2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
The twilight of identity:
Enterprise, neoconservatism, and
the death of Star Trek
by David Greven
Enterprise, the sixth Star Trek television series, aired its first episode, “Broken Bow,” on September 26, 2001, the same year in which George W. Bush, the nation’s forty-third president, was sworn into office and fifteen days after the United States’ suffered its deadliest attack on domestic soil. Enterprise was cancelled by UPN in the Spring of 2005, making it the shortest lived live-action Trek series since the first (Star Trek: The Original Series, or Classic Trek, ran three seasons, but The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all ran seven years apiece). The loyal Trek audience and curious new viewers, both of whom quickly dwindled after very impressive initial numbers, turned away from the series in droves. Numerous and varied discussions were conducted — by the media, Trek fans, and general science-fiction audiences — over the reasons for the show’s untimely demise, considered metonymic of the end of Star Trek as a mega-franchise.
Since its reincarnation in the late 1970s with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Trek was a sci-fi cultural phenomenon rivaled only by Star Wars — although in recent years it was also given a serious run for its futuristic money by such shows as Stargate and the new version of Battlestar Galactica. The common explanation given now for Trek's shrunken fortunes is that it is simply a victim of its own extravagant success, and that after so many years of overexposure, fan exhaustion with the franchise inevitably resulted in the decline in viewership. In a desperate attempt to reinvigorate the franchise, Paramount is creating a new feature film that goes back to the glory days of the original series and Kirk and Spock.
Countervailing against this particular explanation for the Death of Trek, I argue that the franchise has suffered because it replaced its progressive humanist values with a broad reactionary agenda, as evinced by Enterprise. Enterprise was a neoconservative re-imagining of Trek that not only “corrected” the politically correct stances of the previous recent Trek shows but even retooled the concepts of Classic Trek to refashion Trek in its entirety as a monolithically conservative vision, a fictive universe opposed to diversity and tolerance. Making Trek’s masculinist biases explicit themes rather than meta-textual, Enterprise, in its four-year run, manifested itself as one of the most misogynistic and racist science-fiction shows in television history. Examining some key Enterprise episodes, this essay exposes the ideological sensibility of Enterprise and argues that it was the show’s neoconservative agenda that facilitated the seeming “death” of Trek.[open endnotes in new window] Like HBO’s Western Deadwood, Enterprise is a reactionary revisionist work, a neoconservative fantasy of a return to a time before progressive, politically correct new values ruined things for everybody and policed the expression of good, salty, enjoyable, essentialist, racist and sexist views.
Discussing the revisionist Westerns of the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s, J. Hoberman writes,
"The most overtly ideological of revisionist Westerns addressed the subject of the Indian wars [in the United States]. In their open identification with Native Americans, such movies were the equivalent of marching for peace beneath a Viet Cong flag. Hollywood contra Hollywood: Cavalry Westerns [such as Little Big Man] were in production when My Lai was exposed, and the revelation of American atrocities only reinforced the argument that the slaughter of Native Americans was the essence of the white man’s war."
If, as Robin Wood writes, we can “already look back to Hollywood in the 70s as the period when the dominant ideology almost disintegrated,” it is far more dubious that the same will be said of our own moment, if television shows such as Deadwood and Enterprise are any indication. What makes revisionist Westerns such as Deadwood and Enterprise distinct from 70s versions is their ideological character. In the 70s, revisionism allowed moviemakers to recast conventional genres such as the Western as allegories dealing with the perniciousness of modern political regimes.
Today, revisionism does not function as allegory but as political wish-fulfillment, the longing to return to a mythical time of bluntly uncomplicated values in which clear divisions between good and evil — so goes the myth — were clearly drawn. Key programs involved in this current reactionary revisionist project include: the re-traditionalization of women, checking the progress of feminism and punishing the ambitious, autonomous woman by reincorporating her into properly normative gendered roles and spaces; the checking, stalling, and ultimate eradication of civil rights movements of all kinds; the foreclosure of movements to end racial, gendered, sexual, class, and other forms of oppression; and the new consolidation of a coherent national identity.
Enterprise, which goes back to Classic Trek’s roots as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” fits in seamlessly with the projects of reactionary revisionism. It’s Wagon Train to the Stars without all of that 60s liberalism that accompanied Classic Trek. The difficulty for Enterprise, however, is that it still retains Trek’s core liberal values — values hardly mass-affirmed in our own neoconservative moment. Thus Enterprise’s struggle over overwriting the Trekkian text while still maintaining its character make it a fascinating and disturbing text all its own.
Emerging in the weeks after the devastation of September 11th, Enterprise shirked Star Trek's promise and responsibility. To use Robin Wood’s term, it “papered the cracks” of American ideology, covering up the fissures in our ever-evolving culture with a racist and sexist program of reaction and retribution. “Gene’s Vision” — as the philosophy of Gene Roddenberry, Trek’s creator, is often called — has often, and very often rightly, been attacked for its unfailing and uncritical support of “humanism,” a world-view with obvious deficiencies.
Yet Star Trek could also disquiet, disturb, and deconstruct. Its episodes repeatedly challenged unblinking submission to authority, whether that authority was political, economic, social, or religious. Star Trek stood for diversity, pluralism, tolerance, non-conformity, and individualism when these traits were not necessarily considered virtues by the masses. Star Trek represented rebellion against authoritarianism, rejection of ethnocentrism, and resistance to the status quo. In thinly veiled parables the series addressed diverse issues such as war, slavery, drug abuse, overpopulation, dehumanization, bigotry, ecology, and the misuse of power.
Enterprise shows us a vision of humanity devoid of those very values, values perhaps naive but also stirring and potentially viable.
Operation Restore America
Racism, sexism, and heterosexism, as Daniel Leonard Bernardi has shown, all work in tandem in the neoconservative moment to “roll back” the political gains of 1960s liberalism, namely in the fields of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. Bernardi associates Trekkian neoconservatism with the The Next Generation, but Enterprise is the first Trek series openly to represent a break with Trek’s core liberal values.
Neoconservatism is associated by many with the current regime of Republican power and its devotion to the philosophy of Leo Strauss. Yet it is most properly understood as part of the curious aftermath of 60s liberalism and as a phenomenon that began in the Democratic party. As James Mann describes it,
"The neoconservative movement that arose within the Democratic party was made up of intellectuals, scholars, and party stalwarts who had originally been strong supporters of the party’s New Deal traditions, [survivors of the Depression]. …. In the late 1960s and 1970s these Democrats grew increasingly unhappy with the party’s drift toward the political left. They were uneasy with Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty program; they were then enraged when Democratic leaders embraced many of the causes of the youth counterculture of the 1960s, including opposition to the Vietnam War and support for affirmative action. …. [Neoconservatives all] believed in the importance of American power; all hoped to revive the assertive, internationalist traditions under which the Roosevelt and Truman administrations had fought World War II and the cold war."
The history of neoconservatism is far too intricate to be elaborated upon here, but for our purposes the most relevant aspect of the neoconservative movement is that it originated as a rejection of liberal values from a liberal base.
Jonathan Schaub’s study of Cold War literary criticism offers some useful insights into the cultural atmosphere that would produce such a decisive and powerful shift in what Schaub calls the “liberal narrative” guiding postwar thought. For left-to-liberal intellectuals from the thirties, the knowledge of the atrocities being committed in Stalinist Russia was an especially shattering “reality-check.” Gradually but unmistakably, the tone of liberal thought underwent a radical change or reversal.
By the time he was writing his 1948 study of the work of Herman Melville, Richard Chase could speak of the ways in which Melville spoke to the “new liberalism,” the vanguard of which Chase occupied. Bad, “old” liberalism was facile, unimaginative, wavering in its rejection of totalitarianism. The new liberalism, on the other hand, was bracingly new: unequivocally opposed to totalitarianism and the fuller, broader account of human motives it provided; determined to speak of “progress,” “history,” and “the liberation of the masses” with
“the kind of irony that recognized that these ideas could be realized, if at all, with only partial success.”
Schaub convincingly argues that the liberal narrative treated political issues with a moral ahistoricism. Because conservative dogma seemed confirmed by the recent war, left-to-liberal intellectuals scrambled, in essay after essay, to explain recent history as a lesson in innocence and naiveté, in heated opposition to the “unalloyed” liberalism that coursed through U.S. culture, leaving a “dangerous innocence” in its wake. “This habitual and dangerous innocence” was thought to plague American political life, leaving it “insufficiently complicated and disciplined by an opposing conservatism.”
Enterprise appears to be a Trek series for those who felt Trek had undergone an appallingly “sensitive” makeover in its incarnations of the late-80s and 1990s. The most recent Trek series after the first spin-off, The Next Generation, featured, respectively, an African-American and a female captain in the lead. Enterprise set about to restore the Trekkian status quo with a white male captain who, especially in the first two seasons of the series, spouted xenophobic rhetoric and seemed far more uncomfortable with women in command than Captain Kirk ever did in the Classic Trek of the 60s. Indeed, Enterprise’s captain, Jonathan Archer, expressed the same discomfort with strong women espoused not by Captain Kirk but by the Captain whom Kirk replaced in the first Trek pilot episode, “The Cage.”
In D. H. Lawrence’s famous description, the now-mythic character of Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales — the series of novels that features The Last of the Mohicans — incarnates “the true myth of America”: to “go backwards, from old age to golden youth.” One could apply this description to the project of reactionary revisionism generally and Enterprise specifically. Enterprise represents a neoconservative fantasy of a return to a strong, noble, secure United States of tough liberalism, properly assigned social and gendered roles, all organized around traditional white masculinist values.
Enterprise is about the early missions of Starfleet, the spacefaring military division of the United Federation of Planets, the democratic interplanetary alliance central to the Trek universe, but the series is pointedly set before the establishment of the Federation. In the premiere episode, “Broken Bow” (2001), Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula, of Quantum Leap fame) spouts extremely conservative, xenophobic rhetoric. He aggressively loathes Vulcans — who in Enterprise are the shadowy, cryptic heavies, having held humans back from spacefaring progress for the past one hundred years because the Vulcans have doubts about their fitness and readiness for space exploration — and seems to have serious issues with women in command.
In “Broken Bow,” the premiere episode, Archer shrieks at T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), the Vulcan woman who will become his first officer, that he will “knock her on her ass” if she doesn’t do as she’s told. Tellingly, Archer fulminates here against an assembly of Vulcans, of whom T’Pol is the only female; yet she is the sole target of his threats of physical violence. Hating Vulcans, thereby nixing one of the great themes of Classic Trek, the intense love Captain Kirk has for his Vulcan science officer, Spock; hating strong women, thereby nixing the twenty-fourth century feminist Trekkian innovations in gendered relations, Enterprise squarely reimagines the Trekkian mythos as a stridently intolerant social system in which male power regained not only validity but unquestionable, even brute, new strength.
Commander Charles “Trip” Tucker III, the Chief Engineer, a conventional Southern good ol’ boy (played by Connor Trinneer, whose looks eerily evoke those of George W. Bush), is presented from the start of the series as provincial, xenophobic, and crass. Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, the security officer, is British and given little screen time; it is also revealed in the last season that he works for the shadow conspiracy group of the Federation, Section 31, a “subtle” suggestion of the untrustworthy nature of foreign members of the community. Tellingly, the show’s inclusive representation of the “foreign” is an Englishman, whereas Classic Trek had the Russian Chekhov. Ensign Hoshi Sato is an Asian-American linguist and the Communications officer. Prone to fearful fits and generally seen as ineffectual in any terms other than the linguistic aspects of her job, Hoshi is the resident screamer. Ensign Travis Mayweather, the helmsman, is African-American and a complete blank, rarely getting even one non-technobabble line an episode; without the slightest exaggeration, it is entirely accurate to say that Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura on Classic Trek had more lines of dialog. The most intriguing character, Phlox is the chief medical officer; this creepy, mirthful alien doctor comes from a species with highly unusual and polyamorous mating customs.
This generally grim and uninteresting cast (except for T’Pol and Phlox) specifically revises the potential and occasional radicalism of previous Trek series. As the ambiguous recurring Enterprise character Daniels, known as “Future Guy,” informs Archer in “Zero Hour,” the Season Three finale, in which Earth and the galaxy itself are threatened (not, incidentally, by androgynous, trans-dimensional, Third Sex aliens), "Reed and Hoshi are not crucial to the future of mankind — you are.” In other words, racial and cultural others and women are not crucial to the future; institutionalized white male power is. Comparing the characters on Enterprise to those on Voyager and Deep Space Nine reveals a great deal about Enterprise’s overwriting of Trekkian values to fit with an emerging new reactionary national political climate. Enterprise systematically overwrote the innovative casting and characterization choices that, to varying degrees of efficacy and radicalism, made the post Next Generation spin-offs progressive Clinton-era shows.
Voyager was a show conceived in feminist or at least pro-woman terms. Conceived by a woman writer-producer, Jeri Taylor, along with Michael Piller, Voyager was the first Trek series with a woman Captain. Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) was an interesting mixture of Kirk-style heroics, nurturing, maternal sensitivity, and thoughtfully enquiring scientific curiosity (Janeway is a scientist as well as a Captain; unfortunately, this aspect of her persona was downplayed in later years). Whereas Voyager had a strong female Captain, Janeway and several other strong women characters, Enterprise features two female characters who represent two sides of the debased woman in patriarchy, the tough woman denounced by hostile males and the fumbling, wan hysteric. Patriarchy remains unchanged and unchallenged in Enterprise’s twenty-second century; women once again must assume hypertraditional roles ; non-white characters are relegated to off-screen space; non-heterosexual characters are non-existent.
At its best, Voyager was an epic for women, as evinced by the sweeping two-part episode “Dark Frontier”(1995) in which Janeway travels into the heart of Borg space to rescue former Borg Seven of Nine. (As “Dark Frontier” also makes clear, Voyager could be read as a stirring allegory of female same-sex desire.) Borrowing its great theme of the longing for nostos — the return home — from The Odyssey, it was a series about a female hero, surrounded by other heroic women. Not so Enterprise, which delimited the roles of women and fatally impaired the strength of its strongest female character.
The female characters on Voyager and Deep Space Nine were tough, empathetic women delineated as heroically complex and daring characters. Deep Space Nine was also innovative in having an African-American actor (Avery Brooks) in the leading role. Enterprise took the two great political accomplishments of the recent Trek series — the enlarged visibility and social power of women and racial minorities — and relegated them to the dustbin of pre-history.
The fans, who stopped watching the show in droves, spoke out, and Enterprise made hasty changes to redress the show’s pugnaciously intolerant early tone. Rather than focus on one of the early Enterprise episodes to point out misogynistic, retrograde aspects of the series, since the show in its early seasons was obviously rife with them, I will now focus on the episode “Twilight” (2003), from the show’s third season, which many fans view as, along with the fourth, a marked improvement over the first two. Indeed, in terms of storytelling and characterization, the third and fourth seasons do improve on the preceding ones. Yet even at its best, Enterprise is a deeply misogynistic, reactionary Trek series. To demonstrate my view of the series, I will examine two episodes, “Twilight” and “Bound,” at a certain length.
The “Twilight” of powerful women
In its third season, Enterprise experimented with ongoing, continuous storytelling arcs. The major plot of the third season is Starfleet/Earth’s battle against the Xindi, a complex and ingeniously conceived race (on Xindi, several species simultaneously evolved into sentient beings; there are mammalian, insect, reptilian, and avian sentient/humanoid Xindi species). These creatures, having been deceived into believing that humans are their great enemy who will destroy them in the future, misguidedly and preemptively retaliate against the Earth, which they repeatedly attempt to destroy. In the season finale of Season Two, the 2003 episode “The Expanse,” the Xindi destroy a significant portion of the northern hemisphere, including Florida, leaving seven million dead. The annihilation of a sizeable chunk of the United States — significantly, Florida, the contested political zone in which the fierce battle between Democratic and Republican parties yielded George W. Bush as President in 2003 — topically reflects national terrors over terrorism. The Xindi, though, displace the more explicitly topical alien metaphorical threat of the first two seasons, the Suliban, a creepy, shape-shifting race able to spontaneously retool their DNA in order to plot against Starfleet and crawl under doors and atop ceilings. “Suliban” is almost comically hypersuggestive of “Taliban.”
In “Twilight,” first aired during November sweeps month in 2003 and (disquietingly) declared the Number One Fan Favorite in an April 2005 poll/re-airing, we see Archer waking up, in the teaser, in his room to the sound of the red-alert klaxon. He is nearly naked, only in boxers. Bewildered, he staggers to the bridge, where the now-Captain T’Pol bellows, “Get him off the bridge!” and orders him back to his quarters. Archer grows more bewildered still as the security officers grab him. As he looks out the viewscreen, he watches as the Xindi weapon, an enormous round grey-silver globe seething with the powerful might of its accelerating weaponry, approaches and then fires upon the Earth, which it swiftly proceeds to destroy. We then get a close-up of utterly befuddled Archer, as nude as a new baby, with apparently similar abilities to make sense of the situation. The implication of this opening sequence is remarkably clear. T’Pol in charge, Archer is reduced to an infantilized, de-sexualized, de-militarized, emasculated baby-male, and the Earth itself is destroyed, by a swirling, circular mass, no less. The globelike Xindi weapon is an image of female sexuality, in this case retooled as an apocalyptic weapon in the form of, in Barbara Creed’s terminology, “the monstrous-feminine.” The remainder of the episode only reinforces these initial impressions.
Whereas Voyager’s superlative two-part episode “Year of Hell” (the November sweeps episode of 1997) gave us a defiantly determined Captain Janeway intransigently facing off against a similarly apocalyptic threat and restoring order, through her sacrificial death and rebirth, to the universe, “Twilight” gives us apocalypse as the direct result of a woman in command.
“Twilight” is, much to the relief of the imaginary Enterprise fan (I confess to never having met one), an alternate reality (AU) episode. It’s about what might have happened had Archer been forced to relinquish command to T’Pol. Some temporal parasites infect Archer’s mind and he, in Memento-fashion, loses the ability to retain any short-term memories. With T’Pol in command of the Enterprise, not only do the Xindi destroy Earth but they also destroy nearly all existing Earth colonies throughout the galaxy. Now, only 6,000 human beings remain. This T’Pol informs Archer when he wakes up, his mind still teeming with those time-parasites, many years later, on one of the few remaining outposts. In harrowing long shot, we see him stagger out of their makeshift dwelling, anguished, almost unable to contemplate the inestimable significance of the near-total destruction of the human race, the result of his relinquishment of command to T’Pol.
T’Pol is now Archer’s nurse and lover. Not only has she herself relinquished command but she has also properly, as if in penitence, assumed conventional gendered roles as maternal nurse and heterosexual companion. Adding a layer of perversity to this set-up: Archer has no awareness of his sexual relationship with T’Pol. The implication is that, much like the Salt Vampire succubus of the Classic Trekepisode “The Man Trap,” T’Pol predatorily preys upon Archer’s very body, draining him of life force. T’Pol also assumes the position of automated drone who must drone the same narrative unceasingly, each time Archer awakes. Effectively, the episode turns T’Pol into the Echo to Archer’s sleepy Narcissus.
Fascinatingly explicit about its own masculinist agenda, the episode rigs Archer’s return to health — through Phlox’s new medical procedure, derived after several years of research, to eradicate the time-parasites, which will restore the timeline, give us back a pre-infected Archer — as the return of humanity’s hope for the future. When Archer reboards the Enterprise many years later, about to test Phlox’s new treatment, and sees his old crew again, he is greeted by Trip, now Captain of the Enterprise (and more intensely suggestive, with aged-make-up, of President Bush than ever), and Malcolm, who informs him that he is Captain of a different vessel. “Did everyone get their own ship while I was away?” Archer wryly asks. “Not everyone, sir” — this comment is delivered, unsurprisingly, by Asian-American Hoshi, who almost mutely embraces Archer. African-American Travis was killed on the bridge several scenes, and years, back.
In sickbay, Enterprise now again under Xindi attack, a tense discussion occurs among T’Pol, Phlox, Archer, and Trip, who unswervingly argues that the Archer-procedure cannot be conducted because the ship cannot afford to lose power. T’Pol passionately makes the case that restoring Archer to command in the past is the only chance for humanity left. The episode not only posits that white heterosexual manhood is the necessary linchpin and sign of rational power and that its absence results in the destruction of the human race. But it also puts this rhetoric in the mouth of T’Pol, who must, in issuing forth, condemn both women and the Other to the categories of agents of social destruction and the extinction of the race. In the words of Judith Fetterley, in a different context, T’Pol — like the viewers who identify with her — is
"co-opted into participation in an experience from which she is explicitly excluded; she is asked to identify with a selfhood that defines itself in opposition to her; she is required to identify against herself."
“Twilight” most coherently realizes the sexist campaign against T’Pol that undergirds the series. Why Enterprise felt the need to impair, hobble, and demean its most interesting, well-acted, and exciting character is a saddening mystery. One of the most revealing features of this sexism is in Season Three in an episode depicting the massage techniques that T’Pol is forced to administer to Trip. The scenes are played as soft-core porn, with gasps and other forms of heavy breathing, partial nudity (we see T’Pol cupping her breasts, Trip shirtless), nighttime atmosphere, and obvious sexual tension. What is most remarkable about these scenes is the ways in which they represent white manhood. Trip not only provides a white male body to be consumed by the viewers’ gaze but also a body that exists to be seduced; the series rigs the situation so that it is T’Pol, at Phlox’s matchmaker suggestion, who initiates and insists upon the nighttime neuropressure sessions. This is like a rewriting of the classical myth of Selene and Endymion — in which the moon goddess keeps the beautiful male youth Endymion perpetually asleep so that she may adorn him with nighttime caresses — except Endymion here has all the power, Selene the pitiable need. Trip is new-style white heterosexual manhood, as an erotic canvas upon which women’s unrealizable and untenable desires are writ large — and as essentially ungraspable as figure on the page. This version of white manhood represents the extraordinary resilience of the model, its ability to adapt to the pressures and demands of alternative and now more visible and vocal forms of sexuality and gendered identity — feminist, queer, transgendered — while only more effectively consolidating and maintaining its power.
One of the most telling aspects of the series’ masculinist bias and misogynistic sensibility is the relationship between Trip and Archer. Trip emerges as Archer’s mini-me. In the first two seasons, especially, Trip primarily exists to reinforce Archer’s xenophobic and misogynistic traits, often vociferously echoing Archer’s castigating threats to T’Pol. Trip’s behavior not only crudely mirrors Archer’s but also reinforces images of Southern manhood as pugnaciously crude, rowdy, anti-intellectual, coarse. Trip and T’Pol develop a sexual relationship in the third season, in which T’Pol also becomes addicted to drugs and experiencing emotion, the major druggy high for a wayward Vulcan (all developments much to T’Pol-actor Jolene Blalock’s chagrin. ).
Despite their burgeoning sexual and romantic relationship, in “Twilight” Trip expresses a characteristic vehement and ungenerous hostility towards T’Pol — and one heavy-handedly overdetermined to lay the blame for the mission at T’Pol’s door, as it were. In one military encounter with two Xindi ships, the Enterprise is badly damaged and in danger of being completely obliterated. A Xindi vessel clings to their starboard nacelle, facilitating access to Enterprise to hordes of warlike reptilian Xindi soldiers. T’Pol makes the gutsy move of ramming Enterprise and the parasite-like Xindi ship into the other Xindi vessel, thereby disabling both Xindi ships. The Xindi ships are indeed disabled, but not without doing a great deal of damage to Enterprise. Instead of bonding together about the further difficulties they all now face — clearly, T’Pol’s military actions have resulted in a calamitous situation, but one not nearly as calamitous as the threat of destruction posed by both Xindi ships if no action had been taken — the crew appear hostile to T’Pol. Trip explicitly denounces her:
“Ever since you took command, this mission has taken one wrong turn after another.”
Not only is T’Pol denounced by a senior officer — it is unthinkable that anyone would speak this way to Archer — but also by the man with whom she has become intimate. Clearly, Enterprise reimagines Voyager’s daring displays of female heroism as dangerous, foolhardy, destructive. Neither T’Pol nor any other woman can command a ship lest apocalypse ensue.
This episode makes sure to resolve everything nicely and restore order. Archer’s time-parasites are technobabbleishly eliminated by Phlox (actually, in a rousing return to virility, Archer both outmaneuvers Xindi reptiles and implements his own cure) and Archer returns to Normal and his Captaincy. As T’Pol, now properly re-garbed in her Vulcan attire and back to being First Officer (though hardly Number One), leaves Sickbay in the restored Enterprise present, Archer, with a faintly leering expression, says to her, “You know, you’d make a great nurse.” This line says it all about the sexual and gendered politics of Enterprise (and is, to boot, offensive to nurses).
The new patriarchy
Brannon Braga, the chief creator of Enterprise, has received a great deal of flak over the years from Trek fans for his flouting of Trekkian continuity. But in my view, his work apart from Enterprise — on Voyager and on the short-lived CBS sci-fi series Threshold — has been provocative and daring, especially in his creation of gritty, intriguing, bold female characters. Considering Threshold (available now on DVD) as a counterpoint to Enterprise illuminates the choices Braga made for each show. Threshold has a heroine at its center, Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino), a government contingency analyst whose job is to devise response plans for worst-case scenarios. When an extra terrestrial craft that emits a horrific auditory signal that transforms those who hear it into aliens lands in the mid-Atlantic ocean, Molly and a motley-crew team of government-appointed experts must find a way to battle the alien takeover.
Molly is inventive, humorous, compassionate, and eminently capable. She is that rare action heroine whose brains complement rather than interfere with her tenderness. She also successfully negotiates an almost entirely homosocial world of various government officials, military hotshots, geeky scientists, and corrupt senators. In one of the most poignant moments in the series, an alien-human hybrid little boy, who may represent the hope for the future, tells her that she will indeed save the world, only she won't be around to see it. Like Moses, she can lead humans to the Promised Land of alien liberation but can't enter it herself. Tellingly, this moment, the last in the series, plays as bittersweet rather than as deadening — it makes Molly a complex heroine with tragic stature rather than the inevitably failed female counterpart to hegemonic masculine power. Hearing this mixed-bag prediction, Molly proceeds, emboldened, to her world-saving task.
Given Braga’s considerable talent for writing world-making heroines, his misogynistic themes on Enterprise appear more vividly as a canny concession to the moods of the nation, complicity with the Bush-era rolling back of feminist power that works to challenge it at the level of premise. Enterprise is not alone, however, in its efforts to reinstall women into more comfortingly traditional roles. Several series of varying genres from the same cultural moment have striven to corral female authority through various means. Bush-era genre television shows reveal a shared nervousness about strong and powerful women. Most often, the women characters who assert themselves most boldly undergo a transformation through illness, addiction, or some other form of debilitation, that renders them more conventionally feminine, less autonomous, more “sympathetic.” The relevance of issues such as illness and addiction loses its urgency in light of the reactionary uses to which the issues are put.
On Deadwood, the enterprising, financially independent widow Alma Garrett is depicted, like Enterprise’s T’Pol, as a drug addict, as well as an adulteress; and the subservience to strong, often brutal men on the part of several of the women on the series belies their seeming strength and autonomy. In another genre it is telling that it is sexually adventurous Samantha on Sex and the City upon whom breast cancer is bestowed. The acclaimed new version of the 1970s sci-fi cult show Battlestar Galactica promisingly numbers a female President amongst its innovations, yet the President is often depicted as morally questionable (throwing Cylons, the cyborg enemies of the humans, out of the airlock), a stark contrast against the gravitas of the “Old Man,” Captain Adama of the Galactica. In addition, the President suffers from breast cancer and becomes a female mystic, replacing military authority with occult “feminine” vision.
One of the most disturbing aspects of these retrograde depictions is that they come from television shows acclaimed for their daring and their unconventionality. Deadwood has been praised for its raw realism and the garish, heady literariness of its idiolect, Sex and the City for its uncensored look at urban sex-lives, Battlestar Galactica for its uncompromising vision of a desolate future. All of these series embody a sense of the boldness of postmodern representation. Yet when examined closely they can be read, however brilliantly made and compelling, as reactionary visions of the social order that lock down rather than explore gendered and racial stereotypes.
What all of these shows, Enterprise included, have at their core is a male character to whom all the others are subservient no matter how questionable his motives or personality. Al Swearengen on Deadwood is a prime example of the new kind of male character whose despicable actions are implicitly condoned by the “complexity” of his characterization. Learning about his childhood woes (abandoned by his mother to an orphanage), we are asked to view Al not as the monster he is but as the victimized child he was. Another technique employed on Deadwood — and even more pervasively on The Sopranos — is to pit Al’s evil against a higher and more sustained evil. In comparison to other villains of the series, Al comes to seem more thoughtful, compassionate, even benign, just as Tony Soprano does in comparison to the “more” psychotic, lesser gangsters with whom he must contend.
Enterprise disappointingly rolls back feminist progress in the Trek universe, but in so doing it is far from alone in Bush-era television. It now seems like decades ago that television brimmed with shows that featured strong women characters at their center — Xena, Warrior Princess, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Voyager, Dark Angel, Witchblade, Alias. The dearth of such series today attests to the cultural shifts with which television shows are complicit.
Vulcans and the Suliban: Or, Jews and Arabs
From its inception, Trek has been an anti-racist show. The Classic Trek of the 1960s daringly offered an image of racial unity in the turbulent era of civil-rights agitation. The premise of Trek rests on constant encounter with otherness and the embrace of it. Many over the years have found this premise alternately hokey and limited; some have read a colonizing agenda in the Trekkian mythos. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, however flawed the attempts made have been, Trek has consistently attempted to promote tolerance and critique racism. For this reason, Enterprise’s depiction of race causes the greatest concern for the future of Trek.
Enterprise’s treatment of Vulcans, other than Klingons, the most famous alien Trek race, most vividly reveals the frightening ideological shifts in current Trek. Though always subject to jokes about their staunch, stoic adherence to logic, purgation of emotion, and general lack of a sense of humor (“What’s the matter, Spock, change your mind?” asks Kirk in the fourth Trek film, The Voyage Home . “No — is there something wrong with the one I have?”), Vulcans have also always been seen as a noble, highly moral race, the intellectual rationalists of the Federation.
Ever since Classic Trek, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock has been taken as a metaphor for racial Otherness, specifically for Jewishness in patriarchal white male, Christian culture. Indeed, Nimoy himself has made the connection between his Jewish identity and his portrayal as Spock. His status as “half-breed” — both Vulcan and human — intensified the theme of Spock’s loneliness and apartness. Vulcans, though, have come to seem the holy priesthood of Trek, one of the signature allies of the Federation, a race that overcame their violent history and now maintain a deeply spiritual, if utterly austere, society.
On Enterprise, however, the Vulcans are consistently, throughout the series, villainous — craven, deceitful, profoundly ungenerous, the enemy of humanity. The series makes noises about its Vulcans as pre-Classic Trek — as working towards the moral elevation they exhibit in the later series. But Enterprise’s treatment of Vulcans smacks of mysterious phobia. Given the construction of Vulcans as shadowy, duplicitous, and secretly all-powerful — they control humans, their space exploration, much of the galaxy — and the excruciatingly obvious racial allegory of the Suliban, the series seems to have made a coded version of the Jewish (Vulcan)-Arab (Suliban) conflict its chief metaphorical foundation.
Manny Coto, the creative force behind the final season of Enterprise, crafted a season that generally exhibited a less reactionary agenda than its predecessors, and even came up with some powerful and affecting episodes (“The Aenar” in particular). Despite Coto’s love for Trek and his talents, he and his team are responsible for the worst reconceptualization of Trekkian lore in Trek history. Enterprise rigs the development of the Vulcan race — their passage out of violent emotion into pure logic — as the product of Archer’s guidance. Surak, the Vulcan visionary who leads his people to their Great Awakening, from a violent, passion-driven, almost animalistic cultural to the Stoic severity it now embraces, entrusts the future of his race to Archer. An exotic and mysterious race now has a white, patriarchal Captain to thank for its greatest cultural triumph. (One has only to compare the representations of Surak in Classic Trek and Enterprise to register a profound shift in representation. The Surak who appears in the Classic Trek episode “The Savage Curtain” is clearly exotic, dark, Other; the Surak of Enterprise’s 2004 episode “The Awakening” looks like a Great White Father, a comforting emblem of bland, benign white patriarchy. )
“Bound” to archetypes
In a Season Four episode, “Bound” (2005), the crew are infiltrated by Orion slave women, pea-green sirens who drive men wild with passion and desire. However one looks at it, this is a misogynistic premise. Yet, astonishingly, Enterprise manages to resolve the situation far more conservatively than the 70s Trek did. In “Bound,” the episode strenuously bends the plot in order to allow Trip to save the day (though presumably unaffected, T’Pol and Hoshi stand around limply on the bridge as Trip dispatches the green Orion succubi).
Not so in “Bound.” The Orion thug/pimp appears to have dispatched the enslaved green women to seduce and therefore thoroughly to unman the men, thereby securing the take-over of the Enterprise — because obviously none of the women on Archer’s ship, unaffected by Orion slave girl charms, could ever pose a threat! He reveals that, contrary to popular opinion, the slave girls are the ones in control. On Orion, it is the men who are the sexual slaves! So Enterprise provides us ingeniously with the spectacle of lurid female sexuality — which the trope of enslavement reinforces, enlarges, mobilizes — and the archetypal misogynistic, compensatory legend of female carnality as female power over men, i.e., the lesser sex is truly the mightier, though it may seem otherwise.
Emblematizing neoconservative’s deployment of sexism homophobia along with racism and sexism to roll back liberal progress, “Bound” also perpetuates the extraordinary heterosexism of all the Trek series. It posits that every single male member of the Enterprise crew will fall helplessly under the sway of the Orion women’s enchanting spell. With bald unawareness of the ironies of its own storytelling biases, “Bound” features a scene in which male members of the crew pound iron together in the weight room, grunting and comparing feverish notes about their sexual frustrations, intensely enhanced by the Orion women, as rivulets of sweat pour down their gleaming, drenched hypermasculinized bodies. The homosocial was far more knowingly homoeroticized — and undercut — in nineteenth-century U.S. fiction. In Herman Melville’s story, for example, “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” the split between homosocial groups of men and women serves to highlight the disparity between the social power of men and women — the men in the story enjoy freedom and companionship, while the women, zombielike drudges, must inexorably toil away their days in a noxious paper mill.
Interestingly enough, it is the two most sexually ambiguous figures on the crew — the British, secret-spy Malcolm Reed, gleaming, chiseled, yet oddly feminized African-American Travis Mayweather — who carry on a discussion about their swelling sexual needs and pains. And the episode certainly never considers that some of the women on the ship might experience overpowering sexual desires for the Orion sirens. The Orion women, whose hypnotic dance before Archer and other male crew members suggest the jerky movements of birds (it should be remembered that Homeric sirens “are creatures with the head of a female and the body of a bird” ), represent archetypal female evil, but they are deployed on Enterprise as regulators of sexual and gendered roles.
The real Neoconservatism
One of the chief lessons provided by Enterprise is that a show can be, on the face of it, liberal and open to otherness while, upon inspection, pernicious in its pervasive ideological character. Enterprise’s commercial failure also suggests that it is precisely in its “hokey” 60s liberal values — which include the belief that exploration and the unification of diverse groups are good things — that the source of most successful Trek lies.
But I think that Enterprise also provides evidence for the alarming desire return to American origins that both covers for and is represented by the reclamation of white U.S. male power in its most masculinist form. It is little wonder that characters like Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen become pop icons in our era. They enable an audience to return to an illusory time before the strictures of “liberalism” in its politically correct form ruined everyone’s ability to speak “openly” about blacks, gays, women, and other oppressed groups. Tony, Al, and the early Jonathan Archer of Enterprise spoke out explicitly against anyone not of their own raced, classed stature. The failure of Enterprise meant that Archer failed to be celebrated for his apparently refreshing racist candor, but the fact that Trek producers, desperate for a hit, gave the latest Trek this particular new xenophobic spin — that the most current incarnation of Trek could be so openly a rejection of the original’s series’ basic values — reveals a great deal about the newly traditionalized and once again overtly racist and sexist popular culture age we’re watching in.
1. I am building on the ideas developed by Daniel Leonard Bernardi in his provocative study Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998). Bernardi argues that Trek mounts an ideal of whiteness that has broad political and cultural implications — that the Trekkian vision is one in which non-white races conform to a white ideal. Bernardi examines TNG primarily, which he treats as neo-conservative in ideological character. Enterprise seems the chilling fulfillment of neoconservative tendencies in Trek, which are always at war with its formerly predominant progressive values.
2. Hoberman, J., The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (New York: The New Press, 2003), 265
3. See Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), 62.
4. See Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.
5. “Not yet embracing science fiction films as an art form or as a medium for social comment, American society yawned at Star Trek. In retrospect, Star Trek's creator and contributors appear in many respects to have been unsung heroes, bravely saying through poetry what few others were saying in prose. .... [But for Star Trek's fans,] Star Trek was *real.* Star Trek *meant* something. Star Trek spoke the *truth.* Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were ... flesh and blood people who could serve as role models. .... [The show's intergalactic conflicts were] fights for human rights, human freedom, and human destiny.” Robert Asa, “Classic Star Trek and the Death of God: A Case Study of ‘Who Mourns for Adonais?’” Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture, eds. Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), 34.
6. See Bernardi, especially Chapter Four.
7. Even more decisively than Bernardi, Kent A. Ono finds in Trek the master narratives of colonialism and empire. He argues that The Next Generation produces a unique space wherein viewers may imagine the continuous recreation of empire through the simultaneous articulation and elimination of difference.” See Ono, “Domesticating Terrorism: A Neocolonial Economy of Différance,” Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek eds. Taylor Harrison et al (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1996), 157. For an opposing perspective to both Bernardi and the Ono views, see Michele Barrett and Duncan Barrett, Star Trek: The Human Frontier (New York: Routledge, 2001), who argue that all the Trek series and films productively and daringly explore the nature and mysteries of “the human.”
8. James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Penguin, 2004), 90-91.
9. Richard Chase, Herman Melville ( New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), vii.
10. Thomas Schaub, American Fiction in the Cold War (Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1991), 7-11.
11. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, (1923; reprint, New York: Doubleday, 1951), 63.
12. To be fair, Manny Coto, who oversaw the show’s final season, seemed determined to right some of the series’ multivalent wrongs, and he gave Hoshi some of her best moments, albeit in the penultimate episode of the series, “Terra Prime,” in which Hoshi unflinchingly takes command. Sadly, the other great Hoshi moments occur for a different character: in “In a Mirror Darkly, Part II,” evil Mirror-Hoshi takes command in the end. This two-parter’s use of Hoshi unfortunately conforms to dragon-lady Asian-woman stereotypes, thereby undermining the effort to enlarge Hoshi’s role.
13. See Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993).
14. Cited in Jonathan Culler’s 1982 On Deconstruction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1994), 51–52. See also Fetterley’s The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1978).
15. “I have mixed feelings about all that. It was very difficult for me to justify. Why would T'Pol want to do this to herself? Why are emotions so important to her? I felt that she lost herself there. She lost her culture, she lost her person–she lost T’Pol. She even lost her reputation!” “T’Pol to Evolve in Season Four, Says Actress,” http://scifipulse.net/Trek%20Archive/September2004/JoleneBlalock.html
16. See Bernardi, 140-2.
17. For a visual comparison, see pictures of Surak then and now at Star Trek.Com:
18. In an episode of Trek’s early 1970s Trek Animated Series, which aired on Saturday mornings for a children’s audience, “The Lorelai Signal,” written by Margaret Armen, the crew is also besieged by siren-like women. The male principles — Kirk, Spock, McCoy — are all entrapped by the siren-women, who deplete them of energy. In “The Lorelai Signal,” Uhura and Nurse Chapel beam down to the siren-planet and save the crew, an especially thrilling resolution given the paucity of opportunities for the female characters, especially Nichelle Nichol’s beloved Uhura, and the women who played them, on Classic Trek. While one can easily grimace at seeing the TAS women being sicked on other women — underrepresented Uhura and Chapel come into their own by attacking predatory women — the radicalism of seeing them swing into action provides partial compensation.
19. “In Greek mythology, the Sirens are creatures with the head of a female and the body of a bird. They lived on an island (Sirenum scopuli; three small rocky islands) and with the irresistible charm of their song they lured mariners to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island (Virgil V, 846; Ovid XIV, 88). The Argonauts escaped them because when he heard their song, Orpheus immediately realized the peril they were in. He took out his lyre and sang a song so clear and ringing that it drowned the sound of those lovely fatal voices. When on another journey Odysseus' ship passed the Sirens, he had the sailors stuff their ears with wax. He had himself tied to the mast for he wanted to hear their beautiful voices. The Sirens sang when they approached, their words even more enticing than the melody. They would give knowledge to every man who came to them, they said, ripe wisdom and a quickening of the spirit. Odysseus' heart ran with longing but the ropes held him and the ship quickly sailed to safer waters (Odyssey XII, 39). Homer mentions only two sirens, but later authors mention three or four. They were regarded as the daughters of Phorcys, or the storm god Achelous. According to Ovid, they were nymphs and the play-mates of Persephone. They were present when she was abducted and, because they did not interfere, Demeter changed them into birds with female faces (Ovid V, 551).” “‘Sirens’,”by Micha F. Lindemans, Encyclopedia Mythica, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/s/sirens.html
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.