by Jay Johansen | Jun 24, 1998
(Two quick caveats: First, maybe you could think of some other candidates for "three most popular", but my point here is not to prove that these three are indeed the most popular, but merely to note some (hopefully) interesting differences between them. Second, I write this as an off-hand musing and not as a doctoral thesis. Thus, this is based on what I happen to have seen and remember of each of the three serials: I have not obtained copies of scripts for careful study or done any other research. If you want to point out incidents from these series that contradict what I say here, I'm happy to hear it. This is sloppy scholarship, but as I say, I'm not writing a thesis here, I'm just chatting.)
Ask yourself this question: In the universe of Star Trek, what organizations exist within the Federation, other than Star Fleet?
When that question occurred to me, I really had to stop and think. Is there a civilian government distinct from Star Fleet's military hierarchy? Are there any educational institutions other than Star Fleet Academy? Are there political parties, corporations, charitable organizations, trade unions, professional guilds, religious denominations? Are there even any sports teams or social clubs?
In one episode of the original series, there is a mention that Spock's father wanted him to join the Vulcan Science Academy rather than Star Fleet. Another episode featured a troupe of Shakespearean actors. In the Deep Space 9 series, we are told that there are "shops" on the "promenade", though the only one we ever seem to see is Quark's. (We'll get back to Quark in a moment.) I am hard pressed to think of any other organizations ever being mentioned. Perhaps a diligent study of scripts would turn up a few more, but clearly they're very rare.
I concede that as the series is normally set aboard a star ship or space station, one would not necessarily expect to see the full array of civilian activity that might exist in the Federation. But still ... wouldn't some other organizations at least pop up occasionally?
In normal daily life people - including military personnel - routinely refer to all sorts of organizations. But you never seem to hear a character on Star Trek say, "Hey, I trust Picard, we both were on the football team at Louisiana State together", or, "Another atrocity - the Romulans killed seven innocent Red Cross workers".
Perhaps a case could be made why some of these references would just never come up, or why it would be awkward to include them in the story line. But some omissions are harder to simply explain away. Like, in many crises we see Kirk or Picard talk to Star Fleet Command, and we will hear comments about how Star Fleet Command is very concerned that this incident may lead to war or whatever. But I cannot recall a single time when I have heard them say, "The President is very concerned about this situation and has ordered Star Fleet to ..." or "Parliament has demanded an investigation of this ..." Is Star Fleet Command the government? Are they not answerable to any civilian authority?
The Empire of Star Wars is at least somewhat more diverse. The Emperor may not be a nice guy, but he apparently is a political leader distinct from the military hierarchy. There is a reference to him dissolving the Senate, so at least at one time there were competing organs in the government. Leia is a princess but does not appear to be related to the Emperor in any way - I always assumed that Alderaan had its own royal house, which would imply some sort of at least semi-autonomous government. (This was never clearly spelled out in the films, but I saw that as a mark of good story-telling: the universe is too rich for every detail to be explained, we are left to understand that the galaxy did not suddenly spring into existence with the first scene of the film.) Jaba the Hut runs some sort of crime syndicate. The Jedi Knights are clearly independent of both the military and the emperor. And so on.
Babylon 5's Earth Alliance is an incredibly complex society compared to either the Federation or the Empire. Besides the military hierarchy, there is a president and a senate. (In one episode an important element of the story was that the civilian bureaucracy did not have the authority to give orders to military personnel - there were distinct legal requirements for a chain of command.) We are told of conflict within the government between isolationists and their opponents, so there are factions if not explicit political parties. The characters routinely watch ISN News for information. Psi Corps has great political power but is clearly not an organ of the government. Dr Franklin talks about quitting Babylon 5 to take a position at a college. Several episodes included an order of monks on board the station; another episode included a character described as a Baptist minister.
The few times a character turns up on Star Trek who could be called a "businessman" or an "entrepreneur", he always seems to be either a villain or at least a comic villain. In the original series, there was Harry Mudd. Too funny to be truly dangerous, but clearly not someone you would want to emulate. In Next Generation there was the merchant who kidnapped Data: the classic Hollywood businessman-villain who steals, kills, and oppresses out of greed. Another episode had a brief mention of some merchants carrying stolen goods - ore illegally mined from some planet. And of course, Deep Space 9 has Quark: greedy, always scheming, operating just on the edge of the law.
I am hard-pressed to think of a single example of a businessman in Star Trek who shows admirable qualities. You might say that this is simply a requirement of drama: a good story requires conflict and adventure, and somebody adding up a row of numbers in an accounting ledger offers neither. But businessmen do appear, so why is that when they do, they are always villains? Other movies and television programs have routinely found it natural to depict businessmen making positive contributions to society. Yes, in real life there certainly are businessmen who are greedy crooks. But in real life there are also businessman who agonize over how to keep their people employed in hard times - remember Humphry Bogart in Casablanca, talking about how long he could keep everybody on salary since the government shut down his business? There are businessmen who go beyond the call of duty to help their customers - remember Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life using the money he'd saved for a vacation to bail out the customers of his loan company?
Star Wars is more ambiguous. Luke's father, the farmer, is portrayed as a basically decent but very narrow-minded man, not a villain but not particularly a role model either. Lando is a businessman and a villain somewhat in the style of Star Trek. It may or may not be significant that he later redeems himself. Han Solo is something of an entrepreneur -- though not exactly the sort of person who comes to mind when we think of a businessman, to say the least - and he is clearly one of the heroes of the story. But ... his heroism seems to come in the renunciation of being an entrepreneur. At the beginning of the first movie he tells Leia that he expects to be well rewarded for rescuing her. His crucial transformation comes when at the last minute he enters the big battle with the Death Star, and it is clear that he has turned from a life of greed and selfishness to one of caring and self-sacrifice. It is not clear whether we are to understand that he became a hero by transforming from a bad entrepreneur to a good entrepreneur, or by transforming from an entrepreneur to something else.
For all its diverse and complex society, Babylon 5 seems even shorter on businessmen than the other two serials. At least, in terms of having any significance to a plot line or discernable motivations. The only businessman I recall seeing who had any recognizable personality was the tycoon who showed up in a couple of episodes who's trying to fight the growing power of Psi Corps. He seems a mixed character: He talks about fighting to defend freedom, clearly at great personal risk, and at one point he tells his people to stop further tests of the biological weapon they're developing because there has already been too much pain and suffering. His fight against the telepaths is harsh, but they're not nice people either, and he could certainly plead self-defense and just war. But he clearly sinks pretty low when he arranges for Sheridan to be kidnapped and turned over to his enemies to be tortured just so he can buy time for his own plans.
We could also note the economic backdrop of each serial in a more general sense.
In Babylon 5, we routinely see people buy miscellaneous items - Garibaldi sends out for pizza, Zack buys flowers for a young woman, Dr Franklin buys some jewelry as an excuse to talk to the clerk, and so on. None of the business people involved have any discernable personality traits, but it is interesting to note that characters do actually buy things. In the opening scenes of Star Wars, Luke and his father talk about keeping the farm going and finding the money to buy new droids, and a little later Luke and Obiwan talk about having to sell the hovercar to pay for a flight off the planet. But besides that, any object the characters acquire seems to be either handed down from an ancestor or mentor, or stolen from the empire. In Star Trek, people seem to just pick up whatever they want without any mention of payment. Perhaps the assumption is that the crew of a starship have their food and clothes and so forth provided for them, but even off the ship there never seems to be any talk of payment. I don't expect the camera to zoom in on the price tags while Riker picks out a new beard trimmer, and then hover over his shoulder while we see him meticulously sign a credit card authorization. But these people never seem to have any personal economic concerns.
Star Wars is set in the middle of a revolution, so we would expect the economy to be a bit chaotic. Perhaps it was deliberate that in the early scenes where Luke is trying to just live a normal life, he worries about mundane things like money, but as he gets caught up in the great events of the revolution, these things are left behind. Babylon 5 has an economic background comparable to what humans have experienced throughout most of history history: people have jobs and occasionally worry about mundane financial matters. Indeed, one episode worked this dichotomy into the plot: After the war Lyta Alexander finds herself unemployed (now that her former boss has fled the galaxy), and there is some interesting dialogue when one the villians comments to her that "being a revolutionary and saving the universe is good for your self-esteem, and looks great on a resume, but the pay is lousy".
So what kind of societies are they?
The Federation appears to be socialist or communist, possibly with a military government. It closely resembles the utopian communist society imagined by radicals of the 30's and the 60's. There is no money, for everyone simply works out of a desire to contribute to society and help his fellow man, and takes back only what he needs. Private enterprise is the enemy, at best an amusing throwback to less enlightened times, at worst a dangerous villain to be fought and defeated. There is no need for a multitude of competing organizations within society. Instead the people voluntarily cede all authority to a single organization controlling all aspects of life, for this promotes co-operation and efficiency.
Of course it's not an oppressive dictatorship - like all utopian communists, they view socialism as the route to the greatest freedom and human happiness. The higher-ups are not always right, of course. Indeed they often seem out-of-touch. But they are to be respected and obeyed - all dissent must be handled within the proper chain of command.
Babylon 5 is generally capitalist / free market and has an elected government. While individual capitalists are not particularly visible, the society does seem to be built on private enterprise. The big villain of the first few seasons was the man who made himself a dictator, manipulated the constitution, and suppressed dissent.
Star Wars is more ambiguous. The Empire is the bad guys and the Rebels are the good guys, and the Empire is oppressive and tyrannical while the Rebels would restore freedom. Beyond this it is never really spelled out just what sort of society the Empire is or what the Rebels would really erect in its place.
Compare this to the only real-life example we have: races on Earth. We don't find a single nation which includes all white people and no other races, another nation for all black people, another for all orientals, another for all semites, etc. Quite the contrary, most nations include a mix of racial types, and most races find themselves divided into many nations. While people do sometimes unite or divide on racial lines, they are far more likely to unite or divide on ideological lines. Only extreme racists talk about the "Aryan nation" or the "black nation" or the "Arab nation", and surely even they don't think of this as a present reality, but rather as an "ideal" that they want to strive for.
Granted, the analogy between human races and alien races is far from perfect: an alien race would presumably be an entirely different species, while human races represent only minor genetic variations within the species. Still ... is the important thing genetics, or ideals?
Babylon 5 is a little better, but not much. All the alien races - the Centauri, the Narn, the Mimbari, etc - all seem to follow the "one race equals one nation" formula. Much of the overall storyline of the series deals with the gradual union of different races into a single great alliance, but there is no hint of a single alien race ever dividing into multiple nations. In one episode, the Narns invade a Centauri colony and claim that they were invited in by the locals, who seek to leave the Centauri republic to join the Narns. This is immediately dismissed as a ridiculous cover for blatant aggression by everyone involved - we are expected to just take it for granted that no one would ever want to be part of a nation dominated by a different racial group than his own. The humans, though, do show at least some traces of realistic recombination. While all of Earth is united into a single nation and everyone is apparently happy and satisfied with this, the colonists on Mars and Io seek independence, and Babylon 5 ends up breaking away from Earth and joining an alliance with aliens.
Star Wars, on the other hand, presents a non-racist view of the future. The Rebellion includes a broad diversity of races. While we see lots of humans, we also see many representatives of other races. Many leadership posts are filled by non-humans: in one crucial battle, the rebel forces are led by a fish-like creature. Two of the main characters - Chewbacca and Yoda - are non-human, and while Chewbacca seems to be a bit of a flunky to Han Solo, Yoda is clearly a leader. The Empire does appear to be run by humans. Perhaps that was deliberate: the good buys practice diversity, while the bad guys are racists.
Admittedly, much science fiction suffers from the curious assumption that when humans begin travelling in space we will be united into a single political unit. If there were a small number of stories that postulated this, perhaps even explained that they thought such political unity would be necessary before we could reach out into space or some such, this would be understandable. But it seems to be a common assumption, routinely offered up with no explanation, as if this was just obvious. Why? There's certainly no historical precedent. When Europeans first travelled to the New World, there was not a single "united Europe". When the leading powers of the 19th century began the exploration and colonization of Africa and the Far East, there was no single government including Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S., much less all the other countries of Europe and the Americas. So why is it tacitly assumed that there will be such unity in the future?
I would like to see just an occasional science fiction story that supposed that there would be some interstellar nations in the future containing a mix of humans and various other alien races. Why isn't there one nation that includes some humans and some Klingons, another that includes some Klingons and some Romulans, etc?
Star Wars has very distinct religious themes. Indeed, the most memorable line from Star Wars is surely, "The Force be with you", a clear religious reference. Furthermore, the religion is pretty clearly spelled out: God is an impersonal force which pervades the universe, he/it has a "dark side" and a "light side" which complement each other, and ordinary people (oops, beings) can tap into this force and manipulate and use it. This is a straightforward New Age teaching. I'll skip giving examples or justification because I think this is quite obvious and deliberate.
On the surface, it may seem curious that so many Christians have praised the treatment of religion in Star Wars, when in real life Christians and New Age adherents routinely see each other as opponents. But this is not really all that mysterious. In the movie, the battle is not between New Age religion and Christianity, but between New Age religion and humanism. It is not unreasonable for a Christian to say that, yes, New Age is a threat, but humanism is a bigger threat, so we can join forces to fight a common foe and worry about sorting it out between ourselves later.
The religion of Star Trek is more subtle, but still comes out fairly clearly. In the first episode of Next Generation, "Q" puts humanity on trial. One of his accusations is that humans kill each other in "disputes over your tribal gods". Note Picard's reply. He doesn't say that some people have used religion for their own personal ends, or that religious freedom is something worth fighting for. No, he replies that humanity has "outgrown" that - in other words, he apologizes for the existence of religion in human history. In another episode, Picard beams down to a planet with a primitive civilization, and the people mistake him for a god and suddenly decide that they must do all sorts of terrible things to please "the picard". He finally solves the problem by returning to the planet and proving that he is just an ordinary person like themselves, and concludes with a speech declaring that the problem with worshipping a deity is figuring out what the deity really wants. (Of course a Jew, a Christian or a Moslem would reply that while there are occasionally difficulties in knowing God's will in the details, we can easily find out what he wants in at least general principles by reading his book.) I could point to numerous other - admittedly scattered - examples. In short, Star Trek views religion as primitive superstition, something that people will outgrow as they evolve to higher levels. The religion of Star Trek is secular humanism.
(True, one episode of the original Star Trek did involve the Enterprise visiting a planet with a "parallel history" but where the Roman Empire never fell, and where the Christians were the heroes. But this seemed to be an exception.)
Babylon 5 is more difficult to nail down. The Mimbari are routinely described as "highly spiritual" and the implication of the series is that this is a positive quality. But few details of their religion are given. They apparently believe in individual souls. In one episode DeLenn explains that they do not believe in God as a person but rather as an impersonal force. The Centauri are polytheistic, but they don't seem to take their religion very seriously. This seems to be portrayed as a flaw in their culture. G'Kar experiences a religious conversion during the series, from being essentially an agnostic to holding some strong beliefs and writing a book which his people consider sacred. After his conversion he changes from being hateful and violent to a loving peacemaker. But again, we are told little of his actual theology. (Side note: Each of the alien races appears to have only one religion. That "racial unity" business again.) None of the main human characters has any clearly defined religious belief. They do discuss religion on occasion, but always end up with the sort of vague statements you often hear Americans make, "I'd like to believe but I just don't know" and that sort of thing. On the other hand, minor characters with clear religious beliefs do pass through. Several episodes dealt with an order of monks living aboard the station, who seemed to be presented positively. In another episode a Baptist minister is introduced, who is clearly a hero, risking his life to fight oppression. That episode ends with two of the main characters attending his Baptist service, and singing along joyfully with the hymns.
I find the treatment of religion in Babylon 5 the most interesting, perhaps because it is the least clear-cut. My tentative conclusion is that the producers believe that religion and spirituality are good things, but they don't seem to differentiate between religions. Some things they said indicated that they see religion not as a quest for truth, with right and wrong answers, but rather as a process which is valuable because it enobles the seeker; that it is the looking that is important, rather than the finding. Or perhaps they believe that truth is important, but they are not prepared to acknowledge that any particular group has found it yet, or proven their case. In any event, their view can surely be described as "tolerant": Jews, Christians, pantheists, all are accorded respect.
I'm not exactly sure why a fan site would want this article listed, as it's not exactly a fan article, but okay, I'll play. Well, maybe they just did a Google search for "Star Trek" and sent out automated e-mails to every site that turned up. Or hey, maybe they actually liked the article.
It's interesting, I've written all these serious commentaries on profound social, moral, and theological issues, and the articles I get the most email on are, 1) capital punishment, and 2) Star Trek. Some of the emails have even been rather heated.
Oh, at this point I'd better admit to a correction: One writer -- sorry, I lost his email, can't tell you his name -- tells me that in the DS9 series there are in fact a couple of episodes in which the president of the Federation is a character. I'll take his word for it. It doesn't surprise me, as DS9 struck me as having not quite the same world view as the other series and the movies. Enterprise has a rather different feel too, but frankly I haven't watched that enough to come to any conclusions.
© 1998 by Jay Johansen
Maddie May 27, 2010
I came across your essay while researching a paper about Star Trek, Babylon 5, and the more recent Firefly, and was confused by your statement that "None of the main human characters has any clearly defined religious belief." This is certainly not true- Ivanova is a proud Jew who celebrates Jewish ceremonies in several episodes, as well as remarking often on the fact that she is a "Russian Jew." True, Garibaldi is an atheist, and with many of the other characters, you do not get a clear view of what they believe, but they do usually believe in something, even if their belief has no obvious ideology.
I don't know, perhaps someone else has brought this up in the years since the essay went up. However, it struck me as an odd comment to make.
Jay Johansen May 29, 2010
Perhaps I should have spelled that out more. Yes, a fairly big deal was made throughout the series of Ivanova being a Russian Jew, but for the most part her Jewishness was more ethnic and cultural than religious. There was the episode where her father died and she ultimately practiced a Jewish mourning ritual, but the whole point seemed to be that she was very torn about doing this, that she didn't really believe in the theological beliefs behind it but ultimately did it anyway as a show of respect for and identification with her heritage. Besides that, I don't recall her ever talking about faith in God or following the Torah or any of that.
As I mentioned in the article, G'Kar clearly has strong religious beliefs after his conversion or epiphany or whatever you want to call it, but I don't think we're ever given much clue what those beliefs are. I don't doubt that's deliberate: the writers didn't want to get into religious arguments, they just wanted to present this character as a leader of an alien religion.
Jay Johansen Feb 2, 2014
Wow, they've decided to let people buy their products! How generous of them! But you'd better hurry -- it's only for a limited time. After that I suppose they'll refuse to take your money. Usually I just delete the spam posts but this one was so dumb I just had to leave it.
Sasquatch May 23, 2014
I seem to recall that Gene Rodenberry was quite open about the socialist world of Star Trek. I'm paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect that humans would have "advanced beyond the need for money" by that point in the future. Funny enough, he's been called out for it since several episodes have the crew trading with others for supplies, usually dilithium crystals. So they'll engage in capitalism when it's convenient for the story.
Jay Johansen May 25, 2014
Many science fiction stories set in the relatively near future -- by which I mean, within a few hundred years -- depict societies where human nature has radically changed. There is no more crime, people work for the good of the community without regard to personal reward, everyone is an atheist and religion has become obsolete, love has been abandoned for more "efficient" ideas, etc. I almost always find this highly implausible. Human nature has been unchanged since earliest recorded history. The oldest records talk about crime and money and religion and sex and love. If something has been going on essentially unchanged for thousands of years, you can't expect me to believe it will totally change in the next hundred or two without some truly powerful change agent to bring it about.
c. H. Jr Dec 28, 2014
I saw that posts have been made as late as this year so thought I might add another before years end. In a recent study of pantheism I found Gene Rodenberry's name mentioned prominently as a proponent. Do not know if with his permission.
That general belief does seem to fit well and add a broader understandable backdrop to most of the series to which his name is attached.
I think Star Trek like programs are used for propaganda as well as entertainment. When reading early 20th century socialist writings, I found mention of the necessity to use literature (narrative) to build consensus for their worldview. Socialism and pantheism share some goals, overlap here and there, even though there are marked lines of delineation. After all, one is an economic redemption story and the other is a metaphysical cosmology. Both appeal to audiences wishing to escape any form of theism. This is not a criticism, just analysis. I just watched again the first episode of Voyager. Not surprising to me that, using metaphor, it is essentially a story about a dying godlike caretaker (passing away as all gods should do) who is encouraged to let his children learn to live on their own. They have outgrown his help. Of course, many "fans" will interpret it from the over protective parent point of view. Good writing should allow such alternative possibilities even if the general theme is known.
Here is the Gene Rodenberry quote from the pantheism site. "I think G-d is as much a basic ingredient in the universe as neutrons and positrons. G-d is, for lack of a better term, clout. This is the prime force, when we look around the universe." God is the universe and the universe is God. G-d without the universe would not be G-d. Complete antithesis to any theistic tradition where God would be the creator of the universe(s).
Jay Johansen Dec 30, 2014
Interesting. A popular idea among atheists is that religion is an out-dated idea that might have helped primitive people to cope with the world but which we modern scientific people no longer need, that we're now "mature" and no longer need God or the gods. I've seen various allegorical stories about the gods dying or going away to express this idea. I say allegorical because of course an atheist would say that God never existed to begin with, so he can't really leave. But this seems to be the atheist's idea of how to present their position gently: "it's not that your beliefs are stupid like some atheists say, I'm your friend, I'm just saying that your ideas are holdovers from your childhood and you don't need them any more."
Anyway, atheism and pantheism sound like opposites: nothing is God versus everything is God. But in a way they're almost the same. Both reject the idea of God as a conscious being who makes decisions and takes action. Saying "everything is God" is little different from saying "everything is beautiful" and "I respect everything".