Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Canadia) has chimed on the politics of Star Trek’s captains, declaring that James T. Kirk is a Republican while Jean-Luc Picard is a Democrat. That other famous entertainer from Canada, who actually played Captain Kirk, was not impressed.
"Star Trek wasn't political," tweeted William Shatner. "I'm not political; I can't even vote in the US. So to put a geocentric label on interstellar characters is silly."
Yet to some extent the 2016 presidential candidate is right. Cruz is of course wrong in terms of the in-universe Star Trek canon: Political factions in the 23rd Century do not neatly map onto our present-day party affiliations. However, Cruz is right on the substance.
The Original Star Trek Series was pitched as a western in space, with Captain Kirk as a throwback cowboy character. Kirk represents the all-American pioneer, the tough guy – the decider. “To boldly go,” the most famous split infinitive in the history of the English language, comes after an overt appeal to the “final frontier,” a loaded term in American history if there ever was one.
In that sense, Kirk is a Republican. He cuts a nostalgic figure, full of bombast, self-assurance and good looks. He is a gun- (or rather phaser-) toting individualist in a world governed by technocrats and computers. He is an impulsive and sometimes reckless adventurer in a democratic state, the Federation, whose first and foremost law, the Prime Directive, is to never intervene in the internal affairs of other species. He is a restless man, full of unchecked passions and appetites, in a society that is seemingly peaceful and completely satiated. Kirk does not fit in his time and place, the post-scarcity Federation. That is probably why he is off to explore the galaxy on a five-year mission. It is much better that way. For everybody.
Kirk is a hero straight out of the canon of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who is a poster boy of the Tea Party, a strident Second Amendment advocate, and a popularizer of the libertarian rallying cry TANSTAAFL (there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, in his classic The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress). In an echo of Heinlein’s fascist masterpiece Starship Troopers, Kirk belongs to a Federation which has its center on Earth, has female soldiers, and is racially integrated. And, just like Robert Heinlein’s protagonist, Johnny Rico, Kirk is a wee bit off, not to say dim. William Shatner, who is a much better actor than he is usually credited for, managed to imbue the character with a hint of self-conscious irony, the knowledge of his own futility.
The truth is that in Star Trek’s 23rd Century, Kirk’s military and leadership skills are somewhat obsolete. The true rulers of the Federation are the diplomats and the scientists, the philosophers, the eggheads (with or without pointy ears), not the Randian manly-men of great military renown. Science, reason and diplomacy always get the last word over violence and guns. Spock is the true moral center of the show, the aspirational figure of a humanity pacified by science and logic, a humanity that has overcome its most self-destructive passions. This is what makes Kirk so endearing: he is a stand-in for the audience, the imperfect denizens of the 20th Century. We can relate to his all-too human desires and frailties. It is much harder to identify with Spock or Picard, those monuments of reason, compassion and stoicism. They represent our future, or at least Gene Roddenberry’s hopes for humankind.
What’s more, Shatner is wrong: Star Trek was political. As Marc Cushman recalls, Roddenberry explained that The Original Series was a way to get around the suffocating network censorship of the times:
Swift wanted to write satire on his time and went to Lilliput in his story to do just that. He could talk about insane prime ministers and crooked kings and all that. It was this wonderful thing. Children could read it as a fairy tale, an adventure, and as they got older they’d recognize it for what it really is… It seemed to me that perhaps, if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by.
I hear Senator Ted Cruz is a champion of that great government-funded program, NASA. That is most worthy and honorable, if a tad inconsistent. Still, it’s yet another small blessing for which we can thank Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek, and the immortal James Tiberius Kirk.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.