Monday, September 22, 2008

The Anthropology of Star Trek

Ever since the newer incarnations of the TV series Star Trek evolved from the “recycled” prop and set portrayal of alien cultures in the original series only made the franchise better. But can it pass muster a cultural anthropologist’s peer review?

By: Vanessa Uy

The cultural anthropologist Franz Boas has shaped modern anthropology by emphasizing the collection of facts about primitive cultures, instead of resorting to mere speculation. But when it comes to the study of alien or extraterrestrial cultures that live on planets maybe light-years away from us, one can’t help but resort to mere speculation since the technology that allows us to travel to this worlds might still be centuries off. Yet this hasn’t stop science fiction authors from transforming mere speculation into one of the best-loved forms of literature in the past 200 years.

When the science fiction visionary Gene Roddenberry conceptualized the alien beings and their cultures populating on one of his famous works like Star Trek. He did so with an uncannily believable accuracy that many of Roddenberry’s fans probably think that he works as a university-tenured anthropologist as his day job. By just using the data collected by cultural anthropologists of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Gene Roddenberry populated his Star Trek universe with beings that are not only pass muster as speculative anthropological constructs of an organized culture. But also as accurate predictive models of our own still-existing-somewhat-primitive-cultures evolving without outside help into a space-faring civilization.

Take for instance the Vulcans, which Mr. Spock – the famous science officer in the first Star Trek series – is a good example, is based on a prediction on what if post-WWII Tibet and Bhutan were allowed to evolve into a space-faring civilization without outside help or interference.

A race in the Star Trek universe that could qualify as the polar opposite to the Zen-like society of the Vulcans is the one of the Klingons. The Klingon society is based on martial bravado epitomized by their motto “Today is a good day to die”. Despite their bloodthirsty attitude, the Klingon language is probably the only fictional language used in science fiction literature that has developed like a living language. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has even been successfully translated into Klingon. Unlike the more interesting language of the Romulans with its complex system of verb roots would serve as a formidable challenge for linguists that have a “Trekkie” streak to develop. Could make that German verb wheel seems like child’s play by comparison.

Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Ferengi is also one of the most interesting alien races inhabiting Roddenberry’s fictional Star Trek universe. Probably one of the few extraterrestrial / alien races whose creation Roddenberry oversaw before his passing in 1991. The Ferengi may not be pretty by Madison Avenue fashion-ethic standards, but their society is shaped by a ruthless business / mercantile acumen where an individual’s self-worth is measured by how much gold-pressed latinum (the Ferengi monetary standard) they have or can earn. Except that they take their chauvinism to the extreme. Ferengi women are not only subservient they have to chew first the food of the Ferengi men they are indentured to. Also they do not let their women wear clothes which to other races tolerate since Ferengi’s keep their women sequestered in their homes.

But to me the most interesting alien race of all in the Star Trek universe is the Kreetassans. The Kreetassans debuted on the Star Trek TV 's (I hope not) final franchise Enterprise and are well-known for their relatively “eccentric” customs compared to ours like eating in public to a Kreetassan is taboo. Since most Star Trek writers at this point probably pass muster as university tenured cultural anthropologist, the way they created the Kreetassans’ homeworld’s architectural structure. Especially of their buildings is really reminiscent of what might have happened if Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest region were allowed to independently develop into a space faring civilization.

Sadly, Star Trek writers have not yet created an alien civilization who developed in the southern hemisphere of an Earth-like planet and possessing analog watches / steam gauges that move counter-clockwise. Sadder still, Enterprise was forced to end due to lack of viewer support and escalating costs of production. I wonder how Star Trek writers would have shoehorned into the Star Trek universe the recent Mecca Mean Time controversy as a launching pad for a very interesting Star Trek TV episode?


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