Dawn Reviews Books

Reviews of books old and new.

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
To Boldly Go: Star Trek Psychology Offers an Analysis of an Enduring Sci-Fi Show
Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier, Edited by Travis Langley, PhD
Sterling Books, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4549-1842-4
Softcover, 309 ppg.

What is it about Star Trek that we find so compelling? Sure, a lot of people tuned in to watch Captain Kirk knock out a bad guy or to see Spock dispense with his Vulcan wisdom, but what is that one THING that kept Star Trek going so strong for so many years?

In this reviewer’s opinion, I believe it was the mystery of the unknown.

Travis Langley has studied this mystery in his book, Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier. If you have ever watched an episode from one of the Star Trek shows and ever wondered why the writers didn’t go deeper with some of the issues the characters faced, then grab a copy of this book because that is exactly what Dr. Langley and crew take the time to explore. From Sulu running amok with a sword to Captain Picard’s psychological torture when he was captured by the Cardassians to Captain Sisko’s internal struggles as a single parent as well as captain of a starship, Star Trek Psychology boldly goes where no psychologist has gone before. While his book takes a look at the Star Trek shows from the point-of-view and analysis of a psychologist, it also delves into the mystery of just what made Star Trek and its characters click with viewers.

For centuries, humans have looked to the stars and wondered, What’s out there? Are we truly alone? What other worlds, other planets, have we yet to explore? And “explore” is the key word here. As one writer puts it in the book, "We are explorers by nature." (Page 11) While the basic tenet of the Federation starships is to “explore strange new worlds” as well as “seek out new life and new civilizations,” every single member of every single Enterprise starship knows and understands – and perhaps even welcomes – the dangers and challenges that would result from such solar exploration. They are lucky in being able to explore the great unknown of the universe but at the same time, they are able to answer the basic human call to explore. We want to know what’s out there. Instead of looking to the stars for answers, they explore the stars and find out just what awaits us.

But at the same time, even as Star Trek indulges our curiosity for space exploration on a vicarious level, another thing about the show that we find so appealing is that it turns the tables on life as we know it. As Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry is quoted as saying in the book, "I think St
ar Trek speaks to that person who questions the status quo." (pg. 47) We want to take a break from rules and from the same norms of life and try to step outside the boundaries. The show made headlines during its earlier days for having a Russian actor as a major lead player at a time the U.S. and Russia were struggling to get along and it had a female main character – an African American one, at that – playing such an important and crucial role on the bridge of a starship. A lot of people liked these changes and wanted more and, of course, Trekkies were not disappointed as future Star Trek shows (and movies) continued to overstep those lines.

For this particular Trekkie, however, there was always one thing about Star Trek that kept me coming back to watch more: The fact that aliens who looked so different from humans were accepted in society. Spock with his ears, Worf with the Klingon forehead, Quark with his Ferengi appearance. Indeed, these characters stood out because they were so different, but at the same time, their appearances were accepted. Of course, Data, being an android, was still beset with discrimination (especially when he tried to command a starship himself one time and a member of the crew admitted that he felt uncomfortable having a machine for a captain), but overall, they were not so fraught with bullying, discrimination or social ostracism as people usually are if they are different in today’s world. No, Star Trek embraced being different. That’s the one thing we like about it. As one writer in this book observed, "Being different most often means being bullied or hurt." (Page 99) As someone with third degree burn scars on the left side of her face and entire left arm, I know all too well about being bullied and hurt. Society only wants beautiful people. They want eye candy. The Star Trek universe does not. The Star Trek universe welcomes any and all sorts of people, beings, species, and, yes, even machines. In fact, there was one character on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which her face was covered with what looked like the same burn scars that I have. I was so moved and hopeful when I saw this, because instead of getting looks of disgust or being called “ugly” or a “freak,” the characters in that scene with her treated her with respect and dignity. And this gave me hope that in the future – at least, Star Trek’s vision of the future – anyone with burns such as mine would be seen for the person that we are on the inside and not how we look on the outside. Star Trek understood this and that is one reason why I have always respected it.

At the same time, however, as a female, there were times on Star Trek that I was irritated by the frequent sexualization of its female characters. I was disgusted by women often being seen as mere sex objects. Granted, this was not the case with Uhura, and this eventually dissipated with the introduction of female doctors and ambassadors, but for a while there, it was still a big issue. That’s what I was thinking about when I came across this line: "Star Trek may have challenged stereotypes, but did it also perpetuate some?" (Page 268) I think that, in some respects, it did, especially with women. There was also the issue of religious stereotypes and racial stereotypes, but it did attempt to maintain its standing as a show to make people think. The stereotypes served both as a method of connecting viewers of a science-fiction show with real-world issues, but also it served as a way of engaging our thoughts and forcing us to question our feelings on these issues. When personally witnessing racism, we bring to mind characters such as Commander Nyota Uhura, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge and Captain Benjamin Sisko. When dealing with religious stereotypes, the characters Spock, Worf and Quark may come to mind. Even in the Star Trek universe, cultural differences clashed. The effects these characters have on viewers and how we ultimately perceive them may change those stereotypes and differences but time will only tell if the messages this show was trying to send would have a lasting impact on society.

And that is the beauty of Star Trek. That right there is the huge appeal that it has with viewers. As Langley noted in the book, "Star Trek is about interacting with others while also getting to know ourselves as individuals." (Page 282) It’s not just a show of exploring outer space; it’s also a show about exploring ourselves and our interactions with others. What we see on Star Trek shows and in the movies are actually not just characters reciting a script but an emotional, psychological, and spiritual moment in which we must face issues and feelings. Langley put this experience in just the right context: "Star Trek makes us think and it makes us feel." (Page 282)

Who knew that seeking out other forms of life in the whole wide universe could turn out to be such a psychoanalytical experience? Meeting aliens, even fictional aliens, is exciting, but it’s scary, too. We don’t know how we humans would get along with, say, an Andorian or a Thasian, and what would such an interaction do for how we perceive ourselves and think about humans as a whole? In an old issue of Astronomy Magazine, Brian May asked in his article if we humans truly are ready to connect with intelligent life in space given how we already treat each other as humans. Humans are not peaceful by nature and many, many humans are stained and corrupted by the negative influences in society, such as power, lust and greed. So, at this point in time, how would we act with aliens? How would we represent the human race? Would we shoot first and ask questions later? Would we blow up their ships before they could land? Or would we try to establish a peaceful relationship with the hope of sharing our ways?

Those are the questions that Star Trek forces us to ask ourselves. It is also what we end up pondering as the show ends and the credits start rolling. In the end, we are challenged to examine just what we would do when confronted by a threatening alien species or facing certain death as life support systems fail. We turn to Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and Archer as our guides. They introduced us to these possibilities and inspired us on just what kind of a person we should be in just such a situation. They put their lives on the line in order to explore the final frontier and, in doing so, helped us to get used to the idea of knowing the unknown. As Langley wrote,  "It may be telling that the Star Trek mission statement refers to "strange new worlds" rather than planets because it's really not about charting the locations of gases and rocks; it's about life and civilization." (Page 282) Those strange new worlds were brought into our homes on our TV screens and we have had the privilege of knowing about them for over 50 years. Maybe someday, when man finally does make first contact, they won’t be so “strange” to us anymore.

Five stars

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Log in

No account? Create an account