At the tail-end of a long conversation on the future of Star Trek, a friend accused me of “not getting” Rodenberry’s utopian vision. The core of Star Trek, he argued, is a society that has radically reoriented its approach to war, diplomacy, and exploration. Maybe. But I think Rodenberry’s own mythos – while certainly utopian – is also peppered with conflict, intrigue, and militarism. Peter Suderman describes the original series as a sort of “Horatio Hornblower in space,” and I think this comes close to capturing its appeal. One thing I liked about The Next Generation was its portrayal of a liberal society’s interactions – peaceful and otherwise – with alien powers. Watching Picard and Co. try to resolve conflicts in a manner consistent with the Federation’s deeply-held ideals was one of the series’ most successful themes.
Moreover, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Rodenberry’s saga mirrors much of what bedevils United States foreign policy today. Both the Federation and the United States are liberal hegemons who prefer peace and diplomacy to war, but are inevitably drawn into a variety of tangled conflicts. The way we deal with these challenges are a persistent problem in real life (see Iraq, Invasion of), but they also create space for all sorts of dramatic possibilities. Reenvisioning Starfleet as a latter-day American (or Victorian) navy would allow the the series to explore these issues – something, I think, that is embedded in the show’s founding mythos – against a more compelling military backdrop. I don’t think this requires Star Trek to jettison its focus on exploration, diplomacy, or science. After all, the US Navy does that sort of thing all the time. Revamping the fleet’s institutional character would simply lend an air of renewed plausibility to the proceedings.