STAR TREK: Cultural Critique in Science Fiction

In his “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, Nicholas Evan Sarnatakes reflects on the Original Series as a geopolitical discussion of Cold War events. Thus, he presents the show as a medium to critique U.S. foreign policy and to promote democracy, tolerance, and self-determination. For instance, the episode “Mirror, Mirror,” which aired on October 6, 1967, explores the themes of American moral superiority and responsibility.

In the episode, the Starship Enterprise requests to operate the mines on the planet Halkon. However, when the Halkonians refuse, the delegation from the Enterprise leaves (despite their military supremacy). A freak storm then transports the crew members to an alternate universe, in which they serve an “evil empire” (82) that promotes violence and force to achieve power. Once the heroes manage to return to their original situation, the Starship Enterprise leaves the orbit, respecting the Halkonians’ decision.

This episode serves as a powerful defense of democracy and self-determination. The premise of an alternate universe enables an apt juxtaposition of the values of the Federation, representing the U.S., and those of the “evil empire,” representing American geopolitical rivals like the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the episode goes beyond the binary rationale of the Cold War and creates a sense of responsibility for American moral superiority. Sarantakes points out that “the message […] is that a democratic country like the United States is […] better than its autocratic rival, the Soviet Union, and that U.S. foreign policy should reflect these merits” (83). Thus, U.S. foreign policy is held to a standard of American excellence: the show promotes an ethical, democratic, and anti-colonial approach to foreign policy.

The use of science fiction to convey these political messages is particularly apt, since it enabled the show’s producers touch on divisive issues without facing controversy or backlash. Further, the idea of using a narrative to commentate on geopolitical events is very effective, since the episodes’ storylines make it possible for producers and writers to ‘show’ rather than just ‘tell’. For instance, the embodiment of the Soviet Union through the Klingons gives American rivals a concrete face instead of just an abstract description. Therefore, the use of science fiction and fantasy writing often self-consciously serves as a cultural critique. Another such example is the Start Wars franchise, which heavily references World War II and the Nazi regime.



2 thoughts on “STAR TREK: Cultural Critique in Science Fiction”

  1. You make a great point about how Science Fiction allowed the producers of the shows to touch on sensitive topics without getting in trouble themselves, or not being able to even share the episode. I also really like how you talk about how they are given the power to “show” the American people who the enemy is rather than just the “tell” of the stories they had heard about the horrors of communism. By relating the enemy in real life to the enemy in people’s favorite shows it created a unity and patriotism against that enemy.


  2. I really like your point mentioning the standard of American Excellence that US Foreign Policy is held at and how it’s represented in the show. Your subsequent point on the power given to the producers because of their ability to broadcast their political commentary on an international level is strong as well. I agree that “showing” is very different than “telling”. The writers and producers behind Star Trek have the ability to “show” stories of horror similar to those surrounding communism. This is very different than newscasts, which, as you explained, just “tell”.


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