Jul 31, 2017

Star Trek Has Always Been More Religious Than Its Creators Want or Realize

It’s a stretch to say that “religion basically no longer exists” in the Star Trek universe.

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As a lifelong Trekkie, I want any new Star Trek title to be good, but I’ve had my doubts about the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery, which premiers September 24 on CBS. From its troubled production history and CBS’ plans to air it on their “CBS All Access” subscription service to its “grimdark”-esque look and aesthetic and the simple fact that it’s a prequel, there’s something about Discovery that doesn’t quite feel like Star Trek to me.

And then there’s this bit of news that’s been making the rounds this weekend: apparently, you can’t say the word “God” in the new series.

The director halts the action and Lorca, played by British actor Jason Isaacs of Harry Potter fame, steps off the stage. The episode’s writer, Kirsten Beyer, approaches to give a correction on his “for God’s sakes” ad lib.

“Wait, I can’t say ‘God’?” Isaacs asks, amused. “I thought I could say ‘God’ or ‘damn’ but not ‘goddamn.’”

Beyer explains that Star Trek is creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a science-driven 23rd-century future where religion basically no longer exists.

“How about ‘for f—’s sake’?” he shoots back. “Can I say that?”

“You can say that before you can say ‘God,’” she dryly replies.

To be fair to Ms. Beyer, the above quote is an excerpt from a larger article, so it’s entirely possible that her comments about Gene Roddenberry’s godless future are given more context. Still, this short exchange does raise some interesting questions concerning religion’s place in the Star Trek universe.

It’s well-known that Roddenberry was a staunch atheist with a very humanistic outlook. In his mind, casting off superstition and religion was necessary for humanity to truly advance as a species. As longtime Star Trek producer Brannon Braga put it:

This was an important part of Roddenberry’s mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry’s future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.

Furthermore, the Star Trek universe is populated by numerous godlike beings (e.g., Metrons, Organians, Trelane, and of course, Q), but they’re never presented as true deities worthy of worship. Rather, they usually function as (imaginative) plot devices to prove the ingenuity, resourcefulness, intelligence, and — most importantly — potential that our beloved Starfleet members possess despite being mere mortals.

That being said, it’s a stretch to say that “religion basically no longer exists” in the Star Trek universe, especially when you consider that a) Star Trek: Discovery is set ten years before The Original Series, and b) there are numerous references to religion, God, etc., in The Original Series. One of the most obvious examples of this occurs in the classic episode “Balance of Terror,” in which Kirk and the Enterprise square off against a wily Romulan captain.

Two scenes in this episode are set in the Enterprise’s chapel. The first occurs at the beginning, as Kirk is officiating a wedding. Adding further religious layers to this scene, the bride appears to briefly kneel after arriving at the front of the chapel, Kirk discusses the captain’s privilege of marrying individuals “in accordance with our laws and our many beliefs” (emphasis mine), and the chapel contains at least two elements that look very much like a cross. The chapel’s second appearance occurs at the episode’s end, where Kirk consoles a grieving crew member.

The mere fact that the Enterprise contains a chapel implies that Starfleet recognizes that both the ship’s crew and its various guests would have religious beliefs, and require a designated space in which to practice them. Incidentally, the episode’s revised final draft script — which would’ve almost certainly been seen and approved by Roddenberry — describes the chapel as “designed to accommodate all faiths of all planets” (emphasis mine).

Other examples from throughout the franchise’s various series include Uhura’s “Son of God” speech in “Bread and Circuses,” McCoy’s numerous references to God in his curses and outcries, a reference to the Hindu festival of lights in “Data’s Day,” and all of that talk about the Prophets in Deep Space Nine. (Of course, there are other episodes that, while not vehemently anti-religious, are still critical of belief in some sort of higher power, such as “The Return of the Archons” and “Justice.”)

While all of this may seem like nerdy nitpicking — which, I suppose, goes with the territory of being a Star Trek fan — it seems odd to strive to be so faithful to the letter of Gene Roddenberry’s ethos when even he was frequently incapable of doing so. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s weird to be so focused on this particular aspect of Roddenberry’s vision, particularly when those series that he was most involved in — The Original Series and The Next Generation — weren’t afraid to include such content. (If nothing else, religious and faith matters can make for great drama.)

In the grand scheme of things, the lack of “God” mentions in Star Trek: Discovery is among the least of my concerns for the new series. I’m far more bothered by Discovery’s aforementioned nature as a prequel, which strikes me as counter to Star Trek’s own inherently progressive nature. (And truth be told, we could probably use a bit of classic Star Trek utopianism right about now.) But as both a Star Trek fan and a Christian, it’s interesting to me when any sort of religion-related statement or update, either for or against, emerges from one of my favorite fictional universes.

Finally, I’m not at all surprised that not even Gene Roddenberry himself could keep gods, religion, and faith from popping up in his staunchly atheistic universe. An artist’s work often has a way of evolving and developing in directions that not even they can foresee, much less control. Art moves in mysterious ways — even in a purely rational, superstition-free cosmos.

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