U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Star Trek, the American Present, and American Futures

Today I’d like to take some time to tease out some ideas that have been floating in my head for the last few months. Normally I’d spend time talking about the American South, African American intellectuals, and the like. But today I’ll devote my space to something just as important: Star Trek.

You may recall that, a few months ago, I wrote about the 1990s television series Space: Above and Beyond and how it spoke to themes of American Exceptionalism and a Pax Americana in the 1990s. The various incarnations of Star Trek offer even more to delve into in regards to how Americans may (or perhaps, may not) see themselves. Mike O’Connor’s article on the subject, “Liberals in Space: The 1960s Politics of Star Trek”, offer plenty of food for thought here. While my post here will be in a somewhat similar vein, I’d like to take a look at two particular spinoffs from The Original Series: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.

Both reflect the time periods in which they were produced. Star Trek: The Next Generation was, especially in Season One, quite candid about how 24th century humans (and, by extension, the writers of the show) perceived late 20th century humanity. Already, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when the Original Series crew travels to 1986 San Francisco to find humpback whales (for communication with an alien probe destroying late 23rd century Earth), Admiral (about to be demoted to Captain) Kirk and company find Earth, and America specifically, a backward place. The year the film was released, 1986, was at the tail end of Cold War tensions, when talks between the United States and the Soviet Union promised either an end to hostilities, or the potential return to the worst of Cold War standoffs. Don’t forget, when Kirk and his crew roam the streets of San Francisco, they see a man buying a newspaper with a headline about the arms race.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise-D especially revealed in poking fun at the late 20th century. In the first episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” the omnipotent being Q, while putting Captain Picard and his bridge crew through a “trial of humanity”, joins in on the fun. Dressing as a Marine Corps officer (a none-too-subtle reference to the Iran-Contra scandal and Oliver North’s role in it), Q threatens Picard while on the bridge of the Enterprise. The transcript here speaks for itself:

Q: Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the commies. All it takes is a few good men.
PICARD: What? That nonsense is centuries behind us.
Q: But you can’t deny that you’re still a dangerous, savage child race.
PICARD: Most certainly I deny it. I agree we still were when humans wore costumes like that, four hundred years ago.
Q: At which time you slaughtered millions in silly arguments about how to divide the resources of your little world. And four hundred years before that you were murdering each other in quarrels over tribal god-images. Since there are no indications that humans will ever change.
PICARD: But even when we wore costumes like that we’d already started to make rapid progress.

So, in a sense Captain Picard’s giving the poor humans of the late 20th century some credit. Meanwhile, it’s just as important to understand how Trek was a vision of a future without war, poverty, or disease on Earth—and also, in some ways, a vision of how human beings would have to overcome problems of the present to get to that point. The fact that Trek’s television writers have been cagey about the future of the United States is worth noting here. Yes, the USA produces Captains Kirk, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer, and other supporting characters, but what about the nation itself. It’s clear from Star Trek: First Contact, for example, that the United States participates in a Third World War. Do we win? Well, it seems we certainly don’t lose, considering that it’s an American (Zefram Cochrane) who’s the first human to travel at warp speed. But while The Next Generation offers scant clues, the America presented in Deep Space Nine is a bit more interesting on this front.

Deep Space Nine’s very setting, on a space station, makes it different from any other Trek show. This series asked questions about what it means to not only explore the frontier, but what it means to expand to the “wilderness”, as Doctor Bashir called the Bajor sector in the first episode, “Emissary.” There’s no way to simply go from planet to planet: problems of interactions between Bajor, the Federation, and the Cardassians (adversaries of the Federation who, when the series begins, are just leaving Bajor after subjugating it for decades) can’t be waved away at the end of an episode. Instead, they are explored in depth. In some sense, the arrival of that series was perfect timing: like other shows on television (Babylon 5 comes to mind), it wasn’t afraid to flesh out stories over long story arcs. Additionally, the passing of Gene Roddenberry in 1991 gave the show’s writers more freedom to tackle a long-taboo subject: conflict within the Federation, discord among humans.

Mixed with the social awareness that has always been a hallmark of Star Trek, the writers created the two-part episode “Past Tense,” perhaps one of the most controversial moments in the show’s history. Captain Sisko and Dr. Bashir, stranded thanks to a transport accident in 2024 San Francisco, and more specifically a “sanctuary district” set up for the poor and destitute, find themselves reflecting on 21st century history:



I’m afraid twenty-first century

history isn’t one of my strong suits.

Too depressing.


It’s always been a hobby of mine.

They made some ugly mistakes, but

they also paved the way for a lot of

the things we take for granted.


I assume this was one of the mistakes.


A bad one. By the early twenty-

twenties there was a place like this

in every major city in the United


Not the bleakest of pictures of America, but considering this was written in 1995, at the height of high expectations for post-Cold War America, it is a bit jarring. Economies around the world struggling to provide jobs and services to people (in the episode it’s mentioned that France has become a Trotskyite government due to revolutionary upheaval, for example). And considering that Deep Space Nine included stories about the Federation declaring martial law in the face of a Changeling threat that could assume human form, or Starfleet being forced to go to war against the Klingons and, later, the Dominion (a military superpower encountered in the Gamma Quadrant that would cause considerable grief for Starfleet, and, ultimately, force them to go to war), a case could be made that Deep Space Nine was an early version of “post-9/11” drama. War, terrorism, fears of infiltration by the “Other”: all this and more was at the forefront of the series. I’ve only scratched the surface here, but The Next Generation was a bit more optimistic about humanity’s future. Deep Space Nine indicated that, well, it isn’t so cheery after all. And the role of America in this future—whether as a producer of Starfleet captains, a blighted spot in a depressing past, or even a place targeted for attack by the Federation’s enemies—is an interesting look into how some in the United States view our present—and potential future.

With debates today raging about America’s future as a superpower internationally, and questions about the continued stability of the nation at home continuing as well, looking at how fiction plays with these questions is key. Even the most recent Trek film, Into Darkness, posed questions about drone warfare and a nation torn apart morally over what to do in the face of terrorism and war. Again, these are only sketches, but even the optimism of Trek can include a dash of skepticism about humanity.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There’s one episode – I think from TNG – where the crew finds an astronaut suit with a US flag on it, and the flag has 52 stars. So before the US “dissolves,” which it obviously has by the time Star Trek takes place in, it expands a bit. I wonder what the writers thought the extra two states would be: DC? Puerto Rico? British Columbia? Cuba? Guam?

    I’ve always considered Trek to be Exhibit A for the idea that science fiction is simply an evolution of utopian literature. The one takes place somewhere on Earth no one has ever been, the other somewhere not on Earth no one has ever been. Once the global frontier on Earth closed and there were no undiscovered countries left, you had to find them somewhere else. The final frontier isn’t likely to close anytime soon.

  2. Great analysis. And yes, that episode in question–“The Royale”, I believe, does have a 52-star flag.

    Now, if you start looking at the novels (which aren’t canon), things change just a tad in regards to the USA. There, you find that the Federation’s government structure is the UFP as the central authority, then the United Earth government (that we saw in Enterprise) and then the United States of America, still existing as a political unit within United Earth. But, we’ve never seen that on screen, so it’s not quite canon. However, you’re exactly right in regards to an enduring idea of the Final Frontier. I don’t think it’ll ever go away.

  3. Great post! Focusing on DS9 is crucial for getting at the anxieties about America’s place in the post-Cold War world. It’s also, it seems to me, as you mentioned re TNG, a long mediation on Iran-Contra and how the US as a superpower would ideally grapple with national liberation struggles. My memory of the show is that the politics of the newly independent Bajorans remained fragmented between: a) old resistance hard liners (comparable to Sandinistas, the IRA, Umkhonto we Sizwe, etc) who were still too blinded by hatred for past injustices to move forward; and b) charismatic unifiers who urged deep political and economic alliances with the benevolent Federation. The upshot being that the time for the vaguely leftist resistance was long past in the new age of intergalactic third way Clinton-Blair-style neoliberalism.

    • The Bajorans, by themselves, could be an entire post. The arc of Major Kira Nerys during the series is indicative here–she starts out as hostile to Starfleet and hates the Cardassians, and yet by the end of the series is wearing a Starfleet uniform while trying to foment an anti-Dominion uprising on the Cardassian homeworld.

      As for Iran-Contra, it also shows to an extent in Star Trek VI. In that film, a Colonel West (played by Rene Auberjonois–who played Odo on DS9) is part of a conspiracy between higher-ups in Starfleet and the Klingon Empire to sabotage upcoming peace talks. The film is a meditation on both the end of the Cold War and, to a much lesser extent, the lengths to which forces within government believe they’re acting in the best interests of the State, but take very different approaches to it.

  4. Sci-fi can definitely be topical when it comes to contemporary politics. For an example from across the pond, the producers of Doctor Who tackled Britain’s admission to the then-European Economic Community in the 1972 story “The Curse of Peladon.” They revisited the issue – along with the British miners’ strike of 1974 – in the 1974 sequel, “The Monster of Peladon.” It’s amazing what one can get out of popular culture if one actually studies it.


    • Wow, I definitely need to check that out. Thanks for the link!

      And yes, popular culture can offer an intriguing window into how society deals with current events. I can’t imagine “Star Trek” being the same series without it.

      • I’m more a TNG man because I adore Patrick Stewart, but as a product of the 1960s, the original Star Trek was far more allegorical and canonical ala The Twilight Zone.

        “The Cloudminders” features a miners’ strike–a revolution!–of those condemned to dwell below the planet’s surface against the overclass who comfortably dwell far above it.

        The drama, the execution, are quite clumsy except for Droxine’s exquisite dress; the allegory is stunning.

        There are an easy dozen “original “Star Trek” episodes that are necessary for cultural literacy even these 50 years hence; regrettably, not so of TNG.

        IMO, of course. As always, RG2, an excellent conversation provocation!

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Tom Van Dyke. And agreed–TOS occupies a piece of the American cultural landscape that none of the spinoffs could ever obtain. I think that speaks to TOS being on NBC versus the later shows being in either in syndication (TNG and DS9) or the United Paramount Network (VOY and Enterprise).

  6. Thanks for this cogent article, Robert. Fascinating. Very much looking forward to reading your article on Space: Above and Beyond…one of my favorite programs in the 90s. Canceled too soon. I’d love to read an article on the Bajorans and hear your thoughts on Babylon 5, in the context of your argument about DS9.

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