Thursday, September 8, 2016

Star Trek as Regulative Ideal: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary

"Live long and prosper, Star Trek."

Fifty years ago today, the first regular episode of Star Trek aired and changed at least one world forever.  

Fans throughout the galaxy are celebrating.  Items from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry are being released from the Roddenberry vault.  Of course there's 50th anniversary merchandise.  We're getting a new series next year.  iO9 is featuring Star Trek Week!  There are a lot of great articles there.  One of my favorite is Katherine Trendacosta’s “Star Trek is My Best Love.” 

What’s so Great about Star Trek, Anyway?

So a lot of people (including me) believe that Star Trek is worth celebrating.  But why?

Perhaps there are as many answers as there are Star Trek fans.

Some people love Star Trek as a show that emphasizes the science in science fiction (even if it sometimes uses meaningless techno-babble).  It has inspired people from all walks of life to go into STEM fields.  Star Trek is one of the few science fiction shows that actually features scientific exploration as one of its core themes.

Others enjoy the technological aspects of Star Trek.  From communicators to talking computers, some parts of the world of Star Trek have already become reality.  I recently acquired an iPad, and every time I use it I can’t stop thinking about the PADD from Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

These are perfectly good reasons to love Star Trek, but I don’t think either entirely explains the enduring love people have for this show.  The main reason people love Star Trek is a bit deeper.

Star Trek’s Utopian Vision

Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek to imagine a world where humans have overcome our most pressing issues: hunger, disease, poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, and social ills of all kinds.  It imagines a world in which a black woman and an Asian man are equal members of the crew of the flagship of a galactic federation of planets.  There is also a Russian crew member (on a show airing in Cold War America) and a half-human half-alien science officer.  War is a thing of the past, at least among humans (wars with other species are needed to create proper conflict in the stories).

In the world of Star Trek, humans have moved beyond the greed, acquisitiveness, bigotry, hatred, and short-sightedness that cause most of our problems.  It makes sense that Martin Luther King, Jr.loved the show and encouraged Nichelle Nichols to stay on when she thought about quitting.
Uhura answering the call

I remember watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as a kid and being intrigued by how strange Kirk thought the concept of money was when the crew went back in time to 1980’s San Francisco to save the whales.  (I don’t care what people say, I love Star Trek IV). 

Although I had watched Star Trek before, this was the first time I had really considered the idea of a moneyless, post-scarcity society.  I was inspired by the concept of a world in which humans could focus on what matters in life without being plagued by the economic woes that were all-too-familiar even to a 10-year-old kid in what was supposedly the wealthiest country on Earth.  Star Trek gave me a vision of something better than the reality I was coming to know.

People love Star Trek for many reasons, but I maintain that the most fundamental reason is that it shows us our best future, one that we could be proud to bequeath to our descendants.

Of course, the immediate objection is that Star Trek is too idealistic.  For one thing, interstellar travel is probably a great deal more difficult than Star Trek depicts.  From a human perspective, such a future isn’t just economically or politically improbable, it seems to require some serious edits to the code of human nature.  Especially given our contemporary obsession with dismal dystopianism and the recent resurgence of bigotry and petty-mindedness of all kinds, can we realistically hope that anything like Star Trek will ever happen?  Is it a spectral utopia founded on infantile idealism?

I’m not sure.  But I’m also not sure that calculating the possibility of the world of Star Trek is the point.

Star Trek as Regulative Ideal: The Audacity of "Maybe"

Let’s leave the 23rd century for a minute and go to the 18th century, specifically the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  This isn’t the place to explore the depths of Kantian philosophy, but one of Kant’s ideas that has always stuck with me is the concept of a regulative idea.  Briefly, a regulative idea is an idea that can never become the basis of knowledge, but that it is nonetheless rational to hold as a way to regulate thought and behavior.  Kant’s examples of regulative ideas are God, freedom, and immortality, ideas that Kant says are unknowable, but not entirely irrational in that they can’t be ruled out, either.

Like a Kantian regulative idea, the world of Star Trek can be an ideal for us today, one that might regulate our thoughts about what kind of world we want and our behavior in terms of making this world a reality.  (A similar idea can be found in Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series, where the ideal of interstellar travel is presented as a basis for moving humanity beyond dystopia.)

Just as importantly, however, we can never know whether something like the world of Star Trek will come to pass.  There may be reasons to think that a world like Star Trek’s will never happen, due to greed, irrationality, bigotry, and general short-sightedness on the part of humans or other species.  There are also reasons to suspect that Star Trek’s utopian vision is itself plagued with inconsistencies (Is the model of historical development followed by all species throughout the Star Trek galaxy based on Eurocentric biases?  Who the hell does the Federation think it is to go around spreading its values throughout the galaxy, anyway?).  Some of these reasons are considered in the most ambiguous Star Trek utopia of them all, Deep Space Nine.

But I maintain that it is not entirely irrational to believe that the ideal world of Star Trek may be possible.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not this century or the next.  But maybe someday.  It is this “maybe” that forms the core of what Star Trek is all about. 

This is precisely what the new movies have forgotten in their drive to turn Star Trek into fluffy popcorn action movies.  It’s not that the vision of Star Trek resonates with people less than it used to (as this article seems to imply), it’s that the new movies have forgotten that Star Trek is about something bigger than flashy action scenes or fun Beastie Boys jam sessions in space.  Star Trek is about the idea that maybe, just maybe, we could do better, not just by having cooler gadgets, but by becoming better people.

The real value of Star Trek is that taking it as a regulative ideal just might be what we need to someday make a similar world a reality.

I end with a favorite quote from the philosopher Mary Midgley that I think explains our enduring fascination with utopian visions like Star Trek:

“Writings like this [i.e., utopias and dystopias] aren’t meant as literal blueprints for what ought to be built or as exact itineraries for our journey. Instead, they act as imaginative pictures of possible houses to be built or as searchlights, plunging their beams deep into the surrounding landscape at a single point to light up our journey. At times these searchlights show us distant mountains toward which we are travelling. These are landmarks which will serve to direct us even though we don’t actually need to reach them, like signposts that say simply ‘To the North’. At other times, they show us appalling precipices over which we might fall. They indicate possible long-term goals and dangers. They light up general directions. And they have to suggest these things in a way that is very far from literal, a way that must often be startling and paradoxical, because paradox can give our imagination the shock that it needs to start it working.”

- Mary Midgley, “Practical Utopianism” in Utopias, Dolphins, and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing (p. 24)

Happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek!


  1. I was one of the people who watched that first episode in 1966. I was an SF fan before Star Trek. A MONSTER Episode! I was really disappointed. Fortunately things got better. I started reading science fiction in 1961 and by the time Trek aired I had read more SF stories than there were to be TOS episodes. One of those stories was A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke.

    Although Star Trek is great by the standards of television it is not so great by the standards of science fiction literature. Our arguing over global warming is an effect of the failure of our so called educational system to promote scientific knowledge.

    Not long ago I listened to a high school teacher talk about a wall 9 kilometers tall. How can a teacher confuse meters with kilometers 40+ years after the Moon landing?

    1. That's cool that you watched the first episode! I watched "The Man Trap" last night to celebrate. I agree that it wasn't a terribly good episode, but it was the beginning of something good.

      I do also agree that Star Trek is really good TV, but wouldn't be that great by the standards of science fiction literature. In many cases, though, I think it's a gateway to SF literature, or at least it was in my case.

      The situation with scientific literacy is complex. I think, in addition to a problem with basic knowledge, a deeper problem is that people often don't understand how science works or how to think about scientific results. There's also a general distrust of institutions and experts at the root of some of it.

      Anyway, thanks for your comment!