Saturday, December 04, 2004

Fundamentalism in Star Trek: Enterprise

Star Trek: Enterprise just finished up an interesting three-episode story about the Vulcans. The show, set in Star Trek's past, has thus far portrayed the Vulcans differently than they had been portrayed in the other series. In the recent episodes, we learn that the teachings of the long-dead founder of Vulcan society, Surak, had been corrupted over time, resulting in the more ruthless, warlike, and deceitful Vulcan culture seen in Enterprise.

Syranites, a splinter group who claim to follow the true teachings of Surak, turn out to be like the Vulcans we later come to know, truthful and peaceful. The Syranites stand in contrast to the corrupt High Command who blow up the Earth embassy in order to frame the Syranites and destroy them, and also plan to launch a sneak attack on the neighboring Andorians despite having signed a peace treaty with them two years prior. The Syranites are obviously the heroes in this conflict whom we are supposed to root for, and, of course, we are eventually shown that they do, indeed, represent the true teachings of Surak.

All warm and fuzzy, right? But then, I realized something: Knowingly or not, this story is a ringing endorsement of fundamentalism. By definition, fundamentalists are those who see the current state of society as corrupt and having turned from some earlier teacher's or prophet's teachings, and therefore seek to return to that teacher's or prophet's "true" teachings. This is exactly what the Syranites represent. They are the righteous fundamentalists battling the corrupt modernists.

But Enterprise neatly sidesteps the issues that make fundamentalism problematic. In these episodes, Surak's katra, or soul, still exists, carried around by Syran, the Syranite's leader. Obviously having access to Surak makes interpreting his teachings much easier. However, in the our world, it isn't exactly clear-cut or simple to return to a teacher's or prophet's "true" teachings. Two Christian fundamentalists who both claim to have read the Bible and be following "Jesus' true teachings" will undoubtedly disagree on many points of those teachings, with each able to give as much textual support for his or her position as the other. Both may believe "Jesus spoke to me," which makes such debates even scarier, as there is no way anyone else can either verify or falsify such a claim, unlike in the Enterprise episode.

Even more disturbing, those interpreting a teacher's or prophet's works in an attempt to regain his or her "true teachings" tend to read what they want to see into those teachings, allowing them to justify almost anything thereby. This is how Muslim fundamentalists can claim that Allah will reward Muslim terrorist martyrs by sending them straight to a Heaven filled with virgins, despite the fact that mainstream Islam interprets the Koran as condemning such violent acts. Since those who turn to fundamentalism tend to do so out of feelings of anger at perceived oppression, fundamentalist movements almost always interpret a teacher's or prophet's teachings as promoting violence to overthrow the current order.

Rarely do we find what happens in the Enterprise storyline, where the fundamentalists are more pacifistic than the current order. More often both sides use violence equally indiscriminately. Which side is in the right and which side's grievances are legitimate are much more difficult to determine in real conflicts between and established order and the fundamentalists, unlike the episode where it is fairly easy for the human crew of Enterprise to side with the fundamentalist Syranites.

I don't expect a show like Star Trek to accurately portray the real social and religious issues that plague our world today. The best an hour-long science fiction program generally can be expected to do is show the stupidity of racism by having a race that is black on one side and white on the other oppress a race that is the same, only with black and white on opposite sides (starring, of course, Frank Gorshin). So, I'm not saying that Enterprise should have gone into all the problems with fundamentalism I discuss above.

I'm just not entirely comfortable with Star Trek, knowingly or not, making fundamentalists the clear heroes of a story, because fundamentalism is such a powerful and scary force in the world right now.

On the other hand, I don't know if many of those watching would really even make the connection between the Syranites and fundamentalism, nor take those episodes as the ringing endorsement of fundamentalism they were. And I don't think writers and screenwriters should be disallowed from writing a good story just because of how someone might interpret it. So, I'm not saying that the producers of Star Trek shouldn't have made those episodes.

But I think someone needs to point out that fundamentalism, in the real world, is often a scary and dangerous force and not soft and cuddly as this story portrayed.


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