Watching Star Trek one does not hear its sociology spelled out, but most conclude that the Federation is the sort of thing that Wellsians and Marxists envisioned as a desirable future.* (Indeed, an opinion piece in the New York Times during the centenary of the Russian Revolution remarked the show’s debt to revolutionary socialism.) Humanity’s taking that course is why it has survived into the twenty-third — and later, the twenty-fourth — century, moved out into space, and contributed positively to the emergence of a beneficient community of alien civilizations, all while giving its members the sort of freedom and opportunity that, for all the complacent rhetoric of some, the world we actually live in now has never done.
There are times when the utopian premise manifests itself in the franchise in subtle and clever ways — as in Spock and Kirk’s memorable adventure on the bus in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It was, of course, the case that a show made in the ’60s could never have sounded like The Sopranos or Deadwood, but it was also the case that the foul-mouthed abuse that is our standard way of relating to each other strikes Spock as genuinely curious, and that this was entirely in line with the logic of the series, according to which society which has transcended scarcity, inequality, bigotry and the other brutal and brutalizing features of our daily life would be quite different, and not understand our behavior at all. (Leon Trotsky — I have no idea whether Roddenberry ever read him — actually wrote a memorable piece about this matter at some length, “The Struggle for Cultured Speech.”)
Still, the series is on the whole less than consistent here. Often it falls by the wayside when seeking drama not in the Federation’s contacts with other, less enlightened societies, be they aliens (barbaric Klingons, fascist Cardassians, ultra-capitalist Ferengi) or humans who have somehow moved out of the mainstream (like the Neo-Transcendentalists in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Up the Long Ladder”), and instead among the Federation. I have to admit that the collapse of Turkana IV (the horrific backdrop to Tasha Yar’s youth) was never all that convincing to me — this “society that works” should have been able to prevent things going so bad, and even if it failed, one is left wondering why the Federation made no attempt to rectify such a situation in one of its members.
Less dramatic, but perhaps even less plausible, because more intimately treated, was Reginald Barclay’s winding up in Starfleet at all, let alone the crew of the Enterprise.
In our world people invest vast amounts of money, time, effort in arduous careers they do not much like and for which they are really poorly suited simply because of the pressures of “earning a living.” One would not expect this to be the case in the Federation, and were they to try anyway for some reason it is hard to see how someone doing so could have made it through the ferociously competitive Starfleet Academy, let alone into service aboard a starship. It is equally hard to see why, since he made the attempt, he did not receive a measure of assistance with his far from inconspicuous problems interacting with others as he (successfully) made his way through this whole system.
I suppose it bespeaks what those who have spent much time studying utopian fiction generally conclude — it’s not easy to imagine the dramas such societies would have. This is not because they will not have drama, or even that we cannot conceive of some of those possibilities intellectually. Instead the issue would appear to be the difficulty of going beyond hazy notions to actual dramatization of those conflicts — and moreover, dramatization of them in a manner comprehensible and compelling to the kind of broad TV audience required to keep the show on the air week after week. And so in spite of the premise, when taking this course, they fell back on tales befitting the twentieth century rather than the twenty-fourth.
But for all the imperfections of Star Trek’s realization of its premise, I still think science fiction, television and the world have all been better off for the attempt.
* I speak here of the original five-TV series franchise, and its associated films and other spin-offs, not the reboots and other stuff we’ve seen since 2009, most of which I must admit I haven’t seen any reason to bother with.