The Deeper Side of Trek: Galaxy of the Elite?
By Jamahl Epsicokhan
September 1, 2000
Note: This article was originally published as a freelance piece for Space.com. They have removed the article from their website, so I've reposted it here.
So where are all the average Joes and Janes? I've been through the Star Trek canon and back, and I've found that the visible Trek universe (or at least the parts where humans live) is for the most part a pretty elite place. Most of the important characters are captains, high-ranking officers, experts in engineering, ace pilots, and so forth. So where are the plumbers? City-to-city shuttlepod drivers? Blue-collar factory workers? People performing manual labor? Do they exist in the 23rd and 24th centuries? If so, where?
For the moment, let's talk just about humans and Earth in particular, since we've seen a certain amount of gritty turmoil outside humanity that exists for larger story purposes — the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, for example.)
Perhaps the easiest assumption would be that technology on thriving planets like Earth has taken over many tasks involving physical labor. Assembly lines would presumably be even more automated than they are today, requiring less human intervention. Robots could perform the tasks that many would call mundane, leaving the door open for people to pursue loftier goals.
Of course, that brings us back to the question of what drives the Federation's economy, if there is one. (Trek has claimed that money doesn't exist on Earth, but some form of economics has to exist in the Federation, doesn't it?) But the nature of the Federation is another column in itself — which we will tackle comprehensively one of these days.
The point here is that, really, most of Star Trek hasn't cared to examine life's more routine tasks, because Trek is about exploring space, not about the mundane aspects of daily life. But I'd still like to take a moment to go under the surface and see if I can figure out where all the non-Starfleet non-elite are.
On The Original Series, I always found it amusing that 90 percent of the time the average Joe meant you were the expendable, nameless guy on an away mission, or someone who happened to be too close to an energy stream when the M-5 computer decided to go berserk. As you know, these guys usually wore red shirts and got vaporized, speared, blown up, struck by lightning, etc. — pick your method of untimely death. Who were these guys? The stories didn't care, because they were minor incidentals to story and who they were wasn't the point. So today we look back and laugh at the "red shirts" as a quirky franchise in-joke.
But TOS was based more around its three central characters. In the newer incarnations of Trek, we eventually got a little bit more latitude in coverage among supporting characters, and we'd occasionally get characters who were closer to ground level.
Probably best known for his status as the resident everyman was Chief Miles Edward O'Brien on The Next Generation and later Deep Space Nine. He was an enlisted man — not an officer like the vast majority of Trek characters up to that point, but an engineer whose job seemed less to define him so much as simply be a part of him. As DS9's run continued, he was the average family man that probably most people in the audience could more easily identify with. He wasn't running the operations of a war or bearing the duties of a religious icon like Captain Sisko, and when it came time for him to move on, he took up a teaching job and returned to Earth to enter a more civilian life.
Trek tends to see things in a chain-of-command sort of way, which is why one of my favorite episodes of The Next Generations is seventh season's "Lower Decks," about four junior officers on the Enterprise who watch as a larger authority deals with a diplomatic crisis. It was a rare glimpse at the other end of the chain of command.
Last season on Voyager featured another rare-but-welcome example in "Good Shepherd," about misfit crewman, including one whose work performance was significantly under par.
Which is something else we rarely see. Very few people on Trek are portrayed as underskilled or incompetent. They generally are powerful, competent people. This is understandable, but given the real world where it takes all kinds, I find myself wondering, what happens to the people who aren't up to Starfleet standards? Where do they go? Just what exactly is the standard of education on Earth, anyway? High, presumably, but not everyone can be getting straight-A's.
Human society: Just how perfect can it be?
Roddenberry's universe is famous for having painted a utopian view of the future, but my question is: Exactly how perfect are people in the future? The fact of competition and life is that not everyone is going to get what they want, and there have to be some losers out there somewhere, even on Earth in the 24th century. The losers in society aren't getting much exposure on Star Trek, and maybe that's because they don't make for the kind of Trek story most people are thirsting for.
Unless, of course, it's in an alternate universe. In Voyager's "Non Sequitur," Harry Kim ends up in a parallel universe where he meets an apathetic version of Tom Paris, whom Kim labels "a loser and a drunk." We don't typically get to see many citizens of Earth that match this description. The word "drunk" implies the possibility of alcoholism. Is there alcoholism among humans in the Trek universe? Perhaps medicine of the era has erased the physiological problems associated with excessive drinking. We do know that real alcohol exists and is occasionally consumed (though, it would seem, less frequently than synthehol, a concept I still don't entirely understand). For that matter, who smoked the last cigarette in recorded human history? What are the real vices of the 24th century?
And what about divorce? Is everyone happily married or happily single? In the parallel timeline of TNG's finale, "All Good Things..." Picard and Crusher had been married ... and divorced. I'm not entirely sure, but it could very well be the only mention of divorce in the Trek canon.
Maybe this is all just pointless (but hopefully interesting) rhetoric. If we want to see those kinds of mundane issues, we'd turn on a TV show set in contemporary time, wouldn't we?
But you can't look me in the eye and tell me that even in 2360 there's no crime. Sure, there may be a lot less of it, but who is committing crime and why? Sure, we'll get a rogue murder mystery, but it's generally at the hands of a sci-fi problem or at the very least the mentally disturbed (the Vulcan killer in DS9's "Field of Fire" or Ensign Suder in Voyager's "Meld").
An early scene in Voyager's pilot episode, "Caretaker," features Janeway making a deal to get Paris out of a prison colony in New Zealand. If prisons exist, it follows that so does crime. But where, what type, and why? We may never know.
And if there's no economy as we know it, I'd like to know what it is that motivates the average citizen (if we can define such a thing) to get out of bed every morning and do something productive. Does Sisko's father, a chef in New Orleans, open his restaurant and serve customers for free? That's pretty noble. How are people being compensated for their time? Is the work alone really enough? Part of me seems to doubt it.
This all plays like the old cliche of whether a tree in the forest has really fallen if no one was there to hear it. If we never see the non-elite population of human and Federation society, is it really there? And if it is, how does it work?
I'm inclined to say that as far as Star Trek is concerned, just barely.