Star Trek’s Real Mission: To Teach Us How Civilized Adults Make Decisions

In the opening credits to the original Star Trek series, Captain James T. Kirk tells us that the United Starship Enterprise’s five-year mission is “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” This implies that the main theme of the show is exploration. Yet the crew of the Enterprise often go to familiar places, including 20th century Earth. Nevertheless, every episode deals with another important theme: how civilized adults make good decisions, while uncivilized or immature people usually make bad ones.

Captain Kirk has the responsibility for making and enforcing decisions, yet he relies heavily on advice from the ship’s other officers, mainly because each represents a different kind of ability that is important in making decisions. Some critics have argued that Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy represent the Freudian concepts of id, ego, and superego, respectively. They do not. Captain Kirk represents the human will and moral responsibility. As the captain of the starship, he takes orders from Starfleet and gives orders to his crew. These orders are usually followed, unless there is a compelling moral reason to bend or break them. As captain, Kirk makes the decisions and bears the responsibility for everything that might go wrong.

Mr. Spock, who is the half-Vulcan science officer and first officer, represents the intellect. He helps Kirk understand what is true, what his options are, and what the likely consequences of each course of action are. Dr. McCoy, the ship’s surgeon, represents the conscience. Whereas Spock often deals with theoretical issues, Dr. McCoy is constantly reminding Kirk of the suffering of real human beings: “This man is dead, Jim!” Spock may speak in abstract terms about how the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In contrast, McCoy makes it clear that he would never sacrifice a patient, not even to save a lot of other people. Mr. Scott, the ship’s engineer, represents practicality. He makes things run, and he warns Kirk when something is impossible. Lieutenant Uhura is the communications officer. Her role is not just technical, it is also diplomatic. By making contact with threatening aliens, she enables Kirk to use words rather than weapons to solve conflicts.

When I was a child, I used to wonder why Spock was not the captain, given that he was much smarter than Kirk. Yet Spock is prone to making certain kinds of mistakes. For example, he often cannot predict the behavior of stupid, irrational, or passionate people. Spock has worked so hard to control his own powerful emotions that he does not always make proper use of them in making decisions. Whenever that happens, you can rely on Dr. McCoy to speak up.

The original Star Trek series aired during the heyday of the youth movement, when many young people took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and other injustices. Although Star Trek explicitly supported the youth movement’s progressive agenda, it also praised maturity—maturity of the individual and of the society as a whole. Star Trek seemed to promise us that our society would improve with age. Despite some ups and downs, the people of Earth would eventually embrace the youth movement’s ideals and put an end to war and poverty and injustice. Yet even in Kirk’s day, Earth still lags behind Vulcan society in terms of intellectual and moral development. During their travels, Kirk and Spock encounter societies that are even more advanced than Vulcan. Some aliens chide Kirk for claiming that his mission is peaceful, while his ship is heavily armed.

Although Star Trek embraced many of the progressive ideals of the youth movement, it also made a strong case for the value of experience, maturity, and responsibility. The episode The Way to Eden depicted an idealistic band of young hippies as irresponsible and self-destructive. In contrast, the series implies that ship’s officers become more capable as they gain experience. For example, Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Sulu, and Ensign Chekov are all officers on the same career track, but at different stages of maturation. Kirk has the experience and mature judgment to handle enormous responsibilities. Sulu needs just a bit more experience before he will be ready for a command of his own, and young Chekov is still wet behind the ears.

The lessons from Star Trek are particularly important today. The United States has just elected a vulgar, bigoted, greedy, irresponsible, ignorant, and possibly illiterate man as President. We Americans clearly need some pointers on how to make better decisions.
Photo by JD Hancock

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