Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Star Trek, Global Capitalism and Immaterial Labour

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Star Trek, Global Capitalism and Immaterial Labour

Article excerpt

'To boldly go where no man has gone before'. Few phrases sum up more blatantly the triumphalist mind-set of 1960s American capitalism. Simultaneously appropriating and rewriting five centuries of colonialism, the Star Trek imaginary (US 1966-) is structured by a teleological view of history in which human development is synonymous with modernisation and technological advancement, resulting in a post-capitalist technological utopia. In Star Trek's 'visionary' future, humanity has essentially progressed beyond its own dialectical nature: class struggle, warfare, poverty, famine, sexism, racism and all other aspects of human history's struggles with itself have been eradicated. The United Federation of Planets' flagship Enterprise with its multi-ethnic (and indeed multi-species) crew therefore represented for many a meaningful ideal of human progress, or what Raymond Williams famously described as utopian sf's 'civilizing transformation, beyond the terms of a restless, struggling society of classes' (201). Drawing on the genre's long tradition of progressive teleological liberalism (from Jules Verne to Isaac Asimov) on the one hand, and on the 1960s' counter-cultural energies on the other, the franchise became for many a touchstone of both the sf genre's penchant for liberal-humanist idealism - in Williams' terms, a 'willed transformation' of human society - alongside its dedication to speculative science and technology, or what Williams calls sf's 'technological transformation' (199).

But even as the Enterprise and her crew became enduring cultural icons of America's Cold War-era utopianism, it also seemed to anticipate the emergence of a new paradigm: the dawn of a 'Pax Americana' that ushered in the age of global capitalism. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri famously described the political organisation of this age as one of empire, using terms that resonate strongly with Star Trek's imagined future of immaterial labour and biopower. Empire is, like sf itself, 'simultaneously an ideological fiction and a way of experiencing the world' (Csicsery-Ronay 232). Like Hardt and Negri's definition of empire, Star Trek is both a way of imagining a collaborative alternative to capitalism and a tool for naturalising the tools and methods of control that have emerged in the post-Fordist era. As tempting as it may be to celebrate the franchise's liberal humanism, it all too often brings with it not only the baggage of imperialist and colonialist Western history, but also an emergent structure of feeling that brings together some of global capitalism's most striking ideological contradictions.

At the same time, Star Trek has been the most elaborate and complex transmedia world-building franchise in the genre's history. The list of official (or 'canonical') live-action Star Trek primary texts for television and film is overwhelming: three seasons of Star Trek: The Original Series (US 1966-9, 79 episodes); seven seasons each of Star Trek: The Next Generation (US 1987-94, 178 episodes), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (US 1993-9, 176 episodes) and Star Trek: Voyager (US 1995-2001, 172 episodes); four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise (US 2001-5, 98 episodes); and 13 feature films (1979-2016); and a fifth live-action TV series Star Trek: Discovery to be broadcast in 2017. In addition to this already voluminous output, the official franchise has included an animated series (US 1973-4, 22 episodes), dozens of videogames and many hundreds of novels, while at the same time inspiring legions of fans to produce several decades' worth of fan fiction, fan art, role-playing games, mashups, cross-overs, cosplay performances and other creative appropriations. Star Trek is therefore one of those unusually expansive imaginary worlds that, like Star Wars (US 1977-) or Tolkien's Middle-earth, has become so vast that it is truly unlikely that even the most devoted fan can have experienced the resulting storyworld in its entirety (Wolf 134-5).

Since this expansive imaginary empire has undergone so many changes over its fifty-year history, it makes little sense to try to define Star Trek's ideological values or its politics in precise terms on the basis of textual analysis. …

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