Social Issues

Star Trek made me a moral person

When I was eight, I became obsessed with the concept of the morality tale. I had a children’s book with some of Aesop’s Fables in it, stories like “The Fox and Grapes” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” A friend of ours who lived in Korea sent back a collection of Korean folk tales, many of which have the same feel as Aesop’s Fables, the same sort of simple moral lesson. To this day those books are among my prized possessions, and I am very much looking forward to sharing these works with my children, if I can have them.

When I was ten, I wrote and illustrated a story about a fox and a turtle that featured my burgeoning love of wit and dedication– in some way the fox was trying to be crafty and lazy, but the turtle outwitted him and got him to do most of the work. I was immensely proud of that story even though I can’t remember most of it now– there was something about rocks and apples and a wheelbarrow?– and I’m pretty sure mom still has it tucked away somewhere.

In many ways I’ve outgrown the simplicity and ease of those stories. Part of growing up is realizing that the world is much more gray than it is black and white, and that the good guy doesn’t always win. Now, I like my villains complex and my heroines flawed, and I love stories that shine a bright, jarring light on our humanity, on all of our brilliance and shame. Sometimes I want a story where the “moral” is:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. This is not a weakness, this is life.”

That quote is from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Captain Picard is speaking to Data, a character I’ve always identified with, explaining a lesson that can be a difficult one to truly grasp.

I often joke that my earliest memory is the theme song to Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series premiered the year I was born– in fact, the first episode aired in the same month. Even when we were in the fundamentalist cult we still prioritized Star Trek. We didn’t have cable while Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise were airing, so our neighbor recorded them for us. New episodes of Voyager aired on Wednesday, and every week after church my sister and I would fly out of the car and breathlessly rush to our neighbor’s door in order to pick up the VHS tape.

Voyager was more my church than church was, really. I idolized Captain Kathryn Janeway, and one of the more upsetting experiences of my childhood was the finale of season five, when the last shot makes it look like Janeway might have been killed. I grieved all summer, hoping and praying that she would be alright. (Yes, I’m aware I care about fictional characters way too much. If you want to see a show, ask me about Egwene al’Vere from the Wheel of Time at some point.)

What I didn’t realize was that my deep and abiding love for Janeway and Seven and Jadziah and Data and Picard and Trip was changing me. Episodes like “The Outcast” later became the context I had for understanding and loving myself as a queer person. The entire story arc of Star Trek: Enterprise‘s third season, which aired in 2003, helped form and shape my views on foreign policy and the War on Terror. Enterprise culminates in the forming of the Federation of Planets, something that Archer came to fight for after realizing that war– even war in the name of “national security”– is terrible, and that violence must not be favored over understanding, trust, and relationship.

Star Trek, in many ways, is a modern morality play. There’s more nuance, more shades of grey, more complicated human realities, but what it does best is feature people with all their flaws and beauties struggling to make the world a better place. Sometimes, they fail. As Chakotay learns in “The Year of Hell,” sometimes even your best and purest motives are wrong. In Star Trek, though, winning is defined not by typical notions of success and wealth and power, but by understanding. When characters learn more about themselves– like Data learning about fear in Star Trek: Generations– or about other people, nations, planets, and species, that’s what the show considers a success.

My priorities and values were affected by growing up in a fundamentalist cult. Hatred and fear overrode almost anything else I absorbed through my religion, but somehow Star Trek mitigated all of that. In many ways, the different shows became a North Star of sorts; I didn’t have a God that I knew loved me, but my idea of love was shaped by watching all the different ways– flawed, terrible, beautiful, sad ways– that the characters cared about each other. Even today when I think of a concept like friendship I see Data and Geordi, Tom and Harry, Janeway and Seven, Jadziah and Kira. When I try to picture kindness I see Deanna Troi. When I want to embrace strength, purpose, and conviction blended with compassion I ask myself “What would Captain Picard do?”

Many people criticize the sorts of work people like me do with geek culture. It’s just a damn show for crissake they’ll say, belittling the conversations we have about whether or not such-and-such show or film is sexist or homophobic. Who cares if Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a problem with consent? Why bother getting all bent out of shape over Whedon’s infertility = monster in Avengers: Age of Ultron? Why care about the way women die in comic book adaptations?

This post is my answer: because media matters. I was fortunate that I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek. I could have been imbibing shows with much more toxic masculinity, misogyny, and homophobia than I did, but instead I was gifted with a story whose main focus is trying to show us what we could be like at our very human best.

Photo by Scott Cresswell
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  • Lee Hauser

    Thank you for this. I’m more a Star Wars person than a Star Trek person, but I watched every episode of these series when they were on (except The Original Series — my parents wouldn’t let me stay up that late) and loved them.

    I think what you’re reaching for here, in the conflict with people saying “it’s just a TV show,” is your recognition that story is a critical part of all human cultures. Even politicians know they reach us most deeply when they tell stories — stories of people affected by policies or crime or war or whatever. The Bible is full of stories. Stories, whether they are told by a person, in a book, in a TV show or movie, or in our own lives, are where we all learn the lessons of what it means to be human. And they are critical.

    • I was also pretty darn obsessed with Star Wars. I loved it, and inhaled everything I could get my hands on. Star Trek though, was a more daily experience as opposed to the movies coming out every few years, so it had turned out being more of a formative thing.

  • capeviolet

    Re: Egwene & Wheel of Time – a defining series for me, read as a teenager and later on in life 😉

    • I’m re-reading WoT with my partner right now– it’s his first time through, we’re at Crossroads of Twilight at the moment, and I’m looking forward to the pace picking back up, especially with the Sanderson books.

      I just finished my first re-watch of TNG, which was amazing since I’d mostly just seen out-of-order reruns that only really cover the fan favorites.

  • Catnip

    I used to watch TNG with my dad. It was kind of “our” time, and we’d discuss all kinds of things during commercials and after the show. I didn’t realize how much the show informed my sense of morality and fairness until I read this entry.

    Thank you.

  • Please do a post/s on Wheel of Time at some point, maybe once you’re done reading through them all again?! It’s one of my favorite series, and I rarely see/hear anyone talk about it.

    • I have SO MANY THOUGHTS on it now that I’ve been reading it again as a feminist. There’s so much to love, but the never-ending “men are ridiculous” “women can’t be understood” dynamic is wearying. Also, Mat and Tylin. UG.

      • Tamara

        I read through the first six books of Wheel of Time when I was sick as a dog pregnant with my first kid and as soon as I felt better, I stopped reading them mostly for that reason. I could. not. stand. that repeated gendered stereotype. It was also probably a bit to do with the fact that I now associate them with being sick, but mostly I think the infinitely repeated gender stuff and other generally repetitive themes.

    • KT

      I just finished rereading it. I love it and have so many THOUGHTS about it.

      Generally I read the super gendered stuff as att last a little bit ironic – because often, when the characters were SAYING “ooh men are like this/ women are like that” they were ACTING the opposite.

      Then again that may just be me reaching because I do like it so much and generally love the characters

  • Samantha, I love Star Trek too. And I think it is because of some of the same reasons–the emphasis on doing the right thing and the complexity of the characters.

    I was almost an adult when Star Trek began, but there was something similar that I think changed the course of my mind and my life in a basic way–science fiction books. I was also raised in a controlled fundamentalist environment, but my parents paid little attention to the books I read. Am I so glad.

    Reading science fiction expanded my awareness of possibilities and stretched my thinking beyond my narrow fundamentalism. It allowed me to question; shortly after high school I questioned and dismissed legalism. Then it was the KJV. After that dispensationalism, hell, creationism, inerrancy, and so much more.

    I never rebelled against God and I still have a strong believe in Jesus; he is now the foundation of all my belief. But I no longer carry the harmful baggage of fundamentalism, and I firmly believe that science fiction was a very significant element that enabled that journey for me.

  • I just started watching Star Trek this year, and I’m stunned by the morality and beauty of it. Frankly, Captain Kirk’s cry that “Above all else a God should be compassionate!” captures my beliefs more than any theologian.

  • Anna

    Star Trek Voyager was there when I was trying to sort out a lot of ethics questions as a young teen. My best friend and I would watch the re-runs each evening and then either email or call each other to dissect the episode and work our way through the issues in that episode. The questions of personhood, of treating others as people even when they are very different, trying to figure out what consent means…Star Trek helped me think them through in a way where religion didn’t have to play a part, which was a very good thing.

  • Tiago Seiler

    Just a reminder, it’s Kathryn Janeway, not Katherine 🙂

  • Timothy Swanson

    I was raised more on the Original Series, both the show and the movies, as my dad liked those. (And even now, there is something irresistible about Spock and Bones and even Kirk in his own bombastic way.) I am watching TNG with my older kids right now, and am again impressed at how philosophically minded the show was. Our viewing has indeed sparked plenty of discussions about ethics. It’s sad that I feel less anxiety about the lessons Star Trek will teach my kids than the ones they will learn from Church.

  • Tamara

    Oh yes, same for me as well on all things star trek. It was like the loop hole of tv shows that somehow made it past all the strict fundamentalist checklists for tv viewing. I have to say, the episode Outcast looks to be lifted from Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness which is one of my all time favorites. But then again, I pretty much swoon for all of her writing.

  • Charles Stanford

    It’s been years since I watched regularly, but TNG was part of my childhood too. I’ve had my curmudgeon-ish quibbles with the setting details, but – Captain Picard. Oh yeah. I know the dangers of identifying actors with roles, but I love Patrick Stewart for playing Captain Picard and Professor Xavier.

    My wife loves the WoT series too.

  • Andrew

    Thank you so much for this article. My world view was also heavily influenced by Star Trek, and still is. Like you, I was also helped by the series in coming to terms with my identity as a queer person, and my relationship to the people in my life and humanity in general. I really believe that Captain Picard made me the person I am today, and like you, I often ask myself “What would Picard do?”

    • He would “Make it so!”

      • justicewasburned

        Don’t listen to this guy Andrew. This guy is a pathological liar. His name is FrancEs Cuffook.

        • Excuse me? This is not an appropriate comment for this blog. Andrew has done nothing wrong as of yet and until he does he will be treated respectfully.

          You, on the other hand, seems like a troll.

          • Chutney Bridge

            I wasn’t talking to Andrew. I was speaking with Get Chutney Love and look what he posted. A sure moron he is.

          • Ok, well for future reference, “don’t listen to this guy Andrew” and “don’t listen to this guy, Andrew” have different meanings. The comma before Andrew’s name there would have indicated direct address.

            You might have some personal history/experience whatever with Get Chutney Love, but so far they haven’t violated my community rules. I’m just going to delete y’all’s exchange and you both can keep that shit to yourselves from now on.

          • Takes one to know one, Dennis Schlacter.

          • You were warned. You’re done here.

  • The Next Generation was hugely influential on me too, especially Picard. My mother mentioned this to me a few years ago, noting that I was a very diplomatic child. I can’t imagine that the new rebooted Trek films have this kind of influence on anyone. They really have thrown away the heart of Star Trek.

    (Oh, and it’s Jadzia Dax, not Jadziah.)

  • Juli Hoffman

    I grew up on Star Trek as well. My dad was a huge fan. The lessons I learned from Star Trek have followed me into adulthood. 🙂

  • Love this post. 🙂 Spock is my favorite character ever. I also love Data.

    • I *adore* Spock and Data. Also, I love anytime the unabashedly emotional Bones spars with Spock.

  • Missionary Dave

    Star Trek? Fundamental cult? Fictional characters?
    Sounds like common ground to me.
    At least you left the most fictional of the two.

  • Beroli

    I’m glad you had Star Trek, even when your church was trying to devour you alive rather than support you.

    There’s a lot of wisdom in Star Trek. A lot to be both found in fiction and communicated through fiction, I’ve found.

  • Terahlyanwe

    Star Trek taught me to love myself and prize my uniqueness. Great great story. Interestingly, the Wheel of Time series was the first books I read that made me start to realize that being queer was a thing and it was OK. (pillow friends to the max!).

  • Alice

    I grew up fundamentalist and my parents were very strict about media, but I was allowed to watch most of the Star Trek series. Star Trek teaches that there is good in humanity, that we can achieve a more equal and just society, and that there is hope for the future. It teaches us to value truth, logic, emotion, science, and tolerance. Fundamentalism tried to teach me the opposite.

    Also, the Q character and similar characters made me think about what makes a deity worthy of devotion, that just being all-powerful is not a good enough reason.

  • Carry

    Even though I grew up fundie, we always watched Star Trek. I don’t know why. It’s super liberal. I first learned the “wrongs” of evolution from it.

  • TruthandConsequences

    You’ve given this original series diehard a reason to watch the sequels again. I’ve always felt the values the original helped impart to me as a ’70s kid were watered down in the sequels, but apparently not, as you grew up on them and have still managed to pick up on so much of what I love about Trek.
    And it goes to show how Trek can be a positive influence on people from across the spectrum — you came to it from a deeply conservative religious worldview and I came to it from an ultraprogressive atheist mindset, and we have come to love it for similar reasons.