Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Conceptually, Picard is the Best Star Trek Ever

Long time readers of this blog know that I am no real fan of Star Trek. So, it might surprise people to know that I think that Picard, the most recent entry into this long franchise, may conceptually be the best that has ever hit the screen.

Since its premiere, I have listened to fans of all stripes whinging about various aspects of the show. The two most prominent are the overt criticisms of Trump and Brexit (confirmed by actor Patrick Stewart) and the abandonment of Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic, utopian vision of humanity’s future. Ironically, I think both of these are actually the strengths of the show (although both are probably unintentional). This is why I hedge my praise of the show with the word “conceptually.”

Let me explain. Star Trek was always a humanist propaganda tool. It posited that if we could just adopt the right world view, humanity could overcome all of the basest instincts of human nature and stick a fork in the ideas and conflicts that have plagued humanity since we were self-aware. The problem I have with this is that it is wildly unrealistic. It fails to understand that those base instincts are baked in and that they will destroy every single human endeavor regardless of how noble it may be.

The Mosaic Law proved this reality long before humanism ever became a thing. The Law has no salvific value. Rather, it demonstrates that we are incapable of saving ourselves by strictly following any kind of law or order. We will always fall short and fail. The only hope we have of overcoming evil and sin is God.

So, when Picard tried going after Trump by painting the Federation as a xenophobic fascist state I actually was intrigued. While I think criticisms of Trump as a racist and a tyrant are misplaced, lazy, and get in the way of more constructive criticisms of the man and his policies, I don’t think they are misplaced when it comes to the realities of what the Federation would probably have to look like.

Humanity has tried imposing utopias before. They have always devolved into authoritarianism. As the OT points out, we are incapable of living up to any lofty standard demanded by a utopia. Thus, it requires an iron fist to make people toe the line even in the face of a reality that proves the absurdity of the utopia.

Thus, Picard, rather than being a criticism of current political events, becomes an internal criticism of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision. It transforms the entire canon from a naive but hopeful humanist vision of the future into propaganda films shoved down our throat from an authoritarian regime that wants us to buy the lie that it isn’t a xenophobic dictatorship.

Thus, all of the various inconsistencies with canon that cause cognitive dissonance within the mind of those used to the propaganda are fair game. For example: Romulus was never the massive empire we were led to believe. If it were, they would have had the technology and resources to save themselves without the intervention of the Federation. So Picard’s rescue mission reveals the lie.

I don’t know if this concept will hold true for the rest of the show, but conceptually I think this is the best thing to happen to Star Trek since it got a second pilot.


Robert Conley said...

One thing to keep in mind about Star Trek that it is essence a post scarcity society. Much of Human society is about control of limited resources.

Jesus taught and warned about concerned attachment to material wealth. Which for most times mean living a life of charity and poverty.

However what if material abundance is such that obtaining the necessities even some luxuries is trivial. How would this change both within the world and spiritually.

While Roddenberry never properly explores this it underlies all of Trek old and new in its depiction of the Federation. Since the shows largely focuses on exploration and interactions with the universe outside of the federation is been papered over so to speak beyond the various speech about how human are beyond money and the acquisition of material wealth.

Robert Conley said...

Further notes.

It seems to me is that except for a few specific things, the expansion of the Federation is not driven by the desire to acquire more resource or population.

In terms of resource logically there came a certain point where the Federation would have existed within its bounds providing for all its needs with existing resources and ever improving technology.

However since a central ethos of the Federation is to seek out new life and new civilizations. To be welcoming to those willing and capable, i.e. not covered by the Prime Directive, of joining the community that the Federation created.

For its first few centuries look at the opposition the Federation faced. Polities dominated by single species empires like the Klingons and Romulans. Basically they may have a problem with the Federation, the Federation doesn't have a problem with them or more importantly a need for what they have unless attacked.

Later the Cardassians proved more of the same.

But since the Cardassian, the Federation has faced two major existential threat, the Borg and the Dominion. Two multi-species polities that have worldviews at odds with the Federation. And have similar expansion drives as the single species polities to boot.

My feeling is that the Romulan refugees situation is a side effect of the conflicts of the 24th century (TNG). After the dealing with the Romulans and Borg, the Federation is turning it back on seeking out new life and new civilization. Obviously Jean luc Picard doesn't agree with that.

FrDave said...

While interesting, this view of Roddenberry's vision is still willfully ignorant of human nature. One thing that will always be scarce regardless of material wealth is power. In the LXX (Greek) translation of Psalm 1, the seat of power is called the seat of pestilence. No matter how benevolent someone intends to be, power always corrupts. It always necessitates sin. Thus, even in a hypothetical universe where all material needs are met, power is still there in scarcity for people to fight over and fight over it they will.

McGrogen said...

The Federation always was putting out propaganda. Take the idea that they had grown beyond money. That is not true. They used something called credits that could be exchanged for goods and serves. Credits were first referenced in There are quite a few other examples (e.g. The Genesis Device in Wraith of Khan). The point is that Roddenberry had the Federation putting out false propaganda about how they were an utopian society from early on. Picard just continues this tradition.

Robert Conley said...

In order for power to have meaning there has to be something to control. What is the point of control in the Star Trek scenario? Otherwise is just some individual or group ranting at the sky.

The one thing that is in short supply is people's attention and time. My belief is that power in a post scarcity will stem from the ability to command people's attention.

The problem for those in power that people can effectively ignore them as they don't depend materially on anybody else. Each person has at their command the equivalent of a multi-purpose factory combined with instantaneous planetary wide transport.

However mob mentality will still be there with all its ills and leaders will be able to take advantage of that.

The challenge in this hypothetical how what you know about human nature would play out if the moment an individual is not in physical control of another groups they can go anywhere on the planet amid billions and start a new life.

Of course one can postulate various forms of centralized control like ID tracking and so on. But let's consider the hard case where the hardware and tech is built to be decentralized from the ground up. How would all this play in that scenario.

Given the previews we are going to see a bit of how post scarcity nature of the Federation is going to work through how Picard obtains a ship and crew.

Personally what I think in a Federation type society there still will be violence and power struggles on a domestic level. Where all the things you mentioned will play out but limited in scope to a small group of individuals.

That there still be societal wide issues but it would be more about consensus. The populace start following ideas that lead to more of the above. But it isn't organized at a national or even regional level the way it was in our past or present time.

Robert Conley said...

Star Trek is inconsistent on this. I am going with the more radical take as is more what Roddenberry intended than the use of credits.

The only thing that I am ask to take at face values is that everybody in the Federation has access to tech to satisfy their material needs. That individual citizen control.

McGrogen said...

I do not think we are that far apart here. Let me clarify a bit. I am not saying that Roddenberry didn't paint a bright future. Only that it wasn't intended to be a utopian one. There were always problems with The Federation. At the same time - it was still being shown as head and shoulders above any other society that history has known.

FrDave said...

Some things to consider: There is an elephant in the room called the Prime Directive which gives us a couple of keys clues as to what Star Fleet would really look like. First, it indicates that people are not free to move anywhere they wish. Second, we see those in positions of power (Star Fleet officers) ignore this directive all the time which indicates that the power of Star Fleet is palpable. The Prime Directive also indicates that Christianity is seen as part of humanity's barbaric past. Christ's Great Commission is antithetical to the Prime Directive. Thus, the Federation is at best a secular society and at worst a naturalistic one. Both secular and naturalistic societies that see Christianity as barbaric really only have one functional principle with which to organize their societies: Power.

Also, it doesn't matter if a technology is built from the ground up to be decentralized. The internet was built that way. When a technology is seen as a means to gain and maintain power (as the internet is today) people will work very hard to start centralizing the technology to their benefit. One would be foolish not to see how people have gone to great lengths to try to centralize and control the internet. I don't see that changing no matter what technological wonders await humanity in the future.

McGrogen said...

I am not sure I follow your argument here. Are you arguing that military organizations (in this case Star Fleet) should apostolize?

FrDave said...

No. Star Fleet and their ability to ignore the Prime Directive (which limits access to lower tech worlds for everybody else) demonstrates that they have power. The Prime Directive also is evidence that Star Fleet has placed Christianity into the dustbin of history as far as they are concerned because the Prime Directive is in direct conflict with Christ's Great Commission. This is all evidence that Star Fleet and the Federation, rather than being a humanist utopia that has eliminated most conflict due to its ability to provide material needs is actually a humanist society that only has power as a means of organizing itself. This is why I really enjoyed the concept of Picard so is a much more honest assessment of what the Federation and Star Fleet would actually look like than any other Star Trek show or movie.

McGrogen said...

You are quite correct that Star Fleet abuses the heck of the Prime Directive, and seem to ignore it whenever they feel like it.

However, The Prime Directive applies to Star Fleet. It is very clear that it is a military order, and does not apply to civilians.

DATA: Mister Ramsey is correct, Counsellor. The Odin was not a starship, which means her crew is not bound by the Prime Directive. If he and the others wish to stay here, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

It does not apply to The Ferengi Alliance for example. There seems to be similar laws or regulations that cover at least parts of the Prime Directive. Either this Star Fleet officers using the name that was drummed into to them (a rather propaganda style name: The Prime Directive), there is a more limited law or regulation also called The Prime Directive that applies to civilians, or that Star Fleet officers routinely misinterpret as applying to civilians (see above quote). However, the whole does not apply to civilians within The Federation. Thus, I would argue that how exactly this applies to Christ's Great Commission for Federation civilians is not known.

Robert Conley said...

As a thought experiment If it was conclusively demonstrated that unlimited interaction between technologically advanced societies and technologically inferior societies leads to suffering on the part of the society with inferior technology. Then it would be a moral wrong to allow contact as it conflicts with the second of the Great Commandments.

I agree that the Prime Directive has been presented inconsistently as it been primarily a plot device. One of its more consistent attribute is that the harm caused by first contact only exist when the difference is beyond a certain point. In most cases if a society develops warp drive it is OK to make first contact.

However again if it was objectively demonstrated that when that difference is great enough suffering ensues then again it would a moral wrong by Christian standards to initiate first contact.

FrDave said...

@McGrogen & @Robert Conley
The main conflict between the Prime Directive and the Christian missionary directive is the world-view assumption by the Prime Directive (and many a secular philosophy) that all cultures have equal value. Christianity insists that all persons have unique value regardless of culture. Thus, it is a moral wrong to abandon a person from hearing the Gospel because of their culture.

This is another indication that the Federation isn't the utopia that is is made out to be in the shows. When a society organizes itself on the basis of the group over the individual (i.e. cultures and not persons) this is indicative of a society that has far more interest in power and control than freedom.

McGrogen said...

@FrDave are you arguing that The Prime Directive is in conflict with the Christian missionary directive because of the world-view assumption of this order is different from that Christianity's, and it does not matter that you agree with how it directs Star Fleet personal to act?

FrDave said...

Yes, the basic world-view assumption of the Prime Directive is in direct conflict with Christianity because it assumes that the Christian missionary directive would be detrimental to the cultures of it interacts with (individuals be damned).

There are episodes that champion culture over the individual to the direct detriment of the individual. I don't remember which episode, but there is a culture that murders its elders at a specific age. The episode centers around a scientist who is at the leading edge of his field who ultimately chooses to allow his family to murder him because to abandon the culture was the greater evil than exiling himself to continue his work.

Thus, while Star Fleet ostensibly does something I want (leave primitive cultures alone) it leads to a view of humanity in general that allows for hideous behaviors in the name of culture.

McGrogen said...

So what would you have had the Enterprise do instead?

FrDave said...

That is a good question. We live in a context where we largely constrain our governments from participating in religious activity, even when that activity is the proper response to certain situations.

Exploration and scientific inquiry are actually outgrowths of a Christian world-view. Thus, Picard's desire to explore and inquire are Christian instincts. As depicted in the new show, the Federation is far more realistic in its reticence to explore. As much as secularism, humanism, and naturalism claim science as their foundation they all undercut the necessary world-view assumptions necessary to do science. Rather than being genuine exploration and inquiry, science becomes a tool to propagate whatever the state needs to gain and maintain power.

Thus, in the case of the scientist who gets murdered in the name of culture, a Federation that was truly interested in exploration, inquiry, and science would have engaged this particular culture with a Christian world-view. That value that would have been placed on unique and unrepeatable persons would have long ago challenged the culture's view of the elderly and this scientist would have been a catalyst for seeing why and how such a cultural practice is damaging not only to the elderly, but to society as a whole.

McGrogen said...

There is a TNG two part episode called Unification.

In it, Spock tries, as a private citizen, to change Romulan culture by preaching Vulcan philosophy. Would this be in line with what you are suggesting?

FrDave said...

Yes, but there would also be greater societal pressures at work as well. To use a modern contextual example, free speech is seen as a great good by large number of people despite the fact that it is only enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. Thus, the values of the U.S. have put pressure on other nations to acknowledge the value of free speech despite the fact that none of them actually protect it to the extent that the U.S.

Gerald Groy said...

"I am no real fan of Star Trek."

Such goofy opinions on mediocrity make that obvious!

FrDave said...

The fact that a lot of Trek fans find Picard mediocre can be traced to the overall complaint that it abandons the lore and canon of earlier shows. If one were to see the show through the lens of Picard as an internal critique, a lot of those complaints go away and the show is a lot more cohesive that at first blush.

I readily admit it is kinda goofy, but even goofy ideas can be good ones...