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.
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.