What I wish I could unlearn from Star Trek TNG / 3: humans, humans everywhere

This week, I am blogging about the things I wish Star Trek, specifically The Next Generation (TNG), could have addressed differently. You can read the first post about gender roles here and the second post about the Prime Directive and western ideology here.

Retro Television by micahburger on Flickr

The TV shows we watch contribute to the shaping of our ideas and notions about the world we live in. On one hand, they can reinforce what we think we know, and the things we don’t realize shape us and our social relations.

In the first post of this series of three, I briefly explored how TNG authors reinforced, most likely unknowingly and unwillingly, certain notions about gender. The representations they gave of many female characters seem to suggest that women are second to men in terms of potential, and that their role is to assist their male boss, husband or father in their endeavors.

On the other hand, TV shows can challenge our notions about society, ourselves and others, morality and much more through stories that make us examine ourselves, question our attitudes, ideas, reactions, values and perceptions. By portraying characters that do not correspond to social norms, the shows we watch can contribute to the dismissal of stereotypes and prejudice.

I grew up watching Star Trek TNG, and many other TV shows which conveyed similar notions about gender, western ideology and idyllic representations of our future. I grew up thinking of science-fiction as an avenue to explore what humanity could eventually become, and what it should become.

I learned many great things from science-fiction. But there are some that I now find problematic, not only as a woman, but also as an anthropologist who is interested in decolonization processes. I chose the title of this series to express the process I have undergone in recent years to deconstruct some ideas about gender, progress, technological advancement and science, to name a few.

I chose Star Trek TNG as a subject because as I started watching the series all over again recently. The same exercise could be easily have been undertaken with other TV shows, movies, comic books, or any other product of popular culture, and would be just as relevant. (See From Science-Fiction to Anthropology: There and back again.)

The last topic I wanted to address is the representations of humanity in TNG. As the introduction to this post was longer than that of previous ones, and because I am trying to learn to write posts which a shorter than 900 words, I’ll try to be brief(er).

Humans, Humans everywhere

Most of the main characters in TNG are human. Only two of the bridge officers are aliens: Worf was raised by humans and Deanna Troi is half-human. The Enterprise’s crew may be composed of people from different origins, but the majority of the ones we see in the episodes are, or look, human. A few colorful aliens can be seen from time to time, walking in the background.

Constraints like time and money may make it hard to put make-up on several actors for every show. But the scenarios themselves focus more on humans that any other alien race.

In the first episodes of the series, Encounter at Farpoint I and II, the Q Continuum puts humanity, specifically, on trial. On many other occasions, Q expressed awe and amazement towards humans.

Data, an android, seeks to become human despite the fact that he is in many ways superior to them. This, of course, could be attributed to the fact that he was discovered by humans after his creator abandoned him with almost no memories of his own origins. It could be said that his program, because it moves him to evolve into something more than what he his, brought him to select a model to emulate, and that he chose humans as a model.

What is a harder to understand, however, is how often people explain a situation to him referring only to humanity. Even characters like Worf, a Klingon, and Deanna Troi, half Betazoid, spend great deals of time talking with him about humanity, human behavior, human humor, human this, human that.

TNG authors created a future where aliens are part of the scenery, but are not as important as humans. Of course, the Enterprise encounters aliens everywhere it goes, but they often serve to explore other aspects of humanity or make a point about humanity’s darker and better sides.

Following series did a better job at presenting aliens cultures in greater detail and giving non-human characters more screen time.  Deep Space 9, especially, presented the Klingon, Bajoran, Ferengi and Cardassian cultures, to name a few, in a very interesting fashion. The fact that the action took place in a station and not on a ship which traveled to a new place every week undoubtedly helped the authors do so.

The future depicted in TNG is also one which doesn’t really take into account the possible contributions the various cultures of Earth could make to our future.Yet other science-fiction works represent the possible result of deeper transformations in the relations of power through time, and of cultural exchanges. Because it portrayed a future shaped by the intervention of the Chinese and American superpowers, Firefly is an example of such work that goes beyond representing a purely Western future.

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About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations! https://mariepierrerenaud.co/

There are 11 comments

  1. Phenix Nash

    I’m late to the conversation. Good post. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to feel there’s something a bit insidious about the federation and its homogeneity. Humans are relatively new to space-faring. Why are they so important on a galactic scale again? There’s something to be said for how Star Trek alien races are depicted as “others,” typically one-dimensional counterpoints to the humans and sometimes vicious racial stereotypes (Ferengi!)

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    1. The Geek Anthropologist

      Very true: at least DS9 let’s us see the Ferengi as more than just a superficial cliché.

      I always wondered why the federation should be based on Earth, of all places, although it could be said that it’s because humans pushed for its creation. But as a non-US citizen (Canadian), what frustrated me more what that the US was very much at the center of the story. Starfleet academy is in San Francisco, most Captains are american, the ships are called U.S.S ___, and so on.

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  2. mauricem1972

    Marie, this is so true. Considering Roddennberry’s message was “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” its a shame that the show usually focuses on how alien races interact with humans and not with each other. Most of the main alien characters are either half-human (ex. Spock) or raised by humans (ex. Worf). I guess in that sense both DS9 and Enterprise did a better job of showing diversity since they featured alien characters that had no connection with humans. Never thought about that.

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    1. The Geek Anthropologist

      I agree that in DS9 more aliens are main characters. The series also does a great job at presenting alien cultures in greater detail. Some are often featured since the station is stationary, unlike a spaceship. It one of the things that makes this series so great.

      However, authors still made all of Sisko’s girlfriends and wifes afro-american, like him. For a franchise that boasts to have presented the first ”inter-racial” kiss on television, it sure fell back easily into american TV standards.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing the word about my blog! It’s always really appreciated!

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  3. scottfack

    I agree with your points in this blog, and I have always read or understood the lack of non-human characters to be due to finances (like you have pointed out). Also, as a writer or artist, if you want your audience to identify with a character or characters, you have to give them some common ground sometimes. I also think that this is why Gene Roddenberry and Co had the “humanoid” rule (most, if not all, species portrayed should have two arms, two hands, two eyes, et cetera).

    With Worf, I always felt that he was supposed to portray “the adopted child”, always eager to pull away from his adopted parents and embrace his “real” culture / background / heritage, only to realise that the Federation and his adopted parents are just as much his “real” culture / background / heritage as his Klingon origins.

    I’m half German, half American myself, living in New Zealand, so I understand Deanna Troi. She has heritage from both sides and embraces them for what they are. I never felt she had problems integrating the two like B’Elanna Torres did in Voyager, for example. You just take those different bits of yourself and integrate them, and, as a counselor, I am sure Deanna understands this.

    Also, remember TNG was made at a time where the world itself was less homogenized than it is now. When I moved to New Zealand in 1996, I was surprised at how there was a lack of ethnic diversity here (compared to Chicago). Fast forward 17 years later, and life is a lot different now than then. There are people from all over the world here, living here for a few years and maybe moving on to Europe or Australia or the Americas, or perhaps settling here (like I did) from another part of the world. It has become much more realistic and accessible now with technology and the deals you can get on travel. So maybe we’re trying to compare 2010s reality with 1980s society. Just a thought.

    We have to remember that TNG was written where Earth is a utopia and all the big problems of the 20th century were gone. Food, water, shelter, all those things are supplied freely. Firefly, on the other hand, depicts an Earth destroyed by humanity and the almost-immediate aftermath of a civil war between the big boys (corporations) and the little guys (ordinary people). There’s quite a difference between the two.

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    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

      I do remember a documentary about Star Trek in which producers stated that if you put to much make-up on actors, you loose a sense of the character, and viewers find it hard to identify with it. I agree this is a factor that I have to consider when criticizing TNG. It’s still interesting to note that the aliens encountered often serve to hightlight something about humanity, depending on the episode. Additionally, there may be many alien officers in Starfleet, but the fact that we don’t get to see them makes it look like humans dominate Starfleet.

      As I mention in the post, TNG is a product of its time (1980s-1990s)and should be judged as such. And many of the ideas that were at the foundation of the show are still widely accepted (at least in Western societies) today. I also think good science-fiction should go beyond current affairs to imagine a future that we can’t quite imagine or consider as a possibility yet.

      Firefly and TNG and incredibly different, of course, but I used this example to highlight the fact that the latter doesn’t really give a lot of room for non-western cultures to contribute to our future.

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      1. scottfack

        The only beef I have about Firefly (and I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan, so please don’t get me wrong) is that, if China is one of the two major powers in that time, why isn’t that represented on Mal’s crew aboard the Firefly at all?

        This was a large problem on all the Star Trek shows in the 80s and 90s; Asian populations and cultures (despite comprising a large chunk of our planet’s population now) is very under-represented. Where are the Indian / Pakistani characters? The Japanese? The Chinese? The Indonesians? Harry Kim was pretty much it.

        I do get your points and I loved these three blogs! I was geeking out when I saw them 🙂

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        1. thegeekanthropologist

          As I did research for a paper about Star Trek many years ago, I remember reading articles and open letters in which people from different ethnic groups, sexual orientations or religions complained that they weren’t represented in the franchise: Jewish people, Latinos, homosexuals, etc., felt absent from the representation of the future given in movies and TV series. I agree about Firefly, its something to wonder about.

          I’m glad you enjoyed these posts!

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  4. CrucibleofWords

    Part of the reason that TNG doesn’t particularly examine the possibilities in the same way that Firefly does, at least to me, is because it was pushing a particular agenda. Gene Rodenberry was a secular humanist, and all the Star Trek series he was involved in presented that (very Western) idea as the “right” one. In order to do that, humans needed to be the the focus, with very little room for manoeuvre on the kind of society they could have. Firefly was just exploring ideas (and making parallels with the American civil war, but in a more culturally neutral way).

    Your point on characters like Deanna and Worf are perhaps a little unjustified, or maybe misplaced. Deanna is half-human, and Worf was raised by humans, so them having humanity has a reference point isn’t so strange. The problem with that is that they may have been designed that way to highlight their humanity as both foil and virtue.

    But it does quite often feel like the TNG Federation as a whole is just a human enterprise (heh), rather than something that’s a collaboration between different species. Remembering a short series of episodes in about season 2 (I think) that showed the upper echelons of Federation command; I can’t remember a single non-human admiral in that storyline. In general, I think there was the occasional vulcan, but that was about it.

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    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Thank you for commenting!

      I agree with the points you bring forward. I wanted to keep this post shorter than the others ones so I didn’t examine in detail the roles aliens play in the series as senior Starfleet officers. In the conspiracy episodes, as you mention, there’s the occasional Vulcan admiral, otherwise aliens members of Starfleet are captains, ensigns, cadets, etc. But they are still a minority.

      The picture changes a little in DS9 and Voyager (especially DS9), but as you say, the future Rodenberry believed in was very much in which all humans were friends, but lived essentially according to Western values and lifestyles.

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