the politics of Star Trek gets political

 
 

Star Trek was in the news recently. Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas and presidential aspirant, recently gave an interview to Ana Marie Cox in the the New York Times Magazine. Knowing of his fondness for science fiction, the paper asked him whether he preferred the original series' (TOS) Captain Kirk to Captain Picard of the later show Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). Cruz avowed a "strong opinion" on the subject, coming out in favor of Captain Kirk. In Cruz's view, TNG "basically split James T. Kirk into two people. Picard was Kirk’s rational side, and [womanizing trombone-playing first officer] William Riker was his passionate side. I prefer a complete captain. To be effective, you need both heart and mind."

Cruz also offered an opinion about Star Trek's politics. "It is quite likely," he opined, "that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat." He reached this conclusion on the basis of his observation that "Kirk is working class; Picard is an aristocrat. Kirk is a passionate fighter for justice; Picard is a cerebral philosopher. The original Star Trek pressed for racial equality, which was one of its best characteristics, but it did so without sermonizing."

Like the senator, I strongly prefer TOS over TNG. Nonetheless, I find all of Cruz's comments to be either sort of odd or just plain wrong. Anyone who can say that Star Trek did not sermonize has never heard Captain Kirk read the Constitution or heard him decry the horrors of war. Moreover, the political categories of the Star Trek universe are so incommensurate with our own that calling Kirk a Republican simply makes no sense.  Having said that, though, the politics of the show are clearly and obviously liberal. In the 1960s: the show decried militarism, advocated racial equality and suggested that humans will have simply outgrown acquisitive capitalism in the future. The only thing that Star Trek did that was remotely conservative was occasionally (and contradictorily) express allegorical support for the Vietnam War. But being liberal at the time did not necessarily mean opposing the war: the Democratic Party was being torn apart as the antiwar New Left battled the establishment Cold War liberals who supported the war.

For further expression of this argument, I refer you to <ahem> my own article "Liberals in Space: The 1960s Politics of Star Trek."

In response to Cruz's somewhat nonsensical comments, William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, issued an equally ridiculous rejoinder. "Star Trek," he tweeted, "wasn't political." Putting a "geocentric label" on "interstellar characters is silly." I'm not sure what the "geocentric" reference is here, but if he means that labels like "Republican" and "Democrat" don't really apply, that certainly seems appropriate. But the idea that Star Trek was not political is a head-scratcher coming from the guy who (again) delivered monologues about color-blindness, the narrow-mindedness of militarism and the injustice of the zenite miners living miserable lives while their Stratos-dwelling overlords reap the fruits of their labor. With all due respect to Captain Kirk himself, I think he got this one way wrong.