This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
The focus of this blog has shifted, re-shifted, and centered itself in various ways since I began writing back in 2013. Despite that, I’ve tried to remain fairly consistent in continuing what brought me to writing here in the first place: putting together analyses of episodes from Star Trek: The Original Series with a contemporary sociological point of view. Initially, I attempted to try and write about each episode in order of air date, but recently I’ve changed to highlighting episodes in no particular order in favor of exploring particular themes. Up until now, I’ve stayed within the confines of the first season, however in light of recent, tragic, events (such as, but not limited to, the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castile in my home state of Minnesota, as well as the shooting deaths of 5 police officers in Dallas, TX), the episode that has been speaking to me the most is season 3’s The Cloud Minders.
Many would argue that The Cloud Minders is a fairly unremarkable and substandard episode that wasn’t particularly well executed. After watching it myself, however, I felt that it was incredibly underrated and found a lot to take away from it.
The plot focuses on the crew of the Enterprise interacting with the people of the planet Ardana, whose class structure is rigidly divided between the affluent and elite city-dwellers and the working-class miners known as the Troglytes (from troglodyte, a term for a person inhabiting a cave). The city-dwellers, led by High Advisor Plasus, live in Stratos, a city that floats among the clouds. Far below, on Ardana’s surface, live the Troglyte miners whose intense labor allows for those above them to live the lavish and easy-going lives that they enjoy.
Kirk and Spock arrive on Ardana during a time of political strife. The Troglyte underclass (which also includes individuals in servitude within the city of Stratos) has begun to resist their poor treatment and attempt to rise up against their oppressors. Their actions, while seen as liberating to fellow Troglytes, is understood as nothing short of terrorism to those in Stratos.
The story plays out in typical Star Trek fashion; Kirk and Spock are given the roles of objective outsiders and act as a lens for us as viewers to look at the classist divides on Ardana as a hyperbolic representation of our own societal class systems. What I love about this episode, however, is the personification of the varying perspectives in an issue such as this. High Advisor Plasus very clearly represents the malicious, intentional, institutionalized discriminatory practices (weather it be classism or racism). The Troglyte leader of the uprising, Vanna, represents the persecuted underclass seeking justice. Plasus’ daughter, Droxine, represents one of the more interesting perspectives in this story, one that often doesn’t get a lot of attention. Droxine has a naïve curiosity and fascination with the Troglytes, but can not quite understand why they seem to be fighting against the upper class city-dwellers. Droxine represents the inherent privilege and subconscious prejudices to which many of us in the real world are oblivious. She knows that she has never done anything personally to negatively impact the Troglytes; yet at the same time she fails to understand the fact that, simply because of her status at birth, she has been awarded opportunities that the Troglytes could never dream of.
Star Trek, in all its idealism, hoped to see this episode serve as a stark social commentary of the time. Sadly, very little has changed in this regard and the themes showcased in The Cloud Minders are just as relevant today as they were in the late 1960s. There are plenty of ways in which the metaphor that this episode explores can be applied today, meaning i could take this post in countless different directions. However, the recent shootings (mentioned above) and resounding and emphatic responses that have since risen, implore me to explore how class divides – presented fairly simply in The Cloud Minders, yet much more subtle in today’s world – can escalate to a heated, societal boiling point.
Today, in 2016, we’ve seen a continuous and increasing outcry from poor and minority communities against systemic racism specifically related to policing. This unease has grown exponentially since the killing of Michael Brown and the resulting unrest in Ferguson, MO. Since then, our society has been faced with not only statistical data, but surmounting video evidence that these poor, minority communities are disproportionately affected by police shootings. Statistically, Black Americans are 2.5 more likely to be shot and killed by police than White Americans (source: Aren’t more white people than black people killed by the police? Yes, but no. – The Washington Post).
These incidents have shed light on institutionalized racism. The digital age in which we now live, where everyone has an outlet for their voices to be heard, has given rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and sparked countless protests and episodes of civil disobedience.
Institutionalized racism is by no means a new concept – the legal theory of disparate impact, while being classified as illegal by anti-discrimination laws, has still affected countless people over the years. Look no further than the 18:1 disparity in sentencing laws for powder cocaine (largely considered a rich person’s drug) and crack cocaine (more prominently found on the streets), or the rates of housing discrimination and exclusionary zoning policies.
From a certain viewpoint, all of this coming to the forefront of the public’s eye might look like progress. Society is confronted with evidence of a problem and those affected rise up and seek change. The next logical step would be to reevaluate the faulty system and move forward, right?
The majority, when confronted with a threatened change in the status quo – the outcry of those feeling oppressed – reacts in defense rather than with support. Similar to the character of Plasus in The Cloud Minders, the institution hopes to continue to remain on top. Many, like the character of Droxine, who have very little understanding of and exposure to the plight of those who feel oppressed, react with uncertainty and fear; several will inherently cling to and side with the institution they see as familiar. What this has led to is further alienation and division. #BlackLivesMatter has given way to #AllLivesMatter which – though it looks and sounds pleasant on the surface – serves only to drown out the minority voice that is trying to be heard. Protests and civil disobedience have been met with hostilities and criticized for being overreactions and/or inconveniences.
All of this serves only to escalate an already tense situation. The next step is violence. Like the character of Vanna in The Cloud Minders, when the oppressed voice feels it cannot yell any louder, some individuals will act out through violence. Not only can protests become riots, but we see tragedies like what happened in Dallas, leading to Police Officers becoming and feeling like targets.
Much of this, I believe, comes from our consistent “othering” and grouping of people who are different from ourselves (I further detail this concept in one of my previous posts, Social Identity vs. Common Group Identity: The Corbomite Maneuver & Aversive Racism). How it manifests in this case is the notion that in order to be supportive of something, you must be actively against something else.
This phenomenon was succinctly spelled out recently by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show (watch the full clip here):
This point, I believe, cannot be stressed enough in these polarizing times. We must realize that violence begets violence and such a feedback system will only make matters worse. It is important that we recognize our own faults and admit that racism does indeed still play a role in today’s world.
I come from a white, working class family. I know how this demographic feels – seeing the minority calls for justice and equal opportunity and thinking, “We’re not privileged, we all have it rough.” I will admit I have even had this very thought before. However, while I’ll never be able to fully relate, I have obtained experience that has given me an ability to at least understand. Working in an urban, public school district and spending time with young students struggling with Emotional/Behavior Disorders and poverty, I have seen that there is undoubtedly a culture that has been brought up to fear authority and bluntly face its lack of opportunity (i.e. the achievement gap, disproportionate incarceration rates, conscious and unconscious segregation, etc.). With a general shortage of opportunity, inevitably, individuals will turn to crime to compensate. Generations of kids have grown up in this culture; when they try to break free they are quickly confronted with a system that pushes them back down. Not only are there seemingly unchanging institutions in place to perpetuate their failure and a cycle of poverty, our culture has a prevailing rhetoric that demonizes the poor, minority classes, furthering the divide and cultivating deeper hostilities.
All of this has brewed into a fierce storm, bringing us to where we are today. We fail to realize that most poor, black people are not the bad guys. Most police officers are not the bad guys. The system is the problem. Until we can reconcile this and recognize that changes need to be made, I fear we will boil over. At the end of The Cloud Minders, Kirk helps the people of Ardana see the error of their ways and thus begins the process of healing. Of course what we are seeing in our own culture is by no means as black and white or as easily resolved as in this particular episode of Star Trek, but in some ways we can learn from it. Through forms of segregation and grouping, we form our own island (or, city in the clouds) that allows us to remain willfully blinded to issues of social and racial justice. In a word, what we lack is empathy. We must step outside of our comfort zones, expand our understandings of others not like ourselves, and then make healing and progress a priority over defensiveness and anger.