The Human Frontier
Michèle Barrett and Duncan Barrett
by Rudi Dornemann
After thirty plus years, Star Trek has accumulated quite a body of material: multiple TV series and movies created by shifting teams of producers and writers, actors and crew. In spite of this behind-the-scenes change, the franchise has its on-going organizing principles: persistent touchstone ideas, multi-episode story arcs, and long term character continuity. There's more to be found sifting through the reruns, however, and, in Star Trek: The Human Frontier, literary and cultural theory specialist Michèle Barrett her teen-aged son Duncan Barrett find thematic connections and intriguing continuities in Star Trek's treatment of humanity and its frequent foil, alienness.
The Barretts offer a perceptive and thorough reading of the several series and movies, organizing their discussion around the franchise's ideas of what it means to be, or not be, human. They find much to explore in Trek's various alien races, mirror universe excursions and plot-enabling transporter mishaps. Their examination of these ideas is generally insightful, as when they note "Star Trek is working with two different categories of organic humanoid aliens: those who 'carry' the burden of meaning of significant difference (such as a wrathful Klingon), that will probably lead to conflict, and those who, like Neelix, simply register 'difference' in their bodies and appearance." And fortunately, the Barretts' discussion of humanity ranges rather widely. It covers the obvious contrast between Federation culture and aliens like Klingons and Ferengi who offer some transformed reflection of humanity. However, it also encompasses the ways in Star Trek's occasional jaunts into possible futures or mirror universes illuminate humanity through contrasting visions of the characters who have become so familiar from week to week.
As interesting as this central exploration is, it's bracketed by two briefer sections that are not as thorough, but are perhaps more incisive. The Barrett's introductory chapter examines Star Trek in the context of the seafaring literature of the great age of sea-going sail and steam, with its connection between nautical exploration and colonial exploitation. In grounding their discussion of humanity in Star Trek in Melville and Conrad, C.S. Forrester and Patrick O'Brian, they find nautical roots not only for the series' shipboard command structure and nautical lingo, but for its multi-racial and multi-species crews. They point out that sea-going and space-going narratives alike place the captain in the in a privileged decision-making position, because, in both cases, authorities at home are too far away to make moment-to-moment decisions. Their closing section contrasts what the Barretts describe as the "modern rationalism" of The Next Generation with the "post-modern flexibility" they find in Deep Space Nine and Voyager, as evidenced by the treatment of religion and of madness in the different series.
These sections feature what's best throughout the book: a thorough knowledge of the Star Trek canon, along with a perceptive analysis of what all that exploration adds up to.