Dr Tris Kerslake, author of the book Science Fiction and Empire (2010), provides the final post of our multi-week roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here,here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Thanks to all of our participants for writing and we’re still looking forward to hearing what you think!
This is the penultimate post of our five-week roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here,here, here, here, here, here, and here. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!
“No starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society.”
— Prime Directive (United Federation of Planets General Order 1)
“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy…and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” – Capt. Jean-Luc Picard
The Victorian political philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1973) and Star Trek’s far-future United Federation of Planets (the Federation) differ substantially on the colonial question. In particular, Mill the Victorian liberal imperialist thought that it was the duty of the British to help “civilize” less developed states through colonialism. Within his stages of civilization, Mill regarded underdeveloped states like India to be backwards and in need of benign British despotism, which was “a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”
Although Star Trek‘s Federation may share some similar Victorian-era ideas about imperial power structures and civilizational stages, by contrast it has strict rules about not attempting to “civilize” or colonize “backward” societies. It is enshrined in their Prime Directive, which was first introduced in the Original Series (1966-69) as a none-too-subtle anti-imperial rebuke of the US war in Vietnam.
This post is the third 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 other posts in the series here,here, and here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Ahmed R. Memon University of Kent
Star trek Discovery—the new instalment to the Star Trek universe—only confirms what enthusiasts of the series have long said: that it is a science fiction show with unmistakable allusions to an international vision of a peaceful, cooperative world reflecting the liberal internationalism of the post-Second-World-War global legal order.
The Charter of the United Federation of Planets is in fact based on the international vision of global order entrenched in the United Nations charter. The text of the Federation’s charter was merely a rewording of the United Nations, wherein Earth-centric terms such as “people,” “human,” and “international community” have been replaced by inclusive and expansive “life forms,” “planetary communities,” and “sentient beings.” The main body of the text in the Federation charter even reproduces important phrases from the United Nations charter such as “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” “promote cooperation, maintain peace and security” based on values of “universal peace, liberty and equal rights,” “obligation to treaties,” and the “social progress and better standards to life.”
Yet despite these obvious allusions to the United Nations, the imperial history of the League of Nations is an even more apt historical parallel to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets (the Federation). In understanding the ideological discourses of the League of Nations, we can thus see how the Federation is a far-future model of early-twentieth-century imperial internationalism. Continue reading “Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets: a far-future League of Nations?”→
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!
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!” 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. 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. 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.” 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.” Continue reading ““To boldly go!”: Adventure and Empire in Star Trek”→