'And Yet, Everything We Do Is Usually Based on the English': Sailing the Mare Incognitum of Star Trek's Transatlantic Double Consciousness with Horatio Hornblower

By Rabitsch, Stefan | Science Fiction Film and Television, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

'And Yet, Everything We Do Is Usually Based on the English': Sailing the Mare Incognitum of Star Trek's Transatlantic Double Consciousness with Horatio Hornblower


Rabitsch, Stefan, Science Fiction Film and Television


What is Star Trek really?

Answers to this question are by no means in short supply. Inarguably one of the most iconic and widely known sf universes in popular culture, it is often described as the hopeful and positivistic 'vision' of its principal creator - Gene Roddenberry. His was a 'prescriptive vision', according to Jeffrey Lamp, 'for how a constructive future may and perhaps should look' (194). This vision has spawned a number of spin-off series and feature films, most of which were created after his death by his successors, Rick Berman and Michael Pillar. A multimedia franchise and 'one of the most valuable cultural properties in the world' (Gregory 2), it has attracted a globally dispersed viewership of invested audiences. Daniel Bernardi defines Star Trek (US 1966-) as 'a mega-text' (7) that replicates and perpetuates the racialised discourses of dominant US culture, while Lincoln Geraghty describes it as 'a historical narrative discourse' (18) retelling the American Puritan Jeremiad in outer space. Matthew Kapell frames the archetypes and icons found in Star Trek as 'a kind of contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk' (2). Certainly, as Jeff Greenwald proclaims, albeit cryptically, Star Trek 'means something' (6), but as Darcee McLaren points out, 'there is no single meaning in Star Trek... it will have multiple meanings, it will be interpreted differently by the same people at different times and by different people at the same time' (233).

Yet, whatever Star Trek is, it is also a storyworld that is modelled on the British golden age of sail, a fact that has largely escaped scholarly attention and eluded systematic delineation.1 In the first written document in which Roddenberry outlined his idea for a new sf television series,2 there are two basic intertextual building blocks that would become the shorthand definitions used by Roddenberry and the production team for years afterwards: 'Wagon Train to the stars' and 'Hornblower in space'. Wagon Train (US 1957-65), a popular television western with a distinctive semi-anthological format and proto-ensemble cast who found themselves in a new location each week, told semi-allegorical stories about a broad range of contemporary issues. 'Hornblower' refers to a series of 11 novels, an unfinished novel and a few short stories by British author Cecil Scott Forester. They chronicle the rise of the eponymous hero, a fictional Royal Navy officer during the heyday of the age of sail at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Published between 1937 and 1962, the Hornblower saga enjoyed great popularity in the US during and after the Second World War.

Star Trek, then, posits a science-fictional world that builds on and sustains a continuum of histories/stories that partakes of the mythos of the American West and the mythos of the British golden age of sail. The result of this intertextually anchored, double vraisemblance3 is that the Star Trek continuum is governed by two distinct yet interrelated and compatible themes - the frontier and Rule Britannia. This article will therefore reassess Star Trek as an artefact of American popular culture that not only tells American stories for predominately American audiences, but also looks back across the Atlantic for a British maritime legacy to tell its continuum of Anglocentric histories/stories. Re-historicising the well-known origins of Star Trek, along with its 50 years of output, entails a systematic juxtaposition of Star Trek's corpus of episodes and films with the Hornblower novels and other relevant naval histories/stories. By synoptically investigating both of Roddenberry's intertextual reference points within the same critical framework, it is possible to read, understand and reconcile Star Trek 's science-fictional world as 'Hornblower in space' and 'Wagon Train to the stars' in equal measure. After all, these two intertextual reference points are compatible inasmuch as they share the telos of the grand narrative of western modernity (see Mogen 19-21). …

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