“…The Common Ties of Humanity…:” 20th Century Lessons from More’s Utopia and Roddenberry’s Star Trek

Throwback Thursday meets fandom and academia. I was cleaning out a bunch of old files on my computer and found a paper I wrote when I was a little baby undergrad many moons ago. I am amused. LOL. And yes, it was still the 20th century when I wrote it. I am an old.

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Is it possible for two men who lived 400 years apart to have similar premonitions of the possibilities human society could achieve? Although there is no way to tell for sure, seems that Thomas More, author of Utopia, and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, both had such visions. The society of the 24th century that Roddenberry so vividly brought to life and the society of the Utopians are both ideal cultures and are similar to each other in many ways. They also have some contrasts as well. Despite the few differences between the two works, Star Trek and Utopia both paint very realistic descriptions of an idyllic society that humanity may one day attain.

A highly organized state is paramount to the productivity of both the Utopian and Federation societies. Both have laws that are expected to be followed and they are strictly enforced. The fundamental laws are the backbone for each society. In Utopia, the law-making group consists of 200 administrators they call syphogrants that are elected annually by the households. These administrators then elect a man who “they believe will do the best job…” (More 96) to be the chief executive. The chief executive is appointed for life. The officials meet as a committee, where they “discuss affairs of state and act quickly to put an end to conflicts…if there are any…” (More 96). The manner in which the Utopians run their senate meetings is fascinating. “They have a rule that no decision can be made on a matter…unless it has been discussed in the senate on three separate occasions…. To engage in the discussion of matters of public policy outside the senate…is punishable by death” (More 96). The Utopians believe that such rules prevent any of the officials from conspiring to change the government or oppressing any of the citizens. By far the best rule the Utopian senate has is that “no proposal is ever discussed on the day on which it is first put forward…. The intent is to prevent people from blurting out the first thought that comes into their heads…” (More 97). By establishing this law, the officials do not have to defend or recant a foolish statement they uttered without thinking.

The Federation council is similar in many respects, but not all. Representatives are elected from each member planet to sit on the council. Many of the council members are admirals that also are part of Starfleet Command. There are no rules against discussing a proposal on the day on which it is put forward, but for the most part the members of the council conduct themselves well and usually restrain themselves before they say something foolish. Of course, there are still those who are somewhat more vocal than their colleagues. In one Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Admiral Nechayev had been vociferous in her objections at removing a group of North American Indians from a planet that had been conceded to the Cardassian Empire. Despite the admiral’s outbursts, the Federation Council succeeded in creating a treaty that both sides could live with (“Journey’s End”).

When one deals with administration, one also deals with the laws which that establishment upholds. The Utopians have few laws, but the ones that do exist are treated with the utmost respect and are followed to the letter. The laws of Utopia are very simple and straightforward because they believe “it is completely wrong to oblige people to obey laws that are too numerous to be read from beginning to end, or too obscure to be understood by the person in the street” (More 132). Their laws are simple and few because they are taught from childhood how to behave. They all understand that if a law is broken, punishment is swift and often severe. They also refuse to deal with lawyers in Utopia. Rather, a person will relate his or her story to a judge on their own and the judge will make a ruling. This, they believe, makes it easier to discover the truth and a lawyer will only confuse the issue. It is also very fair because “in Utopia…everyone has an expert knowledge of the law” (More 133), so no one needs a lawyer to interpret those laws for them. They also believe that laws exist only “to inform every citizen of their duty…” (More 133). Vague wording and complexity within laws are not conducive to simply educating society of their expected duties.

The Federation, on the other hand, has a few more laws than Utopia, although they do their best to keep them easily understood. They have more simply because their lives are more complex. In The Next Generation episode “Force of Nature,” Starfleet sends a communiqué to all the starships saying that “all Fleet ships are restricted to warp 5” due to studies that have shown their warp drives are damaging the fabric of space. That’s about as straightforward as the Federation gets. Because Starfleet is set up like our modern navy in its command structure, there are laws regarding acceptable behavior for an officer as well as those pertaining to following the orders given by one’s commanding officer. The one code which reigns over every law in the Federation is the Prime Directive, which strictly enforces noninterference with less developed worlds. Captain Jean-Luc Picard said that the Prime Directive “is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy and a very correct one. …whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous” (“Symbiosis”). The Prime Directive was established not only to protect less developed worlds, but also to keep Starfleet officers’ feelings from taking over their rationality (“Pen Pals”). The main difference between Utopian and Federation views of law and justice is the flexibility of those laws. While the Federation, especially Starfleet, does not advocate arbitrarily bending the rules, Captain Picard voiced the general attitude of his society when he claimed, “…there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions” (“Justice”). While the Federation can be every bit as strict with their laws as the Utopians, they do not see law as black and white, but as shades of grey.

As for punishment, both societies are equally strict, although they go about enforcement in different ways. In Utopia, the punishments are usually very similar to one another, no matter what the crime. Since there is so little crime, only a couple types of punishment are more than sufficient. For example, everyone in Utopia is required to work and be productive. If, after a few warnings, an idler still does not perform up to par, he or she is expelled from Utopia (More 98). They are also very strict with such things as premarital sex. If a couple is convicted, “both parties are permanently forbidden to marry…” (More 129). They feel that if promiscuity is allowed, then no one would “join together in married love…” (More 129). If a spouse is unfaithful, he or she is “punished with the strictest form of slavery” (More 130). For crimes other than these laws pertaining to marriage and sex:

there is no fixed punishment for other crimes…. Generally serious offenses are punished with slavery, for they think this deters potential offenders as effectively as would the death penalty…. For if they live, the community benefits from their labor…(More 131)

If a slave is rebellious and troublesome, only then is he put to death. However, good behavior may earn a slave his freedom once again (More 131).

In the Federation, there is absolutely no slavery or capital punishment. The reason is because they “have learned to detect the seeds of criminal behavior. Capital punishment …is no longer considered a justifiable deterrent” (“Justice”). The punishment depends on the crime. In one episode, a cadet is expelled from Starfleet Academy and forbidden to pursue a career in the Fleet when a foolish stunt took the life of another cadet. The cadet’s attempt to cover up the truth was punished as severely as his poor behavior. According to Picard, “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth…whether it’s scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth” (“The First Duty”).  Imprisonment is generally the worst form of punishment. One officer, Ro Laren, had been in prison for years because she disobeyed a direct order, causing the deaths of her away team members (“Ensign Ro”). More frequently, though, a permanent reprimand is placed on an officer’s record for lesser offenses. One such example is when Lieutenant Worf killed one of his enemies from his homeworld. His act was expected by his Klingon culture, but since he is a Starfleet officer, he had to be chastised for behaving in a manner unbecoming to an officer (“Reunion”).

Aside from the operational aspects of Utopian and Federation government, the cultures and daily life themselves have many unique aspects. It is said of Utopia’s cities that “to know one of their cities is to know them all, for they are indistinguishable from each other…” (More 93). There is no private property, only public. People “draw lots to decide where they will live” (More 95) and then trade houses a few years down the road. Also, the needs in Utopia are very simple and are easily provided for. Each person only has one set of humble clothes, all identical except in the tailoring used to distinguish men from women and married from single. There is no poverty because the Utopians don’t need money in their daily lives. “Human beings are unique in that they amass possessions out of sheer pride…. But given the way Utopian society is organized, there’s not the slightest opportunity for greed to gain a foothold” (More 104). They obtain all their food from the marketplaces for free. The money they do have is used in times of war to pay the wages of their hired soldiers, or else the precious metals are melted down to “make chamber pots and all the other vessels that they use for shameful purposes…” (More 110-111). They also make chains out of gold and silver to humiliate the slaves which must wear them.

As with the Utopians, Federation citizens have no need for money in their daily lives, although they also retain vast sums of their currency for other uses. Captain Picard explained, “We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy” (“The Neutral Zone”). Due to their technology, they simply need to visit the nearest matter replicator to obtain food or clothes. The replicators also make it easy to counterfeit gold, silver, and other precious metals, so these are no longer used as currencies. Instead, nearly everyone, whether they are Federation members or not, uses a substance called latinum, which is not able to be replicated because of its strange molecular configuration. Money is used mainly when one is dealing with a planet that isn’t in the Federation. For example, at Farpoint Station, Beverly made a purchase from an alien. She simply said to “charge it to Dr. Crusher on the Enterprise” (“Encounter at Farpoint”) to make good on her debt.

The social structure of Utopia is quite interesting as well. Although there are no social classes, there are roles individuals are expected to play. For example, Utopia is distinctly patriarchal. “…the oldest male of each household is in charge. Wives take orders from their husbands…” (More 103). It goes on to explain that “women are the only people employed in preparing and cooking the food, laying the tables, and serving” (More 105). The men are not usually assigned chores or expected to assist in the typical household duties, although they are expected to do the heavy tasks at work due to their greater physical strength. It is rather surprising that such an enlightened people in every other way would still make such distinctions between the sexes.

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While Utopia is patriarchal, the Federation has no type of expected gender roles. It is quite common for a woman to outrank a man in Starfleet. In one episode, Dr. Crusher gave Lt. Worf an order. A human boy who had been raised by patriarchal aliens observed the exchange and questioned Worf, who then explained, “Dr. Crusher is my superior officer” (“Suddenly Human”). Later, the boy was surprised to learn that that captain himself is outranked by a female admiral. The officers all take this in stride, since they are accustomed to equality among the sexes.

In the Federation, there is a certain similarity among their cities simply because of their technology and advanced way of life. However, each city, country, and member planet are encouraged to nurture their uniqueness because variety is highly valued. Captain Picard said that “it is our differences which have made us strong” (“Up the Long Ladder”). Although Picard is the captain of the Federation’s flagship and is accustomed to the highly advanced technology of his time, he is also rooted in the traditions of his French heritage. In the episode “Family,” we even get to see the famous Picard Vineyards in LaBarre, France. This also shows that there is still private property, although it isn’t very common in the 24th century. We also learn about Dr. Beverly Crusher’s Scottish Highlander background and her pride in her family history. She explained to a friend that an heirloom symbolized “the enduring [family] spirit. Wherever they may go, the shining light will guide them to their fortune” (“Sub Rosa”). Individuality is stressed, as is expressed by an alien woman when she tells Lt. LaForge, “It’s a blessing to understand that we are special…” (“Loud as a Whisper”). Federation society eagerly embraces new world views and ways of life, yet still honors the ways of the past. Lt. LaForge said, “Just because something’s old doesn’t mean you throw it away” (“Relics”). He meant that an old-fashioned way of doing things is sometimes superior to relying on modern science and technology. In this respect, the Utopians and the Federation are very much alike, for both cherish the achievements of their ancestors.

The question of religion has been tidily answered in both Utopian and Federation societies. In Utopia, everyone is free to choose their own religion, although most were converted to Christianity. They believe that “every individual should be free to follow the religion of his or her choice…” (More 146-47) and that “no one should be punished for his religious beliefs” (More 146). The Utopians even go so far as to encourage their citizens to convert others to their preferred religion as long as they conduct themselves appropriately. They must use thoughtful and controlled arguments and cannot allow it to escalate out of hand. One man who had been converted to Christianity began to preach in the streets and put down the beliefs of others. The Utopians “tried him, not for insulting their religions, but for behavior likely to provoke a riot…and sentenced him to exile” (More, 146). Peace and happiness are the most important things to them. They allow whatever it takes to achieve this as long as the rights of others are not infringed upon.

Religion in the Federation is very much the same. There is no standard religion and people are free to choose their own beliefs. There are many kinds of beings in Star Trek, and therefore many religions, but one captain simplified the matter by saying, “My philosophy is that there is room for all philosophies…” (“In the Hands of the Prophets”). Tolerance for the values and beliefs of others has increased, which is one of the major principles of the Federation. Even if an individual has no religion of his or her own, they still do whatever they can to respect others’ beliefs.  Captain Picard explained that, in his time, “We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity” (First Contact). Whether this is through a religion or in another way, this is the prevalent attitude among the Federation citizens.

Although the societies of Utopia and Star Trek differ in some ways, the most important aspects are very much the same. There is no poverty, everyone has all that they need, and everyone has a place in their communities. Given the thoughtfulness with which Utopia was written and the futuristic complexity that made Star Trek rabidly popular, one could argue that people are hungry for such societies in real life. Perhaps Thomas More and Gene Roddenberry both had visions of mankind’s future when they created their societies. Now it’s up to us to realize those visions.

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“Encounter at Farpoint.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by DC Fontana and Gene Roddenberry, directed by Corey Allen, Paramount Television Group, 1987.

“Ensign Ro.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Michael Piller and Rick Berman, directed by Les Landau, Paramount Television Group, 1991.

“Family.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Ronald D. Moore, directed by Les Landau, Paramount Television Group, 1990.

First Contact. Directed by Jonathan Frakes, Paramount Pictures, 1996.

“The First Duty.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Ronald D. Moore and Naren Shankar, directed by Paul Lynch, Paramount Television Group, 1992.

“In the Hands of the Prophets.” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe, directed by David Livingston, Paramount Television Group, 1993.

“Journey’s End.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Ronald D. Moore, directed by Corey Allen, Paramount Television Group, 1994.

“Justice.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Worley Thorne and Ralph Willis, directed by James Conway, Paramount Television Group, 1987.

“Loud as a Whisper.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Jacqueline Zambrano, directed by Larry Shaw, Paramount Television Group, 1989.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by David Wootton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999.

“The Neutral Zone.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Deborah McIntyre and Mona Clee, directed by James Conway, Paramount Television Group, 1988.

“Relics.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Ronald D. Moore, directed by Alexander Singer, Paramount Television Group, 1992.

“Reunion.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Drew Deighan, Thomas Perry and Jo Perry, directed by Jonathan Frakes, Paramount Television Group, 1990.

“Sub Rosa.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Jeri Taylor, directed by Jonathan Frakes, Paramount Television Group, 1994.

“Suddenly Human.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Ralph Phillips, directed by Gabrielle Beaumont, Paramount Television Group, 1990.

“Up the Long Ladder.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Melinda Snodgrass, directed by Winrich Kolbe, Paramount Television Group, 1989.


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