Episode 16: “The Jihad”

“The Jihad” is a good example of what not to do. The plot relies on us knowing the backstory of a bird-like alien race called the Skorr. The Skorr were, in the words of the episode, “a savage race” until pacified by a religious leader named Alar. The name “Alar” (similar to “Allah”) and the title of the episode lead one to infer that what we have here is a thinly veiled space allegory about Muslims. Now, of course, this aired in 1974, so it is not a commentary on today’s anti-Muslim hate speech stoked by many a Trump speech. However, it is still a harsh portrayal of Musl/ uh – excuse me.  “The Skorr.”

For example, we’re meant to accept that the Skorr are violent by nature, an horrific claim I have heard, almost to the letter, about modern Muslims. Yes, Alar was peaceful, but that isn’t really the point of the episode. “The Jihad” revolves around the theft of the Soul of Alar, a Skorr holy relic, and how a team (starring Kirk and Spock) is assembled to retrieve it. The team contains one Skorr, Tcharr, who – spoiler alert – totally stole the Soul of Alar in order to destroy it and send his people back to their “natural” violent state.

Bizarre plot aside, “The Jihad” does portray mistakes that are still commonly made in 2017.  For example, some assume that fundamentalists represent the “true” nature of a faith, the same way Tcharr represents the original, violent ways of the Skorr. Such assumptions lead to bigotry, ignorance, and xenophobia, and fuel travel bans and institutional religious discrimination.

The U.S. cannot view itself as Kirk, on a cautious mission to save a dangerous species from itself. The U.S. cannot view the millions of followers of Islam as the Skorr, deceptive and defined by a small number of extremists.  These perceptions encourage the us-versus-them mentality that permits anti-Muslim sentiment like Donald Trump’s March 2016 comment: “I think Islam hates us. There’s something there that – there’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There’s an unbelievable hatred of us.”

Gul Madred in “Chain of Command”

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG)

Season 6, Episodes 10 & 11: “Chain of Command, Parts I & II”

“There are four lights” is the perfect mantra for life in Trump’s America. When we are constantly bombarded with factually-incorrect statements – climate change is a hoax, Hitler never used chemical weapons, whatever the hell “covfefe” is – the scene in which Gul Madred tries to get Picard to claim he sees five lights, when in fact there are only four, reminds us that those who desire absolute power measure their success by the number of people under their control who submit to their lies.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are not being tortured in the same way Picard was in this episode, but the consequences for acting in defiance of the White House are well-known, and injurious to large numbers of people. Sanctuary cities face federal de-funding. The families of Democratic mayoral candidates receive death threats. Aid to countries that do so much as talk about abortion access is denied. Meanwhile, the path to reward seems so simple: believe the lie that Mexico sends its rapists to the U.S., and your city will be back on the list to receive government dollars.

“Chain of Command” does such a powerful job of showing us literal torture, but now the trick becomes remembering that torture can take many forms, and just because we can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. At the end of “Chain of Command, Part II,” Picard confides to Counselor Troi that, toward the end of his torture, he began to actually see five lights, despite the reality that just four existed. If even Captain Jean-Luc Picard can come within a hair’s breadth of breaking in this way, it’s urgent that we ceaselessly chant our reality so that no one can convince us that violence and prejudice are virtue, and that communities are worth erasure. To every press conference, every speech, and every tweet, it’s up to us to constantly insist: “There are four lights.”  “There are four lights.”  There are four lights.

Benteen and Leyton in “Homefront”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9)

Season 4, Episodes 11 &12: “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”

There is something satisfying about watching the takedown of Admiral Leyton. He instigates a plot to escalate the war by creating the appearance of Dominion terrorism. The benefits Leyton would reap are massive: total, hawkish control over the Federation and the ability to go down in history as a war hero, willing to do whatever it takes to defeat the enemy. At the last minute, Sisko and Odo thwart the plan and stand up for a Federation that does not jump quickly into martial law and dictatorship.

We have a lot to learn from Admiral Leyton, however. The most blunt lesson is that absolute power often requires absolute violence. You will be forced to turn on your own people. At a time when the American media is consumed by Trump’s connection to Russia, this do-whatever-it-takes approach to power feels familiar. Leyton also doesn’t go down without a fight.

This is instructive now, as part of the country thirsts for an impeachment hearing. When dealing with people obsessed with total control, the big changes one hopes for will not happen overnight. Fighting brutishness with logic and evidence takes time. Hell, it took Sisko and the gang two episodes; that’s got to be at least several months in People Time. But “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” remind us, while we wait, that the wait is worth it, because, in the time spent waiting, the positive outcome has been given a solid foundation in justice.

Captain Janeway in “Caretaker”

Star Trek: Voyager (VOY)

Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2: “Caretaker”

When I was in graduate school, a professor of mine, knowing I was a Trekkie, said to me, “I love Voyager so much! The captain is basically Hillary Clinton!” The VOY pilot has always been my favorite of the Star Trek pilots because of the way it builds on the events of DS9, specifically in the assembly of a crew that consists of Maquis and Federation officers, all under the command of the ever-awesome Captain Janeway.  Say what you will about uneven character development and sometimes-shaky plots, the U.S.S. Voyager had a solid launch with a strong female lead on the bridge.

I’m honored to know women who have been inspired by Janeway, and who have spoken brilliantly about that inspiration, and I hope this pilot will inspire more of America’s leaders to combat the sexism and misogyny of Trump, as exemplified by his stomach-churning conversation with Billy Bush and the host of other vulgar comments that are on-record.

Troi and Riker in “These Are the Voyages…”

Enterprise (ENT)

Season 4, Episode 22: “These Are The Voyages…”

Right now, you’re probably saying, “What!?  That episode was terrible!” Remember, this isn’t meant to be a list of top episodes; it’s a list of episodes that can be read in a different light in Trump’s America. “These Are The Voyages…” certainly can. Erasure is all over the episode, so much so that it’s pretty much a TNG episode, not ENT. It begs the question that so much of ENT posits: Why haven’t we heard about Archer’s exploits before?

There’s an obvious, out-of-universe answer: ENT was filmed after all the other series, so there’s no way they could’ve referenced something that wasn’t on TV yet. However, some fans have sought in-universe explanations, one of which reflects very poorly on Archer. In this theory, Archer comes to embody Earth exceptionalism (essentially being a Humans First-er), closed borders, and xenophobia after the events of ENT. He takes this to such an extreme that the Federation eventually decides that Archer isn’t the officer they want associated with the eventual Federation flagship. Therefore, Starfleet does what any organization would do: they lessen his presence in the history books.

While this is in no way officially supported by Star Trek writers, this fan theory has always piqued my interest. What if spatial exploration by the privileged, left unchecked, can turn into the arrogance that ripples through many of Trump’s border-closing policies? We don’t want to believe that, because Star Trek does such a great job of presenting exploration as a mission of equality and discovery and not Manifest Destiny, but what if, in this one case, that were true?  Would that not make for a cutting allegory for American policy today? There’s food for thought there, and this imperfect series finale now leaves me pondering this question.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. Photo: CBS

Discovery (DSC)

Discovery hasn’t aired yet, as of this writing, but I do want to add my hope for at least some of its episodes.  This series is in a unique position. It can engage directly with America’s current political landscape.  Previous series often reacted to their own socio-political climates, and at least some of their episodes contain messages that are applicable to today, as shown above. But how would a Star Trek writer present Trump? How would Star Trek respond to, say, the 2016 election? The attempted Obamacare repeal?

Fan communities on social media are chock full of people resistant to the idea that Star Trek should concern itself with these matters in any way, but I would seriously push back against that. Star Trek has always been political, and it should continue to be so for as long as new material is produced. It should even question its own legacy, and point out that, for instance, it hasn’t always done right by its female characters or fans.  (The preview indicates Discovery might be on the right track, there.) Much like “Whom Gods Destroy” suggests, it is through analytically and objectively assessing our past that we can determine the progress needed for an egalitarian future.

The above represents the associations I make while watching seven distinct episodes of Star Trek. We may not share all of the same thoughts, but I believe we can possibly agree that one of the most amazing qualities about Star Trek is the way that time, current events, and ever-changing politics can typically, in some way, wind up in an episode, even if the writers of the episode in question had no way of forecasting the shape of modern society. Perhaps it is this that makes Star Trek most comforting. No matter what goes wrong or right, Star Trek has something to say to you. In this way, the show becomes the Prophets of the wormhole, giving you a vision of a world that is strangely familiar.

  5 comments for “Trek in the Age of Trump

  1. Janet
    June 14, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Archer might believe in human exceptionalism but the notion that he becomes a xenophobic Earth-firster is ridiculous in light of Demons/Terra Prime. In fact, Paxton says something to the effect of Starfleet not putting Earth first. I know this theory isn’t yours but it riles me up because the wstory beats you over the head with its anti-xenophobic message, making it clear that Archer and co don’t stand for that. It’s Terra Prime who wants to close borders, not Starfleet. Quoting a previous article, Star Trek attracts lots of fans who just don’t get it. To be fair, current events don’t change my view of the episode but this and Chosen Realm are much more relevant to the Trump era than TATV. I’m curious, did TATV make you think it’s possible that Starfleet gave into pressure from Paxton?

    The Mirror Universe already gives an example of Manifest Destiny taken to the extreme.

    • Jon Alexandratos
      June 14, 2017 at 6:07 pm

      I think you’re making a good point, there, Janet. The fan theory does a lot of twisting and bending to get itself to work, but I think it rests on Archer’s post-Xindi attack outrage in Season 3. The thought, as I understand it, extends Archer’s militaristic role and his damn-the-torpedoes efforts to protect Earth into future, unwritten events beyond ENTERPRISE’s end. I don’t think the show entirely supports this, but I do think it is interesting to consider the “What If?” scenario of a once-optimistic captain slowly, perhaps even unnoticeably (until it’s too late), turning into the very antithesis of the Federation (or maybe too much the embodiment of a version of the Federation). But I wouldn’t argue with anyone who doesn’t like the fan theory. ENTERPRISE writers would not have gone this direction (I assume), and it’s totally legitimate to suggest that the show ultimately leaves us with a strong captain. There are simply elements of the thought experiment that I like mulling over, as mentioned above.

      • Janet
        June 14, 2017 at 10:38 pm

        The fan theory struck a nerve because a recent article on WAW cited ENT’s militaristic role in the Xindi war as not addressing social injustice and endorsing xenophobia. That’s like a Lord of the Rings fan saying Frodo is an innocent young man without sticking around to find out with the Ring did to him. Season 3 of ENT might have started out as 24 in space but Archer ultimately wins through diplomacy. The author and probably the fan theory creators took the beginning of the Xindi story out of context. Yes, Archer got on my nerves as the most mishandled character but this takes bashing him new to a whole new level. How ironic they say he is a closed-border xenophobe when Paxton insults him for doing the opposite.

        I never thought of whether Columbus and other conquistadors always wanted riches and glory or they started out as dudes who just wanted to see the world. But your “what if” has made me do it. This podcast doesn’t specifically address a good guy gone colonialist but does ask whether power/privilege always corrupts. This episode is mainly about invisibility and surprisingly not serious when they get to Archer. But if you’re into philosophic questions, it’s worth a listen. http://trek.fm/meta-treks/62

        • Jon Alexandratos
          June 14, 2017 at 11:33 pm

          Thank you for your well-stated perspective! I’m definitely going to keep this in mind when I do some Enterprise re-watching (which I am overdue for). And I am very much into philosophical questions, so I thank you, also, for the podcast episode recommendation!

  2. ministerprime
    June 15, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Reality light filtered through pop culture lenses intensifies the lesson when well done.

    Well done.

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