“Anthropologists” in the 24th Century

Star Trek doesn’t know what anthropologists do. That, or the discipline undergoes a radical transformation between now and when TNG is set, in the 24th century.

A few days ago, I watched a season three episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers.” The crew of the Enterprise is called to assist a team of “anthropologists” who have been secretly observing a species of “Bronze Age” humanoids (Mintakans) on another planet.

Pause. Two things.

One, that’s not what anthropologists do. Anthropologists don’t conduct long-term studies of people without their knowledge, consent, or cooperation. That’s unethical, to say the least. The ethnographic methodology is called participant-observation. Not hide-in-a-cave-hidden-by-a-hologram-and-catalog-the-behaviors-of-people-as-if-they-were-an-exotic-species-of-bird. Star Trek seems to think that anthropologists are naturalists, but for humans. (Or, in this case, humanoid aliens.)

This leads to point number two: the whole “Bronze Age” thing, which casts the Mintakans as primitive human Others who are imagined to be from a different time, as opposed to coexisting in the very same century as our technologically advanced “heroes.”* Star Trek‘s (misguided) idea of social evolution gets at the very heart of its most cherished guiding principle: The Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive stipulates that Star Fleet must not interfere with the “natural development” of any alien societies it encounters. This assumes that all societies follow the same trajectory of change over time, passing predetermined stages of (particularly technological) development. These stages seem predicated on a (simplified, Western) notion of human social development on earth. Here Star Trek assumes humanity is a monolithic entity, rather than a complex collection of interconnected cultures that yes, change over time, but not by following a path of predetermined developmental stages. The fictional universe has this problem in general, assuming that each species of alien Star Fleet encounters has but a singular culture.

Furthermore, Star Fleet personnel are forbidden from making their presence known to species or societies that have yet to develop space travel. What if an alien society simply doesn’t value pursuing that area of science and technology? To my (limited) knowledge, that possibility is not considered.

Star Trek‘s vision of the future, like all science fiction, is constrained by its creators’ understandings of the past and present. As Gene Roddenberry and the writers and other folks who worked on the show were embedded in U.S. culture, the show has a particularly Western pop-understanding of multiculturalism, liberalism, and social dynamics. Although it takes pains to present the different species and societies Star Fleet encounters without judgment, Star Trek‘s lack of understanding of how culture operates seriously hinders their ability to do so convincingly. At least for this 21st century anthropologist.


*Here it is crucial to cite Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s seminal 2003 essay, Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.



Filed under Historical, Television and Movies

2 responses to ““Anthropologists” in the 24th Century

  1. I remember that episode very well. I had problems with it on a variety of levels, some that I could articulate and a lot that I couldn’t. But now I’m seeing lots of stuff in Star Trek that I don’t think I’ll be unable to un-see ever again. Your comments also make me think about SciFi as a genre of projection (of course it is) and how much that has to do with its appeal. We map our hopes and anxieties onto an imagined time (and/or place), but on closer examination, all of our current blind spots bleed through. Like how both the original and TNG presume a just, tranquil Earth yet the earthling crew members are about 90 percent white when that doesn’t even remotely represent the demographics of even present-day Earth, where at least 4 billion of the est. 7+ billion people come from predominantly non-white nations. Star Trek ought to look a hell of a lot more like a blend of BET, Telemundo, Bollywood films, and Chinese films than an LA soundstage.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, M.C. This comment of yours deserves to be its own post. Particularly your point about the TNG crew not reflecting the demographics of Earth. Star Trek, for all its intriguing, inspiring ideas, didn’t always walk its talk. Your vision of what Star Trek should have been sounds awesome!


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