“To boldly go!”: Adventure and Empire in Star Trek

This post is the second in a roundtable co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann on science fiction and imperial history. You can read our call for posts here, and the first post in the series here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

E. Leigh McKagen
Virginia Tech

All iterations of the classic American science fiction television show Star Trek present space as a place for exploration and discovery accessible as the result of superior technology. Through the codependence on adventure and technology, Star Trek reinforces an empire that exists without features of conquest seen in much historical imperialism. The narrative of empire in Star Trek is rooted in historical imperial power relations that continue into the present, and are projected far into the future. I would suggest that the links between adventure narratives, technology, empire, and Star Trek demonstrate how one of the most popular American SF TV shows reinforces and perpetuates imperial power structures through the emphasis on discovery and exploration.

Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry in 1966, and the original series details the adventures of Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew aboard the USS Enterprise. After three years on the air, the show sparked a movie franchise and was later revised on television with Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) at the helm of the Enterprise in The Next Generation (1987-1994). Although Roddenberry passed away in 1991, the series has continued in various iterations, including Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Voyager (1995-2001), Enterprise (2001-2005), and most recently, a series of rebooted films and Discovery (2017-present).

Despite the many versions of the story, the show remains true to Roddenberry’s original interest in exploration and adventure, as outlined in the opening credits of TOS and TNG: “To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life, and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!”[1] This goal of exploration links the Star Trek universe to the genre of adventure narratives, which Martin Green traces to the publication of Daniel Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe in 1719.[2] In Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire (1980), Green links the origin of the novel with adventure narratives and the spread of English imperialism, beginning with the 1707 union of England and Scotland.[3] Predating Edward Said’s notable exploration of the “imagination of empire” woven into British novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Green argues that “adventure is the energizing myth of empire.”[4] Specifically, Green explores a capitalist adventure narrative that strengthens the expansion of the British Empire in a subtle manner through a civilizing mission disguised through adventure and discovery. Building on narratives that predate official British imperialism, Victorian and Edwardian adventure novels popularized and reinforced the sense of excitement and discovery utilized by English explorers as a vital component to imperial expansion in the traditional “Age of Imperialism.”

The Star Trek franchise neatly fits Green’s definition of adventure narratives:

a series of events, partly but not wholly accidental, in settings remote from the domestic and probably from the civilized … which constitute a challenge to the central character. In meeting this challenge, he/she performs a series of exploits which make him/her a hero, eminent in virtues such as courage, fortitude, cunning, strength, leadership, and persistence.[5]

This list of virtues certainly fits a description of any Starfleet captain and crew member, and there is no doubt of the hero narrative at the basis of each series or film. Another easy connection to Star Trek is that each story takes place in a remote setting. Voyager pushes this envelope the farthest by sending the USS Voyager 75,000 light years away in the pilot episode, and in each series the distance from Earth enables most of the challenges—not terribly dissimilar from Robinson Crusoe’s adventures far from England’s shores. While Green’s definition assumes a lack of civilization outside the homeland, Star Trek deviates from this binary, although there are always clear differences in levels of technology and advancement in the numerous encounters. The unofficial aim of the opening directive is to engage with new civilizations, creating the space for cross-cultural interaction.

Historians of empire have studied the significance of cross-cultural interaction in the creation of both empire and contemporary civilization and modernity.[6] As historians like Lauren Benton and Lori Daggar illustrate, engagement with new civilizations is a requisite for imperial action. Star Trek is not exempt from this possibility.

While lack of overt military imperialism in Star Trek might presume to limit the connection with imperial practices, it is important to note the myriad modes of imperial expansion discussed by historians of empire. These include legal, political, religious, economic, scientific, and technological—another key place of connection for Star Trek.

For adventure stories and empire building alike, success is dependent on protagonists using more advanced technology of the modern Western world, which includes “guns or compasses, and scientific knowledge,” keeping detailed accounts/records, and the rationalization for exploration.[7] Fitting the Star Trek oeuvre with these criteria of adventure narratives is easy: substitute “phaser” for guns and “tricorder” for compass, and this explanation fits almost every Star Trek story ever written. The starships themselves (or space station, in the case of Deep Space Nine) enable the exploration, as do technologies like food replication and teleportation. While Roddenberry’s intent for Star Trek is to assess “where we humans presently are, where we’re going, and what our existence is all about,” this exploration is only possible in the futuristic space setting through the use of advanced technology.[8]

Technology aided the European imperial project through direct conquest and in non-military ways. The latter plays a big role in the Star Trek adventure narrative, although military tensions and conflicts are never far from the central plot of all Star Trek series. In exploring the historical links between science fiction and empire, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. notes that European imperial expansion was enabled through innovations like the steamship, repeating rifle, telegraph lines, and anti-malaria medication.[9] The 2001-2005 series Enterprise tells the story of the first human crew exploring beyond the solar system, and highlights the continuing importance of these technologies. The new warp 5 capable Enterprise NX-01 starship allows for expansion into uncharted territory. The first season of the show introduces new weapons technology, the crew encounters new diseases requiring medical advances, and the line of communication with Earth is maintained through deploying beacons as they travel. All of these technologies connect with the challenges of remote settings typical of imperial-era adventure narratives that explained the drive to expand in the “Age of Imperialism”—and created expectations for imperialism within the culture reading such stories.[10]

Going beyond technology to another form of non-military imperial expansion, the emphasis on scientific knowledge and detailed record keeping are key components for imperial adventure narratives—and of Star Trek. Roxanne Doty explores the historical representation of colonized peoples in her 1996 book Imperial Encounters, arguing that the tools of naturalization, classification, surveillance, and negation utilized by the European powers enabled the imperial project.[11] Of these tools, classification (reinforcing hierarchies and divisions, like civilized/uncivilized) and surveillance (the use of technology to “watch from above”) are the most tied with Green’s explanation of adventure narratives and the Star Trek adventure canon. Any episode picked at random will highlight instances of record keeping and cataloging alien species and planets.

Take TNG episode “Who Watches the Watchers,” for example, which details the Enterprise coming to aid a group of human anthropologists studying a primitive proto-Vulcan society.[12] When things inevitably go wrong, Captain Picard and his crew attempt to reinforce the native peoples’ belief in logic and critical thinking over a “traditional” belief in supernatural forces. Throughout this episode, the technologically advanced civilization watches and studies the “primitive” civilization from above, and sends crew members in disguise to the planet to spy on the natives. The episode concludes with Starfleet expressing hope that the Mintakans will one day travel amongst the stars, ultimately perpetuating a belief that both surveillance and classification through advanced technologies are perfectly acceptable tools in the 21st century—and in the 24th.

By reinforcing imperial power structures through technology and the intent to engage new civilizations from a position of imperial power, Star Trek takes part in an ongoing imperial adventure narrative that originated in the Victorian and Edwardian “Age of Imperialism,” strengthening our belief in the advancement of humanity through discovery, classification, progress—and empire.

———-

[1] Opening credits, The Next Generation.

[2] Martin Green, Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire (Basic Books, Inc., 1980), 5.

[3] Martin Green, Dreams of Adventure, 5.

[4] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (Vintage Books, 1994), 12; Martin Green, Dreams of Adventure, xi.

[5] Green, Dreams of Adventure, 23.

[6] See, for example, Lauren Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2002) for a significant examination of the cross-cultural interaction between colonizers and colonial subjects, defying the typical belief of these figures and processes as simple domination and subjugation. More recently, Lori Daggar explores the combined process of “top down” alongside “bottom up” economic formation of the early American imperial republic: Lori J. Daggar. “The Mission Complex: Economic Development, ‘Civilization,’ and Empire in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 3 (2016): 467-491.

[7] Green, Dreams of Adventure, 23.

[8] Gene Roddenberry, “Star Trek ‘The Next Generation’ Writers Guide” (March 23, 1987), 4.

[9] Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., “Science Fiction and Empire,” Science Fiction Studies 30, no. 2 (2003): 231–45.

[10] Green, Dreams of Adventure, 5.

[11] Roxanne Lynn Doty, Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations (U of Minnesota Press, 1996).

[12] “Who Watches the Watchers,” Star Trek: The Next Generation (Paramount Television, October 16, 1989).

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