Transforming Fandom: Space as Place, an Ecocritical Look at Star Trek

by The Collected Mutineer
image by The Collected Mutineer
By The Collectress

Captain’s log. Stardate 64917.6. We have arrived in the twenty-first century, only to find our home, the planet Earth, is a victim to society’s path of ecological destruction. This path, if not changed, makes our future uncertain and threatens a more universal ecology. Through an analysis of science-fiction television and film, I hope to bring attention to outer space as an environment and show that it is more than another conquest to be divided up and claimed. 

Yi-Fu Tuan, author of Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, designates different meanings to the concepts of “space” and “place.” He describes space as being “marked off and defended against intruders” while places are “centers of felt value where biological needs, such as those for food, water, rest, and procreation, are satisfied” (4). This metaphor is useful to the eco-critic because it defines integral aspects of environment that the average reader usually takes for granted. Outer space is, as Tuan describes it, “space” to us because we cannot create a place of “felt value” to meet our biological needs since outer space is not a habitable environment to the human body. However, as is demonstrated by Neil Armstrong’s first words on Earth’s moon, we aptly treat outer space according to Tuan’s definition of “space.” Just as Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon, we can claim outer space and the extraterrestrial landmasses in it as ours to use and defend, without developing attachments or fondness for the locale.

We commonly think of the “environment” as an ecosystem, the relationship between life forms and their nonliving environment, but in fact an environment is, at its broadest, the surroundings of a particular focal point. Science-fiction (affectionately referred to as sci-fi) frequently incorporates the exterior environment of outer space into its settings. Science-fiction can be defined as, according to Darko Suvin, a former editor of Science Fiction Studies, “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (as qtd in A Companion to Science Fiction, Shippey 15). The “empirical environment” phrase is key to this definition of science-fiction. Any form of literature within the setting of outer space must have an artificial atmosphere in order to sustain in earthly life, which allows writers of science fiction to create synthetic environments for their characters entirely of their own design.

For science-fiction, outer space becomes place because of spacecraft. Spacecrafts in science-fiction differ in design and purpose, but all constitute what Tuan would call “place” because in addition to having life-supporting environments, they also are living quarters. Three decades before Star Trek aired on television, British author C.S. Lewis published the first installment of his space-travel trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis spends only a meager amount of time describing his characters’ process of space travel, but he does include some description of the spacecraft. The main character, a philologist named Ransom, describes his first reaction his place on this vessel as “It was a very strange room. The floor was so small that the bed and a table beside it occupied the whole width of it” (Lewis 24). The presence of the bed and table make apparent that the spacecraft is a habitable and hospitable place. Similarly, in Joss Whedon’s short-lived sci-fi/western television series, Firefly, the central character, Captain Mal Reynolds, repeatedly refers to outer space as “his sky” and his spacecraft, Serenity, as “his home.” Reynolds’ sky is his space, and his home is his place.

Although much of the original series of Star Trek’s technological concepts and imagery of outer space were advanced for the time period, due to financial limitations and limited visual technology, much of the scenes were set in the interior of the starship Enterprise. Captain Kirk and his crew, on a five-year voyage “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” spend much of their time inside the starship, in an artificial environment. Gene Roddenberry and his team spent much effort in the design of the Enterprise, even going to the extent of specifying its dimensions if it were to be produced in actual size:

The Enterprise is the largest man-made vessel in space…947 feet long, 417 feet wide overall, and has a maximum gross weight of 190,000 tons…[it] is not designed to enter the atmosphere of a planet and never lands on a planet surface. When assignment takes the ship to a particular planet, it enters a standard orbit around the planet, which can range from 1,000 to 7,000 miles away, depending on planet size and gravity, atmospheric envelope, size and proximity of sun(s) and moon(s), and other factors. (Whitfield & Roddenberry 171)

This attention to detail, while enlightening to the reader, also indicates several important factors to the reader: one, that the starship is man-made—an important distinction to make in a universe as diverse with alien cultures as Star Trek’s is—and two, that the starship was constructed in space, which is demonstrated in the concluding scene of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when Captain Kirk and crew view the new Enterprise being built at a space-dock. The starship Enterprise never leaves its environment of outer space, and it is created to provide an earthlike environment for humanoids. I specify humanoids, because not every member of a Starfleet crew is a human being, but do share humanlike characteristics and environment.

In the 2009 film, Star Trek, Dr. Leonard McCoy, portrayed by New Zealand actor Karl Urban, says of outer space, “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” Does this make outer space only space to the Starfleet crew? That may not be the case. One of the significant features of the command deck on the Enterprise are prominent  windows and a digital screen that allows the crew to view outside of the starship. Because the Enterprise is equipped with technologically advanced computer and navigation systems, it is unlikely that the screen is necessary to pilot the starship. The screen is primarily for visual aesthetic purposes; other than moments of combat and space-docking, it is unnecessary. Although the environment external to the Enterprise is inhospitable to the humanoid crew, they still maintain a visual connection to outer space. According to Yi-Fu Tuan, “Place can be defined in a variety of ways. Among them is this: place is whatever stable object catches our attention. As we look at a panoramic scene our eyes pause at points of interest. Each pause is time enough to create an image of place that looms large momentarily in our view.” Since the crew members of the starship Enterprise have a living habitat that is also their work environment, perhaps they need this connection to the “outside,” or nature, in order to maintain a healthy perspective. This is the second manner in which the starship is the converter of outer space to place: the Enterprise provides for the humanoid crew members a stable atmosphere as well as a perceptible link to what lies beyond the safety provided by the walls of the starship.

A more specific example of the Enterprise as place is toward the end of the first season of the original series, in an episode written by noted speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison titled “The City on the Edge of Forever”. This episode became one of the most critically acclaimed of the series, and co-starred a young Joan Collins. The plot follows the crew of the starship accidentally discovering a portal through space and time, through which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are transported to New York City in the Great Depression era of the 1930’s. The crew realizes that they have inadvertently changed the course of history and as a result, the Enterprise no longer exists. Kirk narrates, “Captain’s log, no stardate. For us, time does not exist. McCoy, back somewhere in the past, has effected a change in the course of time. All Earth history has been changed. There is no starship Enterprise.” History, which was once as distant to the galaxy-explorers as outer space is to our society, becomes place once Kirk and Spock begin to navigate the culture and society and form attachments to it.

After the futuristic voyagers realize that the Enterprise, their place in outer space, no longer exists, they seek to form attachments to their new place—new to them in location and in time. Captain Kirk quickly falls in love with Joan Collins’ character, Edith Keeler. To Kirk, she is the equivalent of the starship Enterprise in the early twentieth century—she is the converter of history (space) to place. Yet she is also an obstruction to the progression of history: her existence prevents the eventual invention of the starship as well as prevents Kirk’s return to his place, the Enterprise.

Kirk has found a replacement for his place, which is ironic because he has the strongest connection to the Enterprise as its captain, but Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy do not find replacements. They are intrigued by the historical space, but they do not form the deep emotional attachment like Kirk has to Edith Keeler. It is only if they are successful in re-altering the course of Earth’s history that the Enterprise will exist and they can return to their place. In an eerie moment of foreshadowing, Edith Keeler says:

One day soon, man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom…energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in… in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future. And those are the days worth living for. (“The City on the Edge of Forever”)

In order for these “days worth living for” to happen and to return to their starship, Edith Keeler, the symbol of Kirk’s new place in history, must perish. She is the representation of the disruption between space and place for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, as well as the discontinuity in the space-time continuum. In another eerie bit of dialogue, it is almost as if Keeler senses Yi-Fu Tuan’s future critical discourse as she says to Kirk, “You, you belong in another place.” She knows that Captain Kirk’s place is not the same as hers, that he has no affection or ties to the place. At the end of the episode, Kirk realizes that he cannot have Keeler and the Enterprise, and so makes the difficult choice to let Keeler die so that he may return to his place.

In science-fiction television and film, the crews that live and work in outer space are portrayed as creating place in their foreign environment. To do so, they use their respective spacecraft as workplace, living quarters, and/or home. Once they have this place, outer space no longer has the role of unknown territory that needs to be conquered. In Star Trek, the futuristic governments are not divisive—the governments are a Federation; they are united. Outer space, and the planets which inhabit it, have become colonies and harbors for humanity and other species.

End Captain’s log. Stardate 64953.9. If Tuan is right, space cannot be a place to us yet because we cannot inhabit it. It is up to us, then, to determine how we treat space that has not become place, either here or throughout the rest of the galaxy. Neil Armstrong’s first words on Earth’s moon embraced space as a frontier. Star Trek took that frontier and made outer space a place. What will we do with it?

Hush,be still. Outer space
Is a concept, not a place.
Try no more. Where we are
Never can be sky or star.
From prison, in a prison, we fly;
There’s no way into the sky. (19-24) -C.S. Lewis

Works Consulted/Cited

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Stableford, Brian. “Science Fiction and Ecology.” A Companion to Science Fiction. By David Seed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. 127-41. Print.

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Star Trek. Dir. J. J. Abrams. Perf. Chris Pine, Leonard Nimoy, and Zachary Quinto. Paramount, 2009. DVD.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, Minn. [u.a.: Univ. of Minnesota, 2008. Print.

Whitfield, Stephen E., and Gene Roddenberry. Making of Star Trek. Unknown: Random House Us, 1994. Print.