Sublimation and Implication: Critiquing Visions of Utopia in Tomorrowland and Star Trek
On July 2nd, 1967, Tomorrowland celebrated a grand re-opening after undergoing a thorough renovation to suit the new era of the late 1960s. This second iteration of the park officially lasted until the 1990s, though it saw many attractions come and go over the course of this period.
As part of this renovation, most of the major attractions like the People Mover and Autopia were updated, with the Carousel of Progress seeing a major upgrade from its iteration at 1964 World’s Fair, while Adventures Thru Inner Space was opened for the first time.
This was an important time in Tomorrowland’s history, in which the beginnings of a new era were sewn with the addition of brand new attractions, while older original attractions, most notably the Monsanto House of the Future, saw their final years of service. Most importantly, this was one of the last updates that Walt Disney was able to largely preside over before he died at the end of 1966, just a few months before the official reopening.
An intense advocate for the creative and transformative power of technology and corporate production of that technology, Disney was a man who, in the words of Priscilla Hobbs in Walt’s Utopia, “refused to cater” (Hobbs, 160) to the skepticism of science brought on by the destruction of World War II and the anxiety of the Cold War. Such notions, to Disney, went against the quintessential “idea of progress in the American mind” (Hobbs, 160) and should be opposed by the message of Tomorrowland. Optimism was then the absolute defining attribute of the park, the unifying these that permeated all of its attractions and overall design.
As such, this second iteration of Disneyland represented the most intense period in which technological futurism was the total, underlying ideology of Tomorrowland’s design. As the years progressed, the advancement of technology essentially became too fast for Disney to keep up with, which led to the next renovation in which it purposefully focussed on Retrofuturism, making it the last seminal moment in which Technofuturism was a seminal idea pushed by Disney in the park.
Most importantly for the goal of this project however, this second iteration’s 1967 opening coincided with the airing of the second season of Star Trek: The Original Series, which, next to Disney, came to occupy an a large place in popular culture and science fiction in particular. Both franchises offered deeply optimistic, if dissimilar visions of the future, though they have been judged very differently by cultural critics in the decades following.
Through an explication of what goes on with how a lot of people perceive Star Trek - or what its popular perception is - which is usually perceived to be almost a competing vision of the future next to Walt Disney’s vision, the universe of Star Trek as it existed in the 1960s can be deeply problematized when assessed with the same lens as 1967’s Tomorrowland.
Tomorrowland in 1967 was a highly segmented, sanitized place. It reaffirmed the practices of omission and the creation of mythologies that have are utilized in other Disneyland locations like Main Street and Frontierland. When looking at the park, it is useful to do so in context with Walt Disney’s stated intention for it when it originally opened:
“Tomorrow can be a wonderful age. Our scientists today are opening the doors of the Atomic age to achievements which will benefit our children and generations to come. In Tomorrowland, we’ve arranged a preview of some of these wonderful developments the future holds in store. You will actually experience what many of today’s foremost men of science and industry will predict for tomorrow”
This sentiment holds true with the 1967 iteration, best seen through the lines of Disney’s official re-opening video, “The city of tomorrow: possible today with the technology and imagination of American industry”
In this area of the park, all of these tools of marginalization and omission are brought essentially to their logical end point. Alongside the Monsanto’s House of the Future, which made isolating the family unit from the world outside its key focus, the improved Monorail System and the People Mover also made reducing physical interactions between guests a core facet of their design philosophies, in which people become able to move from one area of the park to another without ever having to touch the ground or interact with other visitors. Moreover, as Alexander Wilson states in The Culture of Nature, social and cultural diversity were also absent from the visitor’s experiences while it was also “resolutely denied by the orthodoxies of the exhibits” (Wilson, 180).
As Alan Bryman states in Disney and his Worlds, the subtextual use of marginalization and omission as key structural facets of the park’s both physical and thematic design, with its vision of a modern living space. “The modern city is largely marginalized,” Bryman argues, and as a result “cultural diversity and productive labour disappear from view,” (Bryman, 129) with regular and exchange and social interdependence either hidden from view or banished completely.
Finally, Bryman argues that in the vision of the future created by Disneyland, alongside its heavy reliance on corporate and military science to guide humanity to utopia, the problems created by industry “are given little if any attention”. In addition, “issues of class and race (and gender too) are side-stepped” (Bryman, 129). Taken as a whole, the park panders to and reflects the the interests of the predominantly white, middle-class American families who are the US parks’ main clientele.” (Bryman, 129).
Thus, in the future, the world is both radically different from the way it is today in terms of technology and living spaces, while at the same time it still resembles the present day as envisioned by Disney. Gender roles, racial segregation, and the role of corporations remain the same.
Star Trek’s vision of the future is, for many of its fans, utopic in every sense. Far beyond satisfying the material needs of humanity, Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future offered a society in which all forms of racial, economic, and sexual discrimination had died out. Moreoever, humanity exists in a period of stable peace, and in which militarism and violence as a means to an end has been done away with in human affairs. The present day political conundrums of nationalism and militarism have also been eradicated, with the crew of the Enterprise exploring the galaxy benevolently.
On its face, Star Trek’s purported liberal humanism comes across as the antithesis of the cold, segregated world Disney had in mind, with its fans in Roger Nygard’s 1997 documentary Trekkies stating enthusiastically that “Star Trek will become the blueprint for the 21st century” with its philosophy of the Prime Directive and Michelle Nichols praising the notion “men and women as equals” within Star Trek. With the show’s multi-ethnic cast, its broadcasting of the first interracial kiss on American primetime, and its numerous allegorical episodes like “This Will Be Your Last Battlefield” and “The Omega Glory” outwardly displaying the folly of racial discrimination, it does on the surface live up to its laurels. It escaped the time within which it was made and offered a radical vision of the future.
Far from subverting contemporary issues, the way some Star Trek episodes are written and shot serve to underline them. Numerous commentators have pointed to the subtextual implications of its universe and narratives that are either consciously hidden from view, or glossed over, as evidence that Star Trek actually goes against its purported vision of liberal humanism.
As Daniel Bernardi states in Star Trek and History: Race-Ing Toward a White Future, while the show’s decision makers were consciously involved in a didactic project to engage with the experience and politics of the 1960s this project was inconsistent and contradictory - often participating in and facilitating racist practice in its attempt to imagine what Gene Roddenberry called “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” (Bernardi, 30).
One notable example is the aforementioned “The Omega Glory.” The episode depicts the crew of the Enterprise meeting two warring tribes - the Yangs and Comms - which are racially distinguished as the descendants of white Americans and asians respectively. The Yangs are depicted as savages, while the Comms are the civilized, with the episode playing on the reversal of the common misrepresentation of whites as civilized and the Othered non-whites as savages. Bernardi asserts that the episode actually argues the opposite message, in that it “only reveals an unwillingness to be critical of the hegemony of racist representations, but also systemically participates in the stereotyping of Asians. As the story progresses, the Yangs are constructed as noble savages” (Bernardi, 58). In the final scene of the episode, the narrative only serves to underscore a “celebration of American nationalism” (Bernardi, 59), mixing the Yank’s (now constructed as noble savages) will to recapture their territory with symbols of American patriotism. Taken as a whole, the real world implications of the episode is obvious: the Asian communists have invaded the land of the white Yankees, or Americans, and the viewer is made to emphasize with the white “Americans”.
Another issue of note within Star Trek is the treatment of non-white “Others” on bridge, including the only non-human, Spock. As Bernardi states:
“Spock is an Other that is depicted as stoically and loyally withstanding the prejudice of others in the interest of serving the manifest destiny of the Federation. He signifies an alien who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and steadfastly serve the interest of his white captain and the mostly human Federation” (Bernardi, 62). Spock, in effect, is the embodiment of the model minority within the context of the Enterprise crew, which carries obvious significations to the cultural landscape of the 1960. This indicates a parallel between the treatment of “racial” minorities in the Star Trek future and the way they were treated in the 1960s.
The wider critique of Star Trek’s political affiliation can be made in regards to its allegorical Cold War-esque universe, in which the benevolent United Federation of Planets being a very clear allegory to not simply the United States, but NATO. Alongside Bernardi’s assertion that “issues like balance of power and imperialism are narrativized in Star Trek via the diegetic logic of a democratic federation and totalitarian empires like the Klingons and the Romulans.” (Bernardi, 51), in Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior that “the invention of the Federation, with its progressive implication that different allies races could cooperate peacefully, coincided with a virtual declaration of Cold War in outer space”. Moreover, “Once the Federation mission became basic to the series, many stories began to revolve around the ideological competition between the two superpowers, taking place…on and around populated planets of varying industrial development where the Federation had important economic, political, or military stakes…the Federation was not, therefore, an outer space United Nations”. The universe of Star Trek then is a fantasy of cooperation and peace that ultimately relies on overwhelming military strength reminiscent of the military prowess of NATO in the late 1960s.
Star Trek’s treatment of women also merits more attention, as it too is glossed over by the supporters of its vision. The portrayal of women in Star Trek, in terms of their positions within the Star Trek universe and the manner in which they’re shot, embodies not an enlightened, post-sexism world, but one very much rooted in the culture of the 1960s.
As Rick Snyder argues:
“In general, the series seemed to embody the 1960's status quo as far as relations between the sexes and the role of women. Star Trek had the opportunity to have a woman play a character in a clear authority position, but it instead backed off prefering to use regular female characters that either came just short of what was originally envisioned or reaffirmed the traditional roles for women…the rest of the female characters that appear in Star Trek are shallow, femme-objets that are disposed of at the end of each episode”
The manner in which women were dressed in the show and within the universe as officers on the bridge - the main example being Uhura - firmly situates women within the male gaze. In “Mudd’s Women,” women are presented at the beginning of the episode as having come from a planet where there aren’t any eligible bachelors, and thus, within the logic of the universe, have no choice but to leave so that they becomes the wives of men somewhere else. In “Elaan of Troyius,” the episode’s title character, a harsh and powerful Queen, is dressed and shot in a manner that relagates her to the role of sex object in the eyes of the men around her. Her role in the episode embodies all three of the structural problems mentioned previously, being used as a “Vietnam allegory that brings into play two stereotypes of the Asian female - the manipulative dragon lady and the submissive female slave - in order to support the myth of the superiority of NATO (the Federation) and the white male hero (Captain Kirk)” (Bernardi, 67).
As Harvey Greenberg states in “In Search of Spock: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry”, “the Enterprise’s female crew...are a generally placid lot, passively observing the action or servicing the male endeavor” (Greenberg, 63).
With all of these variables in mind, it becomes clear that despite their differences, the visions put out by Walt Disney and Gene Roddenberry hold numerous similarities. Both offer a utopic vision of the future that sublimate extraneous issues like militarism, gender roles and racial inequality. More importantly, while both of them attempt to escape the society within which they exist, both prove to be products of their environment upon further investigation.
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