The Principles Behind Star Trek

(My thanks to those that helped me identify the author of this piece.)


The Q -- by Steven Huntley

       There is a certain set of themes that make Star Trek unique and make it much more interesting than standard space adventure. But it seems to me that those themes are being lost sight of more and more with so much Star Trek product coming out; and with still another series being planned, that process threatens to accelerate. Fewer and fewer writers are able to clearly use the themes that make Star Trek what it is to tell a compelling story. More and more, writers will throw in an obligatory bow to the idea of diversity or brief reluctance to use violence, then go on to write their standard adventure. Star Trek writers, both professional and fan, in order to keep Star Trek alive and interesting should be trying to expand its themes, keep them growing, and keep them meaningful to its audience.

       In order to do this, its necessary to articulate those themes and be conscious of them. "Q" is a scholarly term meaning "source," from the German word Quelle. Some Biblical scholars use the term to describe an ancient text they believe was used as the source of the New Testament's wisdom. They are attempting to rebuild the Q by extracting the basic wisdom from the anecdotes told by the writers of the Gospels. This essay, similarly, is my attempt to extract the essential ideas of Star Trek from the stories as they have been told. In my view, to the extent that a story embodies these ideas, it's Star Trek, and to the extent that it doesn't, it's just standard, boring space opera. So I offer these ideas to the electronic wind, in hopes that they may influence some writers and improve the quality of Trek writing.

       Kobayashi Maru: Life is a no-win scenario. Death is inevitable. How you face that fact is a test of character. Your character is revealed in the passion and tenacity with which you fight to ensure survival, doing what you have to do to turn certain death into a fighting chance for life. The more hopeless your situation appears, the more passion is called for, to the very last moment, to the final extremity. The primary mission of Starfleet, according to Commodore Decker, is "to preserve life." In Star Trek, the protagonists continually discover that the more danger they are in the more precious they find life to be, and they draw from this the resolve to find new resources to fight with, to pull another rabbit out of the hat. They order their lives and their careers to hold on to that insight, to prepare to experience it again, and to pass it on. This is what gives Starfleet its unique character, and makes Star Trek protagonists different from other action heroes. The Picard Maneuver from "The Battle," LaForge in "Arsenal Of Freedom," Riker in "A Matter Of Honor," Data in "Best Of Both Worlds II," Ltc. Daren in "Lessons," and Kirk in "The Corbomite Maneuver," "The Deadly Years," and ST:TMP exemplify this.

       In "Gambit," when the buccaneer captain gives the order to destroy a Starfleet science outpost, Picard has a plan ready to save them. When it falls through, he has another one to fall back on, and another still when that one fails. This was a KM test, and Picard's response was a classic example of how to handle one. But eventually ingenuity has to fail, and then what? The only way to prevail at that point is to take the game to a higher level, a new dimension, where the countdown timer is reset; and for that you have to rely on friends, working in the background, giving you new options you didn't know you had. That's the pattern that makes Star Trek drama so much more exhilarating than ordinary science fiction. At the final moment, the Enterprise dives out of the sky to drive the buccaneers away. A deus ex machina? No, an expression of what Star Trek is all about. These ideas are illustrated in "The Best of Both Worlds," "The Emissary," "Peak Performance," and in STII and III.

       Enterprise: More than a ship, an idea. In one episode Picard questions to Troi the wisdom of having families and children on board. After all, he argues, the Enterprise is liable to be ordered into the Neutral Zone on a moment's notice, or any number of other dangerous missions. Troi responds by saying that you're fooling yourself if you think you can guarantee your children's safety by leaving them on Earth. The best thing you can do for them is let them come along and witness the human adventure.

       Safety and danger, like everything else in the universe, are yin and yang, opposites which interpenetrate. It's a fundamental mistake to think you can find lasting safety by building walls and hiding behind them. Danger will find its way through, around, under, or sprout up right in your midst. One of the novels, in explaining the divergent history of the alternate-dimensional crew depicted in "Mirror, Mirror," postulated the start of the divergence at the point when the people of the alternate earth decided not to explore space, resolving to remain instead in the relative safety and comfort of their home planet. But their strategy of burying their heads in the sand backfired, as it had to, as eventually the Romulans discovered this defenseless Earth and quickly absorbed it into their empire, starting humans down the path of terror and cruelty. There is no safety in refusing to face risk.

       Conversely, when faced with real peril, the only way to survive it is to realize that the key to safety lies at the heart of the danger, and you must find a way to plunge into it as deeply as you can. This is enterprise, Star Trek's key concept. If you've accepted the obligation to fight for life, you need to build yourself an extraordinary conveyance to carry you into the vortex of extraordinary threats. This is the universal constant that allows us to imagine that men in the 24th Century will still be compelled to go into space long after there are no more worries about material wants or military competition; not "natural curiosity," or "the need to see what's over the next hill," or even testosterone or any of the other mealymouthed reasons that are always given, but a mature understanding of the way the universe works and of what we owe our children.

       Hence, "The Immunity Syndrome," "The Doomsday Machine," "Return To Tomorrow," "Obsession," "Spectre Of The Gun," "Time Squared," "Best Of Both Worlds," "Redemption," "A Matter Of Time," and practically every other episode to some degree. The single most thrilling moment of the old series to me when I was a kid was Spock hitting that fuel jettison switch in "The Galileo Seven." He realized that playing it safe was playing it dead, that when it came right down to it he had to hurl himself and his charges that last step into oblivion in order to have a hope of coming out ok on the other side. Ordinary drama is protagonists discovering better ways to blow each other up or chop each other's heads off; Star Trek drama is the protagonists discovering in themselves the boldness to pass up the meek but deadly path for the risky but rewarding path.

       Way of Harmony: This is the translation of *Aikido,* the name of the Japanese martial art. Aikido is unique in that it teaches no offensive moves. In its perspective, conflict is not viewed in terms of attack and defense, victory and defeat, but in terms of balance and imbalance. A person who reaches out to another with intent to harm throws himself off balance and always opens up a vulnerable spot in his posture. Aikido teaches that a clever and well-prepared person who is dedicated to nonviolence can always exploit that weak spot to deflect the attack and neutralize the attacker. In Aikido, this is seen as doing the attacker a favor; the Aikido master blends in with the attack, comes into harmony with its energy, and by neutralizing the attacker restores his balance. Relative size and strength are of no importance; disadvantage and advantage are yin and yang also, and one can be turned into another with the flip of a wrist if one has one's balance.

       This of course is the final revelation of the episode "Gambit;" the ancient Vulcan weapon is useless against those who take a nonviolent posture. It was also the secret to survival in "Arena" and "Spectre of the Gun." Time after time Kirk rejects the logic of trading a few lives for many in favor of a more bold option which restores balance and saves all lives. In "Patterns of Force," Kirk gets word that Ekos has launched its final assault force against Zeon. Abram pleads with him to destroy the invaders, which is easily in Kirk's power, saying what is a few thousand soldiers' lives compared to the millions of innocents to be slaughtered. Kirk says, "Yes, we can save Zeon. But who will save Ekos?"

       Sisko also illustrates the point through his actions in "Armageddon Game." He's facing destruction in a virtually defenseless runabout from an alien ship that is far stronger and faster. He devises an escape that *exploits a weakness inherent in the aggressive move of his opponent.* The jamming field the aliens send out jam their own sensors, and Sisko takes advantage of that technological blind spot. Equally importantly, he exploits a psychological blind spot by feeding the aliens' expectation of conflict. An attacker whose mind is set on violence loses his mental sharpness and falls into an expectation of responses from his victim as simple minded as his own. The idea of nonviolence is intended to keep Starfleet officers from falling into that trap, not to shackle them into a noble but naive idealism (as nonviolence is often represented).

       Personal Truth. This is likely the trickiest point to get across, but may bear the most fruit. In "The First Duty," Picard says that an officer's first duty is to the truth; scientific truth, historical truth, personal truth. In "The Drumhead," he says, "With the first link, a chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably." When I first saw that episode, I was surprised to hear him defend free speech and individual freedom so absolutely. Most people today wouldn't go so far.

       Later I realized that he was expressing the gnostic viewpoint. "Gnostic" is a term used to describe a variety of religious sects and beliefs from ancient Egypt through the Middle Ages. But I mean it to describe a world view shared by all these groups; in this world view, truth, knowledge, and experience are unreserved virtues. They are the key to individual enlightenment. For a gnostic, the individual's highest allegiance is to the truth, and he has the moral right and duty to oppose authority in defense of it. In a gnostic society (and there were many large gnostic communities in Europe in the first centuries A.D.) the role of the state is to protect and facilitate the individual's quest for the truth, for it is believed that only the individual (not governments or churches), free to to enquire and experience what he wills, can establish truth.

       The opposite of this view might be called the "authoritarian" viewpoint. An authoritarian, by contrast, believes that the individual's first allegiance is to the state, and a small group of experts has the right to decide what is right and restrict access to knowledge of everything else. The Catholic Church is an example of an authoritarian organization, and Martin Luther a gnostic opponent of it.

       Gnostic undercurrents have survived to the present day to influence western civilization, and have given western society (which is, like all civilizations, primarily authoritarian) much of its unique character. Trial by jury is a completely gnostic idea, with its assumption that only a collection of free individuals exposed to all sides of an argument can be trusted to come up with reliable conclusions. Universities and the practice of awarding tenure are products of gnostic thinking, as was the U.S. Constitution and its guarantees of free speech, press, and religion.

       What does this have to do with Star Trek? Well, dedication to truth is an essential theme of Star Trek, but in order to really understand how that works dramatically it's important to understand how dedication to truth can be an expression of a community as well as of individual ethics, and a means of people communicating their commitment to each other and their culture. And it's important to understand that this is not a fantasy, but a depiction of a latent subculture of hope and dignity that exists in human society. Picard's statements, and a great many other things, go from confusing to consistent if you assume that somewhere between our time and that of Star Trek, some kind of drastic and marvelous social revolution has transformed world society from authoritarian with gnostic undercurrents to the opposite. Perhaps this revolution arose out of the century of regional nuclear conflict and social chaos that Star Trek's history of the future predicts for the next hundred years, just as the gnostic-influenced Age of Reason arose out of centuries of Black Plague in Europe in the 16th Century.

       Many of the differences between our society and what we see of the 24th century make sense if we presuppose this new Age. Starfleet is obviously an authoritarian organization, but it is dedicated to upholding gnostic values; truth, scientific knowledge, and personal excellence. Obviously it is a new brand of military organization, of the kind we'd assume would be dreamed up by gnostic leaders. Star Trek is often accused of being too "PC," but political correctness is an authoritarian concept, a new set of rules and requirements to replace the old. What Star Trek shows is gnostic respect for alternate viewpoints and practices, stemming necessarily from the belief that no one individual is more qualified to figure things out than another. Kirk is often criticized for disobeying orders and getting away with it, but in a gnostic society it would be considered a crime to follow the orders of an authority contrary to what one believed was the right thing to do. I believe Kirk gets away with it because his superiors recognize this, as they are products of a gnostic society too. For them, personal experience and character are to be relied on more than external rules in the face of the unknown and the strange. Finally, the Prime Directive, which I've heard called immoral and senseless many times, is in the end a perfect expression of gnostic values. A gnostic society would not assume its values were superior to another's even if it had more advanced technology or knowledge, and would not destroy the integrity of another culture even to help. Instead it would try to learn, and interfering in a developing culture would make it impossible for that culture to come up with unique, unbiased ways of discovering new truths- and this would be the greatest loss conceivable to gnostics. So the Prime Directive is established to ensure future access to revelation, so the Buddhas, Christs, and Suraks of other worlds can arise freely.

       When Picard, in "Measure of a Man," argued that Data must have the freedom to discover for himself whether or not he has a soul, he perfectly summed up the gnostic philosophy, and its motivating consequences in the universe of Star Trek. The fact that he won the decision in court over a precedent set in the 21st Century is my best argument that my point is valid.

       Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations: The glory of creation lies in its infinite diversity, and in the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.

       These themes are Star Trek for me, and a good story is one that explores one or more of them. Each one sets the stage for debate on how to improve the circumstances of human existence. This debate to me is what makes Star Trek unique. None of these themes depends on high technology or a future setting, and a Star Trek story need not take place there; I'd like to see one set in the present day. There's a good one waiting to be written about UN soldiers in Bosnia, I think. Every time I see those white painted UN personnel carriers on the news, I can't help but think of them as the precursors of starships. All those people who dress up in Starfleet uniforms and dream of living in the world of Star Trek, it's not a matter of inventing warp drives or phasers and it's not necessarily far in the future. It's a matter of critically examining what it's going to take to make human life richer, more spiritual, and more meaningful. This, in my opinion, is what all Star Trek fiction should be about, and to the extent that these grounds for debate are left behind, Star Trek will lose its uniqueness and eventually evaporate.

       "A man either lives his life as it happens to him; meets it head on and licks it, or he begins to wither away and die" --Dr. Phillip Boyce, *The Cage*

-- Steven Huntley, circa 1995

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