By Leigh McKagen, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech
Featured Image by Sam Nystrom Costales
At the end of the season 4 finale episode “Coming Home” of Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present), the President of United Earth affirms her willingness to rejoin the United Federation of Planets after a century of isolation.1 The rebirth of the utopian-seeming Federation ended a multi-season story arc of the American science fiction series, using a castaway narrative framework to detail the aftermath of a galaxy-wide disaster in the 31st century. Similarly, Star Trek: Picard (2020-present) makes use of castaway tropes in Season 2 to chronicle the journey of Admiral Picard and his rag-tag crew to prevent a horrible totalitarian future. Castaway narratives are rooted in Euro-American imperial ideologies and practices, and continued use of these frameworks in these contemporary stories reinforces neo-liberal and neo-imperial narratives to maintain the status quo in the face of unimaginable disaster and the need for change. Through framing rebuilding home as coming home, these 21st century castaway narratives reassure audiences that radical change is unnecessary to navigate the increasingly stormy waters of global pandemics, rapid climate change, and social upheaval.
Historically, castaway narratives were a means of legitimizing European imperial expansion during the Age of Imperialism through the presentation of heroes who survived their time alone on deserted islands by mapping, naming, and claiming their island space.2 These ‘rituals of possession’ were cultivated and practiced by the Western imperial powers beginning with Europe’s conquest of the ‘New World,’ and projected onto deserted islands in castaway tales like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).3 This literary presentation of the “imagination of empire” endorsed imperial ideologies to wide-reaching audiences, and as Edward Said argued, the link between culture and imperialism is “astonishingly direct.”4 Said observed that “imperialism continues to influence” modern culture and politics, and Star Trek’s use of the castaway motif to achieve salvation further perpetuates Euro-American imperial ways of thinking.5 Elsewhere I have argued that “the constant repetition of exploration and the resulting hierarchical classification of others [in] Star Trek perpetuates Euro-American imperial and colonial frameworks as normalized ways of seeing the world.”6 Constant repetition of these narrative motifs reinforce imperial ideologies for contemporary audiences, and castaway narratives play an important role as part of the normalization of empire into the 21st century.7
In Discovery Season 3, Captain Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) and her crew tackle great challenges to find what remains of the Federation after a massive disaster to interstellar travel—and they ultimately succeed. While in one instance Burnham urges Admiral Charles Vance (played by Oded Fehr) to explore new approaches to traditional Federation practices, neither character—nor the show more broadly—considers alterations to the Federation structure and its policies writ large.8 Despite the difficulties of the past century, the Federation will continue as it was before the Burn, due to a discovery by Discovery (pun intended) of a dilithium-rich planet now controlled by the Federation.9 Season 4 centers on expanding the Federation while simultaneously avoiding another galaxy threatening disaster, and in doing so we see an emotional finale wherein Earth—our home—rejoins the utopian organization in order to “get to work” to make the galaxy a better place.10 This moment is extremely satisfying for Trek fans (this author included), but in the end, it proves that Burnham and her colleagues have achieved their goal to rebuild the Federation from the ashes. Season 4 highlights political tension, rebuilding efforts, and challenges of multinational organization and governance, but it never reconfigures the Federation in ways that might better respond to the challenges of their ‘present’ 31st century.
In Picard Season 2, the castaway narrative takes a different path, although it similarly shows no hesitation in rebuilding home the way it was before. This time, Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) and his crew are thrust into a timeline where the Federation is a brutal totalitarian regime prioritizing “humans first,” rather than the benevolent utopian alliance of the ‘regular’ timeline.11 The crew manages to go back in time to the 21st century where (amid ICE raids and Borg threats) they protect the single human on which their real future rests. Through protecting and saving Renée Picard (portrayed by Penelope Mitchell), the team ensures that the real future of peace will occur—although that peace will only come after a devastating Third World War in our (hypothetical) future. Over and over, Admiral Picard reinforces that the “right” future must be reinstated. In the episode “Assimilation,” Picard explains that “if we fail here, we fail … everyone on our homeworld”.12 None of the characters question if these two futures—one utopian, one dystopian—are the only two options, and Picard’s instance on our homeworld—our home—is part of the “semi-official narrative” of neoliberal imperialism. According to Said, this narrative pits America, “a force for good in the world,” against all opposing forces in binary opposition, inhibiting survival in a time of distress. Survival is “about the connections between things,” and although Picard and his team do emphasize survival of the future at all costs, that future must be the right future wherein the Federation is returned as it was.13
Science fiction is often a reflection of the time in which it is created, and Star Trek is no exception.14 Much like the castaway-and-find-home narrative of Voyager (1995-2001) recreated a search for identity and direction similar to that of the United States after the loss of a “central, defining adversary” upon the conclusion of the decades long Cold War, Discovery and Picard reflect the world in which it is created.15 The 21st century has been fraught with upheaval, including staggering losses from a global pandemic and escalating climate disasters, and these shows reassure us that, no matter how bad it gets, we can always recreate the same systems to protect us—and rebuild our empire from the ruins. Said warns us against continuing to “repeat the imperial experience” through popular narratives, and currently, Star Trek: Discovery and Picard do exactly that.16
Leigh McKagen holds a PhD in Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought from Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on examining imperial ideologies retained in contemporary American storytelling, and advocating for alternative narratives that avoid imperial ways of thinking. Her Twitter is @leighmckagen
Read other Star Trek articles:
- “Coming Home”: Rebuilding Home & Empire in Contemporary Star Trek
- Scoring Women Professionals: Silence in Star Trek: The Next Generation
- The Feeling Data: A Journey Into the History of Human(oid) Emotions
- “Coming Home,” Dir. Olatunde Osunsanmi, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS Television Studios, March 17, 2022).
- Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, Empire Islands: Castaways, Cannibals, And Fantasies of Conquest (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), See especially the Introduction and pages 39-42.
- Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 3; Weaver-Hightower, Empire Islands.
- Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (NY: Vintage Books, 1994), 12 and 8.
- Said, Culture and Imperialism, 43.
- E. Leigh McKagen, “Colonialism and Imperialism,” in The Routledge Handbook of Star Trek, ed. Leimar Garcia-Sinno, Sabrina Mittermeier, and Stefan Rabitsch (Routledge, 2022), 332–39, 338.
- For a detailed discussion of castaway narratives and their legacies in the Star Trek universe, see E. Leigh McKagen, “Always Explorers, Never Refugees: Adventure and Manifest Destiny amongst the Stars,” in Posthumanist Nomadisms across Non-Oedipal Spatiality, ed. Java Singh and Indrani Mukherjee (Vernon Press, 2021), 183–96; for additional discussions of imperial legacies retained in Star Trek narratives, see E. Leigh McKagen, “Visions of Possibilities: (De)Constructing Imperial Narratives in Star Trek: Voyager” (Dissertation, Blacksburg VA, Virginia Tech, 2020), https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/99063.
- “The Hope Is Your, Part 1,”, Dir. Olatunde Osunsanmi, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS Television Studios, January 7, 2021).
- “Su’Kal,” Dir. Norma Bailey, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS Television Studios, March 17, 2022).
- “Coming Home,” Dir. Olatunde Osunsanmi, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS Television Studios, Dec 24, 2020).
- “The Star Gazer,” Dir. Douglas Aaroniokoski, Star Trek: Picard (CBS Television Studios, March 3, 2022)
- “Assimilation,” Dir. Lea Thompson, Star Trek: Picard (CBS Television Studios, March 17, 2022).
- Said, Culture and Imperialism, 324 & 336.
- Defining science fiction is a tricky and complex business, but a good place to start is the edited collection Reading Science Fiction (2008): James Gunn, Marleen S. Barr, and Matthew Candelaria, eds., Reading Science Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Also, Fredric Jameson’s discussion in “Progress or Utopia” is a fascinating exploration of how science fiction is more about the present than the future: Fredric Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future? (Progrès Contre Utopie, Ou: Pouvons-Nous Imaginer l’avenir),” Science Fiction Studies 9, no. 2 (1982): 147–58.
- Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (NY: Hill and Wang, 1996), 128 and 127.
- Said, Culture and Imperialism, 331.