Star Trek as a Modern Day Myth: The Shifting Interpretation of the Prime Directive

So randomly recently I’ve had several people ask to read this paper that I wrote for a class back in 2008. I’m posting it here for general consumption.

WARNING! Super nerdy content ahead!


Star Trek as a Modern Day Myth:

The Shifting Interpretation of the Prime Directive

As any Trekker knows, Star Trek began as the brainchild of the visionary Gene Roddenberry. Not only did Roddenberry conceive the idea of the Star Trek universe, he also wrote or co-wrote many episodes of The Original Series and of The Next Generation.  In the United Federation of Planets and its exploration-focused military force, Starfleet, Roddenberry created a utopian society based on humanism, friendship, tolerance, freedom, and mankind’s ability to overcome its basest instincts in favor of its inherent potential for goodness.

Although Roddenberry can accurately be called the father of Star Trek, the franchise’s development, like that of any child, was not influenced by its parent alone. As Jon Wagner puts it in his book Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, “popular entertainment is always influenced, through a variety of direct and indirect avenues, by public taste and shared cultural assumptions” (8). Thus, the proverbial village had a hand in Trek’s rearing. Trek’s status as a shared cultural experience allowed the franchise to grow into one of the most enduring and popular myths in modern day America. Trek also makes exceptionally good mythic material due to the fact that it is set in the future. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive since traditionally, myths are set in the past, but in today’s science-focused society, we have the tendency to dismiss anything that is not factual and verifiable as “just a story.” That is not to say that myth is dead in modern day America – we have simply found different ways to frame our myths in order to make them plausible. One such way to accomplish this is to do precisely what Trek does: set the story in the future. Wagner writes, “both the future and the primordial time-before-time stand apart from concrete history, but with a big difference: the past either happened or it didn’t; but the future might happen” (7). The future is a blank canvas through which our logos-driven minds can be free to imagine a state of existence to which we can aspire.

Like all utopias, however, Starfleet is not without its problems. As mentioned above, Roddenberry’s vision of the Trek cosmos places particular emphasis on freedom and tolerance—ideals that often conflict with one another. Starfleet’s General Order No. 1, which prohibits Starfleet members from interfering with the development of other societies, is often a casualty of this conflict. This order, known as the Prime Directive, places tolerance of cultural difference in a position of utmost importance in Starfleet’s credo. Interference can range from revealing the presence of life on other planets to societies that are not yet aware of this reality to exposing a culture to a technology they have not yet developed themselves to aiding one side over another in a war or conflict. Clearly, the latter situation presents a moral dilemma when one party is oppressing or exploiting another. Which is more important: the oppressed or exploited society’s right to liberty, or Starfleet’s non-interference policy? Trek’s answer to this question varies depending on the social climate in the US and in the world at the time of the series in question: The Original Series tends to value freedom over diversity; The Next Generation places respect for cultural difference over the pursuit of liberty; Deep Space 9, in the postmodern spirit of the 1990s, attempts to mediate the two perspectives; and Enterprise represents a return to innocence of sorts, backing away from postmodernism and reaffirming respect for diversity as the pinnacle of enlightenment.

A Good Day

This morning, I slept in, then I woke up, took a shower, went to look for some underwear to put on, and realized I hated all my bras and most of my underpants. I hate spending money on that stuff, so I always put it off until they’re all stretched out and misshapen and uncomfortable as heck. This morning, I decided I was sick of my bras riding up and my underpants being generally uncomfortable, so I threw away almost all of my old ones, and went to Target and bought all new ones. I don’t buy expensive underwear, at least not for every day wear, so it cost me under $100. Not too bad.

At Target I also got a cup of coffee at the Starbucks there. That was good except the guy who works there always says, “Thanks a latte!” It annoys the crap out of me. The first time it was kind of cute and funny, but I I’ve heard it many times since then, and I hate feeling obligated to force out a chuckle to be polite. Ugh.

But that was pretty much the low point of my day. When I got home, I put on a lovely, new, comfortable bra and sat down to work on formatting my thesis. I wanted to watch TV in the background, and nothing much was on, but Robin Hood (the new movie, with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett) was on HBO, so I put that on. I’d heard mixed things about it, but I ended up really liking it. I missed the very beginning and didnt pay complete attention to it, but I became interested and when I was done formatting, I just sat and watched it without doing anything else– something I rarely do!

School Stuff

Last night was the first session of my Final Project Seminar class for my Masters program. This is the course in which we write the final paper and give our presentation (kind of like a defense, but more to peers than faculty members) at the end of the semester, and then we graduate.

I was really excited to start this class last night, for several reasons. First of all, obviously, I’m really excited to graduate in May! I’ve been working on my Masters since 2006, taking one class per semester, and although I’ve enjoyed it a lot, I’m really ready to be done. I’m glad we have this final seminar in my program – some people in my office are in a different program, and they just take thesis credits this semester, do their original research and write their papers in consultation with their advisers, but not really with a set schedule. I’m not good with self-motivating like that – I need a firm deadline and someone to hold me to it. (Also, I can’t believe they are going to do research AND write the paper in one semester! I finished my research over the summer, and then started working on a draft, so that I had a 50-page draft ready before the final seminar even started. This is encouraged in my program, so almost everyone in my class had already made similar progress. Over the course of the semester, we will flesh out and polish our papers, not write them, really.)

I was also excited because I had a previous class with prof who is teaching the final project seminar this semester, and in fact she helped me a lot with developing my critical question and thesis statement, as well as the survey I used for my research. I like her a lot, and she’s now the director of the program as well, so that’s cool.

Actually, I wish the professor teaching this class—her name is DonnaMae—could be my adviser. My adviser, Nick, is a very nice guy, but I don’t think he really “gets” my project, and I don’t think he’s a good fit as my adviser. He’s a writer, and the program staff suggested I ask him to advise me because I didn’t really have another professor in mind, and they said they thought he could “wrap his head around” my project. Even after my first contact with him, I felt like he wasn’t a great fit, but I decided to give it a try, and now even though I feel like it’s not working, I feel kind of stuck with him.

Class Presentation on Physics!

And a long-winded brain dump about my degree plan and biological clock

The class I’m taking right now is called Chaos and Complexity. It’s a Liberal Studies seminar, which means that is in interdisciplinary in nature. In order to complete my Master of Liberal Studies (individually-designed, interdisciplinary) degree in May, I needed to take a 3-credit Liberal Studies seminar this semester so I can take the Final Project class in the Spring. I normally wouldn’t have taken a course called Chaos and Complexity, given that I have no background in physics, I hate math, and it’s not very applicable to my focus area, which is Language & Identity. But the only other 3-credit seminars offered this semester were even less applicable and sounded even more boring– one was a Nonprofit Arts Management course and I think the other one was called The Heritage of Hope or something like that. I’m an NF and that sounded too Feelery even for me!!

So I’m taking Chaos and Complexity. Really, it is fairly applicable to my degree, because once we get past the hard-science, physics-based theories, we will be applying them to the social sciences and humanities. That will be no problem for me, and I do grasp the overall concepts, but the book I had to read last week was very hard science and I felt quite in-over-my-head while reading it.

Busy Week; or, Too Much E Time

I’m feeling very tired and kind of stressed and cranky today. I went to bed early last night – lights out by 10! – and slept fairly well, but I’m just exhausted. It’s because I haven’t had any down time this week, except a little bit on Monday evening.

Tuesday I had dinner with my girlfriends, which was fun, Wednesday I had class, and then last night we went to a birthday party and were supposed to go to my husband’s friend’s stand-up comedy show afterwards. My husband ended up taking me home before he went to the comedy show, though, because I was so tired and his friend wasn’t on until late.

Aside from class and the social stuff in the evenings, I had 3 solid hours of advising yesterday at work, and I have another 3 solid hours today, not to mention all week I’ve been worrying about the mold in the basement and finishing my warm cloak for Fest this weekend. I have to try to do that tonight at my parents’, because my sewing machine broke.  Ugh!!

I really want to go to Fest on Sunday as well, just to play and take come photos, but I think I need to take the day to get some alone time and also to work on getting rid of that mold.

Meeting With My Adviser; or, My Brain as a Shape Sorter Toy

I’ve just returned from the dreaded meeting with my adviser.

Seriously…now I’m really worried he’s going to make me add a section on literature or film or something… that’s not my area, and I don’t want to do it!! Ugh!! What is so bad about my plan that he has to meet me in person instead of email? I knew I should have switched advisers…

The purpose of the meeting was for my final project adviser to give me feedback on the outline of my final paper I had sent him. My Masters paper is on the Irish language and Irish identity, mainly Irish diasporic identity as the survey I conducted was limited to adult learners of the Irish language in the US. My adviser keeps trying to push me toward the more cultural studies aspect, but I want to focus more on the linguistic and psychological aspects. The last two times we met, he told me I should discuss how literature and film have shaped the Irish identity. An interesting questions, but just not really my area of expertise.

The meeting wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. He seems to have given up on the idea that I should incorporate film and literature.  But there were still things about it that I wish had gone better. These things mainly have to do with my inability to articulate thoughts off the top of my head (i.e. in spoken conversation).

Words flow much more easily for me through writing, and typically need a little time to organize my thoughts and translate them into just the right words before releasing them to the world. So when my adviser pointed out (not entirely accurately) that two of my sources seem to have conflicting views and wanted me to talk about that, I proceeded to sound like a complete idiot.  First of all, I couldn’t remember one of the authors’ positions – one of them I remembered fine, but for the other one I had to refer to my outline to remember. Then once I did I stuttered out some incoherent crap and made a lot of hand gestures but didn’t really answer the question.