This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze aspects of Star Trek through a modern lens.


Star Trek is no stranger to plots centering around eugenics (see, Khan Noonan Singh, the Eugenics Wars, etc), and in fact generally takes a hard stance against the concept.  TNG‘s fifth season episode, Masterpiece Society, is no exception.  Pushing the base concept of eugenics aside, however, this episode actually serves as in interesting look at the underlying message of tolerance for which the Trek legacy is notably famous.

Image Source: TrekCore

Masterpiece Society tells the story of a human colony on the planet of Moab IV that is in danger from a stellar core fragment from a disintegrated neutron star.  The twist, and the inevitable morality play, comes when the crew of the Enterprise discover the colony’s isolationist intent and a society built on the foundation of genetic perfection and selective breeding as common practice.  There’s no hesitation that saving the colonists is imperative, but their core beliefs and attitudes prove a hard pill to swallow for Captain Picard and his crew.

Setting aside the why – in this case, the colonists’ belief in eugenics – what struck me most in this episode was the innate challenge of Star Trek‘s perceived commitment to unwavering tolerance.

Tolerance has long been a word strongly associated with Star Trek throughout its 50+ year history – it’s also a word that’s often given a black and white definition; one is either tolerant or intolerant.  Generally, Star Trek tends to present tolerance in its most general sense as a positive, and intolerance as a negative – something I believe most decent people would agree with.  However if we question the concept of tolerance just a little, the unwavering black and white definition can quickly unravel into shades of gray.  We start to ask questions such as, “how far should tolerance extend to cultures that actively harm/persecute others due to their beliefs?” or, “should we be tolerant of intolerance?”

When one spends time looking through Star Trek‘s long history of story-telling, one can find the franchise tackling these questions on a fairly regular basis – most notably in episodes centering around the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) prime directive, which details Starfleet’s policy of non-interference with other cultures and civilizations.  The prime directive constantly challenges the characters and pushes them to ask when it is appropriate to intervene on behalf of and/or assert a belief in a perceived universal code of ethics.

Coming back to Masterpiece Society, we’re presented with a similar moral dilemma, yet in this case it does not center around the prime directive.  We aren’t faced with the debate over whether or not to intervene, but simply how – or if – we should judge a people based on their beliefs.

Image Source: TrekCore

Most evident of this thought is an exchange between Counselor Troi and Captain Picard on their attempts to convince the people of Moab IV to evacuate their planet in order to save their society:

TROI: I believe some will choose to risk death rather than leave, Captain.

PICARD: You’ve spent a good deal of time on the surface. How do you suggest we change their minds?

TROI: I’m not sure we can. It would mean abandoning their fundamental way of life.

PICARD: They’ve managed to turn a dubious scientific endeavour into dogma.

TROI: You don’t approve of genetic engineering.

PICARD: It was a bad idea whose time is long past.

TROI: They seem to have made it succeed.

PICARD: They’ve given away their humanity with this genetic manipulation. Many of the qualities that they breed out, the uncertainty, the self-discovery, the unknown, those are many of the qualities that make life worth living. Well, at least to me. I wouldn’t want to live knowing that my future was written, that my boundaries had been already set, would you?

TROI: I’ve asked myself that question a lot during the past few days. I don’t know. I doubt it. Nevertheless, it’s what they believe in, and it won’t be an easy matter to talk them into leaving.

Despite some outliers and dissenters – specifically a few characters who become entangled with members of the Enterprise crew – the culture of this society which depends on genetic purity is incredibly isolationist and has bred a pervasive attitude of superiority and general distaste for outsiders – not unlike attitudes we see in our society today.

I found it incredibly refreshing to see Picard – so often the moral center of TNG – come down hard on the idea that the people of Moab IV are simply wrong; that despite the fact that they’ve cultivated their own culture, we do not need to act like we respect their brand of intolerance and exclusion.  I’m reminded of the arguments made by people in our own society who hide behind religious or political beliefs to justify their own innate racism, homophobia, prejudice, or general hatred of others – people who are further inflated by making the argument that others must be tolerant of their beliefs, or who attempt to point out that intolerance of intolerance is hypocritical.

What this all relates to is the decision theory paradox known as the Paradox of Tolerance, first described by philosopher, Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume 1 from 1945.  The paradox of tolerance states that if we follow the core idea of tolerance to the letter, peaceful society will inevitably collapse due to the the unchecked rise of the intolerant.

According to Popper,

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.  If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise.  But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

Popper’s words have often been twisted to fit the societal visions of groups from various schools of thought among the political spectrum; some arguing that this point proves tolerance is innately illogical and thus should be ignored, and others taking the hardline stance that any hate speech should be criminalized and not protected under the umbrella of freedom of speech.  Because of this, Popper’s intent in writing the above sentiment has often been called into question – however, in my opinion, the thought is relatively clear.  While Popper says that we should not, “suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies,” we should still be vigilant in combating them with more positive and rational discourse.

I believe Popper’s general belief was quite Roddenberry-esque, similar to the values set forth in the Star Trek universe and reflected in the notions of Picard in Masterpiece Society.  Individuals and groups undoubtedly have a right to espouse their beliefs, but if we wish to maintain a peaceful, tolerant society, it is our duty to check those beliefs when they’re actively harmful or hateful.  We must do this to the best of our ability with reason and rationality or (and this part may be somewhat contrary to what we often see in Trek) “if necessary even by force.”