Writing in the comments of my previous Star Trek post, Tracy Altman has made an observation that may pain some fans of Trek:
Six or eight months ago, I started toying around with the idea that Star Trek was both paradigmatic and symptomatic of an individualistic society in which commitment to any kind of traidtion is eschewed. Think about it: where does Trek find its ideal society? Not on any particular planet–the planets are invariably the locations of primitive, corrupt, and/or dysfunctional societies, and often of repressive regimes–but rather on a free-floating starship, with (literally) no ties to any of the planets it encounters. It’s a literal utopia, located in the literal no-place of space. It has little if any history to which it has to answer, and little if any posterity for which it has to plan. The starship is just the modern “self,” and the society on board is the contemporary ideal of a society in which everybody is merely free to “be him/herself,” wherever and whenever.
The one major check on this, of course, is the Prime Directive, which is a purely negative command: DON’T impose our society on other societies; DON’T interfere. It epitomizes what has become the cardinal virtue of contemporary ethics: not the positive virtue of love (caritas), but the purely negative one of harmlessness.
The only thing I would add is that in almost every episode the crew of the Enterprise ends up breaking the Prime Directive. Captain Kirk is the great interplanetary rule-breaker, someone who represents our society in his unwillingness to make sacrifices or to recognize the existence of no-win situations such as the “Kobiyashi Maru.” This is why he’s such a classically American character. He’s a product of a society that wants low taxes and a broad social safety net, traditional community and huge box stores.
Trek’s individualist tendencies are tempered a bit in The Next Generation. In that installment of the series, the starship is a floating colony accommodating whole families, not just a ship of hyper-individualists in tights and mini skirts.
Update: Tracy has some more great observations in the comments on this post.