March 07, 2009

Atheists Talk--The Humanism of Star Trek

The Humanism of the Star Trek Universe: Scott Lohman and Robert Price
Atheists Talk #0060, Sunday March 8, 2009

Gene Roddenberry convinced the executives at Desilu Studios that a show about exploring space would appeal to a mass audience. They funded a weekly series for three beautiful years, and it turns out he was partially right. The show was not a ratings giant until it went into syndication and cartoons some five years after it had been canceled. From there it fostered a "Big Bang" of cultural infusion. Movies, fan fiction, spinoff series and "cons" exploded the concepts of Star Trek into our society.

Is it the underlying humanist message which infuses the Star Trek Universe that has led to its huge popularity as a cultural phenomenon? Robert Price and Scott Lohman will spend some time on our airwaves examining the issues of humanism in the Star Trek Universe and science fiction's role in teaching us about ourselves.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Interview by Scott Lohman.

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Juniper Shoemaker said...


My dad raised us on this stuff. Little did I know, though, how thoroughly this would prepare me for a career in science. . . :)

I asked him once why it appealed to him. He gave an answer similar to the one Dr. Isis gave during that month I disappeared from the blogosphere*: as a teen growing up in the '60's, a show which featured strong black characters and a matter-of-factly integrated crew represented his hope for his adulthood.

*No. I do not actually expect anyone to remember my absence in detail. I really am just being silly.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Juniper, I do remember you being gone, and I remember it as being election-related. So, um, there? :)

It turns out that there is enough stuff about just religion in Star Trek to keep a couple of geeks going for an hour, so they didn't get much past that and into how that affected the rest of the stories and themes. However, if the religion part interests you, the podcast is up.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Stephanie, I have been a lurker for a while (JLK recommended I read you) and I feel compelled to comment here! I am a huge TNG geek but a BIG reason why I loved the show was the exploration of the philosophy of existence, right and wrong, and how to treat "other" groups. Being in the future allowed for free exploration of these themes outside of present-day constraints, and I looooved it. The Federation was so damned cool.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hey, PhizzleDizzle! That's really funny, considering that I've been lurking around yours too.

One of the things I love about SF, and fantasy to an extent, is that distance and that ability to at least look/feel like I'm looking at these issues objectively. We were talking in the studio and afterward about how we could do a very similar show on the politics of BSG.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I am such a bad geek, I have never watched BSG. It's horrible. For a while in grad school I didn't have any TV, so I never got into it, and I remain un-into it. It's one of those things that's hard to explain too, so when someone tries to explain to me, I am just like, "that sounds crazy."

Kind of like when I tried to explain Ender's Game to my friend: "So there are these aliens that look like huge bugs, and they attack earth, so they send all these kids to battle school in outer space......"

But lately I've felt compelled to try it from the beginning. I'm sure I've got at least a handful of friends with the DVD sets :).

Stephanie Zvan said...

PhizzleDizzle, I can't actually watch BSG myself. I tried, but the nauseau cam...ugh. No, most of what I know about what they've done with it comes from friends.

From what I've heard, watching it on DVD is the way to go (if you can handle the camera work). It's not very episodic, more like a soap opera, so running them together gives you a bigger picture of the storylines.

Samia said...

You know, I grew up loving STNG (I'm a young'un), but I don't think I would have gotten into it as an adult. It's too socially simplistic, from the "races" being reduced to sets of silly, predictable personality traits, to treatment of female characters as emotional and irrelevant window-dressing, to the whole Data thing (I didn't like the "humanity=superior" philosophy they had going through the whole show). Sadly, I noticed most of this even at 8 years old, but it was still far and away the coolest thing on TV, so I kept watching (and reading/inhaling the novels). When I got the little collector's edition end-of-show book, I read the interview with Gates McFadden and it was then that I started noticing the way the female characters were essentially decoration. I really admire McFadden's acting and way she tried to play her character even though she wasn't given nearly as many good episodes as the guys. To the show's credit, the writing vastly improved towards the end of the show.

I liked DS9 better, but there are still racial tones I don't like, mostly centered around the Ferengi and Cardassians. My issue is with the idea that races have temperaments, and that it was matter-of-fact during all Star Trek incarnations to sneer at the mere mention of a race. Maybe this has more to do with the way I was raised than anything else.

Voyager mangled the Native American mystique all to hell so that there are episodes I can't even watch. Enterprise just irks me, but I do heart me some Tucker.

My love for Star Trek is almost purely nostalgic now. Am I strange?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Samia, considering how many people I know who describe Trek as written with a 2x4, I don't think you're particularly strange (or at least not about that). The simplistic treatment is more likely to bother anyone for whom it isn't a novelty to see the subject treated at all. In fact, it might just be a good thing that you're in a position to be picky about it.

Samia said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding something, but I don't think that having an issue with simplistic representations of entire racial groups is being "picky." This disturbing trend in sci-fi is apparent in the fantasy genre as well (I'm into Dragonlance and some MMO's). There's a breezy, nonchalant manner in which entire species are assigned a stock set of traits that belies many people's real-life attitudes towards certain groups (and sometimes gives a clue as to the identity of the creators of these media). One or another individual may break the mold, but everyone holds fast to the stereotypes anyway-- unless they apply to humans/(whites?), who are understood to be individual personalities. I don't think shows like Star Trek were trying to *perpetuate* this thinking, but I didn't find it as groundbreaking racially as others have (OS gets kudos, but this 90's kid expected better from STNG).

So yeah, I did get a little confused to see "humanist" and "Star Trek" so close together, because I saw quite a bit of sexism and general stereotyping going on, especially during the first few incarnations. Again, I was noticing some of the silliness in 3rd grade. When I didn't have any friends at school. Because I was literally the only brown child in the entire school, and the only non-Christian, and the only person whose entire non-immediate family lived overseas, so everyone believed X, Y and Z about me and my culture. Hmm... ;)

Random: One time I checked out an STNG audio novel from our library. The storyline was Klingon-based, and they included all the background sounds at taverns and stuff. AWESOME. :) I love the drinking songs. And I kinda want to get a tattoo of my sister's name in Klingon, shaded in pink and purple. WHEE.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Yeah, "picky" was a bad word choice. Sorry, I have a sinus infection and it's really making me feel as though I can't think. Doesn't stop me from trying, but it may stop me from doing it very well. Rather than "be picky" I mean something much more like "look for more than incremental progress over the surrounding culture at the time of the fictional universe's creation."

Not being a fan of 2x4s myself, I never got into TNG or beyond, and the OS was dated in its attitudes toward women even when I saw it as a kid. I think some of that came across in the radio show, since it was the attitudes about and exploration of religion that still seemed to be fresh to the guests and callers, not any of the things the show was lauded for when it started.

I can say that, at least in literary fantasy, people have started to be aware that there's a lot to unpack in the fantasy race (as in elf, dwarf, etc.) trope. What was once a fairly innovative way to explore myth and what it means to be human got imitated and reused without much thought until it became an unexamined shorthand, which usually makes for poor thinking and bad art. It's starting to be deconstructed, but it will probably be a while before any of that makes it near the MMORPGs and BFF (big, fat fantasy).

Stephanie Zvan said...

By the way, Samia, I should clarify. The reason "picky" was a bad choice of words is that I use it a bit differently than the rest of the world. I mean it in a sense of paying attention to the details rather than being petty. My husband likes to joke and call me picky because he knows I'll respond, "Absolutely!"

DuWayne Brayton said...

Samia -

I tend to think that the racial tones of DS9 were very deliberate and intended to break down the racial generalizations. From start to finish, the viewer is left with a much different perspective on the Ferengi, the Cardassians and even the Jem’Hadar, Vorta and the founders.

Our initial introduction to each of these races is pretty negative. All we see are people who just seem foul on the surface. But as the series progresses, we come to see the depth of individuals from these races and realize that when you get to the core of these people, they are not uniformly evil - they're just different, products of their cultures, not ours.

And therein lies the crux. Race wasn't really the focus, the focus was on the cultural differences that drove the underlying racism. As the show progresses, the very worse of these cultural tenets are pretty dramatically altered in several of these races, most notably the Ferengi. More importantly, we are treated to individual products of these cultures evolving to a point where they actually subvert the worse aspects of their cultural heritage, while ultimately refusing to deny their heritage altogether. In Nog, we actually get to observe this conflictual process that leads him to attempt to live fully in both his worlds, then to deny entirely his heritage and ultimately to achieve a reasonable balance.

The overt racism ultimately becomes a tool by which this process can be viewed. And ultimately we see some of the most racist characters ultimately come to realize the fundamental flaw in the reasoning that allows their racism to flourish.

And yes, I have spent way too much time watching and thinking about these shows...

I would just add that as cheesy as it was, Babylon 5 went even more in depth with these very same concepts.

Samia said...

Hi DuWayne: You list many of the reasons I found DS9 a far and away better show than STNG (or even Voyager). I think I just felt it wasn't going far enough. There were some episodes that kind of disappointed me...sometimes it felt like the writers were falling back on the stereotypes just when it seemed we'd gotten past some stuff (if that makes any sense).

I heart me some Rom. I think he's a great example of a quiet rebel.

I don't know if you read the novels, but The 34th Rule, co-authored by Armin Shimerman, tried to deal with anti-Ferengi racism and failed. Terribly. It was a great plot, though, and oddly enough one of my favourite books.

Drugmonkey said...

wait. Stephanie, help me out here. I thought the whole freakin' point of scifi/fant (and especially the fant side) was the cartoonish association of stereotype traits with different sentient species. and then of course you throw the elf together with the dwarf and they find out they heart each other anyway.

point being that the stereotype polarization is necessary for the triumphant humanist resolution.

(but then what do I know, not being a trained humanities dork or anything..)

Stephanie Zvan said...

DM, I'm not exactly trained myself. Writing is very much on-the-job learning. Besides, if I knew everything about SF and fantasy, I wouldn't find it nearly as interesting as I do.

I've never written any of the standard fantasy species, possibly because I'm not really sure what the point is. Not any stories I've finished, anyway. The closest I've come are the unemployed incubi and succubi (which I really need to polish and post). I've written two alien species in SF, but if I haven't differentiated the characters of those species, then I'm in trouble. Plotting isn't my strongest suit and I don't ratchet up the stakes high enough for a lot of people, so I'd damn well better get the characters down. A stereotype that stays a stereotype is a failure.

So, as much as I'd like to help you out, I think you're asking the wrong person. Let me know if you find out more, though. It's possible you're onto something.