“There is nothing like Star Trek.” Thus began Thomas Richards’ 1997 book “The Meaning of Star Trek.”
Undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and long-lasting science-fiction franchises in the history of television — 2016 marks its 50th anniversary — “Star Trek: The Original Series” and its various spinoffs have enjoyed enormous successes over the last 50 years.
“Of all the universes of science-fiction, the Star Trek universe is the most varied and extensive, and by all accounts the series is the most popular science-fiction franchise ever,” Richards writes.
But why? What is it about Star Trek that attracts and has sustained audiences for more than 40 years? What does the series mean in and of itself? That is what Richards attempts to answer in this book. In this respect, he has mostly succeeded.
Though mostly enjoyable to read with many insightful analyses, “The Meaning of Star Trek” is really intended for people who are already among the fandom. This is not a book for the casual viewer: Many of its strongest arguments would only make sense to the reader who has already seen the episodes in question.
To be fair, the purpose of his book is interpretive, and as with all literary interpretations, it’s based on as much opinion as observation.
A further caveat: “The Meaning of Star Trek” is mostly based on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Richards has done so because the second incarnation of Star Trek represents Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Federation in its full maturity. He even goes so far as to say “The Next Generation” is far truer to Roddenberry’s original vision of the show.
The book offers in-depth analysis about everything from the application of the Prime Directive to the dynamics of balance of power. Richards’ analyses of the various episodes are interesting without sounding too academic. He does a good job of bridging classic literature such as Homer’s “Iliad” to a popular science-fiction television show like Star Trek.
Throughout the book, one theme remains consistent: Star Trek’s adamance toward the primacy of the individual. Indeed, the insistence that the focus of all analysis rests on individual characters seems to run like one long Capt. Picard speech extolling the virtues and rights of the self. This does not detract from the wittiness of the analysis itself: Some of the most memorable episodes have involved conflict not between the Federation and its various enemies, but between Picard and his counterparts from the many empires that surrounds the Federation (from Gul Madred to Cmdr. Tomolok).
Richards argues that Star Trek often extends the ordinary boundaries of science-fiction.
“Where many other science-fiction gives us monsters, Star Trek gives us fully realized alien cultures like the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians and Borg,” Richards writes. “Where many other science-fiction aim at an epic sweep, Star Trek exhibits an uncanny mastery of minute detail.”
One of the main criticism of the sci-fi genre is that it focuses on the universe that the characters inhabit, but not on the characters themselves. Star Trek takes us through an examination of the inner lives of its main characters in almost every episode. Character development has always been something that sci-fi is not very good at, but which Star Trek excels in.
My final assessment of “The Meaning of Star Trek” is generally positive. Though many points in his arguments do not resonate with me, it’s still a worthwhile read, if only to see how an English literature academic would appraise a science-fiction show like Star Trek.
As stated above, this book is targeted to people who already have more than a passing liking to Star Trek and literature, so if there are Trekkies you know, this is the book for them.