Gimme That Star Trek Ep.4: The Philosophy of Star Trek

Secular humanism, scientific curiosity, the Prime Directive, and IDIC – Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations – this is the philosophy of Star Trek that became so important to what many Trekkies became as people. Among them, Fire & Water’s Siskoid and Pulp2Pixels’ Dr. G Man of Nerdology. Let’s listen in…

Listen to Episode 4 below!

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Credits:“Star Trek Theme” by Alexander Courage, with the mellifluous tones of the Irredeemable Shagg. End theme: “Deep Space Nine Theme” by Dennis McCarthy.

Bonus clips from: Star Trek’s “Return to Tomorrow” starring William Shatner; and “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” starring Diana Muldaur and Leonard Nimoy; as well as Star Trek The Next Generation’s “Pen Pals” starring Patrick Stewart, Diana Muldaur, Michael Dorn, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner; and “The Measure of a Man” starring Patrick Stewart and Brian Brophy.

And thanks for leaving a comment!

18 responses to “Gimme That Star Trek Ep.4: The Philosophy of Star Trek

  1. Enjoyed this episode and discussion immensely. I’m pretty sure it was the combo of bold color silliness and thoughtful, humanistic ideals is what drew me to the show at a young age (I used to watch the reruns on Saturdays with my Dad, one of my favorite past times).

    As someone who is also not at all religious, I have always wondered what the proof of intelligent alien life would do to the world’s major religions, since they (AFAIK) base much of their belief systems on the idea a Supreme Being created life here on Earth, and that’s IT. We’re special. So what happens when we learn we’re not?

    I liked Gautam’s suggestion that, once the Bible includes info electrons, then we can start teaching Creationism in science class. Seems fair.

    Great show all around–and while I did not comment on it, last week’s with ArtGirl was great as well, and she was a very good guest.

  2. I have a feeling that I’m going to come at this a little differently than most people, as I am a religious person. Being a Polytheist, though, I know that I don’t have a corner on Capital T Truth. I agree that the world’s major religions, at least the strict constructionists, would have a hard time with intelligent alien life, as Rob said. Those of my ilk, however, know that there’s more beyond our sphere, so we’d probably be alright with it.

    One thing that I need to take issue with, at least where The Original Series is concerned, is the assertion that Star Trek left all “non-proven” religions behind. The one blatant example of this is in “Bread and Circuses” when Uhura states that the Sun cult was actual a Son cult, for the Son of God. The way that line is delivered, it’s as if she was stunned that no one had made that connection already, meaning that Uhura was, at the very least, a practicing Christian.

    That does not invalidate the world view that everyone has a personal point of view that should be respected, and that all beings are equal in potential, which is at the core of Roddenberry’s philosophy. In fact, I think it strengthens it. You have at least Uhura and Kira, who are religious, and other characters who are decidedly not, and they all work together just fine. There’s not friction caused by that on it’s own, which is the way things ought to be. I have my beliefs, you have yours, and we’re all happy with that. It’s when one says that their way is the “best” or “only” way, and everyone should follow that where problems arise.

    The discussion of whether or not more diversity equates to more hymoginization was an interesting one. I think that happens if you take it too far. Giving everyone an equal shot doesn’t mean that everyone should have equal results. Trying to force it, like Sisko trying to get Jake to go into Starfleet, will result in either rebellion or resentment. The fact that Sisko didn’t realize he was doing it is indicative that, even though he’s seen so much and has such a diverse group of friends, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of “this is how we’ve always done it.”

    It’s the same with the interactions with the Ferengi on DS9. Saying that Quark will always do X because he’s a Ferengi is rather blantantly racist, but most people accept it because it’s not against a human. It wasn’t until Quark challenged Sisko about it that it was brought to light that, yes, even supposedly enlightened humans can still be caught in that trap. It’s not enough to say “I like IDIC”, you actually have to work at it, on a personal level, every day to avoid falling backwards. Like choosing to not kill today, you also need to choose to not be prejudgiced today.

    Sorry for the length of this comment, but this is the kind of discussion that I absolutely love. Just ask Alan & Emily with all the emails I send them for “From Dorkness to Light”. 😀

    1. Oh yes, the Sun/Son thing on the Roman planet, and Uhura’s comment. That’s what I was struggling to remember when I said TOS did in fact namedrop the Big G (and I’m sure Kirk did too, if more offhandedly). We could also mention the Hindu religious festival observed on the Enterprise-D in “Data’s Day”. Human faiths aren’t as dead as the show sometimes makes it out to be from TNG on. And alien faiths are quite alive, whether it be the Bajorans’, the Klingons’ or the Ferengi (to name the best explored). You bring good points to the table.

      And yes yes definitely yes, you have to work at IDIC (or any set of values). They’re not a given. They are a struggle, and what gives us, for lack of a better phrase, grace. That’s why these shows again and again TEST the characters’ ethics and resolve. When they make the correct choice, it is a HEROIC act.

  3. It is rare that I get so much out of a podcast.

    One of the biggest differences between Star Wars and Star Trek for me on a personal level is that Star Wars is more about the adventure and the fighting while Star Trek was always more about the writes and producers exploring philosophical concepts through science fiction. Star Trek certainly has action and Star Wars does have its share of philosophy and I enjoy when both properties go down those roads but when I watch Star Trek I realized I am just as invested in what the movie or the episode is about and how it impacts the characters whereas I am more concerned how the characters in Star Wars are going to get out of whatever scrape they are in. This is a generalization and as we all know generalizations are always bad but that’s how it is most of the time.

    When I saw this episode was going to explore those philosophies I got really excited. I like Siskoid. I like Dr. G It seemed like a lock and it was but I didn’t realize how much it was going to make me examine my own feelings on the universe around me. Like Siskoid I was raised Catholic (my confirmed name is Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes because I felt that was appropriate for me when I was 13) and also like Siskoid I walked away from that faith. I did not go down the atheist road and remain a pretty hardcore agnostic though I don’t begrudge those that have a religious faith nor do I begrudge those that don’t as long as either side isn’t a jackass about it. I listened as Siskoid and Dr. G explained their own beliefs and I found them compelling and it made me reexamine my own view of life, the universe and all that jazz.

    So thank you for that.

    One of the other things this episode did was remind me that I stand apart from the segment of Trekkies that dislike the Next Generation and Captain Picard because of how he would have what were essentially staff meetings to discuss whatever the threat or problem was facing the Enterprise that week. Some see this as a sign of weakness because Kirk would just do what he thought was right and while that is entertaining and I get that it’s part of the gestalt of Kirk I always liked that Picard would open up the floor for debate. The clip that was played where everyone was debating what to do about Data’s friend was a great example of that. There is no weakness in getting other viewpoints. If the threat is immediate you act but if it isn’t hearing everyone out is to me the sign of a good leader so long as that leader is confident in the final decision they make.

    It is also a nice narrative tool and allows your ensemble cast to shine a bit while also furthering their characterization, but that’s nuts and bolts type of stuff.

    I don’t fault those that like the double fisted punch of Kirk but I identify more with Picard and his management style.

    I will say that time Janeway dissed Kirk was BS but that’s an argument for another time.

    Great episode. Thanks for helping me get through my shift and for giving me a lot of food for thought.

    1. Not everyone will thank you for making them reexamine their lives, you sir, are a real gentleman.

      And yes, I was happy to find that scene in the otherwise problematic “Pen Pals”, as it did what we were essentially doing, debating the merits of the Prime Directive and other ethical dilemmas. I used to have (maybe I still do but I haven’t come across it in years) a book about Picard’s management style (it’s not Make It So, damn, what was the title of that?) and I do agree that he’s a better leader than Kirk, for our time, anyway. That said, I know I’m more of a Sisko. Shouty and stuff.

      1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Kirk was a great leader for the original series because he fit into the paradigm of that time period. Straight forward, two fisted leaders were the way to go and you could transpose that to the 23rd Century needing that sort of leadership. Things were different in the 24th Century. We were allies with the Klingons and everything. A new style of Captain was needed for those times.

        And Sisko was great. A good frontier captain.

  4. A fantastic episode. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to one that prompted so much self-examination. I was raised Southern Baptist, then became Methodist. I never found much contradiction between the philosophies of Star Trek and my own faith. Maybe its because my father, who was deeply religious, encouraged me to find my own way. I was baptised relatively late, because he wanted it to be a choice I owned. I’ve always viewed the bible as part historical drama, part moral advice. I’ve never doubted the existance of witchcraft nor dubbed it inherently evil because of the story of Saul having the spirit of the prophet Samuel summoned in Kings II, as an example. I can’t accept a religious text the sweeps that under the rug and then expects belief in angels and demons. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more agnostic. Some of that has come from experiencing a more complex life as I grow older and finding the moral advice in the Bible as out of date or not capable of covering modern dilemmas, so I’ve looked to other inspirations to find my way. Some of it is a growing disenfranchisement with churches as establishments and their failings. Some of it is not being willing to discount a god (if I’m open to aliens, angels, demons, etc., it seems illogical to me to rule out a divine being), but logically if such a being exists, I think it spends little time thinking about or interacting with us, if we are even on its radar. I lost my dad last year to a mysterious respiratory ailment. I can’t fathom a divine plan that determined my father was fated to die in that exact fashion. If there is no interference or interaction with a divine being, then while it might exist, it has little impact on me. Maybe God, if it exists, follow the Prime Directive?

    1. I’m very sorry for you loss, Trey. Sometimes faith gives comfort, other times, makes one question and doubt. It’s part of the paradox, just like the idea of a just God who nevertheless oversees a lot of suffering. That’s a puzzle each of us must solve independently, and I don’t believe there’s a single solution.

      Thanks for a point of view from across the perceived divide. Things like these do show that regardless of beliefs, the human experience is universal. I sit here weeping thinking of how badly my mom suffered before the end, a woman of faith who raised us to find our own way and never judged any of us whatever we did. I gave a lot of credit to Star Trek for giving me my values, but we all know who really deserves it, don’t we? If I am forced to believe she was relegated to the void (which isn’t exactly true, she survives as a memory, something else Trek has expounded upon), I nevertheless don’t think you’re in any less pain for your father having an immortal soul. The fact of the matter is, wherever or whatever they are now, they’re not with us, nor can ever be in this lifetime, and we’re left with regrets that can’t be alleviated.

      Oh geez, I’m sorry. This answer’s gotten a little away from me.

  5. Something else I have been thinking about, because of this episode, is how Star Trek and what was shown was instrumental in pushing me towards polytheism. I, like many others, was raised Catholic, but the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-present deity never really sat well with me. Due to how I was raised, not so much from my parents, but from the church, I was under the impression that you were Catholic, or nothing. (Stupid, isn’t it?)

    So, since Catholicism didn’t work, then I toyed with being an atheist. The mental exercises that kept creeping in, through Star Trek as much as anything else, were “If you can believe in incredibly powerful beings, like the Metron, Excalabians, or Organians, why can’t you take the next step and believe in beings that are actually divine?” The ultimate answer was that I couldn’t. If those beings are possible, then other, even more powerful ones are also.

    Through much research (remember, I’m an engineer), I finally settled on being a Heathen. This makes a heck of a lot more sense to me in that the Gods are really busy, mainly trying to stave off the end of all things, so asking them to help you get a date just won’t fly. Plus, if the Norse Gods are out there, then it’s equally logical that the Greek, Hindu, and Egyptian Gods are as well. That not only makes all religious choices valid, but it also flows from Star Trek showing us that all of these are possible. Just because Kirk and company didn’t worship Apollo as a God doesn’t mean that he couldn’t fall under the definition.

    I don’t say this to try and change anyone’s mind. Quite frankly, what you believe is no concern of mine. I just wanted to state that apparently Star Trek was more responsible for my ultimate religious choice than I originally thought it was.

  6. Wonderful show – my favorite episode so far. Despite being a Trek fanatic for as long as I can remember, it was only listening to the two of you discuss its philosophical leanings that I realized just how much of an influence Star Trek has had on me, personally. I’m a vocal atheist, a secular humanist, more of a generalist than a specialist (I know a little about a lot, but a lot about very little). I’m passionate about both the arts and the sciences, and I’ve long been convinced that there is strength in diversity (both in individuals and in society at large). In short, I share many traits common among Trekkies. So, did Star Trek make all of us who we are?

    Probably not by itself, but I think Star Trek (and science fiction in general) likely helped to encourage and build the critical thinking skills many of us have used to gain an understanding of the world. Star Trek also showed us a future where (sadly unlike present day) reason and rational behaviour win out over superstition and ignorance.

    But, most importantly, it taught us all about “Kirk-Fu”, and that makes it just awesome.

  7. Enjoyed your philosophy podcast that references Star Trek. It reminds me of the lamebrained executive that recently proclaimed that the show that’s produced many hundreds of episodes across numerous long-lived series over generations of viewership doesn’t belong on television. I’d counter that the tepid response to 3-4 of the past five Star Trek films indicates that the franchise doesn’t necessarily work without a television component. This is in large part because two hours every few years isn’t enough time to explore the heavier themes and richer perspective of Star Trek. It isn’t the good guys versus the bad guys; it’s about exploration without and within, which needs room to breathe. The problem isn’t Star Trek, but CBS, because imagine how rich an HBO or Netflix or AMC show could be. That said, people need a gentle Star Trek show like TOS or TNG or even (God Help Us, & irony intended) Voyager on a widely accessible network in these times of polarization and xenophobia and anti-fact. We need to see people of different stripes working together peacefully toward a greater good than proving this ideology is greater than that one (while also stealthily indoctrinating people through its multicultural, scientific, secular ideology.)

    Serendipitously, Rolled Spine tread similar territory in our latest episode of The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast via a conversation on Satanism in the context of The Son of Satan. I personally can’t divest myself of my belief in a higher power, but I have an easier time dismissing most other related metaphysical premises, including the existence of an eternal soul or afterlife. I don’t commit acts of objective evil and I’m conscientious regarding my fellow man because I don’t want to live with the knowledge I didn’t or contribute to the injustices in the world I object to loudly and often. On the other hand, I don’t trust my fellow man to be guided by their consciences in the absence of belief in a deity of judgment, and I think those who persecute in the name of same would just use another excuse to that end.

    Finally, I think intellects need to be more proactive in combating superstition. Picketing churches or heckling from the pews would likely be too aggressive, but refusing to lend credibility to “Intelligent Design” in the classroom or arguing for religious opt-out options on the subject of evolution would be more helpful. My sympathies to Dr. G on that front.

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