The Voyages of Star Trek by K.M. Heath & A.S. Carlisle
The Voyages of Star Trek: A Mirror on American Society through Time (2020), by K.M. Heath and A.S. Carlisle, explores how the various Trek incarnations — TV shows, movies, comics — mirrored (or not) the culture of the time, beginning with the original series (TOS) and ending with Discovery (Picard was released too late and is only mentioned as existing). The book grew out of an undergraduate anthropology course, and you can see some of that in their explanation of their methods (taking random “snapshots” of shows, for instance, to assess the prevalence, or lack thereof, of non-white or women characters), but the target is the popular audience. Their main claim, as they put it, is that “Star Trek has survived across five decades in the face of rapid cultural change because it adapts to the times while staying true to its core mission: humanity’s hope for a better future.”
For those unfamiliar with all the various versions of Star Trek, the book delves into TOS, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DSN), Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, the animated series, all the movies, the comics, and Star Trek fandom/conventions. Each chapter offers up a brief look at the times based on historical events, pop culture, and more. Then there’s an examination of how the show reflected or conflicted with the reigning time, followed by a specific quantified look at the portrayals of race and gender on the show. Their methods were to:
randomly select 15 percent of each of the thirty seasons of the six television shows … In addition, we viewed 100 percent of the thirteen movies. We used snapshots techniques … at five-minute intervals for episodes and about ten-minute for movies, we recorded behavior for all individuals observed with a five-second time frame … record [ing] the age, sex, and race of each actor … and group identity.
The Voyages of Star Trek looks at how the show, and its spin-offs into movies, the written word, and fan-created works, intersects with America’s changing views on feminism, gender, homo- and bisexuality, capitalism, foreign policy, and other subjects. Some of the specific elements covered include that infamous Kirk-Uhura kiss from TOS (the first interracial kiss on TV), the TOS “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode that not-too-subtly pointed out the absurdity and inevitable result of racial hatred, the TNG episode “Outcast” which focused on gender identity, DS9’s use of the Ferengi (an alien race) as a means of critiquing contemporary capitalism/greed and the “Past Tense” episode that looked at homelessness (a highly topical subject at the time), Voyager’s exploration of mixed-race identify through Torres’ half-human/half-Klingon background, particularly in the episode “Lineage,” and finally (for the shows), how Discovery “normalizes same-sex relationships” via its matter-of-fact/taken for granted portrayal of several on the show.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to learn much about most of the creative works discussed. After all, it’s been 50 years since TOS, and decades since the other shows, and so there have been, to use an academic term, a gazillion papers, books, documentaries, etc. exploring the shows and films individually, as a series, or as an ongoing phenomenon. So mostly I was hoping for some still-interesting recaps of familiar territory and then a more-interesting dive into the very recent: Discovery, Picard, and the reboot movies, and maybe a glimpse of the new animated series, Lower Decks (I assumed it was too recent for discussion of particular episodes but I thought there might be a look at its genesis and development). Well, as noted, Picard was only mentioned, and the same was true of Lower Decks, while Discovery didn’t get much page time. I would have been disappointed then with an in-depth going over of familiar ground but could have lived with that (I am a fan of the series, after all).
But in-depth isn’t the descriptive phrase I’d use here. The depth was, again to be honest, sorely disappointing, in fact, with mere cursory and surprisingly shallow looks at the time period and the various shows’ intersection with them. Certainly, it didn’t take an anthropological degree or eye or study for even the most casual fan to note how the mini-skirts of TOS reflected the more open feminism and sexuality of the 60s, how “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” reflected the Civil Rights movement, or to note that Star Trek shows that showed up 25 or 35 years later would portray more women or minorities on the show. The lack of interesting content might have been at least somewhat counterbalanced by some good stories from the shows and/or a stylish or humorous flair to the writing, but there was too little of the former and next-to-none of the latter, with the style mostly flat and pedestrian.
One of my tests of how much I learned from or enjoyed a book are the number of highlights I made as I read it, and sadly, there were a mere handful in The Voyages of Star Trek. For that reason, I can’t recommend it.