Beam me up, Rev. Scotty
Star Trek's religious themes boldly go where no TV show has gone before
David Gerrold, a science-fiction novelist and one of the writers for the original Star Trek series, has called the over-franchised universe of Trek "the McDonald's of science fiction." The Trek franchise includes not only four spinoff series and feature films, but over a hundred novels, dozens of computer games, and, most recently, nonfiction books such as: "Life Signs: The Biology of Star Trek," "The Physics of Star Trek," "Is Data Human? The Metaphysics of Star Trek," "Make it So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek," and "All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek." "Religions of Star Trek" is the latest contribution.
Despite its roots in Gene Roddenberry's secular worldview, Star Trek is a surprisingly religious universe. In "Religions of Star Trek," the authors explore the various faiths and religious themes found in the popular series. They posit that the writers of Trek use "scientific and humanistic frames to discuss transformations that have traditionally been understood through the lens of spiritual and religious concepts."
The six chapters in the book use examples from various episodes to explore a question or religious theme: Is There God in the Universe? What Evil Lurks Beyond the Stars? Shamans, Prophets, Priests, and Mystics: Star Trek's Religious Specialists; Enterprise Engaged: Mythic Enactment and Ritual Performance; What Happens When You Die? Can Science Save One's Soul?
What's notable about this book is the authors' use of comparative religions to explore the themes of religion in Trek, touching upon Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Shinto, among others.
In the chapter on mythic enactment, for instance, the authors analyze Captain Picard's encounter with a probe that knocks him unconscious and enables him to experience an entire lifetime on a once thriving planet. The authors conclude that Picard's alternate-life experience in "The Inner Light" episode "parallels breakthrough tales that abound throughout many traditions, particularly in South Asia." After his alternative life, he becomes more self-reflective, less arrogant. He has received a religious experience that makes him question how he lives. He has glimpsed some kind of truth beyond his everyday world as captain of the Enterprise.
Yet, one of the problems with this book is that the authors do not go deep enough in their analysis of particular episodes and their religious themes. They present a quick overview of the religious ideas they want to explore in each chapter and then proceed to examine several different examples without exploring any one of them very significantly.
For example, the authors touch upon Zarathustra's revelations from Ahura Mazda, wherein he perceives the "world as divided into the Followers of the Truth and the Followers of the Lie." Yet, this fascinating idea is never fully developed or explored within the context of how it could be explicated through the universe of Star Trek.
Religious questions Â- especially as they're expressed in popular culture Â- need careful analysis in order to reveal their deeper implications in society.
Â Kurt Lancaster is the author of "Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performances in a Media Universe."