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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

11 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    August 28, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    Another excellent and thought provoking post. I'm getting a little tired of being so impressed by your work and thinking. 😉

    Tracing how the Federation is conceived in its public image is one of the fascinating aspects of Star Trek in popular culture that I'm looking forward to seeing you explore. When I was a child, I think the image of the Federation as a representative democracy with some kind of federal or confederal structure was part of the faith I had in that system of government as an actual ideal. It was one of the sad parts of growing up that I had to accept its corruption, but I don't think the failures of our own democracy necessarily damns the whole approach. We live in a corrupt world where our politicians can be bought by big corporate interests and usually are. But those are perversions of democratic ideals, and I think the public image of the Federation does speak to a genuine truth that democracy is at heart a good idea.

    I have one reservation, however, which amounts to making a big deal over one of your throwaway lines.

    "Amanda is arguably the first time a female character in Star Trek has been allowed a lengthy sequence where she asserts her agency and gets validated for it from an expressly female perspective, albeit that of a mother."

    This is difficult for me to accept as a problem. I think it's part of the overcompensation that sometimes happens in revolutionary movements against the old way of doing things. Women are often conceived as being only and exclusively mothers, and that totality and exclusivity of motherhood is wrong. But I worry that your "albeit" implies a devaluation of motherhood, a conclusion that motherhood is valueless, or that it's only a means of oppression. I think one of the reasons I and most of my good friends have turned out as non-shittily as we have, is because of the positive role models women, particularly our mothers, have played in our lives. A friend of mine is finishing her PhD at University of Oregon on the virtues of motherhood and parenthood from a specifically feminist perspective. She's a sharp thinker, an impressive philosophical speaker, a remarkably ethical person, and a fantastic parent to her two children.

    For all these reasons, I hesitate when it seems that someone may vilify an admirable set of qualities because those qualities have been perverted and corrupted by a patriarchal worldview to suppress and harm people. There's a significant difference between "We will not ONLY be mothers" and "We will not be mothers."

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  2. Kevin Carson
    August 28, 2013 @ 4:35 am

    Despite the increasing tendency toward universalist rhetoric in packaging the Federation, the actual details made it clear throughout the franchise that it had its origins as a de facto Terran empire created by the Earth and its allies in the Kzin Wars. Even Vulcan was a junior partner. The fact that Starfleet HQ is in San Francisco, and most of the capital ships have names from Anglo-American maritime history, is telling.

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  3. Cleofis
    August 28, 2013 @ 7:03 am

    Honestly, I would actually place this episode more in the former "how will this character in act in this situation" form of development than the latter "characterization by fanwank" camp. There's a difference between continuity porn and "Hey, remember this? Well here's how it ALL FITS TOGETHER," and building upon tidbits that can logically (if you'll pardon the phrase) lead to a given story. Something like Spock's World (for all that it's excellent), or Kurt Busiek's exhaustive sorting out of Kang the Conqueror's timeline(s) in his Avengers run are more in line with the fanwank approach; but this episode is very plainly a "how will X act in Y situation", specifically "how will Spock react when his parents come to call?", and it's that opportunity to see this character in this new context that gives this episode its appeal. Hell, how many times has the "X's parents are coming to visit" story been done in countless other shows? 🙂 Utilizing throwaway bits is just a writer making good use of potential storytelling opportunities, as opposed to building a grand tapestry of continutiy.

    All of that said, I do completely agree that TOS is more or less the Ur-cult show, which makes for a fascinating contrast considering the monolithic pop cultural touchstone it eventually becomes. Has any cult ever succeeded so wildly in spreading its gospel to the culture at large? I'd be hard pressed to think of one.

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  4. Josh Marsfelder
    August 28, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    "When I was a child, I think the image of the Federation as a representative democracy with some kind of federal or confederal structure was part of the faith I had in that system of government as an actual ideal. It was one of the sad parts of growing up that I had to accept its corruption, but I don't think the failures of our own democracy necessarily damns the whole approach. We live in a corrupt world where our politicians can be bought by big corporate interests and usually are. But those are perversions of democratic ideals, and I think the public image of the Federation does speak to a genuine truth that democracy is at heart a good idea."

    I have a very similar story here: Growing up with Star Trek convinced me of the fundamental righteousness of representative democracy and one of the harshest lessons I learned as an adult was forcing me to come to terms with how naive that faith was. Where I differ from you is that I actually don't have confidence democracy is an essentially workable concept.

    There was an article on Cracked a few days ago ( this one, http://www.cracked.com/blog/7-reasons-news-looks-worse-than-it-really-is_p2/#ixzz2dI5aNKzR that mentions Star Trek and the Federation for good measure) that had a quote I'd like to paraphrase. In response to a hypothetical reader arguing that ideal communism was never given a chance, David Wong said "You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system". Similarly, I'd say you can claim politicians being bought by corporate interests is a perversion of representative democracy, but you have to understand susceptibility to that kind of perversion is and always will be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system.

    "I hesitate when it seems that someone may vilify an admirable set of qualities because those qualities have been perverted and corrupted by a patriarchal worldview to suppress and harm people. There's a significant difference between 'We will not ONLY be mothers' and 'We will not be mothers.'"

    As to this, I mean obviously this is perspective I was trying to get at with that sentence. Motherhood is certainly not inherently a set of experiences that lack value, though I would continue to stress it is a set that is linked to patriarchy in some troubling ways. That great patriarchal way of giving the impression you value women while actually belittling them is to celebrate motherhood and put it on a pedestal (go back and rewatch the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special "The Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe" for a masterclass example in that).

    What I was trying to get at with Amanda is that it's great Star Trek finally has a female character asserting her agency, and while it may be from the perspective of a mother (which is, let's be honest, the easiest way for a woman to do so in a patriarchal world) this is still a very clear and laudable step forward.

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    August 28, 2013 @ 7:58 am

    What's especially interesting and worthy of note here is that this background is established in The Animated Series, i.e., the only part of the franchise primarily overseen by D.C. Fontana and Dave Gerrold and also the only televised Star Trek series to be considered non-canon by mainstream fandom for most of its existence.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    August 28, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    Certainly Fontana is the least wankiest writer to attempt something like this the franchise will ever see. I'll admit to embellishing things a bit for rhetorical purposes here, but I maintain the core structure of these approaches is at least comparable (and there is also quite a lot of "how Spock is going to react here" in "Journey to Babel"-As I said in the piece I'm simplifying things significantly).

    "Has any cult ever succeeded so wildly in spreading its gospel to the culture at large? I'd be hard pressed to think of one."

    Perhaps Star Wars, though that's an eminently different sort of franchise. Additionally, I'll drop a hint that a major theme of this blog going forward is how Star Trek transforms from being Cult Sci-Fi into something very unique and special within Western pop fiction.

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  7. K. Jones
    August 28, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    I always felt like some of the agency that Amanda Grayson brought was a partial side-effect of that incredibly aristocratic voice. Whenever she speaks you can clearly sense her compassion and caring and understanding for Spock, as well as the familiarity of her frustration with her son and husband's stubbornness. But that dignified air of aristocracy and snobbery just lends her a sort of importance beyond self-importance, like we as a society are trained to respect our betters. Even Kirk and McCoy were caught in that thrall, being good old All-American space-men from their respective "sticks".

    Ambassador Shras spurs me every time I watch it. We got Amok Time, we got this episode, and a fair bit more on Vulcans by way of reputation, Romulans, and more. And then in a throwaway line Shras claims that the Andorians are the complete metaphoric opposites of Vulcans; a race governed by passion and emotion. A race that yields to their own impulses and seems to have come out alright (in spite of, later learning that they consider themselves a warrior culture, still have legal forms of dueling, were technically an empire, though not particularly benevolent or malevolent, and ironically for a "hot-blooded race" came from a world of ice.)

    I wanted more on the Andorians instantaneously. Warriors? Artisans? An Empire searching for beauty to bring home and craft into decadence? A really great species for Kirk and McCoy to interact with. It took a long time to get them, and it still wasn't enough. The casual admission of capability for violence, not depicted as "Evil"?

    The bit that stood out for me in this episode beyond Nimoy's absolutely perfect comedic timing, was seeing the Enterprise Shuttle Bay in such detail. I also believe it was the birthplace of the Vulcan salute, another piece of iconography that goes far beyond cult sci-fi into the Pop culture cloud.

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  8. Josh Marsfelder
    August 28, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    I really wish I had something more articulate to contribute other than being a pedant and saying the Vulcan salute was invented by Nimoy for "Amok Time" (as I believe I mentioned in my post for that episode).

    Fantastic comment otherwise, and a wonderful story.

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  9. Froborr
    October 9, 2014 @ 7:56 am

    It's also interesting if you contrast it with the origin of the Kzin, Niven's Known Space series. Which has serious, serious issues of its own, but one of the small number of things it gets basically right is that while humans do go out and colonize, it's almost entirely on otherwise uninhabitable worlds and they don't form an empire–the individual colonies appear to be politically independent. Indeed the only real empires in the setting (the Kzinti military empire and the Puppeteer trade empire) are pretty consistently portrayed negatively.

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  10. Josh Marsfelder
    October 9, 2014 @ 11:36 am

    Actually, I talk a lot about the Kzinti during my coverage of the Animated Series and in Volume 2: D.C. Fontana pulls Niven in to write for Star Trek and he fuses the two universes, leading to some really interesting repercussions.

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  11. modestdave
    December 12, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    This quote "It has been said that social occasions are merely warfare concealed" is actually stated by the character "Khan" (Ricardo Montalban) in the episode "Space Seed," which spawned the very best of the Star Trek movies, "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan."

    From memory, so I apologize for slight errors…

    Kirk: "You tend to express things in military terms, Mr. Khan. This is a social occasion."

    Khan: (Initially chuckles, softly) "It has been said social occasions are merely warfare concealed. Some prefer it more honest, more open."

    Kirk: "You fled! Why?? Were you afraid??"

    Khan: (Smugly) "I have never been afraid."

    Kirk: "But you left at the very time mankind needed//"

    Khan: (Slamming fist closed fist on the table) "We offered the World order!!!"

    Kirk: "We?"

    Khan: (Realizing he has been strategically manipulated by Kirk, he tips his proverbial hat to the manipulator) "Excellent. Excellent."

    Reply

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