The Daily Sentinel

Boldly going: Duo explores how Star Trek affects society

By Meagan O’Toole-Pitts
Published January 2, 2012

Photo of Owen and Anne Smith with Star Trek materials
Photo by Andrew Brosig
    Stephen F. Austin State University professors Owen, left, and Anne Smith, Ph.D., pose with some of their Star Trek collection used as research material for a scholarly work they co-authored, "Pragmatism and Meaning: Assessing the Message of Star Trek: The Original Series." The paper has been published in "Participations," an on-line, peer-review journal in England which studies how the public relates to messages in a variety of media and popular culture, the Smiths said.

Owen Smith and Anne Collins-Smith, associate professors of philosophy and classical studies at Stephen F. Austin State University, know their Star Trek.

Married for 27 years, they have had more than just a few conversations exploring the effects on society of Star Trek, the original series which aired from 1966 through 1969.

Years of fandom and research culminated in their article, "Pragmatism and Meaning: Assessing the Message of Star Trek: The Original Series," published in the November 2011 issue of Participations: The Journal of Audience and Reception Studies.

Drawing on Star Trek fan fiction and the American pragmatist movement, the couple details a philosophical approach to understanding the affect of Star Trek on society.

Star Trek, which aims to depict a utopian society free of prejudice, was sometimes contradictory to it's aim, lending itself to interpretations which unveil messages of racism and sexism, according to the article.

However, in order to speak to a 1960s audience, Star Trek had to paint just such a skewed picture of utopia, Owen said.

"It had to have those flaws to be successful in communicating its message to its audience because the series had to address the audience in the place where the audience was with the sort of world view that the audience actually possessed," he said.

Star Trek was a bridge between society as it was in the 1960s to the type of society the creators and writers of the series envisioned for the future, Owen said.

In spite of the flaws, Star Trek has a positive effect on society, the couple deduced.

The series was one of several factors that aided society in its progression to what it is today - a society less accepting of prejudice.

"People need to be able to envision a future society in order to work toward it," Anne said.

As a pop culture artifact frequented by widely-varying members of society, Star Trek leads society to approach a utopian state asymptotically, getting closer and closer to a world free of prejudice, Owen said.

But because of the human element, perfection is unreachable, Anne said.

"Because utopia's really an ideal, you never quite get all the way to an ideal, but you try to get closer and closer," Anne said. "You can always do better. You're always trying to be better people in a better society."

Star Trek does not depict a perfect society, but it serves as an example of improvements which can be made, Owen said.

Rather than perfection, orderly conflict is a goal to strive for, he said.

Conflict is sometimes necessary to bring about new ideas and positive progression.

"The message of Star Trek, I think, is to find appropriate modes in which conflict can be expressed without it being overly destructive or overly restrictive," Owen said.

In addition, Star Trek promotes celebration rather than apathetic tolerance of others, Anne said.

The path to a better society is not paved by blurring the differences between peoples, she said, but rather by appreciating distinction.

"We try to celebrate that distinctiveness, rather than trying to make everybody the same," Anne said.

Bringing popular culture to class

"It's fascinating how a TV show can inspire music and written stories," Anne said. "It's crossing over from one medium to another. It's fascinating to see what people respond to in a narrative."

Anne and Owen regularly use pop culture to engage students in philosophy.

"In our introductory classes, we use things like Star Trek episodes that help people understand difficult philosophical concepts," Anne said. "Des Cartes talks about mind and body as two separate things. And there's a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk's mind gets swapped with the mind of an evil scientist. His mind is in her body. That makes it easier for the student to visualize what it means to say that mind and body are two separate things."

In an upper division course on philosophy and Harry Potter, Anne played Wizard Rock, music by Harry Potter fans.

"It reflects (Harry Potter fans') take on the Harry Potter universe and their perspective," Anne said. "The students analyze those in terms of some of the philosophical positions that we've been studying. That was a place where we were really able to use audience reaction and products produced by an audience in reaction to gain a deeper understanding."

Teaching students to think critically about information they absorb, whether it is a TV show, book or news article, begets a "self-reflective, intellectually-engaged life," Owen said.

"It's good for them to take that skill and transfer it to pretty much everything they read, because in order to be educated citizens and aware consumers, we need to recognize the messages that are embedded in so many pop culture products," Anne said.

Click here for a more personal profile of the Smiths.

Click here to return to Dr. Anne Collins Smith's faculty website.