More Paper Planning: Postcolonial Star Trek

I haven’t Googled “postcolonial Star Trek,” but there is no way in Rura Penthe that this paper will be boldly going where no one has gone before.  Still, not every paper I write – especially a ten-pager for a graduate seminar – needs to break new ground or arrest the attention of editors.  This one I’m interested in writing mostly for fun, the way I filled several pages last year discussing parody and pastiche in the Glee Rocky Horror episode.

I’m interested in tracing the development of the Prime Directive both chronologically through the release of the various series, but chronologically through the Star Trek universe.  The development through “our” chronology is pretty straightforward, but the corresponding development through the chronology of the Star Trek universe is more complex – and, for that reason, perhaps more authentic.

The chronology of the series’ release (TOS -> TNG -> DS9 -> VOY -> ENT) expand the Prime Directive’s core value of non-interference in “developing” societies on a path that pretty straightforwardly tracks the decline and fall of traditional colonialism during the same time periods.   Put another way, as “we” – the writers and the audience – got more concerned about colonialist interference, so did each series.  Kirk doesn’t seem to realize the words “Prime Directive” have any content at all; Picard (and especially Riker) is willing to ignore the thing whenever it is inconvenient to the plot; Janeway faces various opportunities to take a decidedly post-postcolonial-anxiety view of the thing but largely does not; Archer can’t shut up about it.

(Abrams’ Kirk also doesn’t seem to know what the words mean, but in a “screw you I’ma do what I want” way, rather than the “screw you these poor souls need saving” way that TOS Kirk (and ENT’s Tripp) take.  Which perhaps implies a different way of transcending, or backpedaling at, post-postcolonialist anxiety.  There’s probably a great Marxist analysis there, given that Abrams’ Star Trek came out in 2009.  But I digress.)

But when the series are put in chronological order according to their internal canons, the Federation’s relationship with the Prime Directive becomes much more complex.  Archer’s drive to prevent the kind of “great powers gather to divide up the solar system” debacle that once divided Africa comes to a head (subtextually) in the Enterprise series finale, but prior to that point, the crew of the NX-o1 is not only happily (or not) interfering in other cultures, but actually colonizing space or at least trying to touch base with actual human colonists.  (There’s probably a second solid Marxist analysis to be made of  the fact that Mayweather – who grew up on a shipping line –  is also the crew member harboring the deepest fascination with the Terra Nova colony.)

The drive to “actually colonize space” subsides a bit in the original series, but in The Next Generation, the NCC-1701-D gets sent to deal with an awful lot of colonies, sporting a (calm if not benign) sense of “manifest destiny” that seems to operate as the “convenience” driving the unspoken rule “ignore the Prime Directive when it is inconvenient to the plot.”  In both Deep Space 9 and Voyager, one could argue that the colonialist sense kicks into overdrive; the series themselves put the Federation first at the edges of its “home” quadrant and then literally in the galactic equivalent of someone else’s continent.

If the Federation’s concern with postcolonial non-interference follows the same trajectory as that of the writers and audience, it is Janeway, not Archer, who should be unable to shut up about it.  Not only does Voyager fall last chronologically, but the ship finds itself in the Delta Quadrant by accident, and the Delta Quadrant is literally uncharted-by-the-Federation space.  What legitimate business (or manifest destiny) could the Federation possibly have in it?  Should its representatives, so deeply concerned with non-interference that Archer worries it for ten years like Porthos with a brick of cheddar, not see themselves as intruders in the Delta Quadrant and thus tread even more lightly?

The answer, we find out, is no, Tuvok’s rather expansive definition of the Prime Directive in the series premiere (he does not limit it to pre-warp cultures) notwithstanding.  Voyager may have wound up in the Delta Quadrant by accident – and the crew may have decided that the way to survive there is to behave like Starfleet officers – but those are no reason to cleave to the Federation’s central anxiety.  Principles are for colonists who aren’t facing Species 8472.  (Perhaps the principle of non-interference does not apply at the apex of biological evolution.)

So what we have is a series written in a way that rather simplistically mirrors our own American postcolonial anxieties, but that plays out within its own universe in much more complex ways.  As perhaps our own (post?)colonial practices are playing out, in fact.

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
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