A Feature Review of
The Gospel According to Star Trek: The Original Crew
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
“Space…the final frontier.” For over 50 years—five decades—that phrase has gathered generations of fans around their televisions and in the cinemas to join in the ongoing mission of the starship Enterprise as it seeks out new life and new civilizations, as it boldly goes where no one has gone before! Wow, I am getting chills just typing it out.
Culturally speaking, Star Trek is at the pinnacle. It has survived cancellations, mockumentaries and a bottomed-out fan base, only to become an endearing icon on the cultural landscape. There are countless streams in which the Enterprise sails: television and films, merchandising, publishing, discography (of which the most awesome is this album), and, of course, conventions. To be quite poignant, Star Trek has gone where, culturally, no one had gone before.
At one time, it was a joke to be called a Trekkie. SNL even did an infamous skit where fan-favorite William Shatner insulted fans, begging them to “get a life” because “it’s just a TV show.” Yet Star Trek has endured to become a (if not the) gold standard of science fiction fandom. Cosplayers and scholars alike will argue until the eschatological final act is played out as to which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars (and while I love both, I never built a Death Star set in my basement when I was a kid). Yet, to borrow a line from another long-standing cultural icon, nobody does it better than Star Trek.
The question, then, is why. Why has Star Trek maintained its status atop the cultural heap? Many other serials have come and gone, some even emulating Star Trek, yet none ever fully refining or replacing it. It lasted only three seasons, a grand total of 79 episodes. Yet it produced a cartoon series (the cult favorite “fourth season”), six original films, The Next Generation spin-off (with four films of its own), three additional spin-off serials (with one on the way later this year), a host of video games, books and comics, various lines of clothing, fan-made films, and conventions. In the words of the Screen Junkies guys, Star Trek is cool again. And, yet, the question as to why still stands before us. Why do we connect with Star Trek?
Some will say it is the thirst for exploration. Some will say it is the ever-present paradox of promoting justice while also respecting non-interference (the great “prime directive” debate). Some will say it is the presentation of Roddenberry’s utopian future (our desire to return to Eden). And while all of these may be true to some degree or another, Kevin Neece argues that there is another reason, a deeper reason, why we have turned in to the voyages of the starship Enterprise all these years—because Star Trek is a vehicle for the gospel!
It has been said that the best person to describe a belief system is one who had once accepted that system, eventually rejected that system, and then returned to it once again with renewed vigor and interest. We see this in Christians who abandon their faith for the pleasures of the world, only to return to the faith later in life. It seems fitting, perhaps, that the author of The Gospel According to Star Trek is someone who was once an avid Trekkie who eventually “left” Star Trek, only to return to space with a renewed interest and vigor. Neece discusses this prodigal relationship with Star Trek in the opening pages. For Neece, as with many fans, it was The Next Generation films that did it for him. These films were what drove him away from Star Trek. Yet they were also what brought him back to Star Trek. Specifically, it was the revelation of a clearly-defined Christ-figure in the character of Data, an android command officer that was the TNG equivalent to Spock from the original series. This spiritual awakening drove Neece back to the bridge of the Enterprise, the hub of activity—the sanctuary, if you will—for these fantastic voyages not only into space but also into what it means to be human and to, ultimately, be created in another’s image.
It is easy to scoff at the spiritual value of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was a self-proclaimed atheist and lived an unabashed “pagan” lifestyle. Overtly, the voyages of the Enterprise sought to undermine religion and, specifically, a belief in the divine. At various points in the original episodes, the crew of the Enterprise comes up against a force that claims to be divine and demands worship and servitude while claiming to be, at best, a benevolent dictator. The crew immediately questions the morality of the perceived spiritual oppression and spends the next 37-42 minutes seeking a way to free those under the boot of this divine dictator (usually zapping the locus of the deity’s power with the ship’s phasers, the logic and physics of which are actually quite mind-boggling). Once the deity has been checked and the people have been freed, the crew returns to the ship to continue their voyages. One can easily get the impression that religious adherence is bad and humanism is good.
And, yet, that may exactly be the point—adherence to a false religion is bad. For example, in “Who Mourns for Adonis?,” the crew encounters a deity that claims to be the ancient Greek go Apollo. Apollo demands worship from the crew of the Enterprise, to which Captain Kirk snaps, “We find the one God quite adequate.” The funny thing is that that is hardly the only reference to God or even to Christianity. In fact, the original series is chalked full of references to the Christian religion. Many come from Spock, the Vulcan science officer whose appearance was once criticized as being satanic yet overtly serves as a Christ-image in his own right. When the crew of the Enterprise finally discovers “God” in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (the low point of the original film franchise), they reject the image presented to them because God cannot be limited in presence, power, knowledge or self-evidence. In short, God cannot be finite but must be wholly-other in order to be God, a theme that has been a long-standing consistent theme of the series. In seeking to understand what it means to be human, the voyages of the starship Enterprise take us straight to God and argue quite convincingly that we cannot understand ourselves without understanding the one who created us in his divine and sovereign image. Star Trek’s gospel may be subtle yet it is hardly insignificant. After all, there may be no greater missional phrase than “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book. I, too, am one who walked away from Star Trek only to come back. My passion was reignited through the current reboot films, which Neece addresses wonderfully. It should be understood that this slim volume is only “an introduction” to the theological themes that are present in the original properties of Star Trek (more books are planned). Additionally this is not a volume of film criticism. It is, however, a wonderful exploration of the faith of a wanderer trying to discover his place in the universe. Engage!