TCS Daily

Star Trek and Moral Clarity

By Raymond J. Keating - March 6, 2002 12:00 AM

The latest "Star Trek" series, "Enterprise," hit television screens this season, and it has garnered rather positive reviews. Indeed, in many ways, it started out as the most promising Trek TV installment since Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy first journeyed into the final frontier over 35 years ago.

The original "Star Trek" series, of course, ran for three seasons on NBC in the late 1960s. In many ways, it was a product of the Cold War. It was pro-democracy, anti-tyranny, internationalist, strong on defense (one show even had Kirk putting forth a pro-Vietnam War message), often anti-welfare state, and exhibited a belief in God. Kirk even regularly ignored the relativistic "prime directive" -- which bars Starfleet personnel from interfering in another society's development -- when visiting a planet that seemed to be careening off in an inappropriate direction. To a considerable extent, the original "Star Trek" series possessed a moral anchor.

As we all know, in subsequent syndication, the show's popularity took off at warp speed. Nine movies - with the tenth now in production - and four TV series followed.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" took flight in 1987. Unfortunately, it offered a more sterile vision of the future with preachy Federation bureaucrats claiming to have overcome the pitfalls of human nature. Next to beam into our living rooms was "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," which turned out to be a darker version of Trek, including an interesting mix of espionage, war, capitalism, and byzantine politics. Then "Star Trek: Voyager" presented a Trek take on "Lost in Space," with the starship Voyager hurled across the galaxy and struggling to make it home.

Also, throughout each of these TV shows, technological advancement generally has been presented in a positive, though not utopian, light, empowering mankind to achieve much.

Now, we have "Enterprise," which in the future history of "Star Trek" actually pre-dates Kirk and Spock by about 100 years or so. The new show focuses on humanity's initial forays beyond our solar system. The early episodes indicated that a robust sense of adventure, mystery and exploration has been re-energized in the "Star Trek" franchise.

Captain Jonathan Archer leads the first starship Enterprise. The crew generally has proven a bit more accessible than recent Trek characters by mixing a touch of fear in with an almost giddy excitement about exploring the vast unknown of space. In the series premiere, humanity is asserting its independence by shrugging off the overbearing paternalism of the ever-logical Vulcans who have been holding back mankind from fully venturing into space. It seems that the Vulcans want humans to first move beyond their "volatile nature." No wonder Dr. McCoy later found Spock so annoying.

The creators of "Enterprise" have been widely quoted as saying they wanted to get their new show "back to basics." As exhibited in several early episodes, that means an entertaining mix of passion, adventure, intelligent stories and dialogue, fun characters, a few fistfights, and some cool spaceships and weapons (along with a willingness to use them).

Beyond the basic entertainment value, though, over the years, so many people have become Trekkies due to the inherent optimism about the future that is communicated by "Star Trek." At least at first, "Enterprise" seemed to be building on this tradition. After all, humanity is taking baby steps into space in "Enterprise" while the Vulcans and Klingons already have been streaking around the galaxy. A mere century or so later, Captain Kirk and the rest of humanity are calling the shots in the United Federation of Planets. That is an optimistic statement about mankind in general.

However, one episode, which originally aired in late January, was anything but optimistic about man in the future. The answer provided to this episode's dilemma should be considered morally repugnant to all - from left to right across the philosophical spectrum. In effect, Captain Archer
and the ship's doctor, Phlox, agreed to allow tens of millions of people to die in the name of what might theoretically evolve in the future.

In this particular episode, titled "Dear Doctor," the show's creators and writers decided to deal with a plague decimating a humanoid species known as the Valakians. It turns out a worsening genetic problem has the Valakians on the fast track to extinction, and they are desperately trying to find a cure. Captain Archer instructs Dr. Phlox to help. So far, so good.

However, Phlox discovers that this planet's second species, the Menk--who basically work with, but are largely subjugated to the Valakians--are developing better skills and higher intelligence. Phlox concludes that evolution is dictating the demise of the Valakians and the rise of the Menk.

Under Archer's original orders, Phlox developed a cure. However, now the doctor argues the cure should not be provided because it would be unethical to disrupt the evolutionary process. Archer initially counters that Phlox has a moral responsibility to help the ill, and that human compassion dictates providing the cure.

However, in the end, Archer suddenly decides to go against all of his principles, and not provide the cure. We are offered no insights into his decision, other than his saying he wrestled with the issue all night. Archer does not tell the Valakians about the discovery, but instead provides some
pain medication and wishes them good luck.

Here we see a complete moral breakdown. In the defense of evolutionary theory, millions of lives are to be sacrificed.

Of course, Captain Archer and Dr. Phlox are fictional characters. But what does this story line say about the show's producers and writers? The answers are troubling. The value of life has been drastically devalued. And quite frankly, I cannot help but think of a dark parallel from the 20th century, when tens of millions of lives were extinguished in the name of defending theories, causes, or the so-called greater good, as was the case under communism and Nazism.

We are living in an era of moral obtuseness when a mainstream TV show can present such a morally repugnant choice not just as another option, but as the side adopted by the good guys. While it has been argued that Hollywood has contributed to our nation's moral decline, culprits can be found throughout a society that discounts notions of truth, good and evil.

What does the future hold? No one knows. For now when it comes to enjoying a little television, let's hope "Enterprise" proves that the "Dear Doctor" episode was an anomaly, and that we are instead treated to some old-time Trek adventure, optimism and moral clarity. If not, I'll be pulling for Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy to win out over Captain Archer and Dr. Phlox in the future.

Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, chief economist for the Small Business Survival Committee, and co-author of U.S. by the Numbers: What's Left, Right, and Wrong with America State by State (Capital Books, 2000).

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