You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 39: Star Trek and Global IR

Star Trek and Global IR

The original Star Trek television series, which aired from 1966 to 1969, spawned movies, sequels, and an entire pop culture universe. Along the way, the show and its successors have used their futuristic settings to animate a universe that both reflects and challenges the attitudes of their viewers. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson joins us to discuss Star Trek, popular culture, and international relations.

Professor Jackson tells us why Star Trek appeals to him as an international affairs scholar (2:36) and some of the metaphors the original Star Trek contained that related to multilateral agreements or organizations (5:56). He also discusses in what ways he thinks Star Trek, either the original show or its successors, anticipated the movement within international relations known as Global IR (10:57).

Why did a show that tried so hard to show humanity at its best seem to sometimes rely on offensive stereotypes (20:52)? Is there a case to be made that Deep Space Nine was essentially an indictment of American exceptionalism (26:14)? Professor Jackson answers these questions and explains why he thinks this show and this world, originally created by Gene Roddenberry, still resonates with so many people (29:49).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Jackson tells us the the five politically relevant Star Trek episodes everyone should watch, and why (14:59).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters.

0:15      KS: On September 8, 1966, Americans heard for the first time, the exhortation...

0:26 William Shatner: To boldly go where no man has gone before.

0:26      KS: I'm speaking, of course, about the premiere of the original Star Trek television series, which aired from 1966 to 1969 and spawned movies, sequels, and an entire pop culture universe. Along the way, the show, led by creator Gene Roddenberry's vision, has used its futuristic science fiction setting to animate a universe that both reflects and challenges the attitudes of its contemporaneous viewers.

0:51      KS: The show imagined a future for humanity that was more diverse and ecumenical than its present reality in the '60s. It's pop culture, for sure, but pop culture has within its power, the ability to push the envelope in society in ways that may take decades to realize.

1:08      KS: So today, we're talking about Star Trek, and we're going to have some fun with that. We're going to geek out. But we're also talking about how Star Trek's various iterations over the decades have foreshadowed a movement within international relations known as Global IR.

1:23      KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson. Patrick is a professor at the School of International Service. He researches culture and agency, international relations theory, civilizations in world politics, and most importantly for our discussion today, popular culture and international relations or IR. Patrick, thanks for joining Big World.

1:44      Patrick Thaddeus Jackson: Thanks for having me, Kay. It's always fun to have a conversation about things that are both serious but also a little fun at the same time.

1:53      KS: Absolutely, yes. I look forward to these a lot. Star Trek, the original series, which aired from 1966 to '69, is often cited as a show that broke ground in terms of representing a more diverse cross-section of humanity with Black and Asian characters in regular roles. It also presented a view of humanity as a species that had overcome our tendency toward war and conflict and built a society based on exploration and humanitarianism.

2:23      KS: International relations scholars have looked at a number of aspects of Star Trek over the years, and you yourself have written about the show. So to get us started, tell me why does Star Trek appeal to you as an international affairs scholar?

2:36      PTJ: One way that Star Trek appeals to me as somebody interested in international studies is that Star Trek is a depiction of the very things that we talk about in international relations scholarship all the time, except it does it through a fictional, futuristic setting. So you have encounters with aliens, you have questions of political relations between different groups, right? The central organizing umbrella for humanity and associated species in Star Trek is, of course, the Federation, which immediately puts us in mind of other kinds of federal systems.

3:14      PTJ: So there are all of these notions that we scholars like to utilize in our quote-unquote, "real work," when we're analyzing real world events, but Star Trek takes those things and explores some of those very same issues in a way that is, I won't say less theoretically profound, but I will say, maybe less freighted with the particular nuances of abstruse scholarly speech, if I can put it that way. So you end up with some of the same kinds of themes being treated in ways that are more broadly accessible and don't require quite as much of an entry cost in terms of background reading and so on. So that's one thing I find really appealing about Star Trek, about a lot of good science fiction, but Star Trek in particular.

4:01      PTJ: The other reason I find Star Trek really appealing as an international studies scholar is the way that Star Trek is... I have to be careful here. There's a kind of underlying Americanness to Star Trek, in that Star Trek picks up a number of themes that are on display in other parts of American political national identity and portrays them in this galactic scale. So Star Trek itself is not just expressing certain kinds of international relations theoretical notions, Star Trek is also a kind of intervention into an ongoing set of political discussions about what America, what the world, should be.

4:50      PTJ: It's no accident that a series that starts in 1966 during some fairly tense periods of the Cold War, if we look at this and we note that as of the second season, there was a Russian serving on the bridge of the Enterprise, right? So Chekov was not in the first season, but he shows up in the second season. That's a very clear political statement to Americans during the middle of the Cold War, "Hey, look, here is a future in which the Cold War, the defining architecture of global politics for the United States at the time, had been transcended."

5:29      KS: And Patrick, you mentioned that, we're going to talk about it a little bit later, sort of the extent to which humanity was a stand in for Americans on the show. Even the newest newbie to Star Trek knows about the United Federation of Planets, which is kind of the ultimate multilateral organization. What are some of the metaphors the original Star Trek contained that related to international relations and multilateral agreements or organizations?

5:56      PTJ: Well, you put your finger on probably the most important one, Kay, to start out with, which is that the United Federation of Planets is, in the cosmology of the show, is a direct descendant of the United Nations, to the point of being headquartered in San Francisco, where the UN charter was originally signed.

6:16      PTJ: The Federation is the United Nations, a particularly American version of the United Nations. It has a president. It has a parliament that's basically Congress. It is effectively a universalizing of an American mode of political organization, which expands by having other people join the Federation. And so you end up with the Federation, including the humans, but also the Vulcans and a number of other species who are part of the Federation. Though, it's still headquartered on earth, still headquartered in San Francisco in the United States. So it's like the United States can be part of the world as long as the world looks sort of like the United States. And that is very strongly in evidence throughout the series.

7:06      PTJ: I think you also get just the very fact that Roddenberry based a lot of the idea of Star Trek in a kind of Western wagon train type series, right? There are a lot of similarities, formal similarities, between Star Trek and something like Gunsmoke say, where it's, "Here is a group of intrepid explorers out there on the frontier negotiating things and trying to figure out how do we bring law and order out here into the frontier?" So until very recently, none of the Star Trek series were set at the core of power. They were set at the margins.

7:48      PTJ: Kirk and company are out on that five-year exploration mission, even though Picard, in Picard's Enterprise in the Star Trek Next Generation series, comes back to earth a little bit more often. Still, the Enterprise is the flagship that's out there on the perimeter of someplace. And that's a very American notion of the frontier. And the idea that the real action is at the farthest extent of where civilization takes you, and you should be out there kind of adventuring on the frontier and seeing what you can discover. That kind of frontier spirit runs through Star Trek. So that's another very American metaphor, I think, that is baked into the series.

8:34      KS: And they're always getting in trouble, right? I mean, whatever the crew of the Enterprise, whichever show, they're always getting in trouble. And if there is one villain that is consistent throughout all of the episodes, all the different shows, it's the admirals of Starfleet. I mean, there is something very anti-authoritary built into the DNA of Star Trek that I think is interesting for all of its portrayal of multilateral organizations. There is definitely kind of an idea that the more military an operation looks, the worse it acts.

9:08      PTJ: Yes. It's an interesting balance between a very American skepticism of politics and the folks back in the center. You think about all of the anti-Washington rhetoric that's utilized to mobilize the base of whatever political party in different parts of the country for electoral purposes. There's some of that built into Star Trek, this skepticism about what the people at the top are thinking. And it's always the people on the ground who understand better, even if the people on the ground are the privileged elite. So Picard and Kirk and all of these others, these captains are people who are coming from this very regimented military training. And they are part of this regimented military system, but there is a very American healthy skepticism about eggheads, bureaucrats, experts, and people in charge. So you do get that.

10:08      PTJ: The times, more pronounced even in the old series, the times that Kirk goes off on his own and does things that he feels are right, and those are the things we should be doing. That's happening all the time. And Picard is usually a little more careful about staying within the rules, but still he has his own interpretation of what those things mean. And we as the viewers, are always meant to sympathize with the captains. We're always meant to sympathize with the people who are not at the center of power, we're meant to sympathize with these explorers out on the perimeter. And that's always the way that the series is written. The point of view is always to push us out towards those folks.

10:47      KS: Patrick, in what ways do you think Star Trek, either the original show or its successors, anticipated the movement within international relations known as Global IR?

10:57      PTJ: Well, this is a really interesting question because, first of all, it's hard to say that any particular piece of pop culture anticipates a scholarly movement. They often have very different roots from where they go, but I think there are certain parallels in that what Star Trek was trying to do in many ways was to envision a different kind of future for humanity that would be something other than just the pure form extension of the American way of life into every corner of the galaxy. Now, Star Trek works by extending that in a lot of ways, but there's also quite a lot of room for diversity that's hollowed out within that, particularly when you get to the less adversarial Klingon episodes that you start to find in Star Trek: The Next Generation by the sheer expedient of having Worf actually serve on the bridge, then you end up having different, more nuanced view of the Klingons.

12:00      PTJ: See, Klingons in the old series, are just basically oppositional others. They are the Russians and the Chinese and whatever, they're the geopolitical other that's out there. But then when it starts to get more subtle it's, "Hah, maybe actually the Federation might have to think about things a little bit differently," or the episodes with the Bajorans where there's all these questions about dress and appropriate dress. And there's a one particular flash point where a Bajoran Starfleet Ensign insists on wearing her traditional Bajoran head decoration, an earring thing.

12:41      KS: Oh, yes. Ro Laren. Yes. She wanted to wear her ear clips.

12:44      PTJ: And there's big controversies about whether Ensign Ro was actually able to do this. And interestingly, Ro Laren is from a culture where the patronymic is first. So more like happens in Chinese or Japanese culture. And so most people refer to her as Ensign Laren, but that's actually her first name. And it's a big moment in the episode when Picard starts to refer to her properly as Ensign Ro. So in that way, what Star Trek is trying to do is explore what it means to have diversity. And it doesn't do it perfectly, because the backdrop is always a kind of, up until certain parts of Deep Space Nine, the backdrop is always a kind of American liberalism. But let's open space, let's have other voices, let's entertain different kinds of debates and discussions.

13:40      PTJ: Now, Global IR isn't about saying, "How far can we push in the direction of global diversity without betraying some fundamental liberal core," it's more how can we create a way of thinking about international affairs that is truly global in that it does incorporate a variety of different kinds of voices. And in fact, doesn't start from that same kind of US, Western, European liberal individualist core. So in a way, Global IR goes at this a bit differently than Star Trek does. Though, both movements I think can be understood as efforts to examine the unthought dominance of a particular hegemonic way of doing things.

14:36      KS: Patrick Jackson, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to single-handedly change the world as you'd like it to be by instituting five practices that would change the world for the better. In the spirit of today's episode, let's start by just changing the channel on a few TVs. What five politically relevant Star Trek episodes should everyone watch, and why?

14:59      PTJ: The first one I would pick is an old series episode called "The Balance of Terror." And Balance of Terror is an episode in which the Federation is facing off against the Romulans not the Klingons. And this turns out to be important because of the racial similarities between the Romulans and the Vulcans, and the Vulcans are allies of the humans and members of the Federation. So in the episode itself, there is quite a lot of discussion about whether a Vulcan could actually be loyal to the Federation or whether they would be compelled to go with their racially-similar Brethren.

15:40      PTJ: Another old series episode that I would mention is an episode called "A Taste of Armageddon." Taste of Armageddon is an episode in which there are two groups locked in war with each other and the enterprise stumbles upon them. It turns out that the war in question isn't actually a war, it's a computer simulation of a war. But the way the computer simulation of the war works is that if you are killed "in the war," then you have to go into these disintegration chambers. And the enterprise is marked killed. So they want the enterprise to go and emulate itself. The folks who set it up believe that war is a biological necessity and so they instituted this system as a way of making it cleaner and more civilized. A lot of the dialogue in the episode is about the question of whether war is biologically innate or whether war is socially constructed and can be reconstructed.

16:32      PTJ: Now, I'll move to Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I'll slightly cheat by picking a two-parter as the first episode that I would mention, which is the two-parter "Chain of Command." The centerpiece of the episode is Picard being captured and tortured by the Cardassians. And besides a whole series of meditations on torture and the ethics of torture during war time and so on, a lot of what goes on in the episode is the torture or attempts to break Picard by trying to get him to acknowledge an untrue statement as true.

17:07      PTJ: Other Next Generation episode that I would mention is this episode called "Darmok," which I and many others have written about. And the conceit of the Darmok episode is that there's a species that speaks only in metaphor that is locally index. So you have to know the story in order to understand what it is they're saying. So the commander will say things like Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra and you're supposed to know what the reference is. Or shaka, when the walls fell.

17:35      KS: His arms wide.

17:35      PTJ: His arms wide. Yes.

17:37      KS: Yes. His arms wide.

17:37      PTJ: Yes. Temba, at rest. Darmok is great because it's about the limits of understanding and because the universal translator, which is the technological conceit that they have that allows them to speak to other species, doesn't work because it doesn't understand the local references. So it's a very interesting exploration of the limits of cross-cultural communication.

17:57      PTJ: We're not going to say all of Deep Space Nine; if I have to pick one, the episode I'm going to pick is called "Rocks and Shoals." In Rocks and Shoals, our intrepid heroes are marooned on a planet with the forces of the founders that the Federation is kind of fighting against. So you have the Jem'Hadar which are the shock troops and the Jem'Hadar are controlled by this substance called Ketracel-white. And the Horta who is in command of them is sort of running out so he can't actually control them anymore. And he orders... He makes a deal with the Federation folks on the planet and orders his troops into basically a massacre. And it is cynical Machiavellian politics and ethics of violence during war at its best. It is absolutely stunningly, brilliant.

18:54      PTJ: And then I can't go without mentioning anything from Voyager so I'll just throw one out there, which is my bonus one, which is this episode called "Unity," which is one of the episodes in which they have first noticed that there are Borg floating around in the Delta quadrant. And the Borg that they run into in this particular case is a crashed Borg ship, and we have the previously assimilated people who have now turned into tribal factions fighting against each other. And the plot of the episode involves the reactivation of the Borg cube so that the collective consciousness can come back online and stop everybody from killing each other. It is interesting that the episode can be very easily read as a kind of extended political allegory of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. You need some kind of collective notion to clamp down on everybody's differences otherwise their differences are going to be used to organize these groups that are going to go out and fight each other.

19:52      KS: Awesome.

19:55      KS: So Patrick, for all its efforts, the original show had three White male leads and the star of the show portrayed a character we're given to believe is all but irresistible to women of different species he encounters. And that of course is the immortal captain James T. Kirk. Captain Picard later also seemed to have the same kind of effect on women as did commander Riker. The original show also had some racial tropes that were used in it and even through the successor shows in the 1990s with species including Klingons and Ferengi, I think being obvious candidates for discussion. So why do you think a show that tried so hard to show humanity at its best sometimes seemed to rely on these shopworn and offensive stereotypes in creating some of the species it featured and also at least initially how they represented women?

20:52      PTJ: No it's an excellent, excellent question. And it points to what you might call the challenges of internal critique. And what I mean by that is if one wants to say, "Here is a system of representations which is thoroughly rotten," and step outside of it and just blast it, then that can be a very effective way of saying "Okay, this system representation just needs to be completely torn down and replaced." The problem is anybody who's invested in those representations is not likely to listen to that external critique because then they become very defensive. And we see this with say challenging someone on the racism that they have just expressed, "Well, I'm not racist." The dangers of external critique is that you can provoke a defensive reaction that doesn't actually get you anywhere. And just, you end up just kind of butting heads with facts. Internal critique has the opposite set of challenges because an internal critique says, "Let me start where you are and see if we can move you in a particular direction."

21:57      PTJ: So when Roddenberry originally formulated the original Star Trek series, the second in command was a woman, supposed to be played by Majel Barrett. And the studio executives rejected it saying that it was completely implausible, "There's no way. You can't have a woman in a position of authority." And so Roddenberry says, "Okay, fine. We're not ready for that yet." But what I'm going to do instead is I'm going to try to, to the extent possible, subvert some of those typical notions of what a woman is supposed to be, but in order to get in the door, I have to start out with a fairly time bound, sexist representation of women. And then can I tweak that? Can I push that in particular directions?

22:50      PTJ: So here I have Nichelle Nichols as Uhura sitting on the bridge and just appears to be kind of repeating what the computer says on a regular basis. But on the other hand, she's part of the command staff, and she's up there all the time, and she is shown to be doing important things. So, and that's a double thing because not only is she a woman, but she's also Black. So now I'm pushing against this notion that women are less competent than men and Blacks are less competent than Whites by having a very competent Black woman. But if I go too far and make her say in charge of the Enterprise, then I lose the viewers.

23:28      PTJ: So you can see the same kind of exploration going on in Next Generation with someone like Deanna Troi where, even in the way she dresses. The initial version of Deanna Troi is she's got the flowing silk and she's wearing this, the only person on the Enterprise bridge who's not actually wearing a regular pantsuit in Starfleet colors and so on. And she's all invested in emotions and so on and so forth. So it's very kind of typical, feminized caricature. But as the series goes on, she demonstrates that she has a variety of other kinds of capacities including taking the command exam later on. And is in the later part of the series, dresses in the standard Starfleet uniform like everybody else. And is able to give commands and is in fact in charge of the Enterprise at various points in time. So there's a way that that sort of takes the viewers where they are and then kind of pulls them in a particular direction.

24:32      PTJ: Now the flip side of this, as anybody who is skeptical of internal critique would immediately point out, is by accepting those terms you've also reinforced those terms to start out with. So the internal critique strategy is much more of a kind of slow, needle-moving strategy. We're going to start where you are, and then we're going to see if we can move you a little bit, and then we're going to move you a little bit. And every once in a while, we're going to give you a big shock, like suddenly we're going to have Kirk and Uhura actually kiss on television. Now granted it's coerced by the Plato's Stepchildren folks. But still, there is an interracial kiss on American television in the mid 1960s, which is hugely significant.

25:14      KS: As the shows move through time with The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, which aired in the 1990s and they were all set in the twenty-fourth century, they begin to draw on some more complex contemporary metaphors. And we talked a little bit about this earlier. Deep Space Nine of course, it was this show about Starfleet base, it was kind of on the edge of the known universe. They were trying to help end a long struggle and violent occupation of one species, the Bajorans by another, the Cardassians. So when you watch Deep Space Nine, you immediately get that humans, and by extension Starfleet, aren't going to be the easy heroes here. That there's a lot of history of the conflict and the two peoples that humans and Starfleet don't understand. So do you think that there is a case to be made I think that Deep Space Nine was essentially an indictment of American exceptionalism with humanity writ large, standing in for Americans on the show.

26:14      PTJ: I think you're on to something there. I mean Deep Space Nine is the most politically savvy of any of the Star Trek series. Which makes a certain amount of sense, right? If the old series is basically Cold War politics and Star Trek: The Next Generation is anxious liberals in space. "Oh no, what happens when we have to intervene?" And "Can we use violence?" So it's a lot of anxious liberals and a lot of the... It's not an accident that Picard is a diplomat. So that makes sense for Next Generation. Deep Space Nine is "Okay, the Cold War ended and we're left with all these problems of development and post development, now what?"

27:00      PTJ: So it's a very ambiguous series to begin with. Besides the histories of Federation, Cardassian dealings, and all of the awful things that the Cardassians did when they were occupying Bajor, you've then got this additional element when they start bringing in the Founders and the Dominion War stuff that starts to dominate the timeline a little bit later on, which raises the possibility that maybe the Federation isn't even the ultimate power in the universe. So maybe what we've always seen up to this point as the dominant way of doing things, and the dominant power that we can look at and say, "Yeah, there's some family resemblances with what we know of as the United States, so we're all good." Suddenly that turns out to be one among others, and maybe it has to do horrible things. Maybe they have to have a whole secret intelligence section that goes around breaking sacred Federation law in order to try to get an upper handle in the conflict.

27:59      PTJ: So you get a very nuanced Federation. You get a questioning of these fundamental liberal principles. Part of it is, I think, that they are dealing with these very specific tangled histories of occupation and war. But part of it also, quite frankly, is that Deep Space Nine is the only Star Trek series that takes religion seriously as a political force, as a way that people meaningfully organize and order their lives. Most of the other times we see religion in the other Star Trek series, religion is either pretty quickly shown to be a false consciousness that's keeping people oppressed, or it's some alien that's just advanced.

28:45      PTJ: With Deep Space Nine, you have the Bajoran religion, which involves the wormhole that is around the planet Bajor. That may or may not actually be reflective of some underlying technological thing, or maybe there are actually some divine beings that inhabit the wormhole. The series is very careful never to quite tell us which view is correct. So you have ambiguity, which is something you never have about this question of divinity and religion in any of the other Star Trek series. Right from the beginning of Deep Space Nine, Ben Sisko might or might not be a prophet in addition to being someone who has been assigned by Starfleet to control this station.

29:31      KS: Patrick, I know you haven't had a chance to watch the two new shows yet, because we talked about this ahead of time, but the existence of both Discovery and Picard suggests that there is still an audience interested in this world that was created 55 years ago. Why do you think this show and this world, originally built by Gene Roddenberry, still resonates with so many people?

29:49      PTJ: Star Trek really captured a certain kind of popular political imagination, especially among folks who were heavily invested in science and technology and space exploration. This is the mid-1960s after all. But it's no accident that the test orbiter for the space shuttle is called the Enterprise. And it's no accident that you get Star Trek references all over the place in NASA, in the space program, in various kinds of outer space explorations. It fired the imagination of large numbers of people like that. So I think part of why there's still so many people invested in this is because Star Trek presented an optimistic future.

30:42      PTJ: Here we are in the middle of the Cold War. Here we are in the later stages of the Cold War. Here we are at the end of the Cold War. Whenever the timing of the particular series are, things look pretty dire. What Star Trek said was, "Yeah, things are dire, but we make it. We survive. We figure it out. We put these conflicts behind us." Star Trek is fundamentally optimistic that what can survive is a kind of liberal tolerant humanity, which is still recognizable as our humanity, but our humanity better. I think that is a tremendously appealing notion for large numbers of people. In a way, Roddenberry was saying, "There is a positive outcome here. There is a punchline. The universe will eventually look better. We will eventually be in a better place." That's what Star Trek generally tried to represent. I think that's the thing that's still fundamentally very, very appealing to a lot of people.

31:49      KS: Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, thank you for joining Big World to discuss Star Trek and Global IR. It's been a treat to speak with you. Probably the most fun I will have in a while. Thank you.

31:58      PTJ: Excellent. Thank you for having me. I feel compelled that we have to sign off by saying live long and prosper.

32:07      KS: Absolutely. Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like finding a fully functioning food replicator in your office. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Patrick Jackson,
professor at SIS;
founder of Duck of Minerva blog

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