Star Trek as Canadian content

Make a list of the people most responsible for Star Trek’s conception and early development. Roughly, that list would be Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, DC Fontana, Samuel Peeples, Matt Jefferies, Herb Solow and Robert Justman. They are all American.

But what they created is Canadian on a fundamental level. That idea was new to me and — once pointed out — obvious. 

A black-and-white portrait of novelist Robert J. Sawyer
Robert J. Sawyer

I love Star Trek for many reasons, paramount of which is its optimistic view of the future, but there was always an element I couldn’t quite identify, a quality that connected me to the message but which I was never able to articulate. I recently sat down with one of the world’s foremost science-fiction novelists, Robert J. Sawyer, to discuss Boarding the Enterprise, the Star Trek book he edited with David Gerrold. It’s a fascinating and unique book and you should read my article on it and then go buy it.

During that interview, Rob, who is Canadian, identified the aspect of my fandom that had eluded me.

I looked at…Star Trek first from a Canadian perspective. That peace is better than war, that multiculturalism is better than uniformity, and to me Star Trek was so Canadian in most of its vision. The rhetoric that you would hear was what Canada was supposed to be.

Rob is right. The ideals of Star Trek, the heart, the aspiration, are absolutely consistent with the best elements of Canadian society. Neither I nor Rob would suggest Canada is a utopia. We have gun violence and racial problems and poverty, but it is fair to say that we suffer those ills to a far lesser degree than do most countries. 

Cultural mosaic

Although we don’t use the term as much anymore, Canada views itself as a cultural mosaic, a whole composed of pieces that are themselves distinct and unique. This contrasts to the melting-pot concept, in which being American means being the same. 

Plato’s Stepchildren is about power imbalances and what the mighty do to those outside of the norm. Not the best episode, it nonetheless contains among the most Star Trek of lines. Kirk tells Alexander: “…where I come from, size, shape, or color makes no difference…” Alexander doesn’t have to be like everyone else. He can be both different and valid.

A screencap from the Star Trek episode Plato's Stepchildren, in which Captain Kirk is speaking with Alexander, a character and an actor who is a little person, and who's stature is germane to the episode.
All episode photos from TrekCore

Infinite diversity

The Vulcan concept of infinite diversity in infinite combinations was introduced in Is There In Truth No Beauty? and while the IDIC symbol was created for a real-world commercial reason, its sentiment is very much in keeping with the philosophy of Star Trek

Miranda Jones’ parting words to Spock make the same value statement as Kirk’s to Alexander: “The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”

We’re not going to kill…today

Kirk is often presented with the opportunity to take ostensibly justified revenge on an enemy. The Horta in The Devil in the Dark, Balok in The Corbomite Maneuver and the Gorn of Arena are all at his mercy — yet he stays his hand. Even the vanquishing of Apollo in Who Mourns For Adonais? is an occasion for regret rather than a fist-pump of victory. As Rob said, time and again Star Trek tells us that preserving life is better than taking it. 

A screencap from the Star Trek episode Arena, in which Kirk has defeated the lizard-like Gorn in combat and kneels over the unconscious foe. Kirk holds a sharp rock but is hesitating before killing his adversary.

The group that fashioned Star Trek in its early days were all American, and yet what they created uses ideals drawn from the Canadian example. Think of the Federation itself: a collaborative organization founded by very different people which promotes exploration, peace, and the common good, and which sends its ships out into the void to meet more people and invite them to contribute to the group. It is a cultural mosaic writ large.

A scene from the Star Trek episode Is There In Truth No Beauty? Spock, standing at the transporter console, is wearing the Vulcan IDIC necklace.

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