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Catholic propaganda on the Enterprise

The cast of the third season of Star Trek (1968–1969) with Mr Spock (second from right), Lt Uhura (third from right) and Captain Kirk (fourth from right)

Every Christian Star Trek fan recalls Stardate 4041.7. That was the day that I realised that, with very few exceptions, Star Trek is consistently the most pro-Christian and pro-Catholic show in American television history.

The quintessential science fiction television programme by which all others are judged has had a number of permutations over the past 40 years: The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and, most recently, Enterprise. In addition, there have been 10 films that have sent the heroic Enterprise into space to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Gene Roddenberry’s creation has become a cornerstone of popular culture and has helped to popularise and develop the science fiction genre.

In “Bread and Circuses”, the episode that took place in Stardate 4041.7 (AD 2268 for planet-bound humans), Captain James Tiberius Kirk, valiant captain of the good ship Enterprise, in the midst of their five-year mission, came across planet 892-IV, a draconian 20th-century version of the Roman Empire, complete with gladiators, senators and nefarious politics. The empire sponsors state executions of renegade slaves who practice a pacifistic religion of “total love and total brotherhood”. Sound familiar?

The twist is that the slaves imprisoned for practising the religion of their choice are sun worshippers. As Mr Spock, the ship’s Science Officer and Captain Kirk’s logical foil, points out: “It seems illogical for a sun worshipper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood. Sun worship is usually a primitive, superstitious religion.”

And then the fateful and faith-filled moment memorialised in the hearts of all Christian Trekkers, Lt Uhura pipes up from her communications console to correct her superior officers: “I’m afraid you have it all wrong, all of you,” she says. “I’ve been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion, but he couldn’t. Well, don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.”

I wonder what it must have been like in all of those living rooms across America that evening. Probably the same stunned silence that permeated my family’s living room. My parents, very much non-Trekkers, asked me to repeat Uhura’s last line. When I did, they stared at each other and raised a surprised, Spock-like eyebrow.

At that, Kirk addresses his bridge crew: “Christ and Caesar. Wouldn’t it be something to watch, to be a part of? To see it happen all over again?” It wasn’t until years later when I saw the episode again when I realised the importance of those lines. This might seem only of minor interest to most people but to a connoisseur of fine science fiction, this is altogether remarkable. It’s very common for a science fiction writer to use religion as a theme but, inevitably, as a reference to violence, zealotry or primitive thinking. What Gene Roddenberry did was raise Christianity and its spirituality to a new level in the genre. After that, I started concentrating on all of the Christian references, and the Catholic ones in particular, in the original series and all of Star Trek’s later permutations.

There are specific references to Catholicism in the most recent Trek series, Star Trek: Enterprise. Specifically, in AD 2150, Dr Phlox, an alien physician serving aboard the ship, recalled attending Mass at St Peter’s Basilica. It is also interesting to note that, other than a single passing reference to the Hindu festival of Diwali, no other earth religion other than Christianity was ever mentioned in the series. Several weddings have taken place aboard the Enterprise but the very first one included the bride, a young engineering officer, genuflecting toward the ship’s chapel’s altar. The chapel probably served several religions, as do the chapels aboard all the US Navy’s ships but the Enterprise’s chapel had a prominently displayed cross.

After James Kirk faded from the scene, subsequent Star Trek captains were no longer the damn-the-photon torpedos-full-speed-ahead-he’s-dead-Jim!-fire-phasers-first-ask-questions-later-take-charge kind of guys (or gals). Instead, ethics and personal responsibility came to the forefront. In Star Trek Voyager, the penultimate permutation of the Star Trek epic, Capt Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) sought out advice from a recreated life-like hologram of Leonardo da Vinci who urged Capt Janeway to seek out God’s assistance in prayer. “When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer,” Leonardo said, “one must seek out a greater imagination. There are times when even I find myself kneeling in prayer.” The wise hologram then suggested that the two retire to the chapel at the Monastery of Santa Croce. “Come with me, Katarina,” he said, taking Janeway’s hand. “We will awake the abbot, visit the chapel, and appeal to God.”

Ultimately she didn’t take the maestro’s advice. But I am comforted as to the ease at which the topic of religious-based ethics and spirituality was presented on a popular, prime-time science fiction show.
In three Star Trek episodes, characters refused to kill foetuses because they were innocent life. In an interesting side note Kate Mulgrew, the actress who plays Janeway in Star Trek Voyager, is pro-life. She was interviewed in the Feminists for Life’s publication American Feminist where she discussed her ethics and her pro-life stance. “Life is sacred to me on all levels,” she said. “Abortion does not compute with my philosophy.”

In the same Star Trek series, Seven of Nine, a former cyborg in the process of rediscovering her humanity under the tutelage of Capt Janeway, was found contemplating a crucifix in a recreated holographic medieval chapel in her attempt to understand herself and the universe around her. Her character is said to be the most intelligent and knowledgeable human ever born and despite her having all of the answers to the physical universe questions, the spiritual universe still overwhelms her. It was a magnificent moment.

All five of the television incarnations and all 10 Star Trek movies portrayed intricate ethical and moral issues regarding the sanctity of life, human responsibilities and personal liberties. Cloning was condemned as unethical and unacceptable in several episodes, while genetic manipulation of the human genome was also decried such as “unnatural selection”, and “space seed”.

Hell is referenced in the earliest Trek series when Captain Christopher Pike, a captain who pre-dated Kirk’s tenure aboard the Enterprise, was subjected to an illusion of Hell while on the planet Talos IV. He had refused to cooperate with his Talosian captives and was threatened thusly. The Garden of Eden was portrayed several times in the Star Trek canon, once as place to which humanity might escape the modern over-technologised world but this turned out to be only an illusion.

And then the pièce de résistance, the ultimate Star Trek theological reference. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, on Stardate 8454.130, a thoroughly illogical Vulcan, Sybok, a half-brother to the more familiar and archetypically logical Vulcan of our acquaintance, Spock, has convinced his followers that God exists on a yet undiscovered planet at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy, who yearns for our love and attention. Suffice it to say that the entity imprisoned on that planet is not God but only an imposter. Kirk realises the incongruity of “God’s” request to commandeer the Enterprise. After all, what would God need with a starship? When the poseur attacks and punishes Kirk, Sybok realises that the real God would never punish His children. Star Trek seems to use the theme of “false gods” frequently. Even Satan got into the act when an alien tried to pass herself off as him.

In a time when much of television fare is unreflective of Christian morality and values, it’s encouraging and affirming to have shows that successfully present a kinder and gentler world. A world in which people of different values, backgrounds and perceptions can cooperate. Each offering their uniqueness as a gift to the others. A world in which enemies are ultimately forgiven and learn to cooperate. Infinite diversity in infinite combination, as per the Vulcan mantra.

Good science fiction isn’t about aliens and ray guns and exploding planets. These are mere trappings, albeit fun and clever ones. The real purpose of science fiction is as social commentary on present-day society.

I’m gratified that Star Trek took Catholic concerns to both the small and large screens and gave many generations of sci-fi aficionados an opportunity to reconsider what they think is important in their lives; life, peace, compassion, duty and ethics. Live long and prosper.