Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Secular Postmillennialism

Philip Tallon (PhD, Saint Andrews) is the author of The Poetics of Evil and the co-editor of The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. He’s on Twitter sometimes @philiptallon.

In high school I was an avid Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, so one of my great pleasures this last year was rewatching the bulk of TNG on Netflix Watch Instantly. Revisiting the show 20 years later – now living in a future conquered by Kardashians – one appreciates the leisurely, polite tone of the series. Roddenberry’s innocent vision of the future is a nice reminder of a more innocent past. There’s no cursing or bitchslapping to protect my kids from. My 5-year-old can play in the room while I watch the Enterprise’s crew of amicable, sexless workaholics solve space puzzles.

But many of the shortcomings of the show are clearer now than they were at the time. The writers’ failure to take the ‘science’ part of ‘science fiction’ seriously is glaring. Despite dropping in words like “photon” or “phase” or “field” into the mix, the scienc-y words are all about equivalent to the spells from Harry Potter. Data’s behaviour is also randomly robotic. He can’t feel emotion and can’t use the word ‘can’t’ but he seems to have a fairly robust understanding of axiology. The show never takes Data’s dilemmas all that seriously. How exactly can one grasp complex moral situations without understanding the emotion of love? In this regard Alien’s occasionally-evil android seems a much more realistic exploration.

But the biggest weakness of the show, and also its most interesting feature, is the blindingly optimistic, early-Clinton-era picture of the 24th century. In painting such a sunny mural of the future, Star Trek stands against the prevailing premillennial imagination. In an age of sacred and secular catastrophe narratives (be they antichrist-, alien-, zombie-, virus-, or ape-induced), Star Trek occurs in a fictional world where the problems of the universe are short-lived and solvable. Things are always looking up. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry seems to be in agreement with liberal theologian Shirley Jackson Case, who wrote, “Viewed in the long perspective of the ages, man’s career has been one of actual ascent. Instead of growing worse, the world is found to be growing constantly better.”[1]

Here’s just one example, taken from Times Arrow, Part II.” Counselor Deanna Troi has travelled back to the early 1900s and is talking to Mark Twain (long story):

Troi: “Poverty was eliminated on Earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it – hopelessness, despair, cruelty…

Twain: “Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace and power is an end unto itself, and you’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?!”

Troi: “That’s right.”

Twain: “Hmm…maybe…it’s worth giving up cigars for after all.”

Just note this for a moment, the show is claiming that after the elimination of poverty, hopelessness, despair, and cruelty disappeared. The show is saying that if we just had a food replicator and holodecks, all our problems would be solved.

It’s this kind of strong hope in progress that elevates the optimistic outlook of Star Trek to the realm of the metaphysical. TNG’s space explorers are, in a sense, exploring heaven. Freed from vicissitudes of economic scarcity, humanity simply sets its mind toward pure science and diplomacy, nothing more. This is the “theology” of progress, described well by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart in Hope Against Hope,

The idea of progress combines some sense of an immanent tendency towards utopia, inherent in the historical process, and a sense of human power through reason and technology to control the future…Transcendence, in other words, is replaced by immanent teleology and by human rationality and freedom. Together these surmount the terror of the future which had previously been avoided by trust in God.[2]

What all this is, of course, is a species of postmillennial eschatology, derived from one strain Christian tradition, with the theology carved out and patched with technology.[3] A robust postmillennial eschatology was of course respectable enough for the likes of Jonathan Edwards, the Wesleys, and the Princeton theologians. And though hopes of a progressive spread of God’s kingdom were shattered for many by the horrors of the 20th century, forms of it still thrive. (The Chinese church’s Back to Jerusalem Movement for instance.)

What is much less respectable is the secular alternative, which has to posit a naive picture of a human person who sins only due to ignorance or want. And has to posit a naive narrative of post-industrial “progress.” Post Hiroshima, post internet, post clinical abortion, post HFCS, post Enron, post email, post Goldman Sachs, it is very very difficult now to make a straight-faced argument for the unalloyed good of technological mastery. Contra Deanna Troi, poverty’s elimination among the elites of Wall Street did nothing to check their greed and corruption. Again, as Bauckham and Hart argue, 20th- and 21st-century innovations don’t point toward TNG’s eschaton:

Technological development and economic growth have increased rather than decreased inequality, both within the affluent countries of the West, and in the economic relationships of the West with the rest of the world… [In the scientific community] the scientistic myth of unambiguous progress through scientific and technological domination of nature is still the ideological context in which too many practicing scientists think. The desultory and far too rare discussions of a whole range of developments in bio-engineering in recent years have shown how far scientists pursuing their own research cannot comprehend the well-founded doubts and fears of many of the public.[4]

Despite the disappointments of modernism, the hallowed “future” still hangs out there like a golden ring for many. Secular postmillennial hope is of course quite common in senior common rooms, librarian conventions, Ham radio societies, and the hallowed halls of the internet. The New Atheism reads like Star Trek fan philosophy. Politics lives and dies by it.

But it is worth noting again postmillennialism is uncommon in our entertainments. Big screens, small screens, audiobooks, and graphic novels are crawling with vampires, superviruses and ecological disasters now. The rarity of Star Trek’s optimism makes it a delicacy, like Romulan ale. The dominance of catastrophic fantasies about the end of the world perhaps suggests that our nightmares have a better sense of our human situation than our daydreams.



[1] Cited in Donald G. Bloesch, The Last Things (Downer’s Grove, IL, 2004), 103.

[2] Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), 14.

[3] By postmillennialism here I mean to evoke the notion that the kingdom of God will arrive through the work of the church before the second coming of Christ. Its secular alternative is just that we’re getting to the kingdom one policy/invention/protest/artwork at a time.

[4] Ibid., 18-19.

4 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Philip, thanks for this great post. I think you are right on the mark to point towards the metaphysical implications of Star Trek’s unrealistic optimism about the future. On this point, I think Next Generation may be the best example. DS9, Voyager and Enterprise seem to me to involve characters and scenarios where the cracks beneath the veneer of perfection are allowed to show (Tom Paris, for example, is a convicted criminal and he has a very strained relationship with his father). Nevertheless, the hopefulness about the future and the potential of humankind is always close to the surface.

    I do wonder about your characterization of Data in this post. You write that “The show never takes Data’s dilemmas all that seriously. How exactly can one grasp complex moral situations without understanding the emotion of love? In this regard Alien’s occasionally-evil android seems a much more realistic exploration.” I have never seen Alien, so maybe this robot is a more realistic exploration of human love. But I don’t think I can agree with your claim that the show doesn’t take Data’s dilemmas very seriously. Many of the episodes revolve around Data’s dilemma’s. In the episode “The Offspring,” for example, Data creates a daughter, Lal, and the show centers around the complexity of this father-daughter relationship, and the border between life and technology. In “Time’s Arrow,” which you mention, Data is confronted with the confusing knowledge of his death in the past, and the other characters seemed concerned (Data, of course, does not because he experiences no emotion). Could elaborate what you mean by the show not taking Data’s dilemmas seriously?

    In regards to Data’s character being an exploration of love, it seems to me that Star Trek achieves this brilliantly because Data experiences no emotion. Data becomes a surrogate for the viewer who is allowed to try to understand love through a character who has no grasp of the subject. Furthermore, Data’s character calls into question whether love is an emotion, and to what extent emotion is necessary for loving. Also, does your opinion of Data change after he receives the “emotion chip”? With the chip, his behavior is more erratic.

  • Julia says:

    Not sure which episode but technological advancement was not put forward as only reason for the somewhat ‘heavenly’ situation aboard the Enterprise. Several times the comment was made that people were now free to pursue their interests and develop themselves accordingly. This was freedom was not just a result of future technology, but the realisation that in order to serve, one had to follow one’s heart.

  • Matthew Linder says:

    As I kid watching “TNG” this is why I loved the show because it was so optimistic, thinking that if man can get his act together and use technology for the betterment of mankind then everything would be okay. Though, I had sense as child that peace would never occur in this way. I think we all yearn for that pre-fall world and try to find it in places other than in the narrative of redemptive history where the consummation of the Kingdom will come through Christ. As you point out in your article (and as I recall from the Trek series which followed, “DS9”, “Voyager”, “Enterprise”), “TNG” was the final Trek to embody the modernist philosophy of continual technological progression equals solving the human condition. With “DS9” you have that Trek meta-narrative dismantled and the answers to life’s questions are not always clear as they were in the previous Trek series. I think it would be interesting to explore the post-modern aspects of post-TNG Star Trek and if there were any signs of moving Trek in this direction near the end of “TNG”. Anyways insteresing article.

  • Kevin C. Neece says:

    Technology alone cannot account for the progress portrayed in Star Trek. The human evolution Star Trek is concerned with is primarily a moral and spiritual one. I agree that the image of an Earth without poverty and therefore without conflict, greed, etc. is unrealistic. Many of Star Trek’s own writers felt this way and sometimes clashed with Gene a bit for this reason.

    But, I see in Gene’s optimism a hope for the redemption of humankind that, to me, reflects our innate longing for the restoration brought by Christ. Re-contextualizing its vision of humankind’s future in this way helps me to see the good that Star Trek is getting at beyond the sometimes frail means it thinks will get us there.

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