Cultural Differences in Time and Space - as seen through Star Trek (and other shows)


#1

Continuing the discussion from Majority of Democrats now hold favorable views of mass-murdering simpleton George W Bush:

Finally got around to it. So here it is.
Let’s start at the beginning.

TOS

I first saw it as a 6-8year old in the 80s, rewatched it much later.
I approved of the optimistic outlook.
I was aware of the cold war, which was still going on, and my parents pointed out the significance of having Checkov there on the bridge.
Journey to Babel was one of my favourite episodes (basically, it was my favorite among the five or so episodes that I had recorded on tape).
What stuck in my mind was the peace conference and the Andorian who turns out to be not an Andorian but someone trying to sabotage the peace conference by making the Andorians look bad. Themes of peace and cooperation.

Looking back on TOS now, I still enjoy watching it, but I cringe at the extreme sexism and at the blatantly racist (anti-Vulcan) workplace banter between the three main characters. Every time a woman appears on-screen, the violins start playing and everything gets slightly blurry.
And Kirk gets into too many fistfights for my taste.

There’s another SciFi show from 1966, from Germany:


Much cheaper production values. The interaction between men and women has near the level of cringeworthiness that TOS has for me now.

I’d love to hear an American feminist’s perspective on this at some point. Am I just noticing TOS’s sexism more than Orion’s because it takes forms that I am less used to from everyday life? Or was the German show truly more progressive in this respect? Was TOS perceived as being progressive as far as gender roles are concerned when it aired in the US?

Patterns of Force:

The only episode never dubbed to German. It wasn’t broadcast in Austria until the 90s, when it was broadcast - with subtitles - in a late-night “culture” slot on Austrian public TV.
Needless to say, the idea that another planet would reenact national socialism as literally as that came across as nothing but ridiculous. The superficial way of treating the subject would probably have come across as offensive had the episode been dubbed at the same time as the others.
But despite seeming cartoonish, the episode depicts Nazism as a dangerous idea that people who think of themselves as decent people can get infected with, which makes its message quite relevant.


#2

I’ll have to check out that show at some point! It looks amazing!

As for Trek, I agree about the sexism. It’s especially prominent if you watch the original pilot, where Majel Barrett is number one and none of the women are wearing those silly mini skirts.

As for the racism, I can see that aimed at Spock, but far more important is the treatment of both Uhuru and Sulu… who aren’t stereotyped in anyway based on their race. They do far more stereotyping of the white characters (a Scottish engineer who loves scotch and is named Scotty?).

For me, I grew up watching the Next Generation and then Deep Space Nine. both of which improve on the original in regards to sexism - especially Deep Space Nine. which is just full of strong women. And of course Voyager has Janeway as the captain, but then you got Seven of Nine walking around in a catsuit. None the less, Seven of Nine has one of the most interesting story arcs of all the characters in the show. I just recently wrapped up watching Enterprise, and it’s not as bad as I remember. They tended to play up T’Pol’s sexiness (especially with the detox gel nonsense). But it had some interesting things to say about the post-9/11 world.

If I had to pick a must see Trek series, it’s certainly Deep Space Nine. The most gender equal, most racially diverse, and darkest Trek series. They hit all the marks for an interconnected set of stories that pulled the entire series together and gave it some real direction. And Avery Brooks competes with Patrick Stewart as the best actor ever on the series. Episodes such as Far Beyond the Stars really show what a fantastic actor Brooks is:

I actually show this to my US history class after having them read the Delaney essay about racism in the sci-fi community that he’s dealt with most of his career (her wrote it in the late 90s).

But I think that another reason why trek is so important is that it really was one of the first series to set up such a rich interconnected world into a franchise, which we’re so familiar with today… well, I’ll take that back, Doctor Who got there first. But Trek built on that with novels, comics, and then later shows and films. Star Wars was a bit late to that, although I think that novels started being made in the 80s?

One thing that has always bothered me about Trek is the assumption of a geo-culture on each planet. Rarely do they hint at social or cultural differences WITHIN a space faring society. It’s assumed that to get to space, one must eliminate as much difference as possible. In Enterprise, they actually do show some variability (or start to) of the Klingons - there is a couple of episodes where they start to hint that not all Klingons are warriors and that they actually have some class tensions over this issue, AND that it wasn’t always the case on Kronos that warriors were so dominant. But like the case of Bajor - there is only one religion? I mean, really? How can that be the case?

I do think that science fiction offers a rich vein of understanding the time it was produced and how people are thinking about the future. We do seem to be in an era where much of our sci fi is rather dystopic, YA sci-fi especially. It certainly says something about how we’re thinking about the world right now.


#3

As for Uhuru and Sulu, the absence of stereotyping that we’d do differently in Austria anyway is kind of hard to notice.
And as far as stereotyping the white characters goes - well, in Europe, we do that to each other all the time. We are quick to play around with national stereotypes. And as long as the stereotypes themselves aren’t offensive, we’re happy to embrace them. We don’t call that racism.

For me, TNG is the show of my formative teenage years. When DS9’s best episodes arrived on Austrian TV, I might already have been in “this isn’t how they used to do it back in my day” mode.

I liked the political mood of TNG best… The Klingons are no longer enemies, but they’re still dangerous. They’re still their own culture. They don’t roll over for the federation. What they do isn’t always wrong. It isn’t always right, either. They just do things differently over there, that needs to be respected, but it can also be criticised. And Picard prefers a cup of tea and a good book to using his fists.
Of course, when you look closer, it turns strange. “John Luke” Picard claims to be French, but can’t pronounce his own name. Has France been depopulated in WWIII and resettled by British people who affect some superficial Frenchness as a mark of their status as colonizers? Worf grew up with human adoptive parents, yet he identifies as fully Klingon. Does race determine culture?

While DS9 improved on most things, there were definitely more things on DS9 that “didn’t fit” with my own world view.

Absolutely true. Though I am not sure if i consider “dark” a compliment, I was always very sceptical about the trend towards “dark and gritty”. On American TV, that usually means that pacifism is not wanted any more.

Yes - great episode, little cultural relevance to us over here in Europe. Our own sordid history is sufficiently different that we get to lean back and say “see, we never did those bad things” and ignore our own issues.

But on the whole, DS9 had a lot of interesting themes that got more than one episode’s worth of treatment…

Occupation and resistance:

I understood the Cardassian occupation of Bajor as loosely paralleling the Nazi occupation of… basically everywhere they could. This might be an oversimplification on my part, but it’s the only example of brutal occupation + resistance that exists in our cultural consciousness.
Some interesting stuff here, and some stuff that falls flat because the perpetrator’s side is oversimplified.

I loved whenever the show depicted the Cardassian side of things. There were decent people there, powerless to stop atrocities. There were people there who would have been decent in a different time and place, but who didn’t spend enough time thinking about what was really going on. And there were evil people who still seemed as though they might be redeemable.

And thus, I hated what happened to Gul Dukat’s arch. From being an interesting villain with a chance for redemption, he descended into comic-book evil at the end. One episode even has Sisko proclaiming that he didn’t believe that “true evil really exists” until now.
The thing is, right there at the top of my “list of valuable lessons to teach to every child” is the following Universal Truth: “There is good in every person.” Sisko claiming the opposite was sacrilege.

Religion:

A recurring theme on DS9, thanks to the Bajorans.
Completely incomprehensible to people from secular central Europe. It doesn’t work that way over here. The Bajorans are scary. The starfleet officers who enable the religious fanaticism of the Bajorans they work with are scary. Issues that are complete non-issues over here (Evolution in schools) were given an even-handed “fair” treatment, as if it was not painfully obvious who is the religious fanatic and who isn’t.

Baseball:

Completely incomprehensible to me. Seldom has the “truly alien” been represented so well in sci-fi TV.

War:

The huge Dominion War arc did provide for quite some thrillng episodes. Loved the stories, especially the everything involving Klingons or Cardassian politics. I still didn’t really like it as a theme - I guess I’m too much of a pacifist. After spending 7 seasons of TNG trying to avoid wars, the Dominion War was just written to be unavoidable. There was never ever a doubt that “we” were fighting on the Right Side, and Peace Was Not An Option. Everyone who’s not fightng the war on our side has obviously been replaced with a changeling.
Quite a toxic message, I think.
I much prefer Babylon 5’s approach, it’s treatment of the Earth-Minbari-War, and how the Shadows and the Vorlons aren’t quite so black-and-white after all….


Oh my. I’ll rant about that another day :slight_smile:

This. And the assumption includes Earth, which has a distinctly American geo-culture. I’ve got more to say about that, as well.


#4

I’ve heard that’s a kind of side effect of the casting of Patrick Stewart. They tried a french accent with him, and it just sounded silly. For the most part, you can explain this away with the conceit of the universal translator :wink: but the episode in France is just confusing.

Although Worf is a different species. The way in which species is analogized to race in Trek, initially it’s more allegorical and then it gets kind of muddled, doesn’t it? I feel like the writers could only get so far into this territory before running into vocabulary problems, given that the dialog has to be in 20th century English.

I agree with you that Dukat’s arc had an unfortunate resolution.

Yeah, it’s a great point.


#5

As someone who’s read and watched an arguably unhealthy amount about the real history of Star Trek, there seems to have been a sense as Gene Roddenberry’s (logic be upon him) health and concomitant influence waned that now they could explore the inevitable cracks in and frayed edges of this too-easy utopia.

There’s a lot I love abut DS9, but I think that’s why it stands head and shoulders above the other series for me. TNG, which also had a lot to love, was just too frictionless. If a rational person saw such a “historical record” about a civilization and nothing else, they’d quite fairly peg it as (clever and well crafted) propaganda hiding what must be a truly dystopian reality. DS9 redeemed Trek by humanizing the universe, not in the sense of making it about the humans but in making it about flawed characters.

And that also brings me to another point where I nod my head with what @Mindysan33 said. It had some of the best performances. Now whether the cast of TNG could have delivered as good is a seperate issue, but actors first and foremost need good writing, where their arcs have profound moral and material stakes. DS9 delivered that like no other Trek before or since.

Interesting. I too hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms. But now that I do I can see how McCoy’s casual racism and Kirk’s enabling of it was sort of dark side to what on the surface mostly seemed like friendly ribbing. It’s perhaps a good example of how ambient and unconscious racism can seep into social relationships, even between best friends.

And of course Enterprise explored the racism between Earth and Vulcan in much greater depth.


#6

Easily in the top five episodes of what was a great series, IMHO. I officially love that you teach it and in that context. I read that essay many years later, but now I want to go back and watch the episode and read the essay back-to-back.

I give a lot of likes and I like giving a lot of likes. But you’re comment is a perfect exmaple of why I want a button that translates to the rare condition of I agree with everything in this post.

Obligatory TV Tropes rabbit hole warning :sweat:


#7

Especially during Eurovision time! :wink:

But I just think it’s ironic that Scotty is a bit of a stereotype while Roddenberry avoided that for Sulu or Uhuru - after all, in the US, we do stereotype Europeans as well. But this was groundbreaking at the time and it’s hard to overstate that. Hopefully, you can watch this, because it explains why Nichols stayed on cast after the first year, despite being underpaid - basically Dr. King told her she could quit because she was literally the only black face on American TV at the time that was not a servant or a stereotype. It was the only show his kids watched at the time because of that.

Me too. I loved TNG with an incredible passion. I still remember having to wait ALL summer long for the season 3 cliffhanger, with Picard as Locutus (or however you spell it) and Riker had just told Worf to Fire… I tried to explain the agony to my daughter when we saw that episode and then watched it the next night… kids these days! I only saw the first couple of seasons of DS9 on it’s original run, so getting to go back and watch it again was great.

Revenge for the Norman invasion finally?

To be fair, I think they show him struggling with that quite a bit in TNG, both politically and personally, and he seems to have solved those issues in DS9. He’s more committed to the Klingon identity fully by that time, but then again, he marries a Trill (granted a trill who embraces Klingon customs and ways and has close ties to them without Worf).

I think that’s somewhat true. You do see DS9 dealing with hard questions about war and whether it’s ever worth the costs, though. I think something can be dark and gritty in order to ask hard questions, and I found that true of DS9, frankly.

Sure, but it gives you a window into American culture, for sure.

I often get that vibe sometimes. Especially from the french. A friend of mine did her dissertation on the intersection of the American civil rights movements, Francophone African countries, and France itself.

Really? I read this as a parable of the Israel occupation of Palestinian territories. After all, as brutal as the Cardassian’s were, they never attempted to completely eradicated the Bajorans. I’m sure there could be other occupations that it was similar too.

In American memory, the resistance to the Nazis by Jews is often underplayed and underestimated. Do people talk about that more in Europe? I know in the former communist countries, the Partisans were highly played up all over nazi occupied territory (like the film Come and See for example).

I guess so, but maybe that’s the point, that no everyone is going to be rescued. He got caught up in his own hatred of Sisko and in his own belief that HE didn’t hurt the Bajorans, but was helping them by bringing them Cardassian culture.

It certainly would have resonated more with Americans - but it was the first time that religion was taken seriously, and given that it’s still an important part of the lives of billions of human beings in the world, it is important to examine it in fiction, I think.

To be fair, I’m sure Japanese viewers loved this aspect too, considering how big baseball is there.

Indeed! I think this is problematic for this reason too.


#8

I hope that my students get something out of it. I almost feel like I should add Derrick Bell’s The Space traders to that, too.


#9

And had (in the universe - obviously Spock is half human) the first earth/vulcan relationship, too. I kind of enjoyed the relationship between T’Pol and Trip more than I probably should have - if they had been given a couple of more seasons, they could have gone somewhere interesting with it. But I hated how they ended the series. It seemed unfair.

enterprise-trip-tpol-what


#10

“Nonsense! Starfleet is a progressive 23rd Century institution and would never tolerate objectification of women in any form! Now—who’s ready for their checkup?”

320x240


#11

tasha-worf-oh-boy


#12

Seeing this gif, I’m struck by how much Worf’s make-up (subtly) evolved over the years.


#13

After they let Worf’s hair grow out more in later seasons they slipped in an in-joke in an episode when he goes to the ship’s barber Mr. Mot, who assures Worf he won’t take nearly so much off “this time.”


#14

The facial appliance is different too. Either that or Michael Dorn simply perfected resting Klingon face over the years.


#15

tng-worf


#16

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