Star Trek has had a huge impact on pop culture for a series that lasted just three seasons, the last of which forgettable at best. It was the first serious science fiction TV series that featured a world different from this one (“The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were usually set on present-day Earth) as its setting. The format allowed drama, action and adventure, and even comedy interspersed with metaphorical explorations of issues of the turbulent 1960s. Some of the era’s greatest science fiction writers wrote scripts for the original series.
The beauty of Star Trek was that, as long as the viewer was willing to suspend disbelief (which is required of all fiction — ever seen a red police car with a big white stripe in real life, or a doctor who loses a limb and then his life to a helicopter, or a TV series that lasts four times as long as the war on which it’s based?), the viewer would be presented with a message, or with 60 minutes of entertainment, or both. (Or neither, in the case of much of the original series’ third season.)
My favorite character is Kirk. (The fact that I’m a Myers–Briggs ESTJ has nothing to do with that, I think.) As portrayed in the first series, he is the fully realized man — an explorer, a fearless warrior when he needs to be, compassionate, someone who does the right thing instead of the safe or expedient thing (it’s hard to imagine the career of someone in today’s military surviving the number of head-butting incidents with higher authority), a wit (he had — will have? — good writers), willing to nuke the rulebook when appropriate, cool or hot when necessary, an idealist and an optimist, full of both guts and character, and capable of earning almost fanatic loyalty from his people. (And with an active, though exaggerated, social life.) If those sound like the qualities of a good CEO or even manager, that may not have been an accident.
The next series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” goes even farther. A first-season episode features the discovery of a satellite inside which three people from the 20th century were cryogenically frozen. One of them was a Donald Trump-type who discovered that all his wealth had disappeared, but that was OK because, in the words of the captain, in the 23rd century “We have eliminated need.” That series also introduced the Ferengi, which “have a culture which is based entirely upon commerce”; more accurately, the Ferengi combine the worst stereotypical abuses of unfettered capitalism with the worst stereotypical abuses of patriarchy. Suffice it to say that it is not a positive portrait.
As far as I know, the creators and owners of Star Trek have never made specific the economic system that is used in the Star Trek universe. I doubt they have much of an idea, other than it’s not capitalism, doesn’t use “free” markets, and is probably quite just. From various quotes from movies and the TV shows, we know that they don't use money (Star Trek IV), they use “credits” (Deep Space Nine), that the encouraged point to life is self improvement, not aggrandizement by wealth (The Next Generation) …
The basic problem is that Leninist workers paradises don’t work. That's why the Soviet Union early on abandoned its efforts to have a cashless society and reintroduced the use of money.Then there's that sticky issue of religion, which is as fundamental a flaw in the concept of Star Trek as its pseudoeconomics, as this writer points out:
Money plays a vital role: It tells you how much somebody wants something that is in short supply. Person A wants to have something that Person B also wants to have (say, a nice fluffy tribble that has been safely neutered). Who wants it more? Money is the best way to settle that. (Fisticuffs not being a good way.) You want this tribble? How much are you willing to pay for it? Supply and demand. …
A society of humans couldn’t be more advanced than us and yet lack money. Whether cash or electronic, money is the most efficient way of settling how wants what how much and thus who gets it. It’s the best way to organize resources on a wide scale. Any other system is going to be inefficient and result in the misallocation of resources and greater human suffering.
NO human civilization has been able to erase the religious impulse from the minds of the majority of its people. NO human civilization has successfully combined lock-step totalitarian government with soft, fuzzy good feelings and compassion. NO human civilization has successfully combined excellence in all areas of human endeavor with collectivist, socialist economics and politics. I just can't believe it. First of all, no society in the history of the world that has been Marxist, as the Fed[eration] clearly is, has achieved anything worth a darn. The only ones that have been even close to successful are the Soviet Union (now extinct, or at least dormant) and China (which is a stable society with roots far deeper than its present government). In the Trek timeline, there was a period of horrific genocidal war in the 21st century followed by a worldwide dark age. What motive could get humanity all the way to the stars by the 23rd? What got Western civilization through the "dark age" that followed the sack of Rome? Sunny confidence in the essential goodness of human nature? A love for scientific exploration? Baloney. There are basically two motives behind all human progress: economic advancement (for either survival or profit) and religious belief. Both were absolutely essential to the successful Middle Ages that followed. Both were necessary for the birth of modern science in the Renaissance. A society must be very advanced and leisured indeed to produce philosophers that churn out anti-capitalist and anti-religious ideas and a rarefied intelligentsia that takes them seriously.Star Trek could be, probably unintentionally, an exploration of the tension between freedom and security. Humans, Vulcans and other sentient beings in the 23rd century can have the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs satisfied by the mighty Federation, leaving them to strive toward the top three levels. That, however, sounds like a sterile and pretty uninteresting, not to mention completely self-absorbed, life. Forget about creating something; never mind about meeting the needs of others. (Oh, that’s right — there will be no need by then!) And, by the way, your choices will have been guided, if not predetermined, by the Department of All. Your freedom of choice, after all, includes your freedom to make what others might consider to be the wrong choice. President Gerald Ford, not known to be a Star Trek fan, nailed it nonetheless: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take from you everything you have.”
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who was a visionary to merely think of the concept (which he described as “Wagon Train to the stars”), fell into the utopian trap of believing that not only would things change in the future, but human nature would change. The characters of Star Trek are idealized people (not surprising given that they are staffing the flagship of their fleet), when the reality is that we flawed humans make mistakes, have always made mistakes, and will always make mistakes, some even with disastrous consequences. We have to consciously choose to do the right thing, every time we have a choice. That ability to make choices not only makes us human; it gives us reasons to get up in the morning.
In the episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” Captain Kirk has destroyed the computer that allows one planet to wage war with another without using actual weapons; their “war” is a computer game until Kirk puts a stop to it. When the planet’s ruler claims that, like humans, they are “a killer species” and thus unable to not wage war, Kirk answers:
All right — it's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it! We can admit we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that you’re not going to kill … today. Call Vendekar [the other warring planet]; I think you’ll find them just as horrified, shocked, as appalled as you are — willing to do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you — peace or utter destruction. It’s up to you.And on that note … peace. Live long and prosper.