Star Trek is a huge cultural phenomenon, there is no question about that. The original show spawned many subsequent TV shows and movies, and has created an entire sub-culture of fans. The show has even had a hand in creating a new language, Klingon, which people have created and now can be learned by anyone wishing to do so. "Trekkies" love their Star Trek, and it is often cited as having had a major impact on the television landscape with respect to issues such as gender and race (e.g., featuring the first multi-racial kiss, a multi-racial crew) (Day, 2003). However, when picking apart the over-arching themes of the show, has it really portrayed a positive view of humanity's future with respect to these major issues? Therefore could it be used to articulate themes of racism, sexism and colonialism in the classroom?
Using Star Trek in the classroom can be a very accessible way to explore issues of race and gender with students. Unpacking the show can also be linked to unpacking U.S. cultural history stemming back to the original show in the 1960's. At its most basic level, Star Trek deals with the crew (the "Federation") and the aliens they discover along the way. One such alien is the Klingon, whose language can be learned and has been used to translate seminal texts like Shakespeare and the Bible. Klingons are aliens: they are dark-skinned, they have ridged foreheads and are defined as "a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid warrior species" (Klingon, 2016). Klingons can be viewed as the "other" to the Federation's "good guy" imagery. "Klingons, by contrast, being an agressor species allow one to be arrogant and obnoxious. It's a safety valve - the dark side can get out" (Anijar, 2000, p. 133). Thus, Klingons are the "dark side" to the Federations "light" side, bringing to mind images of good versus evil. What does this portrayal of aliens say about mainstream white culture's views of anyone who is presumed to be "other?" Does this imagery of a dark, barbarian connect with how Americans view people from other countries such as Africa? Is this how Americans view those people trying to "invade" their country via borders like those found in California? Looking at Star Trek episodes in this way can start a conversation about what societal assumptions could be linked to popular culture, and a discussion about how destructive these assumptions could be.
In Star Trek, one piece of thematic imagery is that of the alien invasion. Looking at history, for example, there are many instances where "others" invaded countries or territories that were not originally theirs. One could look at the Borg on Star Trek as an example of how white society "took over" various countries or territories (e.g., Africa, North America), and proceeded to make them their own. The Borg "are a menacing collectivity without any subjectivity. They share a common identity and collective consciousness and a seemingly overly determined biological or cyberbiological drive to assimilate everything in their paths" (Anijar, 2000, p. 173). Is this white society? Is this what was done to other cultures and peoples as the British Empire, for example, steamrolled its way to control over various colonies and territories? These would be fascinating conversations to have in the history classroom.
In short, Star Trek provides educators with another example of pop culture that can be used to begin difficult and layered conversations. If Star Trek is of interest to students, or provides a bridge to more complex themes throughout history, why not use it as the battleground for exploration and discovery.
Anijar, K. (2000). Klingon as Curriculum: Militias, Minstrel Shows and Other Language Games. In K. Anijar, Teaching toward the 24th Century: Star Trek as Social Curriculum (pp. 128-155). New York: Falmer Press.
Anijar, K. (2000). Resistence is Futile: You will be Assimilated into the Predatory Jungle. In K. Anijar, Teaching toward the 24th Century: Star Trek as Social Curriculum (pp. 156-190). New York: Falmer Press.
Day, D. (2003, December 17). Star Trek as Cultural Phenomenon. Retrieved from US Centennial of Flight Commission: http://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Social/star_trek/SH7.htm
Klingon. (2016, October 12). Retrieved from Wikepedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klingon