Another World is Possible (Or: Boldly Going Forward ‘Cause We Can’t Find Reverse)

I'll just leave this here.

Watching the original Star Trek series has been akin to uncovering a Rosetta Stone of pop and geek culture. Every tumorous cliche I thought had just developed gradually within fandom over the decades –sudden personality changes, mirror universe goatees, body swaps, “X is now a vampire,” et cetera– all can actually be found not only in the early fanzines, but the show itself.

In its defense, a lot of the rotten, silly, campy-as-hell writing in Star Trek, especially those episodes located in the early first season and most of the third season, is only perceived that way now because of how vastly influential (or at least widely imitated) it has become. It says a lot that I went into this show (or even the Abrams reboot, which I actually watched before any of the original episodes) knowing the names of the entire main cast and most of the gadgets and lingo. We fetishize the hell out of this series, so much so that even if you don’t know a thing about it, you know a lot about it. Especially if you’ve spent any amount of time in women-dominated fan circles. After spending my summer browsing through page after page of Sherlock fanfics about sudden telepathy, brainwashing, werewolves, age regressions, genderswaps and Western re-imaginings, the purple prose and awkward sex scenes, I looked askance at TOS and knew exactly where it all came from.

More to the point: it doesn’t matter what lens you use to study it; Star Trek is a goldmine. And as a lot of my recent study has focused on apparatuses of playful engagement and branded media, it seemed inevitable that I’d get out the leftist academic monocle for Trek eventually.

I had half the work done for me, thanks to one of Kirk/Spock’s most outspoken academic shippers, Henry Jenkins, being one of my professors this semester (we had a shipping conversation on the first day of class… sometimes, my life can be really cool). But far be it from Star Trek to remain the darling of fan studies– it’s also the position of several within otaku studies, namely Hiroki Azuma and (since I like to namedrop him here) my games studies professor William Huber, that Star Trek fandom shares a not-insignificant degree of kinship with otaku, via something that Kojeve calls “animalization.” And that’s what I ended up being drawn toward as a subject: Star Trek as a sociological artifact and my own inevitable relationship to it.

I’ll warn you in advance: this got long.

Mr. Scott, Prepare to Animalize

The most elementary way I can think of to describe “animalization” is as a fundamental change in human motivation, away from some kind of philosophical elevation (and from what I gather, a mode of asceticism) and toward immediate gratification (hedonism). How this gets reflected in mass media is both amazingly complex and very direct. Azuma’s suggestion is that animalization strips narrative of any foundational ideology, leaving only its surface elements: pointy ears, phasers, funny hand gestures and episodic plots, all entered into a database much like the one(s) otaku have set up for their kyara-moe cat ears, knee socks and the like.

Narrative in the database becomes thematically short-sighted. Slice of life, recycled plots, stereotypical emotional beats you can anticipate down to the dialogue exchanges. For Azuma, the ultimate manifestation of database narrative is the visual novel: reused, static backgrounds and character portraits, dialogue trees that can be slightly adjusted to reflect a multitude of different play paths, usually for the purpose of romancing various characters in a largely linear narrative. My personal favorite example, however, is the anime Last Exile–namely, the exact moment when one character kissing another character became a bigger dramatic beat than the entire fucking war, and I stopped watching.

As a result, “animalization” carries connotations of appealing to gut-level and sexual impulses, and that’s another reason it’s hard to talk about it without the term getting very, very charged. Humans generally don’t like to be told they’re acting animalistically (unless you’re some hardcore evolutionary scientist with a scientific explanation for all sapient imperatives–and I find those lectures fascinating, but they still require a grain of salt lest we get sidetracked into some crackpot evo-psych train of reasoning). And to be honest, a lot of my own ambivalence with Azuma (and Kojeve, who originally coined the idea) has to do with an underlying suspicion of some implicit biases coming from the two about what proper versus improper “human culture” is. Kojeve, certainly, is highly judgmental; Azuma I am less sure of, but it’s hard to step away from his Database Animals without getting the impression that somewhere, somehow, animalization denotes a devolution of mankind; a nihilistic trend in a rather deplorable state of affairs where history is dead and our lives are filled with nothing but meaningless images.

Children at the Edge of Forever

It gets worse when you happen to be young enough, like me, that you’ve never actually known what life was like before this described “end of history”–before an era of VCRs and Mona Lisa postage stamps, before the actual digital databases that made concepts like those of Azuma and Lev Manovich into literal metaphors. I (like a lot of you) have grown up getting to watch television programs and movies when and how I want, on my own schedule. When the Internet came to prominence, I had more knowledge accessible at my fingertips than my public school education could ever provide. I had more friends in the UK than in my homeroom.

And then there is the larger picture: I was three years old when the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War was a gibberish term that held no meaning for me until about 8th grade or so. Now, of course, I can recognize that it’s just as meaningless for anyone else who would choose to refer to it, utilizing it as just one more swatch in a vast pastiche of appropriated signs, but I digress. What I mean is that I am quite aware that I am a child who grew up without a sense of history. I’m a working-class brat of a working class family line of Western European immigrants of no particular significance to the narrative of mankind, great or small, and my understanding of socialism is restrained to textbooks. I’ve grown up on branded iconography and patented electronic gizmos, until I identified more with those brands and patents than with my nation, class or community. And I am not by any means singular in that experience. With that in mind, who in my generation would think these patterns of life-as-we-know-it signal some end of human civilization?

(If at this point you’re ready to shoot yourself, don’t worry. First, it’s not that grim, and second, that’s not exactly where Azuma is really going, at least not nowadays. Database Animals was published in 2001; his more recent talks have recanted some of some of his previously-held positions, suggesting instead that a) history is not dead after all and b) these animalized behaviors have a way of democratizing taste.

Also I’m about to get back on track with Star Trek any paragraph now.)

(A Mister Brainwash "piece".)

Geek subculture, as a subset of that brand identification, gave me a place of belonging. Part of how I was able to fall into the universe of Star Trek as easily as I did was that I’d grown up with Trekker friends (not Trekkie, thank you very much) and other media which continually quoted the shows visually or thematically. For at least 15 years, from when I first logged onto AOL at age 10 to find anime chatrooms and game-related BBSes, I’ve been fully immersed in the lingua franca of the database, much of which came accented in Trek.

I don’t pretend that my personal feelings of belonging and validation absolve any sort of social critiques that could be leveled by Azuma or anyone else. But when, one night earlier this semester, Professor Huber stunned me into silence with the suggestion that Trek –my new obsession, the hallowed pillar of all things sacred in fan studies– was a component of this charged word “animalization,” I availed upon myself from then on to stop reading Star Trek in the language I already knew (that of the fan perspective, the consumer-of-branded-media perspective) and to start reading it how I should have from the beginning: as an artifact from a time before the so-called death of history. A language in which I was not by any stretch of the imagination fluent.

Another World is Possible

The more I watched TOS using this lens, the more depressing it seemed to get. Messages of pacifism, tolerance, a universe so beyond racism as to grapple with it as a foreign concept –however muddled by all of Kirk’s cowboy diplomacy and pre-sexual revolution gender politics– were alien in a way I could never have expected. This was a sci-fi that not just fantasized about a coming space age; it idealized the future of humanity in a way that constantly reinforced not just how difficult but how worth it the future would be.

CHEKOV: After all, we are only human.
LOKAI: Ah, Mister Chekov, therein lies my lack of ability to alert you and your captain to the real threat of someone like Bele. You see, you are from the planet Earth. There is no persecution on your planet. How can you understand my fear, my apprehension, my degradation, my suffering?
CHEKOV: There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class.

-“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”

Now, granted, the closer you look at the world of Star Trek, the less glamorous it becomes. This isn’t an inclusive society beyond all fear and hate but a sanitized, whitewashed, male-dominated, Western- and heteronormative society that can’t even begin to count all of its underlying flaws. For as strenuously as it might have tried to create a perfect society, TOS is bounded by the shortsightedness of the era in which it was written–we can accept that, as well as recognize what an amazing effort it was in the context of that same era of production. More than once I marveled at things the show does that you probably couldn’t get away with without a fight even in a modern television show–things like Kirk being pro-choice (“Mark of Gideon”) or Spock methodically (and without challenge) laying out the correct, textbook definition of evolution (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”). So didactic, so message-y, so the sort of utopian, liberal, pro-science television that can’t be written anymore.

Of course, this kind of writing shouldn’t be uncritically reproduced in any event. It’s not realistic. It fails to attend to the many nuances of routinized, systemic discrimination that, if you were to evaluate them as a complete apparatus, might drive you to consider either killing yourself or nuking it all from orbit. The fact that the exchange above with Chekov and Lokai is followed shortly after by Kirk telling Uhura to pipe down, and that this is a systematic situation in the show, wherein Uhura is an excessively diligent secretary whom Kirk can acknowledge or ignore at his discretion, only further reveals how little the writers of TOS were sometimes able to see what lay right under their noses.

(And yet, and yet, and yet.)

“Fair for it’s day” is right. I don’t mean to get into an argument with anyone about what TOS did right or did wrong by social liberalism from a retrospective viewpoint. I’ve done my best to outline some recurring concerns and counterpoints here, but Uhura’s role and significance in the show is neither up for debate nor the overarching point of this rambling essay of mine. It’s a given that the sexual politics of TOS are FUBAR. What this given does allow for is to further shade our reading of The Animated Series, which (according to some interpretations) covers the fourth and maybe fifth years of the Enterprise‘s five-year mission and is more or less treated as canon now, if dubious canon at times. But more significantly, it was produced in the 1970s and it really, really shows.

Bam– “The Lorelei Signal”. All the men of the Enterprise fall prey to an interspace radio transmission, leaving Uhura to take command of the bridge essentially by force and send an all-women rescue team to rescue Kirk and the other helpless menfolk.

Bam– “The Slaver Weapon”. Spock, noting that the primitive kzinti will fail to recognize women as a threat, suggests to Uhura (after disclaiming that he certainly values her intelligence very much–not the first time he’s paid her high compliments, either) to take advantage of this and totally kick their furry asses.

Bam– “Bem”. She’s in command again, taking charge while no one bats an eye around her.

All three of these examples obviously seem incredibly dated under the terms of modern feminism. They all come with their own problems (needing to empower women by depowering men, finding advantage through exploiting stereotypes) and there are plenty of other episodes with less than stellar representation that help put these instances in a different perspective. Still–what a difference a few years and a change of medium make.

And while we’re on the subject of TAS highlights, “Bem” might actually be the source of some of my favorite writing in the franchise thus far. (Not one-liners– that will always go to Kirk in “The Empath”: “The best defense is a good offense and I intend to start offending right now.” SUCH A MARVELOUS LINE.) At first I was resistant to the animated episodes for having such a different tone, but I think the few years’ reflection that Roddenberry et al had going into TAS resulted in some of the best self-aware, tapping-the-fourth-wall exchanges.

KIRK: How come we always end up like this?
SPOCK: I assume that’s a rhetorical question, Captain, not requiring an answer.
KIRK: I was just expressing my curiosity at our ability to get into these kind of situations.
SPOCK: Fate, Captain. Fate.
KIRK: Fate, Spock?
SPOCK: I believe that is the correct Earth term.

God, seriously. This series is so underserved by its terrible animation.

TAS does usually continue the themes of pacifism, human advancement and tolerance first advanced by TOS –with a dash of proto-feminism thrown in for good measure– and comparatively fewer Western-normativity moments. TAS also at times does something so ballsy and ambitious my jaw just drops– like an episode where Satan is a sympathetic character. They are not often geared toward children, and when they do trend in that direction is when the show actually starts to feel uncomfortable.

To its detriment, the 24-minute format of TAS episodes means way less time on character for the sake of plot. It’s pretty much sanitized of all sexual subplots as well. I can’t even remember any kissing until the series finale, and that was between a pair of elderly one-shot characters who were in an established relationship. Even Kirk and Spock don’t get enough screen time for their subtext. I don’t read this as censorship, seeing as the series is otherwise much more ambitious in some respects (given constraints of budget and that horrible, horrible limited animation), and the one episode where we do encounter a character who, in the original series, would have been Kirk’s girl of the week, Kirk doesn’t play ball at all. It’s not just that those Norwegian animators had difficulty drawing two characters physically interacting in any way that denied us the expected Shatner make-out sessions–it feels like one of the genuine moments of character development in the cartoon.

(But there’s me, switching on the slash fangirl side of the brain again. Down, girl. You still have the movies to get through.)

Some Kind of Thesis

(photo credit: Spencer Pitt, Getty Images.)

Had I come around to taking a critical look at the series earlier, I’m sure I’d have more to say about the socioeconomic and political context in which TOS and TAS emerged. (I’m not even getting into the space hippies episode. Jumped the space shark, indeed.) As it is, the exercise still did a lot to illustrate something my professor has been trying to teach me about the role of the larger superstructure of culture plays in the kind of stories which get told. What is really beautiful, I’ve found, about the original Star Trek isn’t the diverse casting –though that’s awesome– or the amazing homoerotic subtext –though I ain’t complaining– but the attitude it hammered home as didactically as it pleased in almost every episode. Another, better world is possible, if humanity would only just evolve beyond its own pettiness and barbarism. It might not even be exactly the world we’re showing you, but it’s gotta be better than what you’re in right now.

That was never something I got from discussions of the series from a media studies or fan perspective. (Well, almost never. I recall one of my Trekker friends giving me a few lectures in my teenage years about just how meaningful the show was to him, but radical rhetoric never seemed to enter into it.) Mostly, we hear about Kirk/Spock and phasers and Klingons. And hey, as a fan, I love all of those things. But I try to compare TOS to what I see in the media of my generation, and I keep coming up short on any sort of grand narrative about human development or meaning. Even my own SF&F worlds, of which I’ve built far too many since childhood, seemed to continually boil down to “people suck and care about nothing.”

(A character model from Eclipse Phase, the system on which my tabletop setting is based.)

I tried taking this to a logical extreme in my game studies class under Huber, writing up a tabletop campaign in which transhumanity has been so thoroughly ravaged by hyper-capitalism that the only history they have anymore is a legacy of branding. It’s designed as the antithesis of TOS: a dirty, unpalatable future of squabbling, prejudiced, violently divisive and cutthroat humans who have been, by either coincidence or vote, rejected by the galactic community. Real animals, who describe their ascendency into a spacefaring race not as a Singularity or anything so fanciful but as the Great Shuffling Forward. Anyone who doesn’t see this as the current future of space exploration hasn’t read up on the privatization of what used to be our great unifying narrative of national technological progress.

But my players care more about the space they can monkey around in than the political context in which the space emerges… and that’s fine. I do agree that by and large we plug into ideas through stories, and I love using space (in many senses of the word) to tell those stories. But then I read calls to arms like this one by SF author Neal Stephenson, saying that science fiction needs to give people hope again, and I rather think he’s right. And that I’m part of the problem by not helping to make that happen, even in some tiny, local way.

I watch Star Trek and feel sad that reality is shaping up to resemble science fiction only in the most material, pointless of ways: holograms and gene modification and quantum teleportation. But a world where persecution is some vague thing you learn about in history class, that’s pure fantasy. The fact that even that we can only apparently conceive of in narrow cultural terms is even more disconcerting, but really, it’s the obsession on fetishware that seems like the biggest derailment. I think somewhere along the way we got our priorities messed up.

Anyway, I’m all finished with the animated episodes as of today, so that means next in line are the six TOS movies, and then Next Generation. I know; at this rate I’ll be finished watching everything by the time I’m forty, but I only know one way to get my cultural capital and that’s by being an absolute geek about things. (Besides, maybe by the time I’m forty we’ll have robot bodies.) I would promise that my TNG run will be a bit more in-depth, but I don’t know if anyone could take 200 deep readings out of me about anything, far less utopian communist space navies and rubber forehead aliens.

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  • gautham  On 10.18.11 at 11:00 am

    It’s unfortunate that your Trek fan friends never articulated how hopeful, outlandish, and downright political Trek could be. I hope you revisit these topics when you get to Deep Space 9, when (for all that show’s failures) the utopian claims of early Trek are subjected to a cynical and critical reformulation.

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