I love being a nerd. I’ve long embraced my ability to morph from literary aficionado to band geek to science fanatic. Throw in a fondness for British television, and I figured I’d already hit the apex of my nerd cred. Then, during our senior year at Calvin, my friend Shaun introduced me to Star Trek.
My Trekkie credentials are slowly accumulating: I finished the Enterprise series, am chugging through Next Generation, started Deep Space Nine, and thoroughly enjoyed the 2009 and 2013 reboot films. I still struggle to track the timelines and character arcs that intersect among the eighteen separate series and movies. But I’m getting the hang of it. And I enjoy watching the various incarnations of the starship Enterprise dash around the galaxy carrying unorthodox crews of explorers and dreamers.
Before I started watching Star Trek, I assumed the allure of the show came from seeing how masterfully its creators could assemble a brand-new alien species for each episode. I wondered how they could devise enough combinations of prosthetics, make-up, and CGI to keep the extraterrestrials looking fresh and interesting.
I soon realized that’s not the point. Sure, we’re treated to some pretty wild-looking beasts. And many episodes introduce us to alien species that are truly, vastly other. The series Deep Space Nine begins with a human character trying to explain dimensionality to creatures that exist outside of linear time and space. We run into non-corporeal life, non-organic life, beings that look like massive snowflakes or sand grains or pools of tar.
Even so, I was initially surprised to see how many of Star Trek’s alien species are, for all intents and purposes, human. This is particularly true for the species that pop up regularly on the series I’ve watched so far. Sure, Andorians are blue, Klingons are hairy, and Ferengi are scuzzy little potato-trolls. But in practice, these physical differences are nigh inconsequential. Star Trek’s alien species are interesting because of their differences in character. Each species reflects some recognizable facet of basic human nature. The show is basically a vehicle for bouncing these caricatured versions of humanity off each other, just to see what happens.
If a Klingon and a Ferengi were stuck together on a drifting starship, we wouldn’t really care about the differences in their heights, brow ridges, or dietary preferences. Instead, the driving factor behind their interactions would be the difference in their personalities—an obsequious, acquisitive Ferengi butting heads with a short-tempered, battle-oriented Klingon.
This seems true for the preponderance of humanoid species we encounter on Star Trek. They’re human-shaped, with essentially human-like means of interacting with each other and their surroundings. Many times, the only visible difference between an alien and a Homo sapiens is the shape of a nose or the smattering of spots on a throat. Maybe the make-up artists got lazy. Or maybe the purpose of the show isn’t to revel in physical extremes, but to explore how creatures with disparate values interact and find common ground.
I’m not making this up. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, once called his brainchild “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”
So much of science-fiction trains us to think xenophobically, to see alien characters as monsters. For every E.T., there are a dozen Signs, Predators, War of the Worlds, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And Star Trek has its share of monsters. But for every hostile species bent on overtaking or destroying humanity, there’s another group of extraterrestrials coming to our aid. Even in the Enterprise series, which explores the early years of humanity’s interstellar voyages, the ship’s human crew is bolstered by several members of friendly alien races. The show doesn’t negate the differences between its human and non-human characters; instead, each episode hinges on variations in values, personalities, and priorities. But instead of inspiring fear, these differences function as springboards for understanding and reconciliation.
Gene Roddenberry also said, “If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences…between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.” Roddenberry’s creation has enjoyed six decades of popularity. Maybe the man was on to something.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.