The Dark Underbelly of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Death, Life and Suicide in an "Optimistic" World

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 8:37 PM

I should say firstly that it is perhaps my favorite television show. It’s one of the best regarded shows in the history of American television, and that is not an exaggeration. It also was able to transcend the somewhat niche quality of Star Trek, and of science fiction more generally. It still has one glaring flaw.

All of us may know that the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was something of an optimistic atheist. He believed so profoundly in his vision of philosophical materialism, pushed forward by inevitable progress, that it began to cause problems in the writing of the stories for Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Hereafter, it will be abbreviated, “TNG.”) How you drive a story forward, if you pre-decide that the human characters will not have conflicts with each other? Roddenberry gave the directive that the Starfleet personnel in this show will be examples of a perfected humanity. Many have argued elsewhere in fact, that the show didn’t truly succeed until they took the creative keys away from Roddenberry, so to speak. He died in 1991, in the middle of the show’s fifth season.

In any case, this glaring flaw—- of which atheism is the probable cause—- is the glorification of suicide. I have seen this series many times, and have enjoyed countless trips into its some 180 hours of stories. Nevertheless, I notice how many times killing oneself is the final act for some character, and it is rarely if ever discouraged. Arguably my favorite episode, within the landmark third season, “The Defector,” tells the story of a Romulan admiral, who seeks asylum aboard the Enterprise, in the hope of preventing another destructive war between the two sides. Moreover, the admiral’s suicide seemed to serve no useful purpose. He could not have returned to his own people after having defected, and what he had already lost would not be returned. I do not pretend to understand the grief which that would engender, but for a character who displayed such a force of personality, suicide in the face of deep grief doesn’t seem likely.

In the seventh and final season, the foster brother of Lieutenant Worf, Nikolai Rozhenko, disobeyed Starfleet’s Prime Directive of non-interference in less-developed societies, to save a people he had been observing. (“Homeward”) Because of his foolishness, one of the villagers he had been observing realized he was no longer on his home planet, and unable to cope with the culture shock of living in a more advanced society, killed himself. Captain Picard lamented this, but no one dared to suggest that it was morally objectionable.

In a fourth season episode, a scientist from a planet orbiting a dying sun attempts to re-energize the sun, as the culmination of his life’s work. (“Half a Life.”) In the process, he meets the eccentric Lwaxana Troi, mother of Deanna Troi, and falls in love. However, he is approaching the age where the people on his planet commit a highly ritualized form of suicide when they reach the age of 60.

Troi of course attempts to convince Timicin that he need not go through with the ritual, especially in light of meeting her, and falling in love. Troi makes eloquent arguments—- driven by the realization of her own advancing age—- which temporarily convinces him to abandon the ritual, and to seek asylum aboard the Enterprise. This threatens to cause an interstellar incident, because those leaders believe Timicin has been unduly influenced by Troi, and by the Enterprise crew.

In the end, Troi capitulates, and joins Timicin at the celebration which precedes the suicide. It does seem that a radical individualism takes precedence over the moral quality of the act of suicide. Indeed, the substance of Mrs. Troi’s arguments were focused on him as an individual, or her as an individual.

In another seventh season episode, two environmental activists disrupt the Enterprise, and attempt to convince the crew that the use of warp drive is damaging their planet’s ecosystem. The brother and sister pair are themselves divided between a radical approach, and an incremental approach. When the Enterprise crew decides that more study is warranted, one of the scientists commits suicide, by causing a warp core breach on her own ship, thereby proving her speculative theory about the destructive nature of warp drive technology. In this particular case, her death serves no purpose at all. She could have commandeered her own vessel and detonated it remotely, or caused the breach, and transported back to the Enterprise before she became caught in the explosion. For my part, the fact that she died to make her point doesn’t increase the merit of the point. It would only serve to fill those affected with anger and grief.

The only notable counterpoint to what seems to be a tacit endorsement of suicide, “Ethics,” a fifth season episode set up by a spinal cord injury suffered by Lieutenant Worf, seems only to buck the trend because the advocacy for the forced euthanasia of the disabled is beyond the pale, even in polite liberal society. The disabled—- being “marginalized” enough for now to avoid overt bigotry of this kind—- may have raised just enough protest for this episode to be a counter to the prevailing trend of these stories. The outrage of Commander Riker upon being enlisted by Lieutenant Worf in assisting him to commit suicide, is notable for its rarity.

Transhumanism, or the putative attempt to preserve human consciousness via technology after death, has never been fully embraced by Star Trek writers, though hinted at on numerous occasions. Transhumanism seems to be an attempt at optimism within a philosophical materialist worldview. Oddly enough, we might hesitatingly celebrate this transhumanism as an attempt to subvert death, rather than celebrate it. However, the lesson that Roddenberry and so many others failed to learn is that death must be transcended, not celebrated or ignored.

Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.

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