Stefan Rabitsch: Star Trek’s Transatlantic Double Consciousness

“Space. The final frontier.” This is the iconic opening line of Star Trek, one of the most widely recognized science fiction universes in popular culture. Many also mistakenly perceive Star Trek to be just a ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’, that is, a space western/space opera which projects the U.S. American frontier into outer space. Yet, language can be deceiving.

By introducing his starship captain in archetypal terms as a “space-age Captain Horation [sic] Hornblower” and by making him a descendant of “similar [naval] men in the past”, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, makes it fairly clear that “the leading man and central character” in the Star Trek continuum is anything but a simple Cooperesque/Wisterian frontier hero, who would be riding the metaphoric wagon train west(space)ward. In fact, the starship captains of this fictional future represent the central node in the decidedly transatlantic double consciousness of the Star Trek continuum, i.e., a maritime endowment which has largely escaped scholarly attention. Just like C. S. Forester’s fictional naval captain, Horatio Hornblower, was consciously conceived as a transatlantic hero, catering to both American and British readerships before, during and after WWII, Star Trek also taps into the national mythologies of both the U.S. and Great Britain to tell its stories of seamlessly imagined centuries.

In my dissertation, I seek to (re)map the contours of what is commonly (mis)perceived as being just a U.S. American pop-culture artifact by exposing how the Star Trek continuum is endowed with a theme which I describe as ‘Britannia, rule the waves!’. This nautical endowment manifests itself along five interrelated maritime dimensions, which range from Star Trek‘s nautical discourse and its ‘sailing’ starships to the Starfleet captains, who command these vessels as re-imagined naval officers of the Romantic period. All of this is set against the future backdrop of a benignly imperial, interstellar Golden Age of Sail.

This narrative (re)mapping delineates the Star Trek continuum as a product of transatlanticity by exposing the cultural practices and traditions which unmistakably historicize Star Trek‘s fictional future as a re-imagined/mythologized Golden Age of Sail in outer space. The Captain’s Log as being both a maritime tradition and a historical archive imprinted with a Stardate, emerges as the single most important narratological device which facilities the writing of future (hi)stories. Being Horatio Hornblowers in space, the Star Trek captains perform the onomastically encoded role of the narrator/chronicler of their future which is transferred from the archetypal model they are based on, mixing Nelsonian resemblance with Shakespearean discourse. This (re)mapping also systematically delineates the numerous naval rituals, the purposeful interweaving of maritime intertexts from both sides of the Atlantic and the perennial visual presence of nautical paraphernalia in the mis-en-scène, and frames them as constitutive artifacts of Star Trek‘s historical future. Maritime power, order, discipline and knowledge are written onto the vastness of an outer space that is aesthetically and discursively constructed as an oceanic seascape.

My dissertation takes the shape of a concise historiographic primer to Star Trek‘s (re)imagined transatlantic future of wind and sail, which draws on a romantic lament for the mythologized simplicity and grandeur of the British Golden Age of Sail. After all, Roddenberry clearly stated that “[t]he situation of this interstellar society is almost exactly analogous to the Earth of the eighteenth century.” The ‘Britannia, rule the waves!’ theme bespeaks a transatlantic double consciousness which celebrates an Anglophone cultural continuum transposed into a fictional, yet ‘historical’ future. Ultimately, I aim to provide a (con)textual manual as to how this British nautical discourse works in Star Trek‘s transatlantic thematic makeup.

(University of Klagenfurt)