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'Star Trek Beyond' Takes an Ethical Leap Forward

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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If you’re looking for a diversion after two weeks of heavy convention viewing, I’d recommend a trip to the multiplex to see “Star Trek Beyond.” The reason isn’t just that the movie is by far the most fun of this summer’s tentpole offerings. The film is a paean to the value of diversity, and perhaps heralds the end of “speciesism” on the big screen.

Here’s the story in brief: Three years into its 'deep-space mission, the Enterprise is lured by a distress call into an uncharted nebula, where the ship is attacked by a seemingly unstoppable villain who plans to rain death and destruction upon the galaxy. If you’re a Trekker -- or even a casual sci-fi fan -- this isn’t exactly new stuff. But it’s presented with a delightful gusto and verve. I actually went to see it twice -- once to take notes, once for sheer enjoyment.

So what does “Star Trek” have to do with speciesism? First, a definition: Speciesism is the belief that human beings possess more dignity and moral worth than members of other species. Although invention of the term is usually credited to Richard Dudley Ryder, it has been popularized over the past 40 years by the ethicist Peter Singer. For Singer, pure speciesism “is exactly the kind of arbitrary difference that the most crude and overt kind of racist uses in attempting to justify racial discrimination.” We battle it only by recognizing that “mere membership in our own biological species” is not “a morally relevant criterion” for the exercise of rights.

Among animal-rights activists, speciesism has become a rallying cry.  The same concern has long troubled critics of science fiction.  And with this year marking the 25th anniversary of the death of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, the occasion would seem fitting to take brief stock of the speciesism he spent his career battling.

Science-fiction novelists have long worried about how humans might treat other species we encounter. In “The Martian Chronicles,” for instance, Ray Bradbury included stories about the costs of speciesism as a trope for the costs of racism. Such feminist icons as Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Jr. returned to the theme repeatedly. Contemporary sci-fi writing warmly and even aggressively embraces non-human species.

But somehow that attitude rarely finds its way to the screen. Most of the time, malevolent and implacable beings from outer space want to wipe us out, usually for incomprehensible reasons. (They power their spaceships with molten iron? Really? They decide to destroy the planet to keep us from destroying the planet? Really?) The same holds true whether they come to us or we go to them. Other species are dangerous. Even a strict morality play like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (the brilliant 1951 original, not the 2008 remake) managed only to flip the script: The aliens who arrived to teach us a lesson saw us as vastly inferior.

But most speciesism in sci-fi is more subtle, for it concerns not how they treat us but how we treat them. This problem is captured nicely in a clever scene from the 1991 film “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.” During a negotiation, Ensign Chekov proudly explains to the emissaries of the Klingon empire that “all planets have a sovereign claim to inalienable human rights.” The Klingons are unimpressed: “If only you could hear yourselves: ‘Human rights.’ Why, the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a homo-sapiens-only club.”

And therein lies the larger challenge. Nowadays, especially in the big franchises, there are aliens everywhere. But most of the important roles are still reserved for humans.

Consider the original Star Wars trilogy. Let me be clear: I love Star Wars, just as I love Star Trek. Maybe you do, too. Still, think about who mattered. Yoda was crucial, but Chewbacca the Wookiee was essentially a sidekick.  The Ewoks were comic relief. The cantina scene was memorable, but its rich mix of alien species subsequently vanished from the story. And of course, the Empire had hardly any non-humans in its vast armada.

But Star Wars also has more than 30 years of books, video games and other tie-ins, known collectively as the Expanded Universe,  and there, writers found a way to turn this difficulty to the advantage of the story. Speciesism, we learned, was the governing ideology of the Empire itself. Emperor Palpatine was interested in power not for its own sake, but in the greater cause of making sure that only human beings held positions of authority. He was not a racist.  He was a speciesist.

The trope of speciesism for racism works well. Grand Admiral Thrawn, perhaps the greatest creation of the Expanded Universe, is popular among fans precisely because he is a non-human who had to battle discrimination on his way to the top. And here’s how far anti-speciesism has come: Fans seem delighted that Thrawn will be the major villain in the next Star Wars film.

Which brings us back to “Star Trek Beyond.” The ambition of the 50-year-old franchise has always been to present other species as equal, and to some extent it has succeeded. For the original generation of Trekkers, the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock was always the most intriguing member of the crew. Those who loved “Star Trek: The Next Generation” adored Mr. Data, the android who wanted to be human. Fans of “Star Trek: Voyager” (yes, there are some) were most fascinated by Seven of Nine, who was Borg, and The Doctor, who was a hologram.

But the original crew, for all of its fabled racial diversity,  featured only one non-human. And even in the several subsequent series, the bad guys were almost always aliens (with an occasional crazed Starfleet officer mixed in).

The new movie tries to write avoid the problem in part through the careful use of extras and CGI crowds, who on the vast space station known as Yorktown no longer quite look like a mass of humans.  One sees constantly in the background a Starfleet rich with species diversity. This is a change of no small significance. Count the extras in the older Star Trek films or television shows and you will discover that the future is not only human, but overwhelmingly white.

But that’s only the background. In the foreground, too, the filmmakers have tried to write around the problem. For one thing (minor spoiler) the inevitable Crewman Number Six is finally non-human. Then there’s the matter (medium-sized spoiler) of whom our heroes are really fighting. To say more than that would ruin a clever ending. Suffice to say that speciesism is turned neatly on its head.  You’ll have to go and see this delightful film to find out more.

  1. See, for instance, Susan Leigh Anderson’s essay on Isaac Asimov in this volume.

  2. In the second trilogy, Yoda tells us that the Wookiees are important but does not explain why.

  3. In 2014, Disney announced  that the Expanded Universe was no longer canonical.

  4. In “The Force Awakens,” not only is one of the protagonists a black stormtrooper, but we see another black man and also a black woman in the control room of the bad guys’ new not-very-secret weapon.

  5. Okay, it wasn’t all that diverse. In the future, it appears, even if the earth is no longer mostly white, Starfleet will be. Just count the extras. Also, as true Trekkers know, Lt. Leslie actually appeared in more episodes than Mr. Sulu.

  6. Yes, naming the space station Yorktown, although a Trek in-joke, does, alas, still smack of speciesism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net