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What ‘Star Trek’ can teach us about nativism

Domenic Powell • Aug 12, 2013

In the year 2153, Earth is attacked by the Xindi weapon, a spherical, single-pilot particle-beam emitter from a distant region of space that cuts a massive trench from Florida to Venezuela, killing seven million people in a matter of minutes. The citizens of a united Earth are shocked, terrified, but most of all, angry. The lone star ship Enterprise NX-01 is sent out to find the Xindi, a species of aliens previously unknown to humans, and stop a galactic war before it starts.

Such is the beginning of the story arc in the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise, the only television series in the franchise to air after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Created as a prequel to the more iconic Star Trek series, Enterprise is an aesthetic bridge between modern-day space travel and the luxury cruise-liner décor of The Next Generation or The Original Series.

In a similar fashion, Earth has only recently been united under a world government, only made contact with a handful of other species, and today’s philosophical superstructure doesn’t seem as much of an historical relic to Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) as it does to Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). And while the series is not as much of a favorite among self-proclaimed Trekkies as others in the franchise, its post-9/11 production date gives us a unique opportunity to explore nativism in the Star Trek universe.

More recent science fiction films have helped us explore xenophobia and racism, including Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and even more recently,  Elysium. But few series since Enterprise have explored the post-9/11 politics of the United States the way it has (even the most recent installment of Star Trek: Into Darkness), and its themes are still relevant almost yen years on. 

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies may, in fact, be Trekkie. That would give him one thing, if only one thing, in common with yours truly. I don’t know how many people Krikorian expected to get this reference (see here and here), but I got it, and I’m not ashamed. But if Krikorian were sympathetic to anyone in the Star Trek universe, it would be the isolationist organization Terra Prime, which violently opposes the creation of the interstellar alliance that would eventually become the United Federation of Planets.

In the wake of the Xindi attack, humans are increasingly xenophobic, occasionally violent, and some are even drawn into extremist organizations like Terra Prime. When Terra Prime uses the image of a half-human, half-Vulcan baby to stir up fears of the loss of human identity, thousands riot outside the embassies of alien species. The Xindi attack also causes moral conflict in the usually altruistic Captain Archer who, after being unnerved by a Xindi officer, extracts information from him by suffocating him in an air lock, a space-borne equivalent of water boarding. But to the viewers who now the future of the Federation, these fears and shortcomings stand in the way of Earth’s future greatness as the capital of an interstellar state spanning thousands of light-years that upholds freedom and equality.

Star Trek’s greatest contribution to the world is its optimism. The best is yet to come—our biggest problems will one day seem like trivial concerns. But it also made clear throughout the franchise that our biggest hindrances to progress are our prejudices.

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