The 90-year-old actor William Shatner, best known for his leading role as Captain James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek: The Original Series, is headed to space, for real this time. Shatner will be launched off this Wednesday by on-again-off-again richest man in the world Jeff Bezos’s private aerospace company Blue Origin.
The entire premise of Star Trek was utopian: it pushed the limits of diversity, progressivism and inclusion on television and the science fiction genre. That Shatner would be affiliated with Bezos feels like a contradiction. And yet, colonialism and capitalism are too embedded within the culture of the United States for even sacred projects like space travel or Star Trek to remain unsullied.
Blue Origin, created by Bezos in September 2000, aims to make space flight more available to individuals who can afford it. It started small and in the shadows, first secretly buying land in Texas. It has gradually grown to employ 3,500 employees. The Washington Post, also owned by Bezos, has published a large exposé, revealing the toxic behavior that drives the company’s ability to compete with its rival, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. One employee described Blue Origin, saying, “It’s very dysfunctional. It’s condescending. It’s demoralizing, and what happens is we can’t make progress and end up with huge delays.”
The space company is funded by wealth obtained by crushing smaller companies and exploiting workers. Those workers have made disturbing allegations against Amazon, including being watched over by intimidating guards in neo-Nazi-style garb at one fulfilment center, and having to urinate in bottles because they feared taking bathroom breaks. Blue Origin, then, originates in the worst of capitalism and represents a terrible beginning to civilian space travel, a process that Bezos and most Americans unfortunately think of in terms of an act of “colonization”.
Blue Origin should be the antithesis of all that is Star Trek, and in many ways, it is. Star Trek’s universe is one in which humanity has overcome its differences and established the one world state of the United Earth Government, and eventually a cross species alliance under the United Federation of Planet – often just called the Federation. Humanity eliminated poverty, currency, and capitalism as we know it. This allowed the United Earth Government to more effectively utilize its resources for projects like space travel and bringing dignity to all of the people of Earth.
Most of the Star Trek series follows the perspective of the members of Starfleet, a federation agency that sends out research and peacekeeping missions to explore the new “frontier”. This exploration is tempered by their “Prime Directive” which is a guiding principle that prevents members of Starfleet from interfering with the progress of less developed alien civilizations. The Prime Directive, and much of Star Trek’s politics, is believed to be a response to the interventionism of the United States of the 1960s, but as Jamie Saoirse O’Duibhir wrote in a Tempest magazine article “[i]t is precisely because of the Prime Directive that Star Trek makes a pretense of not being a colonial power, but rather than avoiding colonialism it simply reimagines colonialism to be something that benefits the colonized”.
This colonial premise was clearly baked into Star Trek’s origin. The show was originally pitched as a “Wagon Train in space”. Wagon Train was an earlier TV show that followed the exploits of a group of white settlers travelling in the midst of the process of colonizing the United State’s western frontier. Much of this tradition carries on to Star Trek. Starfleet is overwhelmingly human, their values and sensibilities are overwhelmingly western – such as the show’s obsession with Shakespeare.
Blue Origin represents much of the ills that the people of Star Trek have already overcome
The Prime Directive feels like a perfect fit with the west’s history of colonial condescension. It assumes that supporting “lesser” people will inevitably lead to warfare and collapse. The Federation sees itself as inherently superior to other coalitions and civilizations and in a position to decide which planets deserve technology which can end hunger and poverty. The show does offer many positive examples of the violation of the Prime Directive throughout the series, but the original show relies on Captain Kirk’s white male bravado to overcome lesser peoples, often using his physical strength and sexual prowess to navigate complex situations.
Despite all this, Star Trek still deserves a lot of praise for feats such as one of the first interracial kisses on television. And many later iterations, particularly Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, have worked to complicate and challenge the politics established in the original show. But a lot of the more recent versions have been mired by modern capitalism and the desire to sell Star Trek to as many people as possible. The Star Trek movies have been pretty much stripped of their political character, trading the morality and questions of the last era for action scenes and women who hardly speak.
William Shatner is making a mistake by joining forces with Bezos. Blue Origin represents much of the ills that the people of Star Trek have already overcome. And while the original show has its problems, its premise is much better than the one that Shatner is endorsing with this endeavor. Star Trek was an attempt to paint a better picture for humanity, and a company like Blue Origin has no place in a future that even remotely aspires to be like the one that Captain Kirk inhabits.