Sunday, October 09, 2011

At last, an excuse to put up a picture of Tasha Yar

She hates time

Make it stop
                     (1985, Bowling for Soup)

It is chilling to think that the span of time separating the me of now from the airing of the final episode of Star Trek: TNG is greater than that yawning abyss, that age of the world, separating the young fanboy me from the airing of the final episode of TOS. Please forgive me for sitting here paralysed with existential terror for a while.

When I first wrote that I wanted to complain about the shoddy tricks in the presentation of certain modern utopias - Kim Stanley Robinson's Colour Mars series and Julian May's Galactic Milieu series- Lexifab said I ought to talk about the Roddenberry utopia as well.

The main practical problems with this were, first, that I hadn't actually thought of any shoddy tricks in the presentation of the utopian world of Star Trek and second, that the amount of canonical material out there was vastly greater than a few novels.  Also, the shoddy tricks I was concerned about were the sort of things novellists do, when they can write whatever they like to justify their creation, and Gene Roddenberry did not have this same degree of freedom. Unlike a novellist's utopia, the Roddenberry utopia already had to make compromises with the real world before we got to see it.

So I put off Lexifab's assignment for a while while I looked for my copy of David Gerrold's “The World of Star Trek” on all the bookshelves, and then in boxes in the sheds, and then gave up and ordered another copy from the other side of the world. About a minute after it arrived last week I realised it would be no help at all. It was all about TOS, filtered through network sensibilities, with a bible that explicitly warned writers off too close an examination of the society the Enterprise came from. Instead I went back to the interwebz.

The interwebz are full of win. I will just link lazily to a few of the things I found. Here is a worthwhile discussion of various unsavoury features of the society of the United Federation of Planets. This highlights the peculiar pervasiveness of a military organisation, Starfleet, in the supposedly peaceful UFP.

Most importantly, I found this.
If you allow your eyes to glaze over while you scroll down a page or two of rather shrill wingnutty background material, you will find that post on to be a lucid exposition of how TNG is a communist state. It all fits together very nicely. Michael Wong postulates some sort of left-wing revolution between TOS and TNG, but not being slaves to continuity we can simply say that TNG is the more valid picture of the Roddenberry utopia: the show made by the recognised Master of the Uberfranchise, who could finally do what he liked, showing the utopia he intended. 

Quoted elsewhere on the site is Paula Block, head of Star Trek licensing at Paramount:

“Gene R. himself had a habit of decanonizing things. He didn't like the way the animated series turned out, so he proclaimed that it was NOT CANON. He also didn't like a lot of the movies. So he didn't much consider them canon either. And—okay, I'm really going to scare you with this one-after he got TNG going, he .. well .. he sort of decided that some of the Original Series wasn't canon either. I had a discussion with him once, where I cited a couple things that were very clearly canon in the Original Series, and he told me that he didn't think that way anymore, and that he now thought of TNG as canon wherever there was conflict between the two. He admitted it was revisionist thinking, but so be it.”

We are not shown how property has been abolished in the human societies of the UFP, or how religion has withered away, or how transportation and communication have fallen completely into government hands. But it is not too hard to imagine how this could happen given the amount of time we have to play with. The trend over my lifetime – and really, for the past century – is all in this direction. Regulate the media, have government agencies take the lead in space travel, entangle corporations more and more with regulation, grow the public sector until most people get all their income from the government – it is not so far to TNG. Give humanity a few major crises to rally people around the defenders of humanity and it is easy.

My original set of requirements for a utopia were:

(1) An incorruptible ruling class who will not selfishly exploit the system, and

(2) A class of ruled who will meekly go along doing what they are told.

The fact that communication between worlds is limited in TNG, and is in the hands of a relatively small group that has been aggressively selected for certain traits since the beginning of space travel, means that these two requirements can be met more realistically than in other utopias.

In TNG, we are essentially never shown the ruled. Our picture is restricted to a small sub-section of elite cosmonauts: people with real skills who are given important work to do by the Federation and can lead useful and exciting lives. It is reasonable that these people will not bother themselves with politics and will be outwardly committed believers and happy ambassadors for the system, just like real life cosmonauts. So the only real shoddy trick is a trick of emphasis that is also a requirement of drama: we see neither the ruling class which must be incorruptible, nor the meek ruled, just this highly anomalous population of heroes.

The trend of current events shows us how a meek ruled class can be achieved. Technologicial advances mean we can make a lot of stuff cheaply. The government gives people lots of free stuff. QED. Postulating the sort of technological developments shown in Star Trek, the economic sclerosis that doomed historical communist regimes is not an issue: the ruled can be given enough free stuff to lead materially satisfying lives. If most people are comfortable with their lives, any dissidents that exist will be unable to get much traction. 

Furthermore, the government control of interworld communication and transport will effectively quarantine any trouble that does get started: there is no faster-than-light Facebook to spread the message of civil disobedience across the quadrant. The limitations of communication also mean that government in the Federation cannot possibly be centralised to the same extent as on a united Earth. It cannot be a despotic regime, but must be an aristocratic one, where a class with shared values provides a stable elite. Starfleet as shown is a plausible picture of such an elite, educated to uphold the ideals of the Federation in much the same way as the ruling elite of the British Empire were educated. Because of the poor communications between worlds, not very many of these people are required, just like a mere handful of bureaucrats were needed to run the British Empire. Aristocratic regimes have maintained relatively high standards of incorruptibility for quite long periods of time – so long as you have a small governing class with a shared ideology and mechanisms for dividing power between them, everyone in the class will watch each other, and bring anyone who diverges from the ideology or becomes too individually powerful to account.

The Roddenberry utopia of TNG is dependent on a government monopoly of interworld communications that is reasonable, given the size and probable cost of the intersystem ships shown. The utopia seems entirely plausible to me. It could be introduced and maintained without any shoddy tricks of the kind I talked about with Kim Stanley Robinson's utopia or Julian May's utopia. The only trick is involved in selling the utopia to us, the viewer at home, by zooming in on one small facet of the world.


Lexifab said...

That wingnut essay on the Communist Federation is pretty cool. I'm not sufficiently well versed in political theory to challenge it, but I suspect it's pretty bulletproof.

(I love that you can do this kind of analysis. It puts my own wishy-washy powers of intellectual argument to shame.)

There's precious little seen of the non-Starfleet ruled after TNG either. I am struggling to think of a single example other than Sisko's father in DS9 (not that I watched all of Voyager or any of Enterprise). From what I can recall he lived in simple (spartan?) conditions and cooked gumbo or somesuch culturally conformative nonsense. So I can't recall anything that would refute this.

Chris Fellows said...

I need to catch up on all the post-TNG Star Trek material. That, and watch Lost again from the beginning the better to follow your reviews.

I have been wasting my life...

Lexifab said...

Not as efficiently as I, it would seem :)