Television programs provide one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. From The Simpsons to The X-Files, television shows amuse, shock, sadden, and excite us by turns. Television does more, however, than simply entertain. Television shows are cultural products, and as such, they reflect, reinforce, and challenge cultural ideas. It acts as a mirror and a model for society. In examining and understanding those cultural messages and popular appeal of certain television shows, we should understand something about the society that has created and sustained them.
Arguably, Star Trek is one of the most popular television shows ever produced. Today Star Trek includes four television series and nine motion pictures . Like some of the other television shows, Star Trek has been subject to the vagaries of producers and writers so it is difficult to generalize about the intent of the authors of Star Trek or the viewpoint of the readers. Yet, it is also clear that Star Trek has at various times been reflective, informative, and critical about the culture -American culture- that produced it. Star Trek has addressed a wide variety of issues, including war, capitalism, individualism, technology, race, gender, prejudice, religion, etc. The list can be extended to many other issues but here I will focus on race, gender, prejudice and religion only. As portrayed on television such issues are representations of socio-cultural perspectives on broad human concerns. For taking a closer look to those issues, in the continuing parts I will give some examples from a number of Star Trek episodes that had written in different times.
The portrayal and treatment of religion in the Star Trek television series and films provides an important cultural commentary on the place of religion in society. Although no single coherent approach to religion appears in Star Trek, the series is nevertheless variously reflective of, informed by, and critical of societal attitudes toward religion. The portrayal and treatment of religion in much of the Star Trek franchise is negative: religion is often presented as superstitious, outdated, and irrational. An underlying and consistent theme of the Star Trek series is the presentation of rational scientific humanism as an alternative to religious faith. A newer theme, notably found in episodes from the Deep Space Nine and the Voyager series, explores the potentially positive value of religion. Since the viability and popularity of Star Trek have spanned such a long period of time, it is inevitable that the series would begin to diverge from original assumptions in response to changing cultural attitudes. The recent potentially positive portrayal of religion within Star Trek both reflects and reinforces a particular cultural change.
Gene Roddenberry was Star Treks creator and executive producer. While he was alive and continued to have a direct hand in the production of the show, religion as a theme was rarely treated. When it was -I believe- the portrayal of religion reflected Roddenberrys own distrust of an antipathy toward organized religion. In Star Trek, organized religion tends to be portrayed as the product of a pre-rational age, antithetical to science and reason, and God is depicted as a category mistake -an advanced alien form- from mistaken for a god. However after his death, and particularly evident in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, religion as a theme far more often tends to be treated in a more sophisticated and sympathetic manner2.
The setting of Deep Space Nine is a Federation space station situated next to the planet Bajor. The people of Bajor are united by their common religious faith guided by a religious oligarchy. Invisible spiritual guides called the Prophets directed them. The two hour premiere episode of Deep Space Nine: Emissary featured than -Commander Siskos encounter with the Prophets, one that led both to his emotional healing and to his identification as a Bajorans long-awaited spiritual Emissary. This introductory episode so explicitly involving a spiritual motif set a compelling tone for the exploration of religious themes in this series. On Deep Space Nine religious faith is treated as more than simply the product of superstition and the suspension of rationality depicted in the earlier series. On the other hand, certain episodes, like Shakaar, deal with the Bajoran oligarchy convey the idea that this religious leadership is also not immune to ambition and corruption.
In sum, while dismissed in the first series, religion has made a comeback in the later series, full of unanswered questions, speculations, and hints of something more out there. With those series Star Trek has come to acknowledging the fundamentally spiritual nature of human beings, or of the human sprit, which inclines us toward transcendence.
MULTICULTURALISM, PREJUDICE AND SOCIO-CULTURAL ISSUES:
From its earliest days, Star Trek has been informed by a multiculturalist vision. In Roddenberrys original outline of the series the twenty third century insisted that racial discrimination would be seen as a regrettable relic of the past. The presence of Uhura, Sulu and Chekov on the bridge, as well as a number of black actors who appeared as senior anti-racist standpoint -even if all these characters played relatively minor roles-. The presence of alien characters in the series was crucial in demonstrating that the Federation was also a multiculturalist organization. With racial prejudice extinct on its future-Earth, Star Trek has always used the conflict between the various alien races to present stories that reflect on contemporary racial conflicts.
The theme of racial prejudice is one of that a number of Star Trek episodes explore. In the Undiscovered Country the anti-Klingon prejudice displayed by Kirk and other members of his crew was a bit untrue to the real spirit of Star Trek in which racism only exists between alien races. Yet even in the original series anti-alien prejudice does not appear to be completely unknown in Starfleet. In Balance of Terror Lieutenant Stiles, who has fought the Romulans in the battle, displays a decidedly racist attitude towards Mr. Spock because of the close physical resemblance between the Vulcan and Romulan races. But Spocks heroic actions finally persuade Stiles to trust him. Any hint of a lack of perfection among Starfleet officers is thus quickly quashed.
Just as many examples like the ones above can be read by the audiences as dramas that reflect on contemporary inter-racial situations, many other episodes have been seen as comments on the ethics of sexual politics. In Elaan of Troyius the Enterprise is engaged in delivering Elaan to Troyius, which has been at war with Elas for centuries. Her arranged marriage to the Troyian leader is expected to bring peace between two planets.
The Perfect Mate is an episode, which appears to rewrite the story of Elaan of Troyius. Earlier, when Picard told Beverly Crusher that Kalamas participation in the arranged marriage was voluntary, Crusher had protested that Kamala had been brainwashed all her life into taking of her main function as being an object of desire for men. The episode thus works as a kind of feminist story, with Kamala representing the way in which modern advertising and media culture prepares women by presenting them with essentially unreal images of physical perfection in the form of supermodels. At the same time its tragic outcome explicitly attacks the traditional practice of arranged marriage itself.
The Next Generation: The Outcast was -I think- the first Star Trek episode to touch upon the themes of sexual ambiguity. Riker begins a working relationship with Soren, a member of the genderless Jnaii race who has enlisted the Enterprises help in a search for missing shuttlecraft. They have many discussions in which they compare their different cultures, and a strong bond begins to develop between them. Eventually Soren reveals that she is one of a minority of her race who tend towards a particular sex, but that in her society this must be kept a secret. If her feelings are exposed, she will be subjected to reprogramming.
In the example above Riker and Picard were acting from liberal humanist principles but in both situations these principles did not prove adequate. Star Trek thus confronts one of the main dilemmas of multiculturalism -that is necessary to understand and respect the practices of other cultures even if their values contradicts ones own.
As I mentioned before in the introduction part the Star Trek episodes were written by a large number of different authors. So it was hard to concentrated on a fixed intend of them. One thing in similar all of them is that they mirrored and modeled the society. They reinforced, challenged and reflected cultural ideas. I tried to give some particular examples from those cultural ideas. I also tried to mirror the cultural conditions in which those episodes are written. I especially tried to choose the episodes from different time periods to reflect the specific changes in the society.