T90-year-old actor William Shatner, known for his leading role as Captain James Tiberius Kirk from Star Trek: The Original Series, is headed to space, for real this time around. Shatner will be launched on Wednesday by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos’ airline Blue Origin.
The whole premise of Star Trek was utopian: it pushed the boundaries of diversity, progressiveness, and inclusion on television and the science fiction genre. Shatner’s association with Bezos seems like a contradiction. However, colonialism and capitalism are so embedded in US culture that not even sacred projects like space travel or Star Trek can remain intact.
Blue Origin, created by Bezos in September 2000, aims to make spaceflight more accessible to individuals who can afford it. I started small and in the shadows, first by secretly buying land in Texas. It has gradually grown to employ 3,500 employees. The Washington Post, which is also owned by Bezos, has published a major exposé, revealing the toxic behavior driving the company’s ability to compete with its rival, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. One employee described Blue Origin saying, “It’s very dysfunctional. It’s regressive. It’s frustrating, and what happens is we can’t make progress and we end up with huge delays.”
The space company is financed by wealth obtained through the crushing of small businesses and the exploitation of workers. These workers have made disturbing allegations against Amazon, including being watched by terrorized guards dressed in neo-Nazi style at a fulfillment center, and having to pee into bottles because they are afraid to take bathroom breaks. So Blue Origin grew out of the worst of capitalism and marked the horrific start of civilian space travel, a process that Bezos and most Americans unfortunately think of in terms of “colonialism.”
Blue Origin should be the antithesis of everything Star Trek is, and it is in many ways. The Star Trek universe is the universe in which humanity has overcome its differences and created a single global state of united Earth government, and eventually an alliance of species under the United Planetary Federation – often called the Federation. Humanity has eradicated poverty, currency and capitalism as we know it. This allowed the United Earth government to use its resources more effectively for projects such as space travel and the achievement of dignity for all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Most of the Star Trek series follows the perspective of members of Starfleet, a federal agency that sends research and peacekeeping expeditions to explore the new “frontier.” This exploration is mitigated by their “Basic Guidance” which is a guiding principle that prevents Starfleet members from interfering with the progress of foreign, less developed civilizations. The main directive, and a large part of Star Trek’s policies, is believed to have been a reaction to intervention in the United States in the 1960s, but as Jimmy Sawers O’Doiber wrote in a Tempest article “[i]It is precisely because of the initial directive that Star Trek pretends not to be a colonial power, but rather than avoiding colonization, it is reimagining colonialism to be something that benefits the colonized.”
This colonial premise was clearly embedded in the origin of Star Trek. The show was originally presented as a “wagon train in space”. Wagon Train was a former television show that followed the exploits of a group of white settlers traveling in the midst of the colonization of the western frontier of the United States. Much of this tradition continues in Star Trek. Starfleet is overwhelmingly human, and their values and sensibilities are overwhelmingly Western — like the show’s obsession with Shakespeare.
The master directive seems to fit right in with the West’s history of colonial abdication. It assumes that supporting “inferior” people will inevitably lead to war and collapse. The Federation considers itself inherently superior to other alliances and civilizations and in a position to determine which planets are worthy of technology that can eradicate hunger and poverty. The show offers many positive examples of basic directive violation throughout the series, but the original show relies on the white male bravado of Captain Kirk to outwit less important peoples, often using his physical strength and sexual prowess to navigate complex situations.
Despite all this, Star Trek still deserves plenty of praise for feats like one of the first interracial kisses on TV. And many later iterations, notably Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, complicated and challenged the policies set in the original show. But a lot of the recent releases are steeped in modern capitalism and the desire to sell Star Trek to as many people as possible. The Star Trek films have been largely stripped of their political character, replacing the morals and questions of the last era with action scenes and women who barely speak.
William Shatner is making a mistake by joining forces with Bezos. Blue Origin represents a lot of the ills that the people on Star Trek have already overcome. And while the original show has its problems, its premise is much better than the one Shatner endorses in this endeavor. Star Trek was an attempt to paint a better picture of humanity, and there is no place for a company like Blue Origin in a future that even remotely aspires to be like the one inhabited by Captain Kirk.