Burbocentrism

Tom Shippey

  • Beyond Uhura: ‘Star Trek’ and Other Memories by Nichelle Nichols
    Boxtree, 320 pp, £9.99, December 1995, ISBN 0 7522 0787 3
  • I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy
    Century, 342 pp, £16.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 7126 7691 0
  • Science Fiction Audiences: Watching ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Star Trek’ by Henry Jenkins and John Tulloch
    Routledge, 294 pp, £40.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 415 06140 7
  • ‘Star Trek’: Deep Space Nine by Mark Altman, Rob Davis and Tony Pallot
    Boxtree, 64 pp, £8.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 7522 0898 5

Star Trek is a phenomenon, no doubt about it. Since 1966 we’ve had the original series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine (now in its fourth year) and Voyager (now in its second). There were 263 hours available for viewing in 1994, with more appearing all the time, seven feature films, and over one hundred titles in the novelisation series, of which 35 have made it into the New York Times bestseller list. With judicious channel-switching you can watch Star Trek pretty well all the time on American TV, and there are no doubt people who do. You might feel like saying to such ‘Trekkers’ – as, famously and unforgivably, Bill Shatner, the original Captain Kirk, did – ‘get a life.’ But it’s a good rule not to argue with success, at least until you understand what’s causing it, and anything which sparks such enthusiasm and active devotion among passive TV viewers can’t be all bad.

Fan activism is special to Star Trek. Write-in campaigns saved the original series from the axe of NBC executives after both its first and second seasons (though not after its third, in 1969). Now, almost thirty years later, over four hundred magazines are produced by fans of the series, and the Star Trek sections of the Internet are among the busiest. A ‘Star TrekEncyclopedia, a ‘Star TrekChronology, a ‘Star Trek’ Technical Manual, a collection of The Art of ‘Star Trek’, the Captain’s Logs (a guide to ‘the scripts that never made it to the screen’) and even the Starfleet Academy Entrance Exam (a set of ‘trivial pursuit’ questions) can be found in any bookstore in the US. Critics might say that Star Trek has replaced the interminable number of serialised TV Westerns, such as The Lone Ranger and The Virginian, with the major advantage that aliens, unlike Native Americans, do not form any part of the television audience and are, therefore, universally inoffensive. Supporters could claim that this is a classic case of an art-form – science fiction on TV – which has made and educated its own audience from scratch.

Yet one of the peculiar features of Star Trek is that it does not, on the whole, appeal to people who actually read science fiction. The late James Blish, a distinguished author with a foot in both camps, guessed that the audience overlap in the Sixties was only about 10 per cent; and in their study of science fiction audiences, Henry Jenkins and John Tulloch note the continuing rejection of Star Trek by ‘the male establishment of literary science fiction fandom’. Actually, no group of fans can be called an establishment: none of them has any power at all, not even, for all the write-in campaigns, over the producers of Star Trek. This is a dispute about likes and dislikes, not political suppression. Just the same, the existence of two largely separate audiences for material that on the face of it looks pretty similar is noteworthy. Possibly the antipathy of SF fans for Trekkers, and vice versa, says something about the Star Trek phenomenon itself. What is the secret of the TV series’ success with Middle Americans, and why are some people immune to its seductive powers?

Answers of a kind can be found in two autobiographies by actors cashing in on their fictional characters’ popularity – Nichelle Nichols’s Beyond Uhura and Leonard Nimoy’s I Am Spock – but they are not very convincing. Nichols claims that her character is a testimony to the series’ ‘multiculturalism’ and that multiculturalism is what made the series a hit. There is a sort of a point here, but it does not survive close scrutiny. Uhura, the Communications Officer on the original Enterprise, was on board at the beginning, and one has to give credit for the daring which allowed a black female to be given an important role on the bridge of the starship not long after the US Forces had at last abandoned segregation. Her fictional name, though, reveals an ominous lack of imagination: the Swahili word for ‘freedom’ with a Latin feminine ending tacked on to it. This kind of colonialisation marks both Nichols’s career and her book, in running contrast to the triumphant tale being told on the surface. Thus, Nichols presents her own history, and her family’s, as a story that is both highly self-conscious and almost implausibly apt for the present day. Her mother stood up to Al Capone’s brother, who then said to her father (after she revealed the hidden six-shooter): ‘You’ve got yourself one helluva little lady there.’ Later, Nichols herself stands up to the Mob while working as a showgirl (‘You got class, kid’). Forthright on both race and gender issues, she insists on prosecuting and sending down a prominent lawyer for attempted rape (‘when a woman says no, she has a right to say no’). During her early film career, she and her friends tell off a famous director: ‘we will not tolerate your bullying, white slave-master tactics’ they inform him. Then she gets on Star Trek, in an important role but, as some have pointed out, not an executive one. For Nichols, though, it doesn’t matter whether Uhura should have been captain or not; the important thing is ‘I’ – Uhura, that is – ‘was capable of it’: a real issue (about what TV networks will tolerate) is dismissed with an unverifiable claim about the hypothetical potential of an imaginary character.

Nichols is proud to claim ‘the first interracial kiss ever shown on network television’, in the ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ episode of 1968. A breakthrough? Hardly. Captain Kirk kissed her entirely against his will and hers (they were forced into it by extra-sensory powers); and network executives insisted on having two versions shot, one with kiss and one without, so they could disavow the scene immediately if need be. But the thing that really makes you question how pathbreaking the smooch was is the letter Nichols cites – once more with triumph in her tone – as ‘negative’ fan mail. It comes from a self-confessed Southern racist who says that although he doesn’t like any racial mixing, ‘any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.’ Maybe if it had been a red-blooded black American boy kissing blonde Yeoman Janice Rand, the network executive would have had cause to worry, and Star Trek cause to preen itself on boldly going where other series had never been. But that did not happen – and as far as I know hasn’t yet. The thought does not disturb Nichols’s self-satisfaction, or that of those around her. ‘She often was not given many lines in the script,’ says Nimoy of her in his book, without a trace of irony. ‘Nevertheless she was totally present and made an emotional investment in whatever happened in the scene.’

Of Nimoy’s autobiography, though every bit as triumphalist as Nichols’s, one may say that there is a kind of failure built into it, for twenty years ago Nimoy produced a book called I Am Not Spock: now he knows on which side his bread is buttered. As with Nichols, however, the fictional character seems to have swallowed up the real personality, and the glory of the former is accepted as of right by the latter. The book’s technical problem is how to give continuous boasting a slight but decent camouflage. When a foxy student asks him whether he realises that he is ‘the source of erotic dream material for thousands and thousands of ladies around the world’, Nimoy just toasts her (with water) and replies: ‘May all your dreams come true!’ Daring – but like the interracial kiss, not too daring. The Heineken ad, in which Spock’s ears revive as the stuff gets to the parts other beers can’t reach, is captioned, ‘The infamous beer-guzzling Vulcan’ (Nimoy never gets the joke, and seems afraid of appearing to approve of beer).

It is no surprise that Nimoy also has a theory about the success of Star Trek, one even more calculated to appeal to the self-esteem of Middle America than Nichols’s multiculturalism, but no more convincing. This is that the original series was, in effect, a very early version of Forrest Gump. During the period of the Vietnam War and Watergate, of ‘drug abuse and sexual revolution’, inflation and Nixon, the Star Trek crew were paragons of virtue – ‘utterly trustworthy, predictable, incorruptible – people who could be counted on to tell the truth and behave ethically’. They gave America its feel-good shot. If Nimoy’s theory is correct, though, why did it also have to be science fiction?

He has no explanation; indeed his book is a morass of misinformation about the history of the science fiction genre. Just as people will tell you SF used to be all blondes and bug-eyed monsters (I have never seen a cover of that type, except in parody, and my collection goes back fifty years), so Nimoy assumes as fact that before Star Trek ‘most science fiction ... portrayed extra-terrestrials negatively, as the stereotypical bug-eyed monsters bent on conquering Earth.’ So much for Robert Heinlein’s Star Beast, Brian Aldiss’s The Dark Light-Years, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and a dozen other classics. Nimoy doesn’t pretend to be a scholar and he is not obliged to research his own historical background. But is there not a case to be made against Star Trek as a whole – one which rests on its inability to take in literary tradition, but which also stresses the selective vision of Beyond Uhura, and perhaps has a bearing on the greed with which its format and scenario have been swallowed, above all by Middle America? Are both the producers and consumers of Star Trek kidding themselves?

The word one needs here is ‘burbocentrism’: like Eurocentrism, but centred immovably and unthinkingly on the beliefs, values, assumptions and limited experience of the American white-flight suburb. Star Trek is, above all, burbocentric. And perhaps the major feature of burbocentrism is that although it is insistently ‘multicultural’, its multiculturalism has nothing to do with culture: nothing to do, that is, with the idea that different societies may organise themselves in completely different ways. It is, instead, a way of taking in the modern American demographic mix, Asian and African Americans as well as Europeans, and having everyone assimilate to the same culture, with only as much residual difference as enables everyone to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day or relish black-eyed peas. The mark of burbocentric culture is the lip-service paid to relativism together with a genuine inability to imagine its results. The most obviously burbocentric feature of Star Trek is the totally English-speaking galaxy in which the Enterprise operates. The transporter, or ‘beam-me-up-Scotty’ device, was invented because the series’ creator Gene Roddenberry had neither the time nor the cash to develop plausible planetary shuttles, and the Universal Translator – which works by ‘sensing and comparing brain-wave frequencies’ – may have come into being in much the same way. Though it is generally accepted that Klingons have a separate language, and dedicated fans are said to have produced their own Klingon Bible, much of the time all the aliens just talk English (as foreigners are burbocentrically supposed to). Linguacode, we are assured, was ‘specifically designed as a culturally neutral “anti-encrypted” language medium’, but the rather simple challenge of having ‘neutral’ be just a bit different from English has never been taken up. The graphic novel of Deep Space Nine contains such gnomic gems as, ‘If they aren’t chasing your fastball, throw them your curve.’ What could be more culturally neutral than baseball?

This is, perhaps, a minor objection. More critical to the case against Star Trek is the issue of the ‘Prime Directive’, Starfleet General Order No 1, which states that ‘Starfleet personnel and spacecraft are prohibited from interfering in the normal development of any society, and ... any Starfleet vessel or crew member is expendable to prevent violation of this rule.’ This assertively self-sacrificing and self-righteous order is clearly intended as an antidote to the Eurocentric colonialisms of the last three centuries. ‘We are not imperialists,’ to quote the graphic novel again. ‘The Federation is only interested in the pursuit of knowledge and science.’

What does this actually mean? After all, the Enterprise, like her successors, resembles nothing so much as a 19th-century European warship venturing into the Pacific Ocean or China Sea, secure behind her batteries of phasers and photon torpedoes, and not without ‘planet-wreckers’ for use in an emergency. Such an emergency would naturally involve protecting somebody from something or other, as in the episode called ‘Operation – Annihilate!’, but the decision rests with the Captain. And Captain James T. Kirk (like PT-boat captain John F. Kennedy) has a long record of butting in to save the goodies from the baddies, especially Klingon-backed baddies. It turns out that there is a lot of latitude in that Prime Directive phrase: ‘normal development of any society’. If a society is showing signs of developing abnormally (and we all know who defines normality), then clearly butting in is just fine.

The real challenge to the Prime Directive comes from what isn’t there, not from what is. Some acquaintance with literary science fiction might have given the producers of Star Trek a few good plots which would test the Prime Directive in less explicit ways. For example, in Jack Vance’s novel The Anome (1971) the boy-hero is being pursued by cannibal alien trackers. He begs for help from a passing carriage-driver, but is refused because the driver is an Earthman, a Fellow of the Historical Institute, and therefore committed to non-intervention. The boy has stolen food and according to local custom thieves are killed. The scene sets up a moral dilemma: intervening may be ethnocentric, but not intervening may be irresponsible. What would happen if a Star Trek commander, committed to anti-colonialist non-ethnocentrism, came upon a world operating some version of, say, the Atlantic slave trade? Would he stop it by force, like the wicked Eurocentric Royal Navy? Or would he allow it to continue on the grounds that societies should not be judged from the outside? And, if he did intervene for obvious moral reasons – and this is a twist which many science fiction authors have used with relish – might he not find that he had made some terrible mistake about alien psychology or even physiology, and that societies really cannot (not ‘should not’) be judged by outsiders?

Nothing like this, of course, is going to happen to the crew of the Enterprise. Burbocentrism has no time for moral dilemmas or shades of grey. Star Trek has never – and will never – take any real risks even with the issues that Middle America is prepared to recognise as culturally relevant: the familiar trio of race, gender and sexual orientation. In their study of science fiction audiences Jenkins and Tulloch report that Star Trek fans, conscious of what they see as their socially responsible role, are already agitating for some recognition of homosexuality in the galaxy. Indeed one episode has already portrayed a world of sexual intolerance, where Starfleet officers decide to disobey the Prime Directive and rescue the dissidents. Were the dissidents male homosexuals, which one might then take as a bold statement against homophobia? No, the sexually intolerant world was dominated by lesbians, and the dissidents who needed to be rescued from brainwashing were those unfortunate females with a preference for heterosexuality. Like Uhura’s carefully measured and qualified interracial kiss, this episode offered no challenge to the intolerance that lurks in ‘family’ – or ‘network’ – values.