Science Fiction Studies

#87 = Volume 29, Part 2 = July 2002

Gary Westfahl

A Civilized Frontier

Michèle Barrett and Duncan Barrett. Star Trek: The Human Frontier. New York: Routledge, 2001. 244 pp. $18.95 pbk.

For most readers, exploring Star Trek: The Human Frontier will prove an entertaining and enlightening journey. Michèle Barrett and Duncan Barrett bring to their work a refreshing admiration and respect for their chosen subject, a determination to appreciate the various Star Trek series and films for what they are (rather than chastising them for what they are not) and some of their book’s most effective moments come when they gently refute the unduly harsh criticisms of other scholars. Their observations are usually worthwhile and unobjectionable, if not always surprising, and they strive to explain themselves in clear, polished prose, making Star Trek: The Human Frontier an unusually readable text. If I found its omissions and silences ultimately more provocative than its statements, that in itself might be regarded as one of the book’s many virtues.

To summarize its contents: determined to "interpret Star Trek in a historical, cultural context" (5), the Barretts begin, in a section entitled "The Starry Sea," by analyzing the relationship between Star Trek and nautical literature, offering thought-provoking connections to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1865), Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870), C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels (1937-62), and Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897). The second section, "Humanity on Trial," characterizes Star Trek—particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation—as an extended examination of the basic nature of humanity, a classically modernist concern, employing to good effect devices like courtroom trials, conflicts between alien species, the splitting of individuals into two identities, and the gradual "humanization" of the android Data, and, in Star Trek: Voyager, of the former Borg Seven of Nine. The final section, "Exhuming the Human," argues that the two series following Star Trek: The Next Generation—particularly Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—move beyond modernism into more postmodernist territory, displaying new interests in irrationality, religion, and insanity, and utilizing the figures of the shapeshifter and the symbiont to explore issues of personal identity and sexual ambiguity. All points are supported by detailed discussions of selected episodes and films.

To summarize its two major omissions: first, notwithstanding the value of its genuinely illuminating references to nineteenth-century nautical literature, Star Trek: The Human Frontier displays a startling inattentiveness to the literature manifestly more closely related to the series, science fiction. While several paragraphs are devoted to Verne, only Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is addressed, and not always in a manner that inspires confidence in the authors’ knowledge of Verne—since the name of his viewpoint character is alternately rendered as Aronnax and Aronax, and since at one point the authors appear to mistake Aronnax for Nemo in a reference to "Aronnax’s motives for giving them hell" (38-39). H.G. Wells warrants only a single mention, and giants of the field such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein—or if you prefer, giants of the field such as Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and Ursula K. Le Guin—are completely ignored. Except for books with titular references to Star Trek, science fiction criticism also is generally neglected.

Second, despite an announced focus on all Star Trek series and films, this book has relatively little to say about the seventy-nine episodes of the original series; if there is some perceived need to discuss the key characters of Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, the authors typically prefer to discuss one of the films featuring those characters. The Barretts avoid the original series as much as possible and speak tersely and dismissively when it cannot be avoided.

To argue that these omissions are significant, one could first note that the later Star Trek series were heavily influenced by the original Star Trek, which in turn was heavily influenced by twentieth-century science fiction. In support of the latter claim, we know from Stephen Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry’s The Making of Star Trek that creator Roddenberry was exposed to science fiction at an early age when he was given a copy of Astounding Stories in junior high school.1 One episode, "Arena," was based on a published story by Fredric Brown, and seventeen episodes were written or co-written by writers who had previously published science fiction stories or novels (Jerome Bixby, Robert Bloch, Max Ehrlich, Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Jerry Sohl, Norman Spinrad, and Theodore Sturgeon). If we include the three episodes written or co-written by lifelong fan and future author David Gerrold, that means that over one-fourth of the original series’s episodes emerged from writers steeped in the traditions of science fiction literature.

In addition, despite the efforts of later series to establish their own distinctive identities, the original Star Trek has remained a dominating presence in all regions of the burgeoning Star Trek universe. Characters from the original series made guest appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager; episodes of those series were obliged to work within the parameters of concepts established in the 1960s, such as the Federation of Planets, the Prime Directive, the mirror universe, and the Vulcan, Klingon, and Romulan cultures; and episodes repeatedly redacted or referenced plots from the original series.

For these reasons, the origins of several aspects of later Star Trek series interesting to the Barretts can be traced back to the science fiction that preceded the original series and/or to the original series. Three common tropes in science fiction—the god-like alien judging the human race, the shapeshifter, and the character split into two personalities—first entered the Star Trek universe by means of episodes from science fiction writers (respectively, Brown’s "Arena," Johnson’s "Man Trap," and Matheson’s "The Enemy Within"). Other episodes of the original series, including "Metamorphosis," "The Alternative Factor," "By Any Other Name," "Return to Tomorrow," and "Turnabout Intruder," addressed in various ways issues of personal identity. Except for "The Enemy Within," however, none of these episodes are in the index of Star Trek: The Human Frontier, even though the Barretts, instead of neglecting them, might have fruitfully related them to their exegeses of episodes from later series.

One could also argue that the decisions to ignore science fiction and minimize references to the original series weaken the Barretts’s case by leading them to unwise speculations and arguable assertions while also depriving them of helpful evidence. For example, the Barretts unpersuasively theorize that Star Trek’s "warp drive" derives from the ancient nautical meaning of "to warp," to pull a ship by a cable (12-13), although it actually emerged much earlier in science fiction to describe the idea of bending or "warping" space, a pattern of usage so endemic to the genre that by 1954, in Chapter Seven of Heinlein’s Starman Jones, the hero can knowingly rebuke a colleague, "Oh no, not a space warp. That’s a silly term—space doesn’t ‘warp’ except in places where pi isn’t exactly [3.14159...]—like inside a nucleus."2 While discussing the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars"—which argues poignantly that the Star Trek universe in fact is an outgrowth of 1950s science fiction, though the Barretts miss that point—the authors posit that the female science-fiction writer named K.C. Hunter might refer to long-time Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana; however, given that Hunter is a 1950s writer who collaborates with her husband, she almost certainly represents C.L. Moore, wife and writing partner of Henry Kuttner.

As a few examples of neglected supporting evidence, the Barretts’s extended discussion of nautical metaphors in Star Trek does not mention Sturgeon’s episode "Shore Leave," and their discussion of the importance of World War II to Star Trek ignores the episode "Balance of Terror," which was little more than a thinly disguised World War II submarine drama. With minimal evidence on hand, other than blatant references in the film Star Trek: First Contact (1996), to support their claim that Melville’s "sea fiction had had such an influence on the conception of the Star Trek series" (177), the Barretts are driven to a questionable argument that an obscure Melville reference to underground passages between bodies of water somehow means that he originated the concept of the wormhole (35)—when they might have better supported the idea by discussing Spinrad’s episode "The Doomsday Machine," where a captain obsessed with attacking the immense alien vessel that destroyed his starship perfectly recalls Captain Ahab. While correctly noting that Roddenberry actively sought to downplay the importance of religion, they fail to employ supporting evidence from the conclusion of the episode "Obsession," when Spock upbraids Scott for exclaiming "Thank heavens" by replying, "Mr. Scott, there was no deity involved; it was my cross-circuiting to B that recovered them."

In sum, one could readily assemble a considerable amount of ammunition in order to assail Star Trek: The Human Frontier for its shoddy, inadequate research regarding important aspects of Star Trek’s development. Still, although gathering such evidence might be justified as a stimulating exercise, I do not wish to advance that argument—choosing instead to appreciate the book for what it is, rather than chastising it for what it is not. Yes, Star Trek: The Human Frontier might have been a better book with more references to science fiction and more references to the seminal original series, but it is also a perfectly good book without those references; the authors may be neglecting other productive contexts, but they make Star Trek perfectly comprehensible within the contexts of their own choosing. What the Barretts’s book unintentionally but powerfully demonstrates, then, is the triumph of Star Trek over its own origins.

In the beginning, Star Trek was a series continually assembled in haste, largely relying, like most programs of its era, on scripts and stories submitted by independent writers to achieve its demanding quota of twenty-six episodes per season. While Roddenberry struggled valiantly to maintain a sense of overall logic and purposefulness to his series, its cohesiveness inevitably suffered in light of the incessant need to find a script, any decent script, and start filming it next Monday. It is understandable, then, that some scholars might choose to avoid the original series as crude, inconsistent, weak in overall vision, and a bit messy to deal with—resembling in these ways, as it happens, the science fiction literature of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s that the series sprang from.

Yet, over the years, as Roddenberry came to appreciate what Star Trek had come to mean for so many people, he resolved to do it better the next time, with the results of that resolution visible in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The juvenile elements of violence and melodramatic conflict were virtually eliminated; episodes were produced more slowly and more carefully so as to unfailingly reflect the series’s humanistic philosophy and background; efforts were made to emphasize literary references and discussions of serious issues. Star Trek: The Next Generation and other later series are thus easier to approach as texts, the clear products of single authorial voices (first Roddenberry, later Rick Berman and other like-minded producers) operating within their own, self-devised, cultural and literary frameworks.

Star Trek: The Human Frontier signals the success of all these efforts. Star Trek has uplifted itself; it has transcended its seedy roots in science fiction magazines and the chaos of television programming of the 1960s, and it has transformed itself into a body of works that can be understood without reference to their origins, a body of works that can be plausibly likened to works of Shakespeare (as in a special issue of Extrapolation [36.1, 1995]), to classics of nineteenth-century nautical literature (as in this book), or to any number of other distinguished texts to be identified and discussed by future scholars. In fact, the progress of Star Trek to this status invites comparison to the story of science fiction itself—a literature that similarly strived to uplift itself and has similarly succeeded in making itself comprehensible without reference to its origins. There is thus an eerie resonance between the Barretts’s belated discovery in 2001 that "the central preoccupation of Star Trek" is the question, "what does it mean to be human?" (viii) and Brian W. Aldiss’s belated discovery in 1973 (seemingly unknown to the Barretts) that science fiction can be defined as "a search for a definition of man."3 Just as the Barretts feel free to analyze Star Trek without learning anything about its gritty origins, contemporary science fiction scholars similarly feel free to discuss Iain M. Banks in the context of Jean Baudrillard without learning anything about the old space operas that lurk as influences beneath his Culture novels. Depending upon one’s critical stance, this state of affairs might be criticized or lamented, but one can also argue for its inevitability and even its desirability.

Still, I must confess that the new, improved Star Trek described so affectionately by the Barretts is for me far less intriguing than the raw, rough-hewn Star Trek that I first encountered as a teenager, and there are signs that even those who originally refashioned Star Trek to appeal to the sophisticates are growing bored with their handiwork—inasmuch as early episodes of the most recent Star Trek series, Enterprise, invite consideration (even more than Star Trek: Voyager) as a visceral repudiation of the polished, literate universes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and an effort to return Star Trek to its primal, inchoate roots in science fiction literature. Star Trek itself, in other words, may be newly committed to exploring frontiers rather different than those examined by Michèle and Duncan Barrett.


1. Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry. The Making of Star Trek. New York: Ballantine, 1968, p. 31.

2. Robert A. Heinlein. Starman Jones. 1953. New York: Ballantine, 1975, p. 78.

3. Brian W. Aldiss. Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction. 1973. New York: Schocken, 1974, p. 8.

Back to Home