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Monoculture

I've seen it said a few times that one of the more irritating aspects of Star Trek is that the alien species are all monocultures. That is, all members of any given species will generally think, talk, and act alike. Many will even dress alike and have the same hairstyle!

Take Klingons. The argument goes that every Klingon values honour, is obsessed with ritual, wears that Samurai-armour-style garb, practices with his bat'leth two hours a day, and wants to die an honourable death in combat. With a population likely running into the tens of billions, how likely is it that all Klingons would be like this?

Contrast this with present day Earth. Only six billion people on the planet, but attitudes to honour run from those who are obsessed with it to those who don't even know what it is. Some dream of dying in combat, some don't want to but would if they believe it is necessary for a higher cause, while others think combat is never justified and still others are simply cowards. And as for appearance... well look at the average black person next to the average oriental person. Such racial diversity within a species is hardly ever seen in Star Trek.

It's worth mentioning that this is hardly just a Star Trek issue. Much of sci-fi is like this; for instance virtually all of Larry Niven's Pierson's Puppeteers are cowards, while his Kzinti are virtually all brave.

I'm going to talk about this in three strands. First, I'm going to argue that within limits, a monoculture isn't actually all that unreasonable.

I mentioned before the bewildering variety of attitudes and cultures we have here on Earth. But in fact, one of the major trends of the last century has been the erosion of that diversity. The aeroplane was invented in the opening years of the twentieth century, and even the early primitive versions of it rapidly became much faster than railroads - and you didn't need to build an expensive infrastructure to cross country by plane, just a flat place to land and enough fuel there to get you back. As aircraft speeds and ranges increased they allowed a revolution in transportation; more people were able to go further and at higher speeds than ever before. It's hard now to understand just how much of a change this has made in people's lives; two hundred years ago, it wouldn't be at all unusual to spend your entire life without ever going more than ten or twenty miles from where you were born. Today, I can step on a 747 and be on the other side of the world within 24 hours.

Another revolution which happened more or less in parallel was in communications. Back a couple of hundred years ago, communication systems were next to nonexistent. You could send letters, which travelled maybe thirty miles per day. Governments could use heliographs or similar systems, but these simply couldn't carry enough information for them to be available to the commoners.

The communications revolution has if anything been even more astounding than the transportation revolution. Not so long ago I sat watching the "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad on a cable news channel whilst chatting about to my brother on the phone. Real-time, full colour coverage of a war happening in a country several thousand miles away, piped directly into my living room from a news station in the US, a country thousands of miles away in the opposite direction, while I talked on another real-time link to somebody a hundred or so miles away. Truly amazing.

The reason I'm going on about all this is because, wonderful though I think these inventions have been there is a major consequence and it's one that has come markedly to the fore in the last year or two. The transportation and communication revolutions have made huge inroads into the cultural diversity of the Earth.

Cultural diversity thrives when - and because - people live largely in isolated groups. Customs which evolve in one group don't get taken up by other groups, because the other groups never experience them; how could they when there's little or no interaction? Back a couple of hundred years, villages separated by even a hundred miles would most likely not even know of one another's existence; differences in language and ideas could be vast, with virtually no cross-pollination going on.

Today, on the other hand, most people in the "developed world" have a network of friends that stretches over hundreds if not thousands of miles. Half the world watches the same movies and TV shows, listens to the same music, even reads the same books. There's a massive cross-pollination of ideas going on. France even has laws about the movies that show in their cinemas, because all the Hollywood blockbusters were making English a more dominant language in their country!

And these revolutions allow businesses to operate on a multinational basis as never before. Coke and McDonalds are so widely spread that it's a standing joke - remember the "Afghanistan a year from now" email that went around after 9/11? It showed the whole country dotted with McDonalds franchises... kind of gruesome and disturbing, but it makes the point.

Various factors have allowed the USA to capitalise on this so massively and successfully. For most of the last century the US has had amazing natural resources, a population big enough to truly exploit them, and a vast degree of natural isolation from any enemies. Perhaps most importantly, they also had a society that encouraged individual freedom and the free development of ideas. It's partly an accident of history, that a country like the US was established just at the right time to take advantage of all these new developments - but only partly. In truth it's a circular thing; the US had the right conditions to take advantage of these revolutions, but it's precisely the fact that the US is such a rich, free and dynamic society that actually drove the inventions that made the revolutions possible in the first place. (Can you tell I'm a huge admirer of the United States?)

Anyway, I'm babbling on again and I don't really mean to, but my point is this; technology has eroded cultural differences, and this is only going to accelerate. You think the world has changed a lot in the last fifty years? How will it be fifty years from now, when every single person alive will have access to the same kind of communications and transportation systems that the US does now?

And Star Trek technology will only enhance this process. In Star Trek the transporter allows pretty much instantaneous transportation, worldwide, for everybody. Imagine a world where you are never more than five seconds away from any other place. Think about that lost tribe in the Amazon you're always reading about - will they truly maintain their cultural differences when they can go spend the afternoon wandering around New York and any New Yorker can come and do the same in return?

Larry Niven, a far better writer than I by any standard, makes this point in his novel "Ringworld". In Niven's universe there is a transporter-style technology which allows you to teleport virtually anywhere in the world in an instant. In the opening chapters of the book the hero, Louis Wu, takes a trip around the world - no more a big deal to him than walking down the street is for you or me today. On the trip he is depressed at what the teleport system has done to Earth; language, traditions, even fashions are the same everywhere, they change all at once in one gigantic world-wide surge. Star Trek transporters aren't quite the same as Niven's system (Trek's are less realistic, scientifically speaking), but they would have the same overall effect.

Of course, you can't transport between worlds or solar systems. But you can communicate between them, and for the most part in real-time (communications lags were a common problem in TOS, but are rarely heard of in TNG, DS9, Voyager, or, rather irritatingly, Enterprise). And as I said before, even today communications are doing the same thing that transporters would, just on a smaller scale.

Now don't get me wrong, transporter or not I don't think we will ever reach a point where everybody wears the exact same outfit and thinks in an identical way about everything. But a world where everybody thinks acts and dresses as alike as do the residents of, say, Los Angeles? We are already on the road to this.

My second argument is to question the initial assertion; that Trek aliens actually exist in a monoculture. I'll go with the Klingons mostly, since they are the aliens we have seen the most of.

Are all Klingons alike? Obviously there are age and gender differences, but what about their general attitude and demeanour? Perhaps the definitive trait of Klingons in the TNG era is their frequently mentioned desire for personal honour.

How many Klingons actually live up to this? Worf does; in Klingon terms, he's perhaps the most honourable person we've ever seen on screen. Martok is as well. What about Gowron? He's frequently been described as a political opportunist; he re-wrote Klingon history in his own favour after becoming Chancellor, he launched a war against the Cardassians on shaky evidence that the Dominion had taken control of them and then declined to end it when he was proven wrong - and only ended the subsequent war against the Federation when the Dominion kicked him out of Cardassian space and threatened to invade the Klingon Empire. He took personal control of the Dominion war for his own glorification. Gowron has behaved honourably at times, but just as often he has not.

What about Duras? Traitor to his own people. K'mpec, Gowron's predecessor? He covered up Duras's treason for political reasons, allowing Worf to take the blame for a crime K'mpec knew his family had nothing to do with. Toral, Lursa and B'Etor, Duras's son and sisters, fare little better. How can we reasonably claim that all Klingons are obsessed with honour?

We can say that all Klingons claim to value honour, but that hardly unreasonable. The enormous majority of Americans would say that they value freedom highly, after all, whether their actions actually support this or not.

What about religion, then. Are all Klingons obsessed with traditions and rituals? Well, pretty much. K'Ehleyr wasn't; she referred to it as "Klingon nonsense" and barely even told her son Alexander that it existed. Alexander himself wasn't, at least until he went to live with his father. Beyond that, though, it does seem like the vast majority of Klingons are indeed ritual-obsessed.

But are they the same rituals? Does the whole Klingon race subscribe to one set of beliefs?

Consider that Kang once told Kirk that Klingons have no devil. Yet in "Devil's Due" we saw Fek'lhr, who sure seems to fill the same role as the devil. Worf believes in the saying "drink not with thine enemies" in "Hide and Q", yet Kang drank with Kirk in "Errand of Mercy". In the TNG episode "The Emissary", Worf and K'Ehleyr only have to sleep together and say a few phrases to be married; compare that to Worf and Dax's wedding in "You are Cordially Invited". In "Heart of Glory", we are told that a dead body is an empty shell which is basically treated as garbage; in "The Sound of Her Voice" Worf describes a Klingon ceremony of sitting with a deceased friend's body to keep the predators away from it.

Now in the real world, the reason for all that is likely that the writers have made an awful lot of Klingon episodes, and it's hard to keep track; contradictions inevitably creep in. But in the Trek world, most if not all of them could be explained away precisely by saying that the Klingons don't live in a monoculture, that two Klingons may be as different from one another as a Baptist is from a Bhuddist. One problem with that idea is that it is Worf who speaks some of these contradictions, and it's not often that you find a person who is both Baptist and Bhuddist! However, this is not so much an issue; Worf joined the House of Martok in Deep Space Nine, which may well be the Klingon equivalent of switching religions in the here and now. Of course he would observe different rituals. I haven't taken the time to do a proper analysis of which rituals Worf did when, but certainly as one example his "insta-marriage" to K'Ehleyr came before the conversion, and his big ceremony with Jadzia came afterwards.

Further evidence of Klingon rituals being non-global comes in DS9's "Looking for par'Mach in All the Wrong Places". Advising Quark on how to woo a Klingon lady, Worf states :

Worf : "Grilka is from the Mekro'vak region. It is customary among her people for the man to bring the leg of a Lingta to the first courtship dinner. Bring it fresh, as if you had just killed it."

Worf is saying this is a specific custom amongst one group of Klingons, not a species-wide thing. It doesn't follow that other customs and rituals are confined to separate groups along similar lines, but it surely is at least a possibility.

What about dress - do all Klingons dress alike? Well, yes and no. Most Klingon wear is indeed a variation on a common theme, but look closely; there is considerable variation in those armour-uniform things. I've already explained that technology will tend to erase cultural diversity to a great extent... will it do it to such an extent that the variation in Klingon clothing is reasonable? It's a value judgement. Personally I tend to think the answer is no; Klingons are just too alike to be quite reasonable. But I also think that it's not that far away from reality.

I said I would concentrate on Klingons, but I am going to take a little time to talk about one or two other species. Take the Ferengi for instance. The stereotype is that Ferengi males are obsessed with money and following the rules of acquisition. Their femals stay home, naked and hidden from view, completely docile. Does that match what is actually seen on screen?

Nog isn't obsessed with profit and the rules of acquisition; he joined Starfleet for Pete's sake! His father Rom is hardly a fully paid up member of the club either - worked for Starfleet on Deep Space Nine, worked for the underground when the Dominion occupied the station, encouraged his son to join Starfleet, married a Bajoran woman. For that matter Quark isn't exactly the stereotypical Ferengi, as he has shown several times that he values family and even personal respect more than money. As for Ishka, Quark and Rom's mother, well, she could hardly be less like a Ferengi is supposed to be. In fact, you have to go to the minor one-off characters to even find a supposedly "typical" Ferengi.

How about the famously logical, non-emotional Vulcans? Sarek, who married a Human woman? Saavik, who cried at Spock's funeral? Tuvok, who is actually a rather mean and spiteful person, at least in the first Voyager season - and let's not forget that he gave us black Vulcans. And what about the "Vulcans without logic" of Enterprise's "Fusion"? What about the "Melders" who were considered an outcast section of society during Enterprise? Can we truly say that Vulcans are a monoculture?

What about Humans? Let's limit it to TNG; humans certainly dress in a varied manner, but that's minor. Much more importantly, they all seem to buy into the "we don't want material goods, we just want to better ourselves and mankind" philosophy of TNG. Or do they? What about Vash? Not exactly a shining example of the non-profit mentality there. What about Okona? He didn't seem to spend his life trying to better himself and Humanity.

Overall I would say that whilst both Human and alien cultures in Trek are certainly far less diverse than present day Earth is, they are not nearly so narrow and rigid as is commonly supposed.

My last strand here concerns just how representative the people we see in Trek are of their species. I doubt there is any species in Trek that we've seen more than, say, five hundred members of - and we rarely get to know more than ten or twenty as anything more than a passing face with a line or two. Can we really judge the variation in any species of billions on that basis? And bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of people we see are in Starfleet, at least for most of the Trek series. I've said before that you wouldn't get much of an impression of Earth's current diversity if all you saw of it were the personnel of a single Navy warship.

On the face of it, my arguments here can seem contradictory - I'm simultaneously saying "it's perfectly reasonable that these monocultures exist", "actually, if you look closely these aren't monocultures at all", and "we don't know enough to be able to tell if there is a monoculture going on or not".

In fact, though, I think the truth is somewhat a combination of these three things. Yes, I think that our future is likely to see Earth as a much less diverse place - but I doubt it will ever reach a point where everybody dresses and thinks alike. Yes, I think that there is more diversity in Trek's alien species than they are generally given credit for - but at the same time, I can't deny that I'd like to meet Bob, the Klingon who cares nothing for combat and is perfectly happy in his job as a telephone sanitizer. Though I have to say, Bob's story might not make the most exciting of episodes. And finally yes, I do think there is more diversity in Trek aliens than we see - after all somebody must sanitise those Klingon telephones, somebody must design and build the ships - but I can't deny that there's a certain dissatisfaction in just assuming that those people are there without us seeing them.

Overall, then, I would say this : Trek aliens are a lot more culturally diverse than they appear to be at first sight, and a lot less diverse than they could be, and to an extent this is what we would expect. But if the deities of Trek happen to hear my humble prayer... just a little role for Bob, somewhere in the background? Please?


Yellow text = Canon source Green text = Backstage source Cyan text = Novel White text = DITL speculation


Copyright Graham Kennedy Page views : 6,547 Last updated : 1 Jan 1970