A Look at Money in Star Trek - Italian Style
By Gabriella Cordone - April 15, 2011
Star Trek is a worldwide phenomenon. StarTrek.com frequently presents excerpts from the latest issue of Star Trek Magazine, which is published out of England and available internationally. And now we’re happy to announce that we’ll be running occasional theme pieces and interviews as they appeared in Inside Star Trek Magazine, the official Star Trek magazine of Italy. Today’s in-depth feature, written by Gabriella Cordone, examines the use -- or non-use -- of money in the Trek universe. The story below and subsequent Inside Star Trek Magazine features that will run on this site have been translated from Italian into English by the magazine’s editors, and we’ve lightly edited them further with an eye toward retaining their original tone and rhythm. As a result, please note that there will be bits of grammar, word choices and turns of phrase that may sound awkward.
A quiet evening aboard the space station Deep Space Nine. At Quark’s, Jadzia Dax is busy playing a passionate game of Dabo and is betting solid bars of gold pressed latinum hoping to win...
Hang on a second!
Latinum bars? And when did she earn those? As everybody knows there is no money in the Federation!
There are many evidences in favor of the use of some kind of currency, as there are many that prove that there is not even the slightest concept of money use.
Let’s see if we can sort things out!
First of all we have two premises. The first is that Gene Roddenberry had a rule -- one of those rules that the scriptwriters of Star Trek had to know and follow: in the Federation there is no money, period! Ronald D. Moore (the writer who debuted in Star Trek: The Next Generation writing “The Bonding” and is now a successful producer among whose successes there is Battlestar Galactica) remembered this rule some years ago during a web interview: Gene did not want that in his universe there was the concept of accumulating wealth, nor that money was the drive to engage in a job. The second premise is a consequence of the first: we won’t talk about Star Trek: Enterprise. Not because we don’t think it is part of the saga, but just because in the time the series is set there is no Federation yet, and so any reference to money could not be an evidence (in favor nor against).
Let’s start with the Roddenberry rule. No money in the Federation! Easy to say... not so easy to do. To apply this rule was indeed a swinging process throughout the saga, starting with the Original Series, where there are many examples that lead us to think that money does exist! In “Mudd’s Women” the character of Harry Mudd is introduced for the first time, and he’s a smuggler of women, and he does that for profit. But this is not the evidence we seek, because Mudd is already himself “out” of the rules. The real surprise is that Kirk is willing to pay the Rigel XII miners to get their dilithium crystals: “I’m authorized to pay an appropriate price,” the captain says. And when the miners say they do not want to sell them, but barter them, Kirk is surprised well before he learns with what they want to swap them: Mudd’s women! Even though in the scene there is no indication of a specific currency nor the amount Kirk is authorized to give the miners, the concept of paying with money is there since this episode. The concept, therefore, is not strange to Kirk & Co.’s mind, even if you could say that money is something that has a somewhat “historical” taste: Kirk and Spock’s immediate worry, when they arrive in 30’s in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” is to gain money in order to survive, and they do it without problem. So, if in their time Starfleet officers are not paid a salary, that doesn’t mean they don’t know what money is and what it’s used for!
In the Original Series second season we are introduced to another cheap conman, Cyrano Jones, who in “The Trouble with Tribbles” is selling the tribbles of the title to the bartender of the Federation Station K7, and in the same scene we see Uhura (who is, as Chekov says, “out shopping”) who is interested in the bargaining about the furry animals...
“You will certainly want them,” says Cyrano to the Federation bartender. “Not your price!” the bartender exclaims before Uhura interrupts him, fascinated by the Tribble. “Are you buying it?” she asks. “Of course,” the bartender answers. “We were discussing the price right now!” And after a while he adds. “I buy it for one denaro...” and the bargaining goes on. In the original version the word translated in Italian with denaro is “credit,” but it is obvious watching the scene that the two are bargaining real currency! And that’s not enough. Once he agrees on the price of the Tribbles with Cyrano Jones, the bartender says: “Six denari, plus a reasonable raise for my profit, let’s say a ten percent raise... ten denari!” Cyrano Jones, in the end, gives the Tribble for free to the beautiful communication officer of the Enterprise, but we could ask ourselves: if Uhura was willing to buy it, with what had she paid it? We cannot know, because we also don’t know if the drinks Scotty and Chekov drink right before the brawl in the same episode have been paid by the two Starfleet officers or they were entitled to have them on the house because they are from the Federation (which is the “owner” of the station).
That’s an irrefutable scene in favor of the use of money within the Federation. Even though... we could argue that the station might have currency in order to welcome in an easier way those aliens who are not part of the Federation and so use money. But even if this was a special case (the bartender had been chosen because he has the strange attitude of dealing in currency), the scene postulates the existence of a system of exchange for different currencies of different civilizations, or at least some interplanetary agreement establishing the value of a currency.
It postulates an economy.
In the same season of the Original Series, in the episode “The Apple”, there is another interesting (exchange of) dialogue between Kirk and Spock, who are the quintessential representatives of the Federation created by Roddenberry. “Do you know how much Starfleet has invested in you?” Kirk asks. “Twenty-two thousand, two hun...” Spock starts to answer, but is interrupted by the captain. Had he not been interrupted, how would he have ended the sentence? What has invested Starfleet in Spock? Beans? Oranges? We have no answer, even if in many books and games (although they are not considered canon) they say ‘credits’, the same mentioned in the Tribble case. And ‘credit’ is the vaguest word to describe some sort of futuristic money. Truth to tell, in the Original Series we never see our heroes handling money, but they talk about salaries... In “The Doomsday Machine,” Kirk says to Scotty: “You just earned your pay for the week!” (which unfortunately in Italian had been distorted into “Have you ever been told that you are an angel?”). And in “Who Mourns for Adonis?” the captain says the same to Chekov (and in this case also, the original line had been changed in Italian into “A sharp comment, Mister Chekov, very good!”).
In both cases Kirk’s comments could just be a simple figure of speech, and not a reference to some sort of weekly pay that is paid to Starfleet officers, and if this was true, then it would just be evidence that the concept of money and salary is not strange to them. On the other hand, though, we never saw Kirk, Spock or McCoy use “credits” or any other sort of money to buy things or facilities, not indispensable (food, clothes) nor luxury (where do Uhura’s earrings come from? And with what McCoy paid the fine ring he shows at his finger? And is Spock’s chessboard a gift?). Without certain evidence we could say that - like the drinks on Space Station K7 - to them and to any Federation citizen, these goods are due. A difficult concept to imagine, especially because we are citizens of the 21st century where, on the contrary, money can buy everything.
When we analyze the Original Series movies things get more complicated. Everybody knows that Gene Roddenberry had very little “control” over the movies, save the first, but it seems that they abide by his basic rule... at least judging the fourth movie: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. As soon as they arrive in the 20th century, our heroes must overcome the obstacle of not having money to do what they need to do. This obstacle is used for some of the funniest scenes of the movie. “They’re still using money. We need to get some,” Kirk says, and decides to sell McCoy’s gift from The Wrath of Kahn, splitting the cash among the various groups. The trouble is that Spock and Kirk then get flustered at the slightest thing when trying to get on a bus and they don’t know what “exact change” means. The money collected is not at all enough to buy the plexiglass needed for the whale tank, so Scotty and McCoy improvise the professor-assistant duet in order to get to Nichols and “barter” with him, giving him the formula for the transparent aluminum! Not to mention Kirk, who makes a complete fool of himself when he cannot pay the restaurant he’s with Gillian in... “Don’t tell me they don’t use money in the 23rd century,” Gillian says, surprised when they brought the bill. “Well, we don’t.” Kirk confirms.
All this evidence proves that money, for the Federation men, is something unknown. And that’s really strange, because one movie earlier, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, we see McCoy bargaining a passage to Genesis: “How much and when it’s ready?” he asks the alien who accepted to bargain a transfer on his ship. “When it’s ready, now,” says the alien. “Price... according to where.” The bargaining gets complicated and at a certain point McCoy exclaims: “You tell the price, I’ll pay in advance!” And three movies after that, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, when the senior officers are suddenly summoned to General Headquarters, McCoy comments about “a surprise party for our retirement” and Scotty replies: “I’m in, I just bought a boat!” And toward the end of the movie McCoy comments on Chang’s continuous quoting: “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.” A line that in Italian became: “I’d give anything to shut him up!”
Judging from TOS, then, the answers are not at all clear. Let’s see if things get better with Star Trek: The Next Generation and the following series. Gene Roddenberry’s creative control on TNG was even higher than that he had on TOS, because with Kirk and Co. he had to compromise a lot with Desilu and NBC), but in this series evidences are in conflict! At the end of the first season, in the episode “The Neutral Zone,” Ralph Offenhouse woke up after centuries and insists in wanting to know how much, after three centuries, his investments total. The Enterprise officers have a hard time trying to explain that his stocks, the banks and the concept of money do not exist anymore in the 24th century. But Picard is quite clear about the accumulation of things: “A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things.’ We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.” This speech is somehow philosophical, due to the rather cerebral quality of Captain Picard, and maybe we need to interpret it, because from what the Enterprise captain says, you could think that it is not the concept of money to be banned by the Federation, it’s the concept of greed.
The theory could be sound if we think about two other small hints at economy made in that first season. In the very first episode (“Encounter at Farpoint”), Beverly Crusher takes the chance of being with the Bandi to go “shopping” in their marketplace, and buys some Bandi fabric saying: “Send the bill on the Enterprise, bill to Doctor Crusher.” The Bandi are not yet part of the Federation, so this could be a case similar to the one seen in TOS with the Tribbles and Uhura! And we could open a big parenthesis here: as it happens today when - for example - those countries who asks to be part of the European Union are requested to adhere to some defined characteristics, is it not plausible that the money-free Federation asks those planets which want to be part of it... to get rid of their obsolete economies? If the Bandi had not acted against every moral principle capturing the living creature we know, would they make into the Federation despite their use of money to sell goods? But let’s close this parenthesis before getting deeper, because it is already complicated to think about those planets which already are members of the Federation, like Dytallix B, a planet inside the Federation space described as: “One of seven inhabited planets whose mines are exploited by the Dytallix company on behalf of the Federation.”
When you talk about mining companies it is obvious you’re talking about commercial exchanges, and so about some sort of economy, in this case on behalf of the Federation. The point is that a currency system, when you cannot barter with goods of equal value, is necessary for doing any activity, especially if those activities are also with civilians that still use money. In order to sell minerals you have to have a company, but that doesn’t mean that Federation citizens or Starfleet officers have a bank account in which their salary is deposited!
In the TNG third season episode “The Price,” the whole story revolves around an auction. The auctioned object is somehow special, because it is a wormhole in the Barzan II space area, but the negotiations, the commercial agreements and the debates leave no doubts. Like when Riker, representing the Federation, offers to Caldonia to buy “your planet Trillio 323 deposit so we can add it to our offer.” Well, besides (the fact that) the story is shamelessly commercial, this is just another evidence of what we’ve already said: the wormhole of the episode was auctioned by an alien civilization (the Barzans) and among the bidders there were the Ferengi, so it was obvious that - to be on their same level - the Federation had to use money.
In another third-season episode, we hear talking about bidders again: in “A Matter of Perspective,” when it becomes obvious that Doctor Apgar developed his generator in order to offer it to the best bidder. But in this case his actions are somehow blameworthy as if - precisely! – because the need to accumulate wealth and the commercial exploitations are not favorably looked upon by the Federation.
When TNG arrived on the silver screen, the Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry had been deceased for several years, but apparently his rule kept following his characters; at least that seemed the intention. In Star Trek: First Contact, here comes Captain Picard again, who talks with Lily and, answering her question about the Enterprise: “How much this ship cost?” he answers “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.” “No money? You’re telling me you’re not paid?” Lily is surprised. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.” Despite Lily’s surprise (that mirrors the whole audience’s surprise), the line does not leave doubts: money does not exist and it’s not for money that you work. Picard and company are explorers and the risks they run are no different from those ran in the past by people like Amundsen or Livingston. The prestige of making a discovery exists since ages ago, the honor of being the first to know something and bring back the knowledge to the rest of humanity is drive enough for men like the Federation officers.
This is the lesson Roddenberry wanted to give, saying that in the Federation there was no money, word by word. And it’s not by chance, because one of the writers of First Contact is Ronald D. Moore. What’s not clear enough, though, is the question Picard doesn’t answer: how things are done when a workforce is involved? Lily had difficulty in putting together the metal needed for building the capsule of Cochrane’s rocket, while apparently the metal needed for the Enterprise costs nothing... Let’s assume that miners do not exist and any heavy work is not done by men. But there must be - along the process of building a starship - some boring job that men have to do and they might do only for remuneration. So what, if not money?
When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arrived, things got more complicated, because one of the main species developed in the series is the one who have the strongest bond to money ever: Ferengi! Actually their strong presence makes the writers’ job easier, because they can now cover economic subjects using the Ferengi, who are busy with sales (often illegal), trading and auctions. It is not surprising, though, that the Ferengi Quark wanted to be paid for his bar services (from drinks to holosuites). We could really answer the question we asked at the beginning - how can Jadzia pay for her games at the Dabo table - saying that the Federation guarantees its citizens some way of making relations with civilizations that still uses money... although I’d say that games of chance are hardly the most apt way of exploring new worlds and new civilizations!
So, things are already complicated thinking that in DS9 you hear dialogue about banks (for example the Bank on Bolarus IX mentioned in “Who Mourns for Morn?”), of repairs to be paid for (in “Business as Usual”), of unpaid rent (Sisko threatens Quark to collect on four years of back rent of his bar in “Bar Association”), and fines to be paid before someone could be released from a Federation prison (“The Magnificent Ferengi”)... But it is the family of the main character, Sisko, who plunge things into chaos, stating in no uncertain terms that money does not exist while acting in a set where most things revolve around commerce! In the episode “In the Cards,” Nog is surprised when Jake tells him he does not have the money needed to buy a baseball card at auction, and the dialogue between them is a sort of manifesto: “If you want to bid, then use your money!” the young Ferengi Nog says to his friend. “I’m Human, I don’t have any money.” Jake replies. “It’s not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement” Nog says, almost disgusted. And Jake gets angry. “Hey, watch it. There’s nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Nog is surprised and perplexed and now asks the question that all viewers wish to ask: “What does that mean?”
The trouble is that the writers have no answer, and indeed they make Jake hesitate and babble: “It means we don’t need money!” So Jake does not have the money to buy a gift for his father, but Jadzia does in order to play Dabo? Maybe this means that adults only can have money to busy themselves in unnecessary self-enhancements (like games or gifts)? A somehow strange philosophy, especially if you think that Jake does not gain any money even when he becomes adult and publishes his first book in the episode “You Are Cordially Invited.” “I sold my first book today,” he exclaims, asking Quark if his father is in one of his holosuites. “Really?” Quark replies, genuinely admiring Jake. “How much did you get for it?” Jake cannot answer but this: “It’s just a figure of speech. The Federation News Service is going to publish a book of my stories about life on the station under Dominion rule.” “They won’t pay you?” an incredulous Quark says. “No.” Jake confirms. In the end, Jake must surely be glad to have made a contribution to the enhancement of the Federation knowledge, but you don’t eat or get dressed on satisfaction only. Thus the Federation is probably paying Jake, simply not with money. As it must somehow pay grandpa Joseph, who manages a restaurant in New Orleans. It’s true that in the restaurant you never see money around, but there are cooks and waiters and food to get to be cooked and served. The theory is that the time people spend working in the restaurant is paid with something that these people are interested in. And the food is given for free in order to keep the restaurant open.
We could think that the restaurant is a way to enhance life of people who go there, and also of the cook who can put his creativity to the test. And those who work there can have, in exchange, some tools for their hobbies, or go on vacation for free, in a sort of immense barter. But is just a theory, because none of this is hinted in the series. The only certainty we have about the Federation, as it’s described in Sisko’s series, is that... Ferengi use money, oh yes, they do indeed!
Let’s see, in the end, what happens in Star Trek: Voyager, where it’s Tom Paris who says something clear and incontrovertible about the subject... explaining what Fort Knox was: “the biggest gold deposit Earth had ever had in his history. Over fifty tons for a value of nine trillion dollars. When the New World Economy took shape in the late 22nd century and money went the way of the dinosaurs, Fort Knox was turned into a museum!” The episode is “Dark Frontier” in the fifth season, but at the beginning of the earlier season this certainty - that money in the Federation had been thrown away - is not as solid. In the episode “The Gift”, Kathryn Janeway tells Kes when she bought Tuvok’s meditation lamp. “I was with him when he took it, six years ago, by a Vulcan master who doubled the price when he saw my Starfleet insignia!” she says, indicating her communicator. That’s to say that probably it’s not the Federation that does not know money (Vulcan is one of the Federation founding planets) but rather Starfleet.
If this comment wreaks havoc in the certainty that in the Federation money does not exist - raising doubts and creating all sorts of baseless theories (perhaps it’s just on Earth that money had been thrown away?) - on the other hand it opens up a possibility that could be the answer to all this evidence and rebutting evidence: it is Starfleet that does not manage money, the Federation does! If this is the case, it would be understandable also the obvious clumsiness of Captain Janeway, who seems ill-equipped to use money in a market (in the episode “Random Thoughts”). In this case we could compare Starfleet to a voluntary service whose members are not paid, but can have any kind of reimbursement of expenses (so they don’t need to buy clothes, food...) and have access (through the “credits”) to various services like DS9 Dabo tables. In short, if the Enterprise needs some dilithium crystals, they can trade them with something of the same value... but if it has nothing to barter? Then money must necessarily come on stage. But if a Starfleet officer works and enhances himself exploring space and receives in exchange everything he needs to survive and enjoy his favorite hobbies, then he doesn’t need to even know what money is. But, alas, this also is just a theory, because - as we saw until now - evidences are clashing.
At the end of this analysis you could ask why nobody ever followed Roddenberry’s rule to the letter, but perhaps the answer is obvious: the writers bent the rule to their narrative needs, as they usually did with much less prosaic and more scientific matters than money.
Sooner or later, who knows?, someone will give us an unequivocal answer to the question, but the errors already made in the episodes (and we described only a fraction) cannot be undone.
In the end... what will happen in the alternate reality born with the latest movie? For the moment no one knows, since the issue had been ably skirted (who pays the damages in Iowa’s bar? And had Uhura got a credit card for all the drinks she ordered at the bar?), but in an interview Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers of the script, answered a question from a fan saying that in their reality: “there is money, or some sort of credit system.” That means that the new adventures will not abide to Gene Roddenberry’s rule? Actually, it means only that this time, instead of trying (to no avail) to apply it, the writers will accept honestly that Star Trek is made for viewers who live in a world dominated by economy, and where the concept of money is still much too grounded to be completely forgotten.
After all, the world described in the saga belongs to the future, but those who write it - and above all, those who watch it – it belongs to the present!
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