Star Trek, originally created in 1966 by Gene Rodenberry, was revolutionary for its time. On the surface, it was just another vehicle for escapism, but, as its popularity grew and rabid fans and academics alike took a closer look at it, it became evident that Star Trek was about the future of our society and Gene Rodenberry’s vision for the human race.
The focus of TOS, as The Original Series is colloquially referred to, was on the explorations of the starship Enterprise. Its mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before” served mainly as a way to compare and contrast new alien civilizations with that of Captain Kirk and his crew in a quest to answer the question “What is an ideal society?”
TOS was short-lived, but it gained a large following and spawned a franchise that would span decades. All of the eventual iterations of Star Trek (including The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise) continued to portray an ever-widening array of civilizations; while they varied greatly, the portrayal of the Federation as a socialist utopia was always consistent.
Perhaps the greatest contrast to the Federation was the civilization of the Ferengi (which first appeared in The Next Generation). The Federation is generally portrayed as being a society where people are able to receive all of their basic needs (this is not to say that there is total equality); the Ferengi, on the other hand, represent a civilization where capitalism has been the guiding principal behind their civilization. In the Ferengi Alliance, people’s ability to simply survive requires performing everything from violent raids to deceitful business deals. In the end, the show’s executives didn’t make the Ferengi the Federation’s main antagonist as originally planned, perhaps due to worries that a show condemning capitalism wouldn’t fly in the “Greed is good” 1980s. Ultimately, they replaced the Ferengi with the Vulcan-like Romulans and then the machine-hybrid Borg.
In the Federation, necessary staples are produced by replicators, meaning no one is in need of basics like food. The Federation uses credits as its main form of currency; some people attempt argue that the very existence of credits is evidence that the federation is not really a socialist utopia, but these people fail to realize that credits aren’t exactly like modern money. They’re more like a luxury-purchasing bonus for the purchase of goods or services with limited supplies. If a person wants a very special fabric or a trip on a starship, a person might need to use credits, but if a person wants a cup of coffee, a sandwich or standard clothing, a person can simply replicate the item.
Now contrast that with the Ferengi. Their main form of currency is gold-pressed latinum, where the gold is simply a casing (essentially valueless) for the latinum. The latinum’s value comes from the simple fact that it cannot be replicated, therefore making its supply limited, whereas most other forms of matter can be readily replicated creating an infinite supply.
If the Ferengi are the capitalistic anti-Federation, The Borg is the Federation’s dream gone wrong. The Borg didn’t simply remove inequality and poverty; they also removed distinctiveness between members of their society. There is no individual, only the hive mind of the collective. The Federation has managed to eliminate most of the conventional maladies of society while still allowing for individual pursuits in just about everything, from Captain Picard’s ongoing mastery of the flute to Picard’s older brother’s winemaking ventures. In contrast, the Borg have eliminated all such pursuits; the Borg only manage to make advancements by assimilating information from other races. While the Borg are a statement against the elimination of the self in the pursuit of perfection, the Federation represents a society that has eliminated inequality to enable for the pursuit of the self.
Ultimately, the humans, Vulcans and the 150 or so other societies that make up the Federation vary quite a bit, showing that there are many different paths a civilization can take within Rodenberry’s paradigm for a socialist utopia. The biggest contrasts, however, are with the rest of the galaxy, comprised of myriad other social experiments in government and culture, all meant to show us possible paths for humanity. Is the Federation’s way supposed to be the best in the universe? Not necessarily, but, when compared to most of the others, it certainly seems to be mankind’s (as well as other species’) most promising path to long-term survival and prosperity.
Photo: Marcin Wichary, Flickr, CC