‘Star Trek’ at 50: How a Humanist Story Can Also Be Catholic

star-trek-bread-circusesSept. 8, 2016, marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “Star Trek” on NBC. After a generally undistinguished three-season network run, the series moved into daily syndication, where it eventually became one of the most powerful influences in modern pop culture, spawning TV sequels and a string of feature films.

But I’m here only to discuss “Star Trek” — which, with the rest of the “Trek” universe, is available for online streaming — and what this avowedly humanist series has to say to Catholics.

And, by the way, if it says anything, that may be more accidental than intentional, since creator Gene Roddenberry didn’t follow any organized faith. Here’s one quote from him on the subject:

“I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will — and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.” (Gene Roddenberry)

On the other hand, there were moments in the series, including an episode in which a “science lab Christmas party” is mentioned. Here are a few more instances from the same online article cited above:

The rebels on Magna Roma, a nearly perfect “Parallel Earth”, seem to worship the “sun”, which is actually God’s) “Son”. More precisely, Spock rules that “Sun worship is usually a primitive superstition religion”, whereupon Uhura corrects him: “Don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.” So the episode is remarkably supportive of Christianity (TOS: “Bread and Circuses”).

Another astonishing reference from TOS is a dialogue between two researchers, of whom at least one is clearly religious, when there is a quake on Minara II. Dr. Ozaba: “In His hands are the deep places of the Earth. Psalm 95, verse 4.” Dr. Linke: “Looks like He was listening” (TOS: “The Empath”).

Kirk says: “Scotty doesn’t believe in gods” and also “Man has no need for gods. We find the one quite sufficient”. This almost sounds like Kirk is supposed to be Christian, Jewish or Muslim (TOS: “Who Mourns for Adonais”).

(Capt. James T. Kirk’s from Iowa, and his middle name is Tiberius, but William Shatner is Jewish — so you decide.)

We can start with what Catholics have said about “Trek.”

Yesterday, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, honored the show (as cited at Crux):

But the brief homage by Giuseppe Fiorentino, second-in-command at L’Osservatore Romano, is not so much about the show’s artistic merits as it is about the message that “Star Trek” conveyed to a world afflicted by so many tensions – a world much like the present day.

“Millions of people loved the intergalactic adventures of Captain Kirk and his faithful crew because during those years of the Cold War – while builders of atomic bomb shelters were raking in money, especially in the U.S. – ‘Star Trek’ presented a model of true cooperation,” Fiorentino writes in Friday’s edition of the Vatican daily, which was on Roman newsstands late Thursday.

The goal of the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, Fiorentino says, was to discover new civilizations and “propose peaceful relations on the basis of equality.”

Fiorentino writes, “Star Trek” was “an interstellar journey that was completely human, that is, searching for new ways to understand ourselves – a journey that we must always be undertaking.”

A 2011 piece in the U.K. Catholic Herald expands upon one of the episodes cited above:

Every Christian Star Trek fan recalls Stardate 4041.7. That was the day that I realised that, with very few exceptions, Star Trek is consistently the most pro-Christian and pro-Catholic show in American television history.

In “Bread and Circuses”, the episode that took place in Stardate 4041.7 (AD 2268 for planet-bound humans), Captain James Tiberius Kirk, valiant captain of the good ship Enterprise, in the midst of their five-year mission, came across planet 892-IV, a draconian 20th-century version of the Roman Empire, complete with gladiators, senators and nefarious politics. The empire sponsors state executions of renegade slaves who practice a pacifistic religion of “total love and total brotherhood”. Sound familiar?

The twist is that the slaves imprisoned for practising the religion of their choice are sun worshippers. As Mr Spock, the ship’s Science Officer and Captain Kirk’s logical foil, points out: “It seems illogical for a sun worshipper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood. Sun worship is usually a primitive, superstitious religion.”

And then the fateful and faith-filled moment memorialised in the hearts of all Christian Trekkers, Lt Uhura pipes up from her communications console to correct her superior officers: “I’m afraid you have it all wrong, all of you,” she says. “I’ve been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion, but he couldn’t. Well, don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.”

At that, Kirk addresses his bridge crew: “Christ and Caesar. Wouldn’t it be something to watch, to be a part of? To see it happen all over again?”

Yesterday, Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus wrote this at the National Catholic Register, recalling an episode in which Kirk opted not to kill a vanquished alien foe (it’s worth reading the whole piece):

“Arena” was also about a moral leap — the leap from self-interest and concern for one’s kin and clan to universal empathy and compassion. “By sparing your helpless enemy, who surely would have destroyed you,” Kirk is told in the end by a super-powerful alien sitting in judgment, “you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy — something we hardly expected. We feel there may be hope for your kind.”

This backhanded compliment is a good representation of Star Trek’s utopian but not necessarily Pollyanna humanism. Roddenberry imagined the United Federation of Planets as a shining bastion of Camelot-like glory, implausibly free of poverty, prejudice, violence, disease and other social ills — but he could also acknowledge that it might not be so easy to leave behind mankind’s uglier impulses.

As Catholics, we know what the Catechism teaches us:

The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties.

So, whether a writer is Catholic or not, if he or she has an active conscience, looks at the world clearly, and tells an honest story that explores the reality of human existence, a Truth of the Faith will come through.

The subsequent “Star Trek” incarnations, especially the TV ones, showed increasing influence from the ever-growing PC culture. But if you can get past the 1960s look and spotty SFX quality of the original “Trek,” the show, and and its movie sequels (the even-numbered ones are generally better than the odd-numbered ones, and the fifth one should be entirely avoided), Catholics can find much wisdom.

Images: Courtesy Paramount Studios

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