Culture Trek

This is the second of four papers from a class I just finished taking, posted to fulfill a social media integration assignment.

This paper is associated with this presentation:


Since the original Star Trek premiered in 1966, space opera television has voiced ideologies and subcultures outside of the mainstream. The Star Trek spinoff Deep Space Nine (aired 1993 to 1999) represents a shift in postmodern pop culture. The counter culture had attacked traditional institutions and values, but postmodern remixing ultimately allowed even the counter culture to parodied and jammed. This allowed the latest significant space opera epic on television – Battlestar Galactica (aired 2004 to 2009) – to portray controversial ideologies such as traditional religious faith, with varying degrees of parody and respect.

The original Star Trek was informed by the counterculture of the 1960s without embracing it unequivocally (Mooney). As blogger Darren Mooney notes in his review of the episode This Side of Paradise, the Original Series promoted the academic movement of the “New Left” while criticizing isolationist and “bohemian” trends such as communes. As a pop culture icon, the Original Series was likely influenced by and part of post-structuralism and the critique of mores and traditions. However, network television retained traditional notions of political correctness long after the 1960s (Douthat). Whether intentionally or not, the Original Series and The Next Generation (aired 1987 to 1994) reflected networks television’s need to remain inoffensive to the general population. Despite the fact that the first two Star Trek shows were ideological enough to portray anti-religious themes, they were also neither cynical nor ironic about the culture that they arose within.

Religious conservatives had seen themselves as a subculture well before the 1960s. The influence of Modernist rationalism on Christian communities had been extremely polarizing. Mainstream Protestantism became concerned with promoting social welfare apart from literal belief. Reacting against the lack of theological precision, Fundamentalists resisted emerging ideologies such as evolution (Wikipedia). The Fundamentalists and the Evangelicals represented groups that already held deeply cynical and anti-hegemonic attitudes toward culture when Postmodernism arrived along with pop culture and the social movements of the 1960s.

While Douthat contends that The Next Generation exemplified the generic inoffensive positivity of the old mainstream media and Mooney notes that the Original Series did not uncritically endorse the counterculture, the anti-religious themes in the first two Trek shows did court controversy. The shows endorsed secular humanism so thoroughly that anti-religious themes were sometimes explicit. Justice and Who Watches the Watchers are two Next Generation episodes notable for anti-religious sentiment, while the quintessential anti-religion episode from the Original Series is The Apple. Perhaps the most revealing clue to the dynamic of subcultural ideologies constrained by network inoffensiveness comes from an exchange in the Season 2 Original Series episode Who Mourns for Adonais?

An alien entity corresponding to the Greek god Apollo has kidnapped the Enterprise and demands worship. The away team surmises that the entity subsists on the love and adoration of mortals. In order to escape they must, among other things, deny the self-proclaimed deity. However, Lieutenant Carolyn Palamas has fallen in love with the god.

Captain Kirk tries to dissuade Palamas from listening to Apollo, and the dialog clearly inverts the traditional evangelical conversion scene. “Spurn him. Reject him,” Kirk implores. “Reject him and we have the chance to save ourselves. Accept him, and you condemn all of us to slavery.” The words “save ourselves” are important. Divine salvation is portrayed as damnation, and the post-religious humans need to save themselves from being “saved” by a god.

The critical parody of Evangelicalism is all but confirmed by Kirk’s subsequent line: “Or perhaps the thought of spending eternity bending knee and tending sheep appeals to you.” Individuals’ eternal destiny is at stake, and eternity hinges on one decision to accept or to reject a claim of deity. This is a case of one subculture attacking another within mainstream media.

Any objective analysis of religion in Star Trek needs to acknowledge that Who Mourns for Adonais? also contained an apparently pro-monotheistic line. “Mankind has no need for gods,” Kirk declares but then adds, “we find the One quite adequate.” This supports Douthat’s assertion that the traditional media avoided offending the generic sensibilities of the superficial common culture. Monotheism was normative enough that a declaration of atheism would have been too controversial, but marginalized and self-isolating subcultures like Fundamentalism were open to ridicule.

Douthat describes the breakdown of the common culture with its decency standards, leading to an abundance of what he calls “dreck and smut” along with “idiosyncrasy, controversy, and political incorrectness” (Douthat). As Douthat notes, Battlestar Galactica incorporated spiritual themes from several religions, using religious iconography in a way that might have shocked the sensibilities of the old common culture. Although not remotely dogmatic, Battlestar Galactica’s portrayal of religion is earnest and unironic.
The Star Trek franchise chronicles one perspective of the development leading from standardized inoffensive content to the edgy multiplicity of Battlestar Galactica. Overlapping with the last two seasons of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine cynically critiqued even liberal elements of American and Western hegemony. “It’s easy to be a saint in Paradise,” Captain Sisko says in The Maquis, Part II (Memory Alpha), referencing the ignorant utopianism of 24th-century humans. This becomes a recurring criticism and of the default progressive optimism from The Next Generation, implying that the protagonists’ enlightened Federation can be just as authoritarian and naively imperialistic as the antagonistic Cardassian Union (Mooney).

Deep Space Nine also handled religious themes with more complexity and respect than did The Next Generation or the Original Series. Examples of religious tolerance or deliberate inclusion of religious themes abound – Sisko’s role in the Bajorans’ religion; the duality of the “wormhole aliens” also being the Bajorans’ “Prophets”; Bajoran, Klingon, and Ferengi rituals. This religious element remained mainstream and inoffensive; Mooney characterizes it as 90s pop spirituality in his review of the episode Destiny. More significantly, the Prophets are never revealed to be the Bajorans’ creators, and they seem to be part of the material universe (Matson). While Matson doesn’t give enough credence to the way that the end of series depicts the Prophets predestinating events, he is right to note that they are not fully transcendent nor even universal enough to suggest the pantheism that permeated the concurrent space opera show Babylon 5.

Despite the show’s carefully inoffensive theology, the Bajoran character Kira Nerys receives a convincing spiritual arc, experiencing a transforming moment of atonement in Battle Lines in Season 1, and eventually filling the role of a rational hero freeing people from ideological tyranny in the seventh-season Covenant. Demonstrating Deep Space Nine’s greater capacity for inclusiveness, Covenant could be interpreted as a typical Star Trek anti-religion episode. Here, however, the rational hero is an orthodox believer, and the backward religion is an unsanctioned cult. Kira’s own faith is never in question in Covenant or throughout Deep Space Nine.

Battlestar Galactica pushed the boundaries of acceptability more than any of the Star Trek spinoffs; it used sexuality fairly heavily and contained an unusual amount of political controversy. It extended this visceral approach to religion; Baltar’s conversion to the Cylon religion in Six Degrees of Separation follows the boilerplate Evangelical template closely. Although not a positive portrayal of Evangelicalism, the scene demonstrates the show’s willingness to evoke uncomfortable and polarizing associations – even religious ones. Baltar’s conversion scene could be interpreted as parody (though Baltar’s later development complicates that interpretation), but the portrayal of a persecuted fundamentalist ethnicity in the third-season episode The Woman King goes so far as to twist the audience’s expectations by calling out the main cast – and by proxy the audience – for their default bigotry against fundamentalism.
Tracing the attitudes toward religion in these space opera television shows demonstrates that at some point, postmodern anti-structuralism crossed a line. No longer content simply to criticize traditional structures, pop culture embraced controversial inquiry into human experience to the point where traditional values can receive unironic attention.

As Douthat notes, content creators now have the freedom to explore the human condition existentially without the forced inoffensiveness of the old mainstream. Postmodern society needs to learn authentic honesty. Freedom to reflect the deepest human experiences will inevitably open the door to ideological controversies. In that respect, the mix of cynicism and spirituality in Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica offers hope for the continued development of authenticity in postmodern pop culture.

Works Cited
“Christian Fundamentalism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
Douthat, Ross. "Lost And Saved On Television." First Things: A Monthly Journal Of Religion & Public Life 173 (2007): 22-26. Humanities Source. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
Matson, Cole. “What Makes a God?: Wormhole Aliens and Bajoran Religion.” Transpositions. Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.
Mooney, Darren. “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Destiny (Review)." The m0vie blog. 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.
---. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Maquis, Part II (Review). The m0vie blog. 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
---. “Star Trek – This Side of Paradise (Review).The m0vie blog. 26 May 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
“The Maquis, Part II (episode).” Memory Alpha. wikia, n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.
“Who Mourns for Adonais?” Star Trek. Writ. Gilbert Ralston. Dir. Marc Daniels. Perf. William Shatner. National Broadcasting Company, 1967. CBS.com. Streamed video. 29 Sept. 2014.

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