A post-colonial approach to Science Fiction - Narrations of Imperialism within "Star Trek"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 25 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents


1. Star Trek as a Form of Travelogue

2. Exploring Post-Colonial Space
2.1 Is Star Trek racist?
2.1.1 Defining the “Other” in Star Trek
2.1.2 Critical Voices
2.2 Is Star Trek Ethnocentric?

3. Narrating Colonial Encounters TNG Episode, “Code of Honor”
3.1 Lutan’s plot and Lieutenant Yar’s Embodiment of the Female
3.2 The Notion of Tribalism
3.3 Ethnocentrism in ‘Code of Honor’

4. The Controversy about Star Trek

5. Bibliography
5.1 Literature:
5.2 Movies:
5.3 TV Series:
5.4 World Wide Web Resources:

6. Appendix:


"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go, where no one has gone before."

- Opening credits of Star Trek: The Next Generation[1]

These are the opening lines of one of the most successful franchises of popular culture: Star Trek. In 1966 when the first episode of the science-fiction series “Star Trek” The Original Series was aired on US television author and creator Gene Roddenberry would not possibly have envisioned the cultural and political impact Star Trek would have even four decades later. He nevertheless envisioned very clearly that this “trek” would take its audience to “strange new worlds […] and new civilizations”. That this would exactly fall into the field of the discourses of postcolonial studies is no mere coincidence. The opening credits very straightforwardly indicate what voyages the audience will participate in. The exploration of “strange new worlds” and “new civilizations” recalls the narratives of Imperialism and Colonialism. Accordingly Star Trek can be read as another form of travelogue. The purpose of this work is to establish the narratives of Star Trek as a travelogue in the context of imperialist and colonial discourses . Having done so, I will examine Star Trek’s standing within these discourses. My focus will be on the depiction of “the other” within Star Trek. On the basis of one episode of the TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation I will juxtapose the argument of critics that Trek is either racist and imperialist in its conception or the depiction of a desirable Utopia.

1. Star Trek as a Form of Travelogue

In the most notably known prototypical travelogue, Homer’s Odyssey we can read that “[i]t is tedious to again tell tales already plainly told”. Literary history proved Homer wrong. Travelogues have always been of great interest for an ever growing readership. Some of them even have been translated into children’s books like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The attraction to adventures in uncommon settings never abated even though the original plotline was only remodeled. In the fictional setting of Star Trek we even find an entire spin-off series, Voyager[2], whose story line corresponds entirely to Odysseus’ voyage home. In the series the space-ship Voyager is pulled into a hypothetical space anomaly, a wormhole, and thus taken far into outer space. A return home, i.e. to Earth, becomes impossible and the odyssey of the Voyager the driving force of the series. That 172 episodes within seven seasons of Voyager were produced between 1995 and 2002 shows the attraction such an ancient “tale” still exerts on an audience. Moreover the name of the series, Voyager, implies a great referential scope itself. Richard Hakluyt’s text, The Principal Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation published in 1589, is acknowledged a foundational work of the genre of travel writing and serves as an example par excellence for the contextualization of Star Trek: Voyager as a travelogue. Just like the journey home becomes essential for the crew of the star-ship Voyager the voyages to “strange new worlds” are constitutive for Voyager’s precursors Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Originally conceived as “a wagon train to the stars”[3] Star Trek soon expanded its all-American subtheme into a wider context. Its space exploration became more applicable and referential to the overseas enterprises of the British than to the American Westward Expansion. Space became a “starry sea”[4] and the accounts of “strange new world” reminiscent of the Age of Exploration, which started with the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Star Trek contextualizes itself in these matters by maintaining a nautical vocabulary. The “vehicles” are called star ships and are even frequently referred to as “vessels”[5]. They belong to an organization called Starfleet[6]. The chain of command onboard is also modeled after naval examples, so that there is a captain, commander, lieutenant and even admirals. The Next Generation also uses the nickname “number one” for the captain`s first officer as an allusion to a naval “first mate”.[7] The various terms for the starships’ components are also borrowed from nautics. Accordingly these have a bridge, a helm, a mess hall, a brig, various docks, and its crew members take shore leaves. More indirect references happen during a variety of occasions. So the protagonist captain Jean–Luc Picard of the series The Next Generation keeps a collection of sailing ships in his office, which he tends carefully. A very strong “visual” quote can be watched in the motion picture Star Trek: Generations[8] featuring the TNG[9] crew. In a particular scene the crew is portrayed wearing 19th century British naval uniforms and is re-enacting a promotion ceremony in the corresponding fashion on a 19th century sailing ship. That this ceremony is not a mere act of entertainment but serves as a real promotion for a crew member shows the interlinkage of the fictional setting and the factual historical background. In the following scene part of the crew is even shown in these naval uniforms standing on the bridge of their starship, strengthening the quote.[10]

The fictional theme of space exploration hence carries strong reference to historical overseas explorations. Star Trek, though, goes a step further in contextualizing itself. It wants to be read as a narrative and accordingly utilizes some re-occurring literary references.

Most obvious is Star Trek’s nod in the direction of American writer Herman Melville. The 19th century author wrote several novels, featuring the theme of travelling the seas. Among the well-known novels are Typee, published in 1846, Omoo of 1849 or White Jacket or the World in a Man-of-War published in the same year. Melville’s most famous work, one of the Great American Novels, Moby Dick of the year 1851, though is referenced continuously throughout the various Star Trek series and movies. In the second motion picture Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan[11], Moby Dick’ s theme of vengeance is taken up, as the title of the movie indicates. The crew of Star Trek: TOS[12] accidentally encounters Khan, the captain’s ark enemy, whose starship had crashed on a desert planet and who has spent his time in exile reading Moby Dick. So Khan, like Melville’s monomaniacal Ahab, projects all his “wrath” on the captain of the Enterprise, Kirk in this case, whom he deems responsible for his situation. Thus when the two meet Khan addresses Kirk with these lines from Moby Dick:

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”[13]

The same theme occurs in another of the Star Trek motion pictures. In Star Trek VIII: First Contact TNG Captain Jean-Luc Picard is directly referred to as “Captain Ahab” the captain of the whaling ship in Moby Dick. Picard’s ship had been infiltrated by an alien species he had been physically and mentally wounded by during previous episodes of the series. As for that he like Ahab does not realize, that his fight against the aliens will at the end not only destroy his ship, but also himself together with his entire crew. As for being compared to Ahab, he recalls the destiny of Ahab’s ship the “Pequod”, its sinking and the subsequent death of the captain and the crew, and again is summoned to reason. He then orders the crew to escape to a nearby planet and triggers the self-destruction device of the starship, so that the aliens are killed in the process and the crew is literally stranded on the planet. Of course, the story turns out more positively in the end: The aliens are destroyed nevertheless but the ship is saved and the return home is possible. However strongly the reference to Melville’s Moby Dick, there is another more general implication in both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VIII: First Contact that links its narratives to travel literature: The trope of the “desert island”.

This in itself can have various connotations. In their essay, “Still Surviving Desert Islands: The Beach, Imperialism, and Cultural Value” the authors Guy Redden and Libby Macdonald name its primal functions as a symbol for “paradise or […] opportunity, [or] as a site of exile and danger”. In the case of Khan the theme is one of exile, since he was shipwrecked on a literally “desert” planet. A comparison of Khan and the character of Prospero of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest becomes apparent, regarding not only the fact, that both were “stranded”, but moreover their obsession of revenge and of books. In The Tempest Prospero’s power comes from his books which enable him to rule the island via magic[14]. And in Star Trek II Khan’s vengeance is nourished by his constant lecture of Moby Dick.

In First Contact an ending of the movie is made possible, where the crew is stranded on a planet without hope of return in a more Robinsonade-like fashion. As Redden and Macdonald state the “survival [of the crew would depend on the] capitalization of resources of the island and [on the] elaboration of the physical and cultural implements this involves” and not to forget an arrangement with “indigenous neighbors”.[15]

Finally starship Voyager in its odyssey within the namesake series can also be viewed in the terms of the trope of the “desert island”. It shares both Robinson Crusoe’s isolation and his “selfsufficiency”[16] in order to sustain.

To sum up this chapter David Gerrold, an early scriptwriter of Star Trek put it himself quite frankly that “The situation of this interstellar society is almost exactly analogous to the Earth of the eighteenth century”[17]. Star Trek thus, as I tried to prove, can be similarly read as a narrative of that age, because it not only borrows from their settings, but also from their terminology and their literary tradition.

If then we read Star Trek analogously to other narratives of the Era of Exploration and beyond, the ones of Imperialism and Colonialism, we will have to address it with the same questions, we address the others with. From the opening lines of the series we clearly are informed of the mission of the starships, to “explore” and “seek out new civilizations”. And accordingly the questions arise, how Star Trek is going to depict the potential encounters? Will it reproduce fictions of the already mentioned eras positively or negatively? Or does Star Trek find an own way to negotiate this self-inflicted cultural heritage in the second half of the 20st century?

2. Exploring Post-Colonial Space

In her book Problematic Shores: The Literature of Islands author Diana Loxley states that

“The motif of the island cannot simply be understood as just another “theme””. Island narratives are “in essence, literary expressions of the theme of British colonialism”.[18] In terms of Star Trek’s – as we have seen – quite often use of the trope of the “desert island” as well as other footnotes on its referential scope we have to examine this charge very closely. In Star Trek there is, in fact, an even wider scope than visible at first sight. The problem or the advantage of Star Trek, depending on the perspectives we will come across is, that the fictional setting of it is situated in case of TOS, TNG and Voyager in the 23rd century but the narratives are clearly reminiscent of the 18th and 19th century. A third factor comes in when considering the time of the production of the series, from the 1960s to the present day. So it is not so simple as to simply project from one time to another without keeping especially the cultural and political changes in both society and scientific discourses of the last decades in mind.

First of all, let us have a look at how Star Trek conceives itself and then how critics have dealt with the facts. We have already come across the film Star Trek: First Contact. It is necessary to note that First Contact stands out against other Star Trek movies. In it Star Trek’s fictional history is established. Hence the TNG Enterprise crew goes back in time to the 21st Star Trek century to save the planet Earth from an alien species called the Borg. On Earth surface the crew meets Zefram Cochrane, an engineer and supposed pilot of a starship, whose first flight is supposed to initiate Earth’s first contact with an alien species. This flight, as crew member, Deanna Troi reveals, to a very disbelieving Cochrane will “unite […] humanity in a way that no one had ever thought possible. When they realize they are not alone in the universe…poverty, disease, war… they’ll all be gone within the next 50 years.”[19] This represents the sketch for Star Trek’s utopian society. Mankind will be peaceful and united under the heading of scientific exploration, as we know from the opening credits.


[1] Star Trek: The Next Generation: Encounter at Farpoint. Dir. Corey Allen. With Patrick Steward, Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner. Paramount Home Entertainment DVD 2006

[2] Star Trek: Voyager. Dir. Kim Friedman. With Kate Mugrew, Robert Beltram and Roxann Dawson. 1995

[3] Barret, Michele and Barrett, Duncan. The Human Frontier: Star Trek. NY: Rotuledge.2001

[4] cp. Title of chapter 2 of Barrett and Barrett

[5] Star Trek: 2009

[6] Barrett and Barrett.p.12

[7] Ibid.

[8] Star Trek: Generations: . Dir. David Carson. With Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frankes and Brent Spiner. Paramount Pictures, 1994

[9] [9] TNG: common abbreviation of Star Trek: The Next Generation

[10] See appendix image 1 for a picture of the quoted scene

[11] Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Dir. Nicholas Meyer. With Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and Deforest Kelley, 1982

[12] TOS: common abbreviation for the series Star Trek: The Original Series

[13] Melville, Herman. Moby Dick or, The Whale. Penguin Classics, 2002

[14] In order to overthrow Prospero’s regime his servant slave Caliban reminds his fellow conspirators to “Remember/First to possess his books“(III.ii. line 86f) which makes clear his masters’s power comes from the books. See: Shakespeare, William: The Tempest. Reclam, 1982

[15] Redden, Guy and Macdonald, Libby: Still Surviving Desert Islands: The Beach, Imperialism, and Cultural Value. 28.04.10 << http://www.ars-rhetorica.net/Queen/Volume21/Articles/ReddenMacdonald.htm>>

[16] Ibid.

[17] Barrett and Barrett p. 16

[18] Redden and Macdonald

[19] Star Trek: First Contact. Dir. Jonathan Frakes. With Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes. Paramount Pictures, 1996


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University of Frankfurt (Main) – Neue Englischsprachige Kulturen und Literaturen
Post Colonialism Star Trek Racism Ethnocentrism the Other Imperialism Final Frontier



Title: A post-colonial approach to Science Fiction - Narrations of Imperialism within "Star Trek"