Alien Monocultures in Star Trek
This is not an article about agriculture! The actual subject is the depiction of alien civilizations in Star Trek, which have been criticized as being generally monolithic entities. Alien cultures appear to lack the racial, linguistic, cultural, religious and social diversity as it can be expected even under an authoritative political system. Individual alien characters are said to be stereotypical representatives of their culture, with too few exceptions.
Critics of the franchise habitually bring forward the issue, especially if their goal is to demonstrate that there must be a hidden political agenda behind Star Trek, one that promotes conformism or intolerance. It may not be feasible to find evidence that would ultimately disprove the assertion of Star Trek being one-sided in the portrayal of aliens, and it would go beyond the scope of this article to scrutinize each and every occurrence of a racial or cultural cliché or its avoidance. But the following considerations, made from a more general point-of-view, may shed some new light on the issue.
This investigation should put special emphasis on the most frequently featured alien species as the ones we probably know most about, with the obvious exception of the Borg as an unparalleled case of extreme uniformity. Any other alien civilization appears to have gradually settled to a common language, a common religion or equivalent atheist philosophy, a common fashion and a common way of life, and not necessarily always by force. Even if it seems like an insignificant observation, all Romulans have the same haircut and the architectural style on any alien planet is usually much more uniform than it was in any era of Earth's history. Seemingly every Klingon seeks to be a warrior, every Vulcan strives to pursue the study of logic, every Ferengi has no other goal than to accumulate wealth, with very few exceptions that are explicitly said to be very uncommon. Exceptions such as Rom as a male Ferengi who is not at all dominated by greed only seem to prove the rule.
Moreover, we have seen several alien cultures in which mere dissent or being different, not even active opposition, was considered a sufficient reason for ostracism or banishment. The "melders" got excluded from the Vulcan society of the 22nd century, and non-neuters among the J'naii were even subject to re-education in TNG: "The Outcast". We can only speculate what would happen to a Klingon who decided to oppose his people's apparent agenda of eternal war and conquest.
But aside from only occasional passers-by, most aliens that we perceive are either military personnel, civilian starship crews or scientists. While these groups do not have to be the elite of their race, it is clear that they can hardly be representative of their fellow countrymen down on the respective homeworld. These "space aliens" can be expected to wear uniforms or other utility garments, but it also is not surprising if they share certain views and certain patterns of behavior.
Usually only the capital or one particular place on an alien planet is in the focus of interest in an episode or story arc. So while the Klingon capital looks like a polluted city from Earth's early industrial age, there may be pleasant places with half-way tidy residences on Qo'noS too, just as well as recreation areas. Only because the starship crew normally would not visit such places that are irrelevant for their mission, it does not mean that they do not exist. And even if it is somewhat pleasant in certain regions of Qon'oS, there may be still many reasons to prefer Risa to go on vacation.
All other alien languages of Star Trek show up so infrequently and incompletely that it would be a stretch to jump to the conclusion that the planets or cultures have just one language. And isn't it that every human seems to speak English all the time by the 24th century? If this is not so outside Starfleet because of the availability of universal translators, languages just have to be equally diverse in advanced alien cultures.
Historical and political comparison
One important point to consider is that most alien governments, including the Ferengi, Cardassian, Bajoran, Klingon and Romulan political systems, are rather authoritative than democratic by present-day human standards. Most of them have clear tendencies of being oligarchic and prone to corruption. Such a system would naturally favor conformance over pluralism and may eventually wind up as a monoculture, even across multiple planets.
Notwithstanding its possible truth, it may be racist to label the Klingons as a "warrior race", as it attributes identical individual characteristics to a whole species. It may be factually flawed as well because realistically not every Klingon can be a warrior, probably not even every second Klingon. In essence, it is the same as the casual statement that "The Soviets/Russians are communists", as it was commonplace during the Cold War. Interestingly, while "the Soviets" never existed as an ethnographic entity, the people of the Soviet Union were commonly identified as such, thus complying with the wish of the communist potentates. Their goal was to get away with or at least obscure the multicultural nature of their country of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Muslims, etc. Alternatively, "Soviets" were often simply equated with Russians, leading to much the same result that the still existing diversity inside the Soviet empire was not recognized. (To many people it came as a huge surprise when the single parts of the Soviet Union separated after the end of the communist rule.) The same considerations may apply to the concept the Federation has of the Klingon Empire. And the apparent centralism with episodes repeatedly focusing on the Klingon capital (which ironically has remained nameless) would comply with the impression that there was no news and hence not much perceptible life in the Soviet Union outside Moscow, let alone in restricted areas.
Ironically, while many episodes deal with political intrigues, in which the nature of an alien government system naturally ought to play a decisive role, we rarely learn more about any of them. And while the Federation, as the embodiment of Roddenberry's vision of a better future, apparently has everything that a democracy needs, the events in DS9's double feature "Homefront" and "Paradise Lost" and especially in "Star Trek: Insurrection" demonstrate that it is still susceptible to essentially the same mistakes as in authoritative regimes such as the Romulan Empire in DS9: "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges" and "Star Trek Nemesis". Anyway, the bottom line is that Star Trek overall provides a surprisingly reasonable picture of interstellar politics, if we take into account that the perception of the other side may be flawed, up to a degree where the adversaries are reduced to clichés.
Practical and narrative considerations
A considerable amount of work goes into the concept of each new alien civilization, even if it is just a "race-of-the-week", or into any further development. The writer ideally comes up with a sketchy history and some cultural and social peculiarities, while the Star Trek Art Department strives to create a distinctive look and style of that species. Sometimes either the budget or the time was not sufficient, and the species ended up as a clone of humanity or of a prominent Trek race. While working out single characteristics is already hard enough, it would probably be a stretch to depict an alien planet-of-the-week as multicultural, not only because of time and budget constraints, but also as it may distract from the story. Even though there is generally no reason to dumb down a plot idea in order to make it more lucid, Star Trek needs consistent concepts to tell a story in just 45 minutes. Like every type of fiction, it may benefit from metaphoric and hence somewhat exaggerated portrayals. This, in addition to the mere statistical consideration that the time to show diverse alien individuals and places is limited, is the ultimate reason why we do not see many alien worlds with cultural variety.
In the cases where one-time civilizations were explicitly shown as diverse, it was either a part of the plot that a planet was divided (such as in TNG: "Attached" or ENT: "Dear Doctor"), or it took place on a generic multicultural trade outpost (such as in VOY: "Tsunkatse" or "Survival Instinct").
Alas, even the budget for the more prominent races is limited, and this is why we always see them with the same props and costumes. However, it is also quite convenient from the position of storytelling that certain sets, weapons, other devices, garments, written language, as well as customs and other cultural aspects can be quickly identified as Klingon and do not need to be explained each time they appear. Also, while re-using the same props for always different races is a minor nuisance, it is very efficient and cost-saving if all aliens of one species wear the same kind of costumes and possess the same kind of devices.
One reason why most alien governments are corrupt and most alien law systems are unjust is immediately obvious. A perfectly working democratic system with almost unlimited personal freedom would not allow for the generic "political intrigue" plot, which is as popular in Star Trek as in most science fiction shows. If there is a seemingly perfect paradise in Star Trek, we can be sure that it will turn out to have huge flaws, such as in TOS: "The Apple" or in TNG: "Justice". Also, alien civilizations routinely serve as an antithesis to Earth and the Federation, which are deemed to remain a constant in an ever changing and "savage" universe (with the previously mentioned exceptions of DS9: "Homefront", "Paradise Lost", "Star Trek: Insurrection" and a few more installments that put the vision to a test).
Alien diversity through the ages
In a similar fashion as in the aforementioned TOS episodes, TNG: "Attached" shows us an alien planet that is politically divided and on which both sides exhibit the same paranoia, insinuating that the people on either side are probably not all that different. TNG introduces the Ferengi who, in retrospect, almost turn out a failure if it was not for Quark and his family on DS9, each of whom repeatedly prove that racial preconceptions about Ferengi are wrong.
Voyager does not show any alien species as exhaustively as TNG did with the Klingons and DS9 with the Bajorans. The literally transitory nature of the series may be the reason why unfortunately most of its recurring races are essentially reduced to one usually horrid aspect. The Kazon as technology scavengers, the Vidiians as organ scavengers, the Hirogen as predators who make even the Klingons look extraordinarily civilized and versatile. Only the Talaxians appear as a somewhat diverse (and likable) species in retrospect, although we see very few of them besides Neelix.
The depiction of regular races in Star Trek Enterprise is disappointing for other reasons. The still most interesting fact is that, In ENT: "Broken Bow", Archer tells Hoshi that the Klingons are "an empire of warriors with eighty poly-guttural dialects constructed on an adaptive syntax." The Klingons in the series, however, are cookie-cutter characters as they have appeared in TNG and DS9 all the time, with the notable exception of the said Klingon lawyer Kolos. He ironically asks Archer whether he thought that all Klingons were warriors. The Xindi, on the other hand, as a society almost as incomprehensible as the Borg, do not really fit into the scope, although they could exemplify the ultimate racial diversity with their five (formerly six) sub-species. Finally, Voyager as well as Enterprise carries on with the tradition of "divided planets" with the civilized Ledosians and the native people in VOY: "Natural Law" and with the Valakians and Menk in "Dear Doctor", respectively.
Earth as a monoculture?
On a provocative thought, isn't 24th century Earth as depicted in Star Trek TNG and its successors a monoculture just as well? It has frequently been labeled as my personal pet peeve that I criticize the predominance of everything American in Earth's culture of the 24th century (such as in human names, for instance). However, regardless of the real-world justification ("It's an American series after all"), could Earth's future be actually like this? Maybe humanity's process of growing together has already begun. The globalization of business, advertising, work, communication and travel will continue to blur cultural borders, and only the "strongest" culture will survive. But if we don't believe in such a development or don't want to resort to the fictional explanation ("Maybe it's what Earth is like after two centuries of American world domination"), couldn't Earth appear just as Americanized to aliens (in addition to the Federation being human-dominated) as alien cultures seem to be monolithic in our eyes?
In addition, humanity as portrayed in Star Trek has a predilection for classic art, literature and music. Spock, Picard, Data, Janeway or the Doctor, for instance, appear to be fond of Earth's culture just up to the 19th century. Above all the Shakespeare references in Star Trek are innumerable. Even though Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of English literature and will still be in the 24th century, there is hardly a place for anyone else. There are comparably few examples of a 23rd or 24th century equivalent of a popular culture, much less of something like a subculture. Homosexuality apparently exists neither as a subculture nor as a generally accepted way of living. A number of crew members such as Tom Paris or Trip Tucker are very much interested in the TV programs, movies, music and cars of the 20th century, and in VOY: "Real Life" we get an impression what a 24th century Klingon-flavored subculture on Earth could look like, when the Doctor's holo-son brings his Klingon friends home. But overall, pop culture of any age seems to alienate many Starfleet officers, like the punk in the bus in "Star Trek IV" or Cochrane's Steppenwolf music in "First Contact" (although I am sure at least Riker liked it). Once again, however, it is necessary to annotate that we customarily do not see "ordinary" human beings but officers and crewmen with a special education.economy of the Federation, but the human nature itself in Star Trek was deliberately laid out by Gene Roddenberry as being "better" than today, and this continued in the sequels, even though some installments cast a shadow on the perfect world that is Earth in the 24th century. But overall Star Trek is governed by the motto "We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity", as Picard explains to Lily in "Star Trek: First Contact".
While the comparison to other science fiction franchises is not supposed to be the topic of this article, is Star Trek in any way less diverse than other science fiction? All science fiction has in common that it can't simply rely on what is customary in the "real world". It needs quickly recognizable fictional concepts, of future technology as well as of utopian political systems and of alien cultures. This is why we are likely to see a good deal of symbolism. It is a matter of personal preference whether this approach is deemed unrealistic. But ultimately only a meticulous documentary can depict a totally realistic and fair scenario, one with technologies just as societies that really work. The success of fiction is up to the writers, who need to come up with a certain fictional quality, and to the viewers, who need to be ready to suspend disbelief.
Thanks to various people at the Subspace Comms Network who commented on the issue, to Ambassador/Ensign_q for a note about the Klingon language, to Rich for the reminder about Klingon dialects and to Q Liftron who reminded me of the non-existence of pop culture in Star Trek.
Monoculture @ DITL