By Paul Asay
When Gene Roddenberry created “Star Trek,” he pictured a future dominated by science and human ingenuity–without a lot of religion to muddy things up. Oh, sure, Federation crew members met scads of religious sentient beings around the galaxy, but it turns out most were worshipping computers, power generators, or toga-wearing aliens. Roddenberry didn’t place a lot of faith in faith.
“Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all,” Roddenberry once said. “For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.”
So why does “Star Trek” seem to have such a yen for the Ten Commandments?
Here are 10 examples of how God’s prime directives have found their way into the “Star Trek” franchise.
You Shall Not Have Any Other Gods Before Me
Starship captains gun down false religions with more vigor than Old Testament prophets. Rarely do they travel more than a few light years before they come across a civilization that worships…well, almost anything, from heavy-duty mainframes to light and frothy drinks.
In “The Apple” from the original “Star Trek” series, Captain James Kirk and his crew encounter an idyllic world whose ageless inhabitants feed a computer named Vaal.
It seems like a dandy setup to Mr. Spock, but Dr. McCoy argues that it can’t be healthy to have all your needs met by a “hunk of tin” (perhaps shortly after polishing off a meal created by the Enterprise’s replicator). Eventually, the Enterprise is forced to zap Vaal with its phasers, sending the binary being to an ignoble, smoky end.
The natives are seriously bummed, but Kirk cheers them up by telling them they can now work and struggle and get sick and die just like everyone else. Yay!
You Shall Not Make For Yourself a Carved Image
God is definitely not a fan of idol worship, and the folks from the Enterprise take a very dim view of the practice, too–particularly when they’re the ones being idolized.
In “Star Trek: The Next Generation”‘s “Who Watches the Watchers,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard is mistaken for a god by a culture just a step removed from the Stone Age. He tries to correct the matter by giving one of the inhabitants a grand tour of the ship, patiently explaining the technology behind it all as he goes.
The visiting inhabitant’s convinced, but the village leader? Not so much. So Picard goes down to the planet in person and nearly dies–just to prove his own mortality. It might’ve been easier had he just pointed to his cranium and hollered, “Don’t you think if I was a god I would’ve given myself hair?”
Picard doesn’t do faith any favors in this episode, telling the settlers they’d be better off without religion at all. Still, better that than worshipping a starship captain, right?
You Shall Not Take the Name of the Lord Your God in Vain
“Star Trek” crews tend to eschew profanity: They’re far too urbane to curse every time they run across a Romulan cruiser–unlike, say, their sci-fi brethren from “Battlestar Galactica,” who let loose any “frakking” time they want.
But this commandment goes beyond the concept of cursing and suggests that we should treat God respectfully. And, in “Star Trek”‘s ethos, that goes for other people’s gods, too.
Teen Jake Sisko learns all this during “Deep Space Nine”‘s “In the Hands of the Prophets.” The space station boasts a large contingent of Bajorans, folks who have built a religion around all-knowing entities they call Prophets. Starfleet considers these Prophets just another breed of alien, but when Jake pooh-poohs the Prophets, his father, Commander Ben Sisko, tells him to chill.
“My point is it’s a matter of interpretation,” the commander says. “It may not be what you believe, but that doesn’t make it wrong.” Ben eventually understands this first hand when he “converts” to the Bajoran faith in a big way, becoming a mysterious prophet himself.
Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep it Holy
It’s a rare day indeed when Starfleet personnel attend, en masse, church or synagogue. But throughout “Star Trek”‘s long, long run, we do see many Federation officials engage in religious rituals.
In “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” Spock breaks free from a mysterious emotion-cleansing rite to sign up for the Enterprise’s newest voyage. Worf, the Klingon chief of security in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” engages in a prolonged, deeply spiritual ritual in “Rightful Heir.”
But few characters are as observant in their spiritual rites as Commander Chakotay of “Star Trek: Voyager.” It doesn’t hurt that Chakotay’s Native American beliefs are both practical and flashy: He appears to pray, goes on vision quests, and even helps Captain Kathryn Janeway find her spiritual animal guide.
Honor Your Father and Mother
Kids these days. When Spock decided to join Starfleet instead of going into Vulcan science, it ticked off his dad, Sarek, something awful. Not that he showed it much.
Still, when Sarek arrives on the Enterprise as an ambassador in “Star Trek”‘s “Journey to Babel,” Kirk can’t help but notice the father-son reunion is rather chilly–even by Vulcan standards.
But when things go awry and Sarek has the Vulcan equivalent of a heart attack, it’s up to Spock to save his dear old dad. He does, of course–with a big assist from Dr. McCoy–but does he get a word of thanks?
“Spock acted in the only logical manner open to him,” Sarek says. “One does not thank logic.” Which, when you think about it, is Sarek’s way of saying, “Atta boy, son! I’m proud of you!”
You Shall Not Murder
“Star Trek” has seen its share of casualties, and Enterprise personnel do occasionally set their phasers to “kill.” But murder…well, that’s another thing entirely.
In “The Ultimate Computer,” Kirk’s Enterprise is fitted with a nifty gadget that will supposedly perform most of the ship’s tasks, including those critical in battle. But when the computer starts destroying friendly ships in a mock military exercise, Kirk figures something’s amiss. Turns out, the sentient machine made a mistake and is now trying to save its own skin, refusing all efforts to unplug it.
Kirk eventually has to reason with the machine, arguing that in gunning down the ships and killing a crewman, the computer has committed murder–the punishment for which is death. Swayed by Kirk’s logic, the machine shuts itself down and the Enterprise is saved. Again.
Too bad the HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey” internalized this episode in its own circuits…
You Shall Not Commit Adultery
We all know the folks in “Star Trek” enjoy the occasional romantic dalliance. But the “comely alien in every spaceport” way of doing things doesn’t fly as well when a potential conquest is married–or appears to be.
Consider “The Man Trap” from the original “Star Trek.” Kirk, McCoy, and an expendable henchman beam down to visit Professor Crater and his wife, Nancy–a woman who was once an old flame of the good doctor’s. But when McCoy sees Nancy, he’s amazed that she hasn’t aged a day, and moreover, she’s making googly eyes at him.
Turns out, though, there’s more going on with Nancy than botox injections. Seems she’s actually a salt-hungry alien who can shape shift at will and is flirting with everyone–lusting, as it were, after their salt. Enterprise officials only discover her true identity after several crew members have been seduced to death.
Harsh? Definitely. Still, if there were more shape-shifting, salt-sucking creatures masquerading as married people on earth, infidelity might take a dip downward.
You Shall Not Steal
In most of the galaxy’s more advanced cultures, stealing is considered bad. And in the straight-laced ethos of Starfleet, shoplifting a pack of gum would be enough to earn you some serious brig time.
But let’s not kid ourselves: Thievery’s the name of the game in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”–even for the good guys. Kirk steals two (count ‘em) spaceships–first the Enterprise, then a Klingon “bird of prey”–in order to save his good buddy (Spock). This barely counteracts the burglary the Klingons have in mind, namely stealing a massive doomsday weapon from the Federation.
If Gene Roddenberry had been involved in the film, Starfleet personnel would’ve surely wrestled more with some of the script’s ethics: Do the needs of the one really outweigh the needs of the many? Is it really OK to swipe a starship, even with the best of intentions? But Roddenberry didn’t have much to do with this “Trek,” so Kirk et al blast by these moral conundrums at warp speed.
You Shall Not Lie
Starfleet personnel are loath to lie, and some galactic residents (Vulcans, for instance) are practically incapable of it. Oh, sure, a Starfleet captain will fib occasionally…but only if he really, really needs to.
All bets are off, though, if Starfleet officials are infected with gruesome, mind-gnawing Ceti eels, as were Captain Clark Terrell and First Officer Pavel Chekov in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
Once these evil eels crawled into their ears and wrapped themselves around their brainstems, they suddenly found themselves fibbing more than Pinocchio (or, perhaps, Rod Blagojevich) and, in so doing, gave Khan a really serious bomb and Kirk a really serious ulcer. Terrell and Chekov hated to do it, of course: It was hard to tell what was causing them more pain–the eels or the lies.
You Shall Not Covet
Having your brain stuffed in a big, glowing orb for 600,000 years is bound to make anyone a little stir crazy. So was the case with Sargon, Thalassa, and Hanoch, the wise aliens du jour of the “Star Trek” episode “Return to Tomorrow.”
Sargon asks Kirk, Spock, and pretty Dr. Ann Mulhall if they can take over their bodies–just for a bit–so they can stretch their existential legs and construct permanent robots in which their brains can reside.
All goes well enough, until Hanoch, who’s loitering inside Spock’s uber-strong, green-blooded body, decides he’d much rather keep it. He tries to kill off Sargon, nearly convinces Thalassa to keep hers to, and performs all manner of dastardly deeds before his plans finally crumble. The moral: Coveters never prosper.