There are many reasons why we love science fiction, and even more reasons why we have an especially strong passion for Star Trek. Based on what I’ve observed in countless conversations with fans (as well as my own tastes), the primary reason the stories in Trek and other well-written SF resonate so universally is their allegorical value.
Often, we see ourselves most clearly when we view our situations through others about whom we’ve come to care. In a very real sense, we form our identities through the characters to which we gravitate. They’re role models, and they help us develop behavioral patterns based on our belief systems.
And regardless of those individual belief systems, I believe we’re each deeply spiritual beings -- whether we admit it or not. So it’s no surprise to me that some of the most-discussed themes and episodes of Trek are spiritually based.
“Now, wait!” you may be thinking. It’s common knowledge that there’s an absence of overtly religious themes in The Original Series -- in large part due to Gene Roddenberry’s atheism -- right? And at face value, there wasn’t a lot of spirituality in The Next Generation, Voyager or Enterprise. On the surface, Deep Space Nine would seem to be the exception, of course, as it was rife with religious mention and tension.
Sadly, many of us have had less than stellar experiences with religion in our personal lives. Roddenberry was no exception. In a 1997 AOL chat, writer/producer Ronald D. Moore said: “Gene felt very strongly that all of our contemporary Earth religions would be gone by the 23rd century, and while few of us around here actually share that opinion, we feel that we should leave this part of the Trek universe alone.”
But that’s not quite the case.
There’ve been a number of spiritual references and themes throughout the years in Star Trek, both in Roddenberry’s own work and that of other writers. I’m thankful to have been on such a philosophically oriented series; I’ve long thought that the intersection of spirituality and science fiction was a compelling theme, and so I’m devoting my next few columns to exploring what the various Star Trek series and films have established in canon about human (and alien) beliefs in the 22nd through 24th centuries.
Let’s start with The Original Series.
The TOS season-two episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” -- written by Roddenberry and Gene Coon -- establishes that humans are largely monotheistic in the Trek universe. Kirk has the following exchange with an alien posing as Apollo:
APOLLO: I could sweep you out of existence with a wave of my hand and bring you back again. I can give life or death. What else does mankind demand of its gods?
KIRK: Mankind has no need for “gods.” We find the One quite adequate.
There are other examples, such as the Enterprise’s chapel shown in season one’s “Balance of Terror” (by Paul Schneider) and season three’s “The Tholian Web” (by Judy Burns and Chet Richards). Various religious symbols adorn the walls -- such as are often present in non-demoninational chapels -- indicating that at least some members of the ship’s crew are spiritual seekers.
The films continue these themes. We all remember the poignant moment in Wrath of Khan when Scotty plays “Amazing Grace” at Spock’s funeral. And Star Trek V: The Final Frontier addresses the dangers of religious fundamentalism and an overly literal interpretation of doctrine. As we accompany Spock’s obsessive half-brother on a journey to the galactic center in a search for the Vulcan “Eden,” this exchange transpires:
McCOY: We were speculating. Is God really out there?
KIRK: Maybe He's not out there, Bones. Maybe He's right here. [points to his heart] Human heart.
Indeed, spiritual allusions in Trek don’t always pertain to contemporary Earth religions, instead exploring the spiritual beliefs of other civilizations. Nevertheless, the meaning is metaphorical -- and universal. As noted above, the original cast films (as well as The Animated Series) lay much of the groundwork for Vulcan religion, which is explored further in later series such as Enterprise. Canon shows us that Vulcans both ancient and modern are deeply religious beings. I find it noteworthy that a logic-driven society is depicted as having an inherent, ubiquitous spiritual culture. I’ll explore this theme further in the future.
Finally, mention must be made of the classic episode “Bread and Circuses,” also written by Roddenberry and Coon in TOS season two. Kirk, Spock and the crew visit a planet that has an oppressive, ancient Roman-like culture, where they find a cult of sun-worshippers who help them escape the regime:
SPOCK: It seems illogical for a sun worshipper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood. Sun worship is usually a superstitious, primitive religion.
UHURA: I am afraid you have it all wrong, Mr. Spock, all of you. I have been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves... the Empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion. But he couldn't. Don't you understand? It's not the sun up in the sky. It's the Son of God.
KIRK: Caesar... and Christ. They had them both. And the Word is spreading only now.
MCCOY: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.
SPOCK: It will replace their imperial Rome, but it will happen in their 20th century.
KIRK: Wouldn't it be something to watch, to be a part of? To see it happen all over again?
I hope you’ll join me in this study of spirituality and religion (and yes, I believe there is a difference) in Star Trek. We’ll reflect on the writers’ ideas of spirituality in the future, toward the goal of fulfilling Roddenberry’s vision of creating a better world – as McCoy said, a world with “a philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.” In Kirk’s own words, “Wouldn't it be something to watch, to be a part of?”
Chase Masterson portrayed Leeta in the final five seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Her latest projects include the critically acclaimed metaphysical noir feature Yesterday Was a Lie from Entertainment One, in which she plays a torch singer. Masterson performs three songs on the film’s soundtrack album, now available from La-La Land Records. She is an avid supporter of non-profit organizations. For info and updates, follow @ChaseMasterson on Twitter or http://www.facebook.com/chasemastersonpage