The Voyages of Star Trek: Nothing new or surprising

The Voyages of Star Trek by K.M. Heath and A.S. CarlisleThe Voyages of Star Trek by K.M. Heath & A.S. Carlisle

The Voyages of Star Trek by K.M. Heath and A.S. CarlisleThe Voyages of Star Trek: A Mirror on American Society through Time (2020), by K.M. Heath and A.S. Carlisle, explores how the various Trek incarnations — TV shows, movies, comics — mirrored (or not) the culture of the time, beginning with the original series (TOS) and ending with Discovery (Picard was released too late and is only mentioned as existing). The book grew out of an undergraduate anthropology course, and you can see some of that in their explanation of their methods (taking random “snapshots” of shows, for instance, to assess the prevalence, or lack thereof, of non-white or women characters), but the target is the popular audience. Their main claim, as they put it, is that “Star Trek has survived across five decades in the face of rapid cultural change because it adapts to the times while staying true to its core mission: humanity’s hope for a better future.”

For those unfamiliar with all the various versions of Star Trek, the book delves into TOS, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DSN), Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, the animated series, all the movies, the comics, and Star Trek fandom/conventions. Each chapter offers up a brief look at the times based on historical events, pop culture, and more. Then there’s an examination of how the show reflected or conflicted with the reigning time, followed by a specific quantified look at the portrayals of race and gender on the show. Their methods were to:

randomly select 15 percent of each of the thirty seasons of the six television shows … In addition, we viewed 100 percent of the thirteen movies. We used snapshots techniques … at five-minute intervals for episodes and about ten-minute for movies, we recorded behavior for all individuals observed with a five-second time frame … record [ing] the age, sex, and race of each actor … and group identity.

The Voyages of Star Trek looks at how the show, and its spin-offs into movies, the written word, and fan-created works, intersects with America’s changing views on feminism, gender, homo- and bisexuality, capitalism, foreign policy, and other subjects. Some of the specific elements covered include that infamous Kirk-Uhura kiss from TOS (the first interracial kiss on TV), the TOS “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode that not-too-subtly pointed out the absurdity and inevitable result of racial hatred, the TNG episode “Outcast” which focused on gender identity, DS9’s use of the Ferengi (an alien race) as a means of critiquing contemporary capitalism/greed and the “Past Tense” episode that looked at homelessness (a highly topical subject at the time), Voyager’s exploration of mixed-race identify through Torres’ half-human/half-Klingon background, particularly in the episode “Lineage,” and finally (for the shows), how Discovery “normalizes same-sex relationships” via its matter-of-fact/taken for granted portrayal of several on the show.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to learn much about most of the creative works discussed. After all, it’s been 50 years since TOS, and decades since the other shows, and so there have been, to use an academic term, a gazillion papers, books, documentaries, etc. exploring the shows and films individually, as a series, or as an ongoing phenomenon. So mostly I was hoping for some still-interesting recaps of familiar territory and then a more-interesting dive into the very recent: Discovery, Picard, and the reboot movies, and maybe a glimpse of the new animated series, Lower Decks (I assumed it was too recent for discussion of particular episodes but I thought there might be a look at its genesis and development). Well, as noted, Picard was only mentioned, and the same was true of Lower Decks, while Discovery didn’t get much page time. I would have been disappointed then with an in-depth going over of familiar ground but could have lived with that (I am a fan of the series, after all).

But in-depth isn’t the descriptive phrase I’d use here. The depth was, again to be honest, sorely disappointing, in fact, with mere cursory and surprisingly shallow looks at the time period and the various shows’ intersection with them. Certainly, it didn’t take an anthropological degree or eye or study for even the most casual fan to note how the mini-skirts of TOS reflected the more open feminism and sexuality of the 60s, how “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” reflected the Civil Rights movement, or to note that Star Trek shows that showed up 25 or 35 years later would portray more women or minorities on the show. The lack of interesting content might have been at least somewhat counterbalanced by some good stories from the shows and/or a stylish or humorous flair to the writing, but there was too little of the former and next-to-none of the latter, with the style mostly flat and pedestrian.

One of my tests of how much I learned from or enjoyed a book are the number of highlights I made as I read it, and sadly, there were a mere handful in The Voyages of Star Trek. For that reason, I can’t recommend it.

Published in October 2020. Star Trek emerged alongside mini-skirts, bellbottoms, and VW vans; flourished in the shadow of Madonna, big hair, and greed; and expanded with computers, Beanie Babies, and religious revitalization. Star Trek survived the culture shock of 9/11 and experienced a revival in the era of yoga pants, hybrid cars, and Starbucks. After more than 5 decades, Star Trek is alive and well, still voyaging through space and time. But, why is that? How has this science fiction franchise managed to anticipate and adapt to such rapid culture change? In The Voyages of Star Trek: A Mirror on American Society through Time, authors K. M. Heath and A. S. Carlisle, investigate the enduring appeal of Star Trek, noting how it has mirrored, foreshadowed, and adapted to contemporary American culture from 1966 to the present. Through anthropological analysis, the authors examine the evolution of Star Trek by tying its storylines to events and developments in the U.S., assessing the extent to which the visual image of Star Trek is reflected on the screen from “snapshots” of randomly selected episodes and all of the films. By examining how Star Trek addressed contemporary social issues through a sci-fi lens over time, the authors postulate, Americans can better understand their own changing culture. If StarTrek can continue to anticipate and adapt to our rapidly changing world, then it should remain a part of the cultural landscape for another 50 years, truly going where few franchises have gone before.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. This wouldn’t have been for me, but it’s one I might have picked up as a gift for friends. I’ll look for something with a little more depth and flair instead.

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