Roddenberry's Star Trek was "above all, a critique of Robert Heinlein"

Star Trek turned 50 in 2016. In its half-century of existence — on TV, on the big screen, and in the worldwide community of its fans — Star Trek has become an integral part of our everyday lives. Even casual viewers know the pointed ears, the Vulcan salute, and the meaning of “beam me up, Scotty.”

trekonomics
Manu Saadia's Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek is available from Amazon.

Yet, Star Trek does not owe its enduring popularity and its place in our collective imagination to its aliens or to its technological speculations. What makes it so unique, and so exciting, is its radical optimism about humanity’s future as a society: in other words, utopia.

In Star Trek, humanity has reached abundance. Thanks to scientific progress and good governance, the Federation has overcome the social ills commonly associated with the uneven distribution of material wealth. The citizens of the Federation no longer work to sustain and provide for themselves — they find meaning in more elevated pursuits.

This state of economic bliss, however, is not without difficulties. For one, the Federation and its fire department-cum-diplomatic arm, namely Starfleet, operate in a galaxy where equally (if not more) advanced species do not live by the same altruistic motivations. Most notably, the ever-scheming Ferengis view the relentless acquisition of private wealth as their cardinal purpose in the universe.

Trekonomics takes readers on a journey through Star Trek’s fictional society, its mores and values, and its sources of inspiration in classic sci-fi. But it also looks hard at the challenges posed by it. How does Star Trek solve what Keynes called “the economic question,” the old and stubborn quandary of the allocation of scarce resources? How can it benefit all without depriving anyone? And what could that mean for us, the passengers of starship Earth?

Excerpt from Trekonomics

RED CROSS MEETS THE MIT FACULTY CLUB

The Next Generation cemented the franchise’s definitive turn toward utopia. While Cold War America infused The Original Series with a very distinct flavor, The Next Generation moved deliberately past these quaint conflicts.

The “bibles” of the respective shows highlight that change of direction. This is how, in his 1967 writers’ guidelines for what became known as The Original Series, Gene Roddenberry describes the status of Earth in the Star Trek universe (emphasis mine):

“For one thing, we’ll never take a story back there and therefore don’t expect to get into subjects which would create great problems, technical and otherwise. The “U.S.S.” on our ship designation stands for “United Space Ship” — indicating (without troublesome specifics) that mankind has found some unity on Earth, perhaps at long last even peace. If you require a statement such as one that Earth cities of the future are splendidly planned with fifty-mile parkland strips around them, fine. But television today simply will not let us get into details of Earth’s politics of Star Trek’s century; for example, which socio-economic system ultimately worked out best.”

One could not be clearer. This was Cold War America. Some very specific topics were not to be broached, especially those pertaining to the socioeconomic organization of Star Trek’s future society. In his interviews with me, Chris Black, writer and co-executive producer of Star Trek: Enterprise, summarized Roddenberry’s gingerly approach as “pragmatic.” Chris expounded: “He’s saying, look, people can have whatever utopian vision of the future they want (I might even agree with them), but network politics will only let us show so much.”

The Original Series’ real five-year mission was to denounce the prejudices and controversies of the real world: racism, bigotry, mutually assured destruction, the Vietnam War. It was a critique of the Cold War and thus it was also, necessarily, a critique of Cold War science fiction — that is, above all a critique of Robert Heinlein.

According to Roddenberry himself, no author has had more influence on The Original Series than Robert Heinlein, and more specifically his juvenile novel Space Cadet. The book, published in 1948, is considered a classic. It is a bildungsroman, retelling the education of young Matt Dodson from Iowa, who joins the Space Patrol and becomes a man. There is a reason why Star Trek’s Captain Kirk is from Iowa. The Space Patrol is a prototype of Starfleet: it is a multiracial, multinational institution, entrusted with keeping the peace in the solar system.

Where it gets a little weird is that Heinlein’s Space Patrol controls nuclear warheads in orbit around Earth, and its mission is to nuke any country that has been tempted to go to war with its neighbors. This supranational body in charge of deterrence, enforcing peace and democracy on the home planet by the threat of annihilation, was an extrapolation of what could potentially be achieved if you combined the UN charter with mutually assured destruction. And all this in a book aimed at kids.

Such was the optimism Heinlein could muster at the time, and compared to his later works, Space Cadet is relatively happy and idealistic, if a bit sociopathic. It makes a lot of sense that it had inspired Roddenberry. In Space Cadet, Heinlein portrayed a society where racism had been overcome. Not unlike Starfleet, the Space Patrol was supposed to be a force for good. The fat finger on the nuclear trigger makes it a very doubtful proposition, however. The Space Patrol, autonomous and unaccountable, is the opposite of the kind democratic and open society championed by Star Trek.

The hierarchical structure and naval ranks of the first Star Trek series were geared to appeal to Heinlein’s readers and demographic, all these starry-eyed kids who, like Roddenberry himself, had read Space Cadet and Have Spacesuit — Will Travel. Star Trek used all the tropes of Heinlein but sanitized them. For instance, racial and gender equality were prominent features of Heinlein’s stories. Nobody cared about your sex or the color of your skin as long as you were willing to sign up for the Space Patrol or the Federal service. Starship Troopers' hero, Juan "Johnny" Rico, was Filipino. In that regard, Heinlein had undoubtedly paved the way for The Original Series’ integrated crew. From Space Cadet onward, he made it a new norm in science fiction that people of color and women (as in Starship Troopers) could also be protagonists. That they were bestowed visibility and full agency in an authoritarian version of e pluribus unum is a different question altogether. Kirk himself, manly, resourceful, and decisive, came across as just dim enough to evince Johnny Rico. William Shatner played up to perfection the character’s kitsch, his martial swagger and womanizing slightly off-kilter in a world ruled by diplomats and scientists, all eggheads and sissies, with or without pointy ears.

Later in his life, Roddenberry stated without ambiguity that he had modeled The Original Series on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, so as to get around the network’s suffocating censorship. Science fiction gave him a convenient means to blow open public debate and to push against the ideological boundaries of 1960s television. Here he is, in his own words, from a 1992 interview culled by Marc Cushman and quoted in the first volume of These Are the Voyages:

“Swift wanted to write satire on his time and went to Lilliput in his story to do just that. He could talk about insane prime ministers and crooked kings and all that. It was this wonderful thing. Children could read it as a fairy tale, an adventure, and as they got older they’d recognize it for what it really is. . . . It seemed to me that perhaps, if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by.”

Economics, and specifically the social consequences of automation and artificial intelligence, would have to wait awhile longer. That does not mean Roddenberry was not aware of the revolutionary potential of robotics, on the contrary. He had obviously read Asimov’s stories in his youth. He had even produced a remarkable episode in which an AI prototype temporarily replaced Kirk and the crew at the helm of the Enterprise.

Contrast the ideological tension in The Original Series with the relaxed setting described in the bible for The Next Generation, twenty years later. Discussing the exact same question of Earth’s society in the Star Trek universe, Roddenberry states:

“We have established that most (if not all) of the major problems facing the human species have been resolved and the Earth has since been transformed into a human paradise, with large protected wilderness areas, grand parks, beautiful cities, and a literate and compassionate population that has learned to appreciate life as a grand adventure.”

The much looser tone and thematic freedom in part reflect the shifting economics of the American television industry in the 1980s. Cable channels and syndication broke the broadcast networks’ monopoly on the market, making it profitable for writers and producers to cater to niche audiences. Ideological conformism receded in favor of creative daring. This is particularly true in the case of The Next Generation, which was sold directly to individual TV stations, thus bypassing the networks’ tastemakers and gatekeepers entirely.

Wholesale utopia was no longer out of bounds. On the contrary, it turned into a compelling selling point for the show and greatly contributed to its popularity. Gone was the uneasy silence about anything that could possibly smack of a critique of a given “socio-economic system.” In broad strokes, Earth’s society had become a mixture of the Red Cross and the MIT faculty club.

One cannot help but wonder how all the so-called major problems had supposedly been solved. Lieutenant Tom Paris of Voyager mentions that sometime in the twenty-second century the “New World Economy” was established, and that is when “money went the way of the dinosaurs.” Deep Space Nine explored twenty-first-century social unrest in a two-part time-travel episode entitled “Past Tense,” and Enterprise covered some of the later events with great gusto but frustratingly few details. To this day, the magnitude of the elision remains tantalizing.

Manu Saadia was born in Paris, France, where he fell into science fiction and Star Trek fandom at the age of eight. He studied history of science and economic history in Paris and Chicago. His work on Trekonomics has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Business Insider. Manu Saadia is a contributing writer for Fusion.net. He lives in Los Angeles with his son and his wife.

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