I don’t believe I have mentioned it here before, but I have always been a fan of Star Trek. In the course of this year I have been watching the programmes again in sequence. I have discovered something in them that I had never noticed before.
Gene Roddenberry, the producers and the writers, as well as members of the cast, belonged to what Americans call “the great generation”. James Doohan, who played the Scottie of “beam me up” fame, was a veteran of the D-Day landings. The hippy-dippy sensibilities of the series (right up to the current reboot movies) typify the 1960s, but were actually the product of the experiences of the creators in their formative years, the 1940s.
That generation’s world view was forged in the Second World War. And not just in their understandable reaction against the nationalism and ethnic loyalty involved in the rise of Nazism.
The war broke down for many of them the division between the nation and the state that served it. War leaders like Churchill and Eisenhower were seen as leaders of the people not the state. The survival of Western civilisation was attributed by that generation to the power of, and their loyalty to, the state. Growing up with them as my beloved elders I recall nostalgia for the “we’re all in it together” mentality of the war years. Some even remembered rationing fondly, constantly telling us 1960s children how spoiled and “soft” we were. They were suckers for the Fuehrerprinzip as long as the Fuehrer was democratically elected. This rather missed the point that Hitler of the Axis was whereas Stalin of the Allies wasn’t!
Growing up in the 1960s, I was exposed to a culture in which the heroes I was expected to look up to were typically in uniform, under military discipline, and unquestioningly loyal to their leaders. If Government appeared in my comics, books, TV shows, or films, it was always on the side of justice and truth. When I faced down a bully two years above me in defence of a small boy a year below me in my primary school playground, I was consciously doing what would have won approval for Biggles (my lantern jawed childhood hero from the RAF) from his C.O.
If you think about it, that’s odd. As a society we had rejected the anti-Semitism and racism of the Nazis, but we did not reject their militarism, obedience to the “chain of command” or loyalty to the institutions of the state. We were able somehow simultaneously to hold in our minds the contradictory ideas that their “might is right” ideology was wrong and that the triumph of our brave men at arms had proved us right.
Until re-watching the shows, I had never thought of that. Yet though Starfleet is constantly described as peaceful, scientific and engaged upon a noble project of exploration to meet and befriend alien cultures, it is also militaristic. If a junior Starfleet officer bypasses the chain of command, that is seen as a disloyal act and provokes righteous anger from superior officers who bark “that’s an order” to close discussion down.
When the top brass of Starfleet intervene in the stories, they almost always get it wrong. This is a common theme in war fiction, where the generals are often betrayed as remote and out of touch and “Tommy” or “Joe” on the front line is the true hero. Yet the “scientists” and “explorers” on the USS Enterprise in any of its manifestations never seem to draw any conclusions from the consistent idiocy of their admirals. Just as the relentlessly consistent and damaging failures of postwar governments in the West never seemed to undermine the “great generation’s” or the baby boomers’ quasi-religious faith in the wise state’s ability to build a better world.
It’s predictable that the generation that posed the question “what’s so funny about peace love and understanding?” should portray the future in a hippy dippy proto-multicultural way. But only their peculiar life experience could have led them also to portray it in the context of a rigid culture of obedience. It’s as if the creators understand and accept that, if economic imperatives are removed, military discipline will, must, fill the resulting vacuum.
For in the Star Trek future the problems of economics have been solved. There are no shortages of anything except the dilithium required to fuel the starships warp drives. The creators’ leftist attitudes to business are gloriously revealed in an episode where a wealthy banker from the 20th century is brought back to life from his cryogenic coffin and obsesses comically about the value of his stocks. And of course in every episode featuring the vilely commercial Ferengi. The United Federation of Planets is successfully communist and its citizens (or at least the ones we are supposed to like) devote themselves to the selfless service of their beneficent state. Graduation from Starfleet Academy (the West Point or Sandhurst of the UFP) is their highest aspiration and its officers loftily disdain the trivial concerns of civilians.
Had we not been happily lapping up the encounters with goofy aliens, the cool (for the time) SFX, the wonderful space vehicles and the uniformly sexy female crew members, we might have seen in Star Trek a series of warnings about how the generation that had won the war would so horribly lose the peace.