Spock mind melds with the Horta
Spock mind melds with the Horta, an intelligent silicone-based life form in the ST:TOS episode, "Devil in the Dark" (1967). The Horta writes on the cave floor the purposefully ambiguous statement "No kill I" - illustrating a key notion about reciprocity and rights.

Star Trek Day 2022 - Human Rights and the Popular Imagination

Human rights advocacy and human rights storytelling happen in some very unexpected places

Quick Summary

  • Over its 56 year run, Star Trek has been an unfailing advocate for diversity, rights and an optimistic view of a future without racism, poverty, and inequality.
  • Read an excerpt from: Most Human: Storytelling, Human Rights and Star Trek

Today is the 56th anniversary of the premier of Star Trek.  Unique among Human Rights Studies programs globally, at UC Davis we emphasize the role of literature, the arts, music and film and television in human rights thought, practice and advocacy. Among our regular offerings are blockbuster courses like “Human Rights, Art and Architecture” jointly taught by UC Davis Art History’s Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh; we teach “Human Rights and the Popular Imagination,” and year after this, we’ll introduce new courses on Human Rights and documentary and feature films with Technocultural Studies. 

Our faculty are engaged in research at the intersection of the arts and human rights, including work on the destruction of cultural heritage during genocide, (H. Watenpaugh) the role of music and performance in human rights advocacy (Jessica Perea,) and memory and museums in the human rights history of South America (Michael Lazzara.)

We’re also the only Human Rights Studies program to ever offer a seminar on Human Rights and Star Trek – which I taught for several years and would love to return to if my schedule allows.  It was one of my favorite classes and I still remember asking students if they were in it for Star Trek or human rights – “what about both?” one of our very successful alums Rajan Singh asked. 

When not writing about genocide or the shortcomings of modern humanitarianism I’ve been returning to a book I’m authoring called, “Most Human:” Storytelling, Star Trek and Human Rights. It's built around my profound sense that the act of storytelling is a powerful tool in human rights advocacy and that human rights storytelling happens in some very unexpected and unanticipated places. I argue that popular support for human rights is linked  closely to the cultural dimensions of people's everyday lives rather than just being part of their political makeup. 

In celebration of this year’s Star Trek day, I’m sharing a brief excerpt from the mss. This passage references the late African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, Uhura, whose presence on the bridge of the starship, Enterprise, two generations ago put the show on the very cutting edge of race and representation.  

Live Long and Prosper.

Excerpt from Chapter 1: Star Trek and the Human Rights Idea in the Age of Atomic Bombs and Viet Nam

A decade ago I first taught a seminar called “Star Trek/Human Rights” to lure STEM honors students into a humanities course.  On the first day of class, 15 plus University of California, Davis undergrads crowded into a small seminar room.  And I posed to them two questions:

“How many of you are here for Human Rights?”  Hands raised.

“How many or you are here for Star Trek?”  Hands raised.

And then Rajan Singh – a 2014 graduate in Computer Science – asked me: “Can’t we be here for both?”

Can’t we be here for both? That was a good question.

Star Trek shows us extraordinary technology, what could only be termed “gee whiz” physics, and subjects us to some utterly nonsensical technobabble, a portmanteau coined by Trek writers themselves in the notes they wrote on scripts.  It is good Science Fiction, after all. It has anticipated everything from cell phones, hand-held diagnostic medical tools, and androids, to the use of computers and virtual reality in warfare, sex, entertainment and teaching. In this regard, little distinguishes it from the other grand SciFi narratives and space operas that have played out on TVs and movies screens over of the last half century:  Star Wars, Space Battleship Yamato, and Battlestar Galactica.

Still, Trek is different. Nichelle Nichols — Lt. Uhura in TOS —  and the first African-American woman to play an officer of any kind on any TV show reminisces in interviews about how Gene Roddenberry would remind her that, unlike those other shows and movies, Trek was about “something” and that even she, as an African American in a role of authority and leadership, was part of that project. 

Nichols, herself, is at the center of one Trek’s most enduring legends of the immense social meaning and impact of the series.  As she explained (2011) to NPR’s Michel Martin, she considered leaving the show after its first year to pursue her stage career.  While attending an NAACP event in Beverly Hills, she encountered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told her he was a Trekker.  When he learned that she planned to leave the show, she remembers him telling her, “don't you understand what this man [Roddenberry] has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch. I was speechless.” It is a truly moving story. 

Star Trek continued to place women and people of color in positions of leadership, even building entire series around African-American actors Avery Brooks — Commander Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine — and Sonequa Martin-Green — Discovery’s Michael Burnham.  As a consequence, the show has many prominent African Americans among its followers: President Barrack Obama confessed to Nichols that he is a Trekker; and leading Democrat politician and novelist Stacey Abrams is, as well. Very rarely though, is the concept of race addressed directly, as though somehow it is a problem only of our benighted time.

From its inception Star Trek was both space opera and about something. As a global cultural phenomenon, with its stories and casting it has engaged with pressing social and cultural issues, anxieties and aspirations, and more so with a broad, multi-generational landscape of human rights and the myriad artefacts of human rights failures; it has mirrored how human rights have been understood, violated and experienced across that half century; and it has expressed confidence that adhering to the human rights idea is the best chance we have as a species to survive. 


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