Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Unpacking the Starship Biko

In late 1992, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Fistful of Datas" first aired. It was a fun, silly, low-stakes family episode (if you ignore that the plot revolves around a series of murders...). It did not deeply alter the Star Trek franchise, nor did it carry any especially deep message. It was fine.

But it was the first episode by then-new writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and it was probably he who wrote in dialogue references and a short appearance by a small starship named the USS Biko. The ship was named after Steve Biko, who was killed 40 years ago today. And that is significant, if nothing else, as the most direct reference in all of Star Trek to South African apartheid. Just one little ship's name.
USS Biko approaches USS Enterprise, in orbit of Velociraptor VII

The Star Trek franchise has a long-established reputation for being against racism and oppression. So it may be a little surprising that they never tackled as ripe a target as the apartheid system directly. But not completely surprising. On the one hand, the US had its own civil rights progress to make, and American audiences might have needed a lot of catching up on the specifics of the South African situation. (Although, counter-argument to that: Is it really easier to flesh out sufficient details of an entire interstellar alien culture from scratch, in the same amount of time?)

On the other hand, there's the (more convincing, I think) point that Star Trek has always made moral arguments about the real world through analogy. Getting along with lumpy-headed aliens isn't really about aliens, it's a way of saying we should get along with each other here on Earth, regardless of superficial differences. That gives writers more room for creativity, but it also lets the audience be less defensive and more open to new ways of looking at the world. You might feel you already know the politics of Realcountrystan, and it would be difficult to shift your opinions on that in direct debate. But when you're unwinding at home, ready to enjoy the tale of the three-nosed inhabitants of Analogy World 3B, you might be surprised to learn how the other side sees the same politics, without even realising you've been led into considering this.

So it's fair to say that Star Trek addressed apartheid and similarly oppressive systems in indirect ways (for better or worse). The Biko was only allowed to slip through the cracks because it was such a minor, indirect reference.

Why that name? I can't say for sure; almost nothing is known about this ship or the thinking behind it. The rest of this paragraph is speculation only. It's possible that another writer or member of the production staff suggested the name, but for now, the most likely source of it is Wolfe himself. He was a UCLA student in the 1980s, the decade after Steve Biko's murder, so I guess it's conceivable that he was exposed to some student-level anti-apartheid activism there. Perhaps the simpler explanation is that Cry Freedom (1987) had come out a few years before this episode was made; it's quite likely that Wolfe saw that and learned about Biko then. Maybe it was a bit of both, or neither.

Regardless of who chose the name or how they came to hear of Biko, it's fairly clear that Star Trek and Steve Biko fit well together, with common messages of equality, peaceful coexistence, and mutual support and development. Both embraced admittedly vague alternative forms of socialism, and rejected Soviet-style communism. Biko is also especially well known for his particular emphasis on self-improvement through education, which suits me very well, and also fits well with the Starfleet ideal of constantly learning and striving to improve and expand. It's worth reading his writing in more detail, to go beyond this very vague introductory comparison I've drawn here. But I think it's really no stretch at all to see why he might stick in the mind of a Star Trek writer.

I think it's appropriate (though most likely a matter of dumb luck, due to available stock footage) that the Biko is an Oberth-class science ship, making a routine supply run. A science ship fits better with Steve Biko's pro-education stance, and is immediately far more appropriate than anything overtly dumb and violent like a warship.