Star Trek Culture

Popular culture, by definition, is of the moment–movies, television programs, music and other entertainment that reflects contemporary concerns or embraces current social preoccupations. Many examples–probably most–have limited staying power; even fewer can be shown to have influenced the development of the culture rather than simply reflecting it.

Star Trek is one of those; it continues to exert significant influence over the broader culture. (Disclosure: I’m a huge fan.)

The original series has been followed by several others incorporating creator Gene Roddenberry’s humane and very explicit moral themes celebrating the pursuit of knowledge, justice, and mutual understanding. Trek’s various iterations promote diverse, open and welcoming cultures populated by people committed to reason, tolerance and the common good.

An interesting article from the New York Times explored Jewish influences on the social vision that animates the Star Trek universe. it was prompted by an exhibit mounted by The Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum in Los Angeles.

Many fans of the show are aware that Spock’s signature “live long and prosper” greeting, with its distinctive hand gesture, originated from a Hebrew blessing that Leonard Nimoy first glimpsed at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue as a boy and brought to the role.

The prominently displayed photo of that gesture linking Judaism to Star Trek culture helps account for what might seem to be a highly illogical bit of programming: the decision by the Skirball, a Jewish cultural center known mostly for its explorations of Jewish life and history, to bring in an exhibition devoted to one of television’s most celebrated sci-fi shows.

The Times pointed out that Jewish influence didn’t stop with the Vulcan blessing; according to one of the writers quoted in the article, Jewish values and traditions were often on the minds of the show’s writers as they dealt with issues of human behavior and morality.

“A lot of Jewish tradition — a lot of Jewish wisdom — is part of ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘Star Trek’ drew on a lot of things that were in the Old Testament and the Talmud,” Gerrold said in an interview. “Anyone who is very literate in Jewish tradition is going to recognize a lot of wisdom that ‘Star Trek’ encompassed.”…

Jessie Kornberg, the president of Skirball, said that the center had been drawn by the parallels between Judaism and the television show. “Nimoy’s Jewish identity contributed to a small moment which became a big theme,” she said. “We actually think the common values in the ‘Star Trek’ universe and Jewish belief are more powerful than that symbolism. That’s this idea of a more liberal, inclusive people, where ‘other’ and ‘difference’ is an embraced strength as opposed to a divisive weakness.”

The exhibition explored the outsized influence of the Star Trek vision on American culture. As one of the individuals quoted in the article put it,  “‘Star Trek’ has endured and inspired people because of the optimistic future it presents,” and especially the moral vision it promotes. Brooks Peck, who helped put the original exhibition together, observed that a Star Trek exhibit at a Jewish museum wasn’t as far-fetched as it first seemed.

“Skirball faced a bit of a challenge in trying to explain to its audience how ‘Star Trek’ fit in with what they do,” he said. “Happily it completely worked out. I had always hoped that Skirball could take it. Skirball’s values as an institution so align with the values of ‘Star Trek’ and the ‘Star Trek’ community.”

The operative word is values. Star Trek’s influence is a direct result of its coherent and appealing value structure. Those values were influenced by Judaism, but they are also congruent with the message of other non-fundamentalist religions and non-theistic philosophies: commitment to an open and welcoming society, a respect for intellect, science and truth, and a fierce advocacy of social justice and the common good.

The crews that populate the Enterprise and other Star Trek vessels are visual representations of the worst nightmares of the Hoosier culture warriors I wrote about yesterday, and of the retrograde throwbacks who attacked the U.S. Capitol. They are filled not just with diverse humans, but also diverse species, working together with civility and mutual respect in a society that places an especially high value on the ongoing search for knowledge and exploration.

Americans have a choice. We can emulate the ignorance and disordered bigotries of people like Donald Trump, or we can aim for the enlightenment values of Star Trek characters like Jean Luc Picard.

We can join the Neanderthals who are resentful of “others” and terrified of being “replaced”— or we can choose the humane and affirming values that animate Star Trek, humanist philosophy, and many liberal religions.

Values that will help us Live Long and Prosper.


  1. I’m not sure I get the either/or comparison of our body politic with morality. In fact, I’m having a hard time finding morality in anything related to our government.

    As for egos, there are clearly those who believe they are better than others for whatever reason. Egos and our brains love to judge, compare, and elevate our worths for whatever reason.

    One pant leg at a time… 😉

  2. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Skirball Star Trek exhibit travelled to Newfields! I’d put in a penny and a pound for that. I’m a longtime star Shrek fan myself. Though a Christian I’ve given the sign and wished long life and prosperity to many and wasn’t just trying to be cute.
    One of my favorite episodes was about Kirk and crew first being exposed to Borg food and discovering they lived to tell it. Thanks for this good cultural piece and the reminder that our integration, cooperation, and respect for everything is critical to survival.

  3. My Star Trek fan days ended with the original TV series with Captain Kirk and “Beam me up, Scotty!” “Many examples–probably most–have limited staying power; even fewer can be shown to have influenced the development of the culture rather than simply reflecting it.” I do agree with this statement regarding the lack of influence resulting in the public; obviously considering the issues to be only a movie based on someone’s talented imagination used to make the millions we see when new movies come out.

    Just last night I was channel surfing and stopped on an old TCM movie from the 1930s just to see what it was about. The scene was a penthouse party of one wealthy character where two men were discussing the unusually warm weather that night. One of the men stated he had been reading information that warmer weather would be normal in the future; having “something” to do with the Gulf Stream”. That was the 1930s; move ahead to “Soylent Green” which was considered science fiction but… We all know that Climate Change and Global Warming has been ignored as fiction for decades.

    And today we have the Netflix hit movie around the world “Don’t Look Up” as a comedy. I always let my Netflix selection run to the end of the final credits to prevent my next sign on to bring up that screen; did anyone else run their viewing past that long list to see the actual end of “Don’t Look Up”? What appeared to be a very large drone containing the president, the world’s richest white guy and a number of select others landed somewhere and they all emerged totally naked, where the president was attacked by a huge bird-like creature. Not sure what the final message of the movie is with that ending; anyone have an idea?

  4. For JoAnn: to me the “Don’t Look Up” surprise ending means “you can’t escape your own evil, whether by distance or time.” Long live the broctosaurs.

  5. It seems very logical to me that a people who have their own space lasers would have an enduring connection to Star Treks old and new.

  6. Shiela, I became a “Trekkie” with the original series and still love TNG reruns. I concur that the series had, and continues to exemplify strong values , moral commitment to the good of the many and the importance of following facts and truth. These values are common in most religious cultures, but in many these days the golden idol and power worship has taken over as the values they espouse. I am sure they were always there, but these times of chaos and fear we need the values of Star Trek more than ever.

  7. I grew up in avery small town with a very rural culture so am a product of it in almost every way. It’s my culture, my way of emulating the behavior of those like me who I first observed behavinging “normally”.

    Three things interrupted my development in becoming a faithful product. My insatiable curiosity encouraged in every way by my parents. The fact that I left home at 18 to move to a different planet, Virginia of the 60s. My relocation to a city (though small enough to act in many ways small town) as a requirement to find an engineering job.

    Did that make me liberal? I remained a Republican for several decades and I would say that it was the trajectory of the Republican Party that made me a liberal, but who knows?

  8. As a ST fan (though not really a trekkie) I agree with and support most of this blog item. I do have a tiny quibble in that I see no reason to exclude Christian wisdom (NOT evangelical patriarchal/nationalist/racist etc. hogwash) from the mix. The wisdom of Christ is consistent with the inclusive wisdom of other spiritual systems.

    Much of White Evangelical Christianity labelled Star Trek as evil and can be expected to again mount a surge of criticism following this article. I think that should be a criteria for declaring anything to be a cultural influence.

  9. gee,truck driving and working 16 plus hours a day, everyday, didnt give me much tube time. instead i cruise down the backroads, looking between trees, and old stuff. star trek, didnt make much on my radar. seems i was led to the documentry world of reality. i guess seeing terra firma everyday and its causes was enough horror for todays “space”flight, on earth. but then again,being i missed so much tube,gave me more insight to grab that old newspaper( when we had newspapers) that was left on some ones table at the truckstop. nan nu,nan nu all!

  10. Yep, I’m a big fan.

    Always was, and absolutely The Federations mission to seek out new life and civilizations, Actually Meld’s quite well with the Mosaic Law.

    The mind melding Could be attributed to the Levites Who were the temple priests.

    I’m not Exactly sure where this was but a couple of years ago when that lunatic attacked a synagogue, I believe it was on the East Coast, the Rabbi Actually performed the live long and prosper sign. I knew It was part of Jewish culture. Of course since Leonard Nimoy was Jewish, I’m sure he had something to do with bringing it into the Star Trek culture. That being said, the first time I had seen Anyone other than Leonard Nimoy doing it, was about 30 years ago. And it was during a ceremony of some sort. I was surprised when they showed the Rabbi that day and nobody actually commented on him making that sign with his hand.

    The Klingons are actually like the Babylonians, they hated everyone. And if they conquered another civilization they try to erase it’s culture and indoctrinate them with their own Babylonian culture. The Bible book of Daniel actually brings that out quite dramatically.

    In 1970 , I was 11 years old, and I joined Starfleet, lol, and was an Ensen At that time. Starfleet’s Prime directive also lines up quite well with the Mosaic Law in respecting all life forms. It really is a shame that so many people Don’t respect the Pentateuch or the Torah for that matter but can take the exact same lessons from Star Trek and it becomes more believable to them. That’s really a sad state of affairs.

    I suppose not unlike having to have a human king, to have a visible presence of authority. Of course we all know that many of those visible kings did not Stick to the Mosaic law very well. During the Exodus The Israelites needed to have a way to communicate with God themselves instead of having to deal with Moses or Aaron. So through communication with God, Moses instituted the The sacrifice and all the parameters of it. Having the law was not enough. There had to be rituals and imagery of a king and on and on and on.

    Just like with Star Trek/Star Fleet, It takes imagery, People want to be entertained when they worship, having a relationship with God is never enough. And in the process of being entertained, as a result, There happens to be a lot of false doctrine entering into the scenario of worship. And, That’s a shame.

  11. All this talk about values is well and good, but I’m still waiting to be issued my hand phaser.

  12. Star Trek is “filled not just with diverse humans, but also diverse species, working together with civility and mutual respect in a society that places an especially high value on the ongoing search for knowledge and exploration.”
    We should be so lucky!

  13. I try to have a bit more sympathy for the Trump followers than calling them “retrograde throwbacks”, although it’s quite a struggle sometimes. I have found myself repeatedly reminding people who I get into conversations with about Trump’s followers, that half the population has an IQ under 100. And on top of that most of these people have not been well educated. And someone remined me just the other day, speaking of the Trumpers in congress who graduated from Ivy League schools, that the recent admissions scandels as well as the many legacy students who are 45 percent more likely to get into an ivy league school than someone who is not a legacy student, are evidence that even many of the congressional Trumpers may be be to smart, in spite of the ivy education.

    So they aren’t the brightest lightbulbs, They aren’t well educated. Many of the Trump followers have identities based on their being better than the N***ers, so success among blacks becomes not just against their values, but attacking their sense of who they are. It shouldn’t be any surprise that they got sucked into the Fox News alternate reality and the sucked in again to Trumps Fantasy save the world from the left cult. And just to add insult to injury, the Democrats never really fought back against the shift brought about in the Reagan administration. Instead they becamse “neoliberatls” which is just a fancy name for corporatists who are a little nicer. It’s a sad situation we have let ourselves be dragged into. And I’m the personification of the eternal optimist, lol. So sad. Maybe I should be calling them “retrograde throwbacks”. No, I think it is counteproductive.

  14. In every Star Trek episode and film, the Captain and crew is faced with a moral and/or ethical dilemma and has to make a choice, usually between aggression and non-interference. The choice is rarely simple, and in the best of the genre the outcomes are never cut and dried and entirely satisfactory to all parties. The Old Testament stories of a wandering people facing off with other cultures and trying to define themselves in the wilderness certainly resonates. The most important governing concept offered by Roddenberry and in continual development over time is the ‘prime directive’. It’s practice and application requires nothing less than true humility bonded with compassion. Would that all cultures could learn this lesson, so that we can all evolve toward our common success and survival.

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