Contains spoilers for the original Star Trek and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and minor spoilers for other Star Trek franchises. There are no spoilers relating to the new Star Trek movie.
No television show has had greater influence on science fiction than Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, which has given rise to six different TV series and eleven feature films. Sold to TV executives as “Wagon Train to the stars”, Roddenberry told his friends he was creating a modern version of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels – stories that would work as an exciting adventure story on the surface, but as a morality tale on a deeper level. Although the original series was cancelled in 1969 after just three seasons due to low ratings, it enjoyed tremendous support from science fiction fans and over the years that followed worked its way into popular culture. When the Harve Bennett Star Trek films, starting with Wrath of Khan in 1982, successfully revived the fortunes of the franchise it paved the way for new TV series based upon the original show.
The highest rated of these spin-off TV series was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was set seventy years after the original show and featured an entirely new cast, although four of the 1960's Star Trek stars were to guest on the show and its movie successors. The pilot episode aired in 1987 and pulled in 27 million viewers, while the finale seven years later attracted 27.8 million viewers – the most-watched science fiction TV finale of all time. Roddenberry was personally involved in establishing the new format, but his declining health led to him handing the reins over to Rick Berman two years later.
Overtly, Star Trek: The Next Generation is quite secular in its approach, with its morality (delivered during its first two seasons in a painfully clumsy manner) being a coupling of humanist ethics and the political notion of Westphalian sovereignty, known in Star Trek terms as the Prime Directive. Yet the series and its successors enjoy tremendous support from religious fans, particularly Christians. A likely reason for this is that the ethics of secular humanists and modern Christians concord to a great degree; as the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, they are “brothers under the skin”, having emerged over the centuries from the reform of Latin Christendom.
Thus, despite and because of the absence on-screen references to the religious affiliation of the characters, it is perfectly possible for the viewer to imagine religion playing a part in the lives of the crew of the Enterprise off-camera. So a Catholic Trekkie might imagine Deanna Troi, the half-empath, half-thesaurus ship's counsellor, taking a trip to a holodeck confessional after a particularly unhelpful day on the bridge, and telling her virtual confessor that she feels “guilt, shame, remorse”. This capacity for the viewer to fill in the metaphysical gaps allows both atheists and theists to connect to a common ethical stance in the shows (although those who sway more to a neo-Nietzchean morality tend to find the incessant moralising and hand-wringing utterly infuriating!)
The secular veneer successfully conceals Roddenberry's own views on religion for the most part, although critical analysis repeatedly shows up an anti-religious thread in the shows he was involved in. Yvonne Fern (wife of the original show's producer Herbert F. Solow) interviewed Roddenberry shortly before his death, and challenged him on his position in respect of religion. She asked:
You're liberal and tolerant – about racial equality, abortion, homosexuality, women's rights, sex, all the popular issues – but when you meet up with, say, a Baptist, for example, you will unhesitatingly condemn him to oblivion. You choose your points of tolerance very carefully. It seems to me that when you say you've evolved beyond something, that's just another way of saying that whatever you are beyond, or think you are, is by definition inferior, that your views are superior.
I never meant to give that impression. If I did, then I will correct it. I condemn charlatans. I condemn false prophets. I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will – and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.
This antagonism towards traditional religion manifests itself in the original Star Trek show by means of a recurrent plot concept – that of the ‘false gods’ story, in which god-like entities (quite often super-computers) are destroyed or unmasked. This plot appears in numerous episodes of the original show including “Return of the Archons”, “The Apple”, “The Paradise Syndrome”, “And the Children Shall Lead” and “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”. Of these episodes, “Return of the Archons” is the most explicitly hostile to organised religion: an “all-seeing, all knowing” entity known as Landru deploys people known as lawgivers (priests) to absorb people into “The Body”, a repressive telepathic collective. Kirk and Spock reveal Landru to be (surprise!) a super-computer, and defeat it by the infamous “non-sequitur” plot device whereby the computers of the future are strangely prone to self-destruct when delivered contradictory information. The episode was based upon a story suggested by Roddenberry himself.
Yet religion does manage to creep into the original show's corners. In “Balance of Terror”, we see that the enterprise has a chapel containing various religious symbols, including a cross. In “That Which Survives”, a lieutenant has a traditional Hindu bindi symbol upon her forehead. In “The Empath”, Dr. Ozaba quotes from Psalms. In “Who Mourns for Adonis” Kirk notes: “Man has no need for gods. We find the one quite sufficient.” And most bizarrely, in the episode “Bread and Circuses”, the Enterprise visits a planet which has a society which parallels ancient Rome but with twentieth century technology. Not only does McCoy state that the crew represents many beliefs, in the conclusion of the episode it is discovered that the “sun worshippers” of Magna Roma are actually son worshippers, that is, followers of Jesus: as Kirk comments at the end of the show: “Caesar ... and Christ; they had them both...” It's a finale impossible to imagine in a modern science fiction television show.
When the franchise was handed over to Rick Berman and Michael Piller in the summer of 1989, it began to alter its attitude towards portraying religion. The most marked break from ‘Trek tradition’ came with the creation of the next TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, set on a space station orbiting the planet of Bajor (which first appeared in the Next Generation episode “Ensign Ro”). The Bajorans are portrayed as a deeply spiritual people with a religion drawn from many influences, including Hinduism with which it shares in common a “Festival of Lights”, and the name for a Bajoran priest – Vedek – is resonant of the term “vedic” referring to the Vedas, a Hindu sacred text. Nana Visitor became the first Star Trek star to portray a character of faith (unless one counts Worf's sketchy relations with Klingon religion), in the role of Major Kira Nerys, a quick-tempered former terrorist who constantly faces conflicts between her religious beliefs and her duties.
Bringing religion into the forefront of Deep Space Nine had a number of notable effects. Firstly, it undermined to some extent the ability for individuals to project their own metaphysics into the gaps of the show, since by showing an alien religion, it tended to demonstrate more clearly that the Federation is largely absent of religion. However, this is more than compensated for by the greater depth and breadth of themes that the show was thus able to explore – Star Trek's capacity to take on the social issues of the day and project them into a science fiction was greatly enhanced by being able to tackle both religion and spirituality, and this allowed for stories that showed the treacherous interface between politics and religion.
An example of this is the first season finale “In the Hands of the Prophets”, which focuses on a conflict between Vedek Winn, brilliantly portrayed by Louise Fletcher (best known as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Kieko O'Brien who runs the school on the station. The gods of the Bajoran religion, known as “The Prophets” are encountered by station commander Benjamin Sisko in the pilot episode, and interpreted in typically scientific terms as “wormhole aliens”. Vedek Winn thus accuses the school of blasphemy by teaching that the Prophets are merely trans-dimensional beings. Fletcher's role worked so well in this episode she was to return as a recurring character throughout the show, her political machinations never falling into cartoon villainy, but instead showing a highly believable religious malleability, always able to make her religion work for her benefit. As Jimmy Aiken has observed, she is even able to deliver the line “Heretic!” in a later episode with absolute aplomb – something few TV shows could plausibly facilitate!
The Prophets themselves are something of a mixed bag. At their worst, especially in later episodes, they descend into a ridiculous ‘good gods versus evil gods’ pastiche which repeatedly falls flat, as in episodes such as “The Reckoning” which tries to set up a climactic show down between the Prophets and the ‘evil Pah Wraiths’ but always feels terribly hokey. However, at their best, their existence as entities who exist outside of time, and do not understand linear time, creates an eerie atmosphere which plays well in episodes such as “Image in the Sand” and “Shadows and Symbols” (the opening episodes in the show's final season) and provides the set-up for “Far Beyond the Stars”, widely considered to be one of the finest Star Trek episodes ever aired, in which Sisko has an intense vision of his being a black science fiction writer in 1950s New York City, facing intense prejudice from the editor and owner of the pulp magazine he works for.
The tendency towards a greater willingness to deal with religious issues continues in the following series, Star Trek: Voyager, which frequently deals with questions of spirituality (although rarely in the context of recognisable religions). This show also features the first openly spiritual human to appear in a Star Trek show in the form of Robert Beltran's Chakotay, although as Bernd Schneider has pointed out his religion comes across more as a “conglomerate of New Age rituals” rather than as anything palpable. There are a number of interesting perspectives on spirituality explored throughout the show's run, including the idea of the Borg having a “religion of perfection”, although it also falls into more traditional Star Trek territory with episodes such as “False Profits” and “Distant Origin”, a Galileo-esque story which offers nothing new, but is at least an entertaining tale.
One final aspect of the connection between Star Trek and religion should be addressed in closing: the intensity of fandom the franchise has fostered does itself border on the religious. Trekkies and Trekkers may not consider their dedication to be religious, but sociologically it is at least a nonreligion (like Marxism), as Michael Jindra has observed in a detailed account published in the journal Sociology of Religion in 1994. Jindra concludes:
ST fandom does not have the thoroughgoing seriousness of established religions, but it is also not mere entertainment. This interplay of seriousness and entertainment, I argue, is a sign of its vitality. The communities, both symbolic and geographic, that are formed by ST fandom are evidence of the ongoing sacralization of elements of our modernist culture that express hope in the future. It is a phenomenon that relates to deep-seated American beliefs about the nature of humankind, the world and its future, and encourages the practices that parallel religious processes of codifying, forming a community and developing institutions to guide its practices.
Thus, in an ultimate irony, Gene Roddenberry's anti-religious humanism ultimately resulted in a new form of humanist nonreligion, one in which his own faith in the future potential of humanity has been taken up by legions of followers – both religious and otherwise – who believe in the dream that mankind might yet “boldly go where no-one has gone before”.
Next week: Doctor Who
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.