The Secret of Star Trek
Updated: Jul 25
Yes, there is a secret to Star Trek, and I’ll tell you! (I first wrote about this at trekmovie in 2015.)
Years ago I went to a panel about Star Trek, and the moderator asked the question, what’s the appeal of Star Trek? Why’s it so popular after all these years?
And the answer was, well, it’s an optimistic future. That was Gene Roddenberry’s vision, and a great one. So much science fiction is dystopian and awful, here was somebody saying no, the future is going to be great. Humanity will perfect itself and travel to the stars.
Roddenberry told Jonathan Frakes, when he auditioned for the part of Riker, “In the future, there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all of the children will know how to read.”
That’s great. We love it. We need Star Trek. We need that vision of an optimistic future.
But there’s more to it. And the secret of Star Trek is more than just an optimistic future. It’s actually hiding in plain right, right in Roddenberry’s words.
Star Trek is about children. I’m not saying Star Trek is for children, but it is about them.
This is the secret to Star Trek.
Star Trek is about the anxiety and fear that children have, about what will happen to me when I grow up? I see all these grown-ups out in the world—what will it be like when I’m one of them? What will I do? How will I take care of myself?
Think back to when you were a child. Your knowledge of the adult world is so narrow. There’s something called work that grown-ups do all day. Mommies and Daddies make babies, somehow.
The adult world is overwhelming. It’s bizarre. And it’s frightening. It’s easy to wonder, how will I ever be one of those adults?
And Star Trek says: don’t worry, you will. It’ll be okay.
Because Star Trek is an idealized world of adults as children would understand it.
Look at the world of Starfleet. Everybody has a job. What that job is, who really knows—look at these control panels, do they actually seem to do anything?
Then again, do these?
I love how people on Star Trek have like three hobbies: archaeology, theater and classical music. They go to a bar that’s stone-cold quiet, like a library. (The new shows have, finally, updated this a bit.)
Adults on Star Trek don’t act like actual human adults. And here’s proof:
What is the single most defining aspect of adult life?
Well, what do couples always fight about? Money. There is no money on Star Trek.
Yeah, Ferengi like gold-pressed latinum—but that kind of proves the point, because they’re weird, silly aliens.
What’s the second-most defining aspect of adult life?
Sex. There is no sex on Star Trek.
Okay, sure, there are love stories—but the sex is implied. It’s off-screen. Sort of naughty and mysterious, the way children would understand it.
Irvin Kershner explained about directing a Star Wars movie, everything is treated like a fairy tale, especially romance. If two people kiss, it like an entire sex scene.
Star Trek does not feature adult human behavior. You may think it does, but seriously, it doesn’t.
And I’m not being a hater. Everything I’m telling you is in the truest spirit of what Star Trek is: it’s about understanding what we don’t know. It’s about growing up.
The Sopranos features adult human behavior. Mad Men. The Wire. Breaking Bad. Complicated feelings of jealousy, envy, fear, greed, lust.
Look what Ron Moore did after Star Trek—Battlestar Galactica. That actually is a sci-fi show about grown-ups.
But not Star Trek.
It wasn’t always the case, because in the 1960s, television was a lot less sophisticated. Star Trek was basically action-adventure, with a lot of the same conventions as westerns. This was before All in the Family, before Hill Street Blues. TV was so limited creatively, especially due to censorship, that Roddenberry wanted to do a space show so he could talk about serious issues as metaphors.
But if you look at the Original Series, there are really only three characters with any kind of dimension: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Everybody else is basically a chair, a job and maybe an accent or an ethnicity. Most of them didn’t even have first names.
By the end of the 1970s, Roddenberry was a rock star from conventions—and he started to smoke his own press releases. He really liked money, and he liked attention. For The Next Generation, he decreed that in the future, people would be perfect.
Which drove the writers crazy because you can’t do drama without conflict—and you can’t have conflict without negative human behavior. If everybody’s happy and gets along, there’s no story!
But Roddenberry was right. His vision filled a hunger in the audience that they might not even have known that they had.
The audience wasn’t there to see adult human behavior. They were there to experience a fantasy of a world without it.
There will be no hunger and there will be no greed—and the children won’t just know how to read, they’ll be the ones in charge.
However, if you tell stories where the human adults aren’t allowed to act like human adults, you get a lot of really weird displacement. Unfortunately, the adult characters become dangerously “flat.”
Look at the human characters in The Next Generation. After seven years and four movies, what did we learn about Riker except he played trombone (because the actor did)? He’s from Alaska, but is that really a character trait? What did we learn about Crusher? That she liked dance choreography—again, because the actor did?
What did we learn about Geordi La Forge? He’s blind, so once every five episodes he sees a plot point with his Visor. The chief engineer on the flagship of the fleet, a good-looking guy—and he can’t get a date? What is he, forty?
These are not human adults. They are adults the way children understand them.
Children understand grown-ups by their jobs, their clothes—surface details. What chair they sit in at Mommy’s office. Not character. Not who is an alcoholic or who had an affair.
We protect children from the ugly and unpleasant world of adult behavior. As well we should.
Look at technobabble: what is this except a parody of how children hear when grown-ups talk? “Hey, Bob, if I reverse the Enion field polarity and run it through the positronic matrix, I can do my taxes in time. Oh, and honey, can you call the plumber? Have him do a level-one diagnostic on the septic tank.”
You know who agrees with me? Pretty much all of the actors and writers.
If you’ve read any of the making-of Star Trek books, which are like bedtime stories, you know that Star Trek always had a difficult time finding writers. Especially in the early years of TNG, countless writers threw up their hands in frustration and either quit or were fired.
Eventually, a few key people understood the format and groomed their own staffs. The show solicited story ideas and scripts from fans and even made a number of them into big-time TV creators. It was like an NFL coaching tree.
The writers figured out a different way to create drama. Rule number one: if all of our characters are perfect, we have to find drama someplace else. So we find it outside. Robots and aliens and God-like entities and spatial anomalies. Weird space creatures doing destructive things—but not really, because we just don’t understand them yet.
And that’s the most wonderful thing about Star Trek: we don’t defeat our enemies. We understand them.
That’s a great lesson for children!
I’m not saying, Star Trek is for dumb children. On the contrary, it’s for very smart children. It’s for the best versions of ourselves that we remember from when we were little people, with open hearts and open minds.
We just want to do the right thing and have somebody please teach us, how do we get along in the galaxy?
So this is where we really prove our point. The most important characters in Star Trek? They aren’t the captains. The captain is the star, but it’s always the weird alien or robot who is the most important, who gets the most fan mail and is the subject of the most episodes.
Because these characters—the aliens and robots and half-breeds—play the actual human beings. They are versions of human children who are struggling to become adults.
In Star Trek, the human characters are fantasies. They are so well put-together they might as well be robots. But the actual robots or aliens or half-human, half-something-else loners and weirdos—they are the actual humans.
The three best examples, because they are so clear:
Spock is a repressed child. He has emotions but claims not to. He’s super smart and has cool powers—who is not fascinated by Spock?
Data is a child who is on the autism spectrum. He doesn’t understand human feelings but wants to. And he has also awesome powers, like he can count to a zillion super fast.
Worf is the angry child with deep passions and temper whose parents come from a warrior culture that is not entirely accepted. He has deep feelings that he is afraid won’t be understood.
These are the three archetypes of Star Trek alien characters:
Trying not to express emotion (Spock)
Not having emotion even though he wants to, he just doesn’t understand it (Data)
And having lots of emotion and wanting to express it, but being afraid it’s not socially acceptable (Worf)
And gee, Worf is played by an African American actor, with dark skin and a deep voice.
And Spock and Data are played by Jewish actors, outsiders in white America—I mean Starfleet.
These are the most famous and popular characters because they are the ones with actual, relatable human emotion. They have conflict. They have journeys. They have the full gamut of positive and negative humanity inside of them—and they confront it and interact with it and grow from it.
And thus, we have the most episodes and the best episodes about these characters.
This was not always planned. They knew Data would be the break-out character, but Michael Dorn was the last actor cast on The Next Generation. He was basically as an afterthought until Denise Crosby left. But slowly they realized they had storytelling gold on their hands, so much so that they even brought him onto Deep Space Nine.
All the subsequent alien characters are pretty much variations on these three. Seven of Nine is all three things at the same time: repressed, on the spectrum, and angry. Sexy but somehow sexless.
It’s almost like she was cheesecake just to get ratings, but that couldn’t have been on purpose, could it?
Keep in mind, it’s not enough for the character to be alien, the character has to be somehow conflicted over his or her humanity. Deanna Troi is half alien and can feel people’s emotions. Cool idea. Except on screen, it was totally annoying.
You can’t take a female lead, make her strong and competent, and then give her the cliché of a hysterical feminine melt-down. Strangely, that character would only work if it was a man. And it briefly did:
Also, Quark on DS9. The exception that proves the rule, because Ferengis traffic in money and dabo girls—who, I’m sorry, are they hookers or not hookers? So he’s like the token adult, up to his neck in sex and money.
Also, the parallels of Ferengi as Jews always weirded me out. The writers and actors always denied it...but it seems pretty obvious to me.
Anytime you have children’s entertainment or family entertainment and it stars adult characters, they’re going to behave in a childlike way. Look at the Marvel movies. Their superheroes act like a bunch of little boys.
And look at when anybody dies in the Marvel movies, and it’s meant to be serious. It’s handled like taking little Billy to Grandma’s funeral. Just like Star Trek. “She’s really not dead, as long as we remember her”—you think? This is how kids deal with death, not grown-ups.
Finally, the single most memorable and interesting human character in Star Trek. No, not Captain Kirk—Captain Picard. The ultimate father figure. He’s wise, caring and diplomatic. Powerful, but using his power for good, not for evil. You know what he does? He confronts bullies and finds creative ways to make them nice.
If only there had been a Captain Picard around the playground when I was a kid! And what a great actor—white, straight and male, totally bald, with an English accent even though he’s French for some reason.
He’s embodiment of power, but good: the fantasy of how we want power to behave.
Picard has no kids of his own, which makes him a father to all of humanity. If the world was full of Captain Picards, this really could be a utopia. We’d have heaven on Earth. There would be no hunger. There would be no greed. And all the children would know how to read.
Until they had to make a movie:
I want to credit a book that came out in the ‘90s, Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek, for a lot of the ideas that I’m shamelessly ripping off. You can get it cheap at Amazon.
Please, don’t send me hate mail. I love Star Trek. It’s a major part of my life. All I’m asking is that we look a little more critically at tone, and understand how it applies to storytelling.
This is a Steven Spielberg movie with Nazis—
And this is a Steven Spielberg movies with Nazis. They’re both great and important, albeit in different ways.
We need great stories, for kids, and teens, and grown-ups, and everywhere in between.
And we need them not to be stupid!