Book Review: Star Trek: The Human Frontier, 2nd Ed.

Star Trek: The Human Frontier by Michele and Duncan Barrett is a wide-ranging academic (yet not inaccessible) discussion of Star Trek. Throughout the course of four loosely-themed sections, you explore how the franchise (from TOS right through the Kelvin timeline movies) relates to nautical literature, philosophy, colonialism, cyborg theory, and more. It felt like sitting in on a Star Trek-themed literary salon, where intelligent ideas are exchanged and discussed.

From a feminist perspective, I particularly appreciated the book’s analysis of Trek’s representation of Orion slave girls, something we just covered on Women at Warp. Here’s a quick excerpt of what the Barretts had to say:

It must be said that Star Trek’s presentation of ‘slavery’ based on what we might loosely refer to as race (including within this category not only different biological species but inorganic life forms such as androids and holograms) seems rather at odds with its depiction of slavery based on gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a franchise that made an icon out of the ‘Orion slave girl’ […] 

Clearly, in Star Trek, sex slavery is a much less clear-cut issue than slavery along racial lines. Episodes will go out of their way to sidestep the political issue – for example, by claiming that is is the men in Orion society who are the real slaves, and not the women. But clearly the priority, when all is said and done, is to find an excuse for attractive female guest stars to walk around in skimpy outfits.

The book also does a good job analyzing the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in Trek, how out-of-step with our culture that feels today, and the homophobia behind the scenes that may have contributed to it. 

It was therefore disappointing to me that the authors’ worldview seemed more defensive on the subject of race and racism in Trek. This tone begins during a fascinating discussion of nautical themes in Trek compared to nautical literature. After outlining the themes and characters in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the book states:

But there is nothing in Star Trek in the bleak and brutal register of either Conrad’s original novella or its most famous screen adaptation. Colonial and patronising tendencies Star Trek may have, but those who accuse it of racism might usefully look at this earlier literature to get a bearing on the scale of the crime.

Now I’ve never heard someone argue that Star Trek is in the same league as Heart of Darkness as far as racism is concerned. Personally, my opinions is that Star Trek is Euro/Americentric, and as well as notable attempts at diversity, the franchise has produced some extremely racist episodes that are important to analyze in order to improve future representations. That’s why I take issue with episodes like “The Paradise Syndrome.”

But “less racist than Heart of Darkness” – a novella written in 1899 – is the lowest of low bars. I’d hope the franchise and its fans could hold itself to a much higher standard.

Later, the authors pose the question, “What does it mean to say that the Star Trek project is ‘white’ in terms of its values, or to describe the Enterprise as a ‘white’ starship?”

To me, the answer is obvious: Star Trek is a show created by (almost exclusively) white writers, directors, and producers. Therefore, the show is influenced by their standpoint, perhaps most clearly in time travel and holodeck episodes, which almost all focus on American and European history, literature and popular culture (from Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Chaotica). The Enterprise (A, B, C, D and E) are ships led primarily by white characters (even with notable characters of colour like Uhura, Sulu and Geordi). 

However, the book’s authors obfuscate the issue with a philosophical and cross-cultural exploration of the meaning of “whiteness,” arguing, for example, that it has not always signified privilege in every culture or historical period. Again, I’d argue that the issue is what whiteness meant/signified to the creators and the audience, from 1966 to now, not what it may have meant to Charles Dickens when he published Great Expectations in 1861. 

“There is certainly a human-centred agenda in Star Trek,” the authors conclude, “but this is neither itself a form of racism, nor is it necessarily mapped on to a racist ‘white’ logic. Star Trek stages many ‘racial’ issues: that it does not always get it right is clear. On the other hand, as the Klingon dilemma showed us, the alternative is simply to avoid issues that are being negotiated in our lives. Violence that comes legitimated by cultural values is a fairly universal problem.”

Missing the mark isn’t inevitable when talking about race, although when most of your creators are white, their cultural biases and blindspots certainly help explain why it happened. Star Trek actually occasionally showed that you can discuss contemporary race relations and white supremacy successfully (“Past Tense” and “Far Beyond the Stars” spring to mind) – it doesn’t always have to be a “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (or “All Lives Matter”) approach of equal blame. 

So while the authors of Star Trek: The Human Frontier allow room for discussion of other types of oppression, and provide excellent food for thought on several other themes, their handling of representations of race in Trek is a missed opportunity. 

Disclosure: I was provided a review copy of this book by the publishers.

Leave a Reply