The Hidden Catholic References in ‘Star Trek’
‘Star Trek’ is replete with positive references of religion and especially Christianity.
“For 3.2 seconds, I … saw perfection.”
—Seven of Nine to Captain Janeway, Star Trek: Voyager, "The Omega Directive"
Let's get this straight — I'm a Trekker, not a Trekkie.
And, as a Trekker, I felt called to celebrate Star Trek's 50th anniversary at New York's Jacob Javits Center during the first week of Sept. 2016.
And as I stood amongst my outrageously costumed Trek confreres and consoeurs, immersing myself in all things Trek, I came to consider Trek's Catholicity.
It's certainly true that Gene Roddenberry was a militant atheist, anti-religionist and Rosicrucian, and hoped to portray the future as a techno-secularist paradise sans religion (read: Catholicism). But the sad truth (for atheists) is that he was foiled at every twist and turn.
Star Trek is replete with positive references of religion and especially Christianity — from pro-life sentiments to mentions of the Vatican, the pope, Christmas, peace and justice, social teaching, forgiveness, theophany and a universalized moral decision making. In addition, Trek never shied away from such serious moral issues such as cloning, eugenics, abortion, genocide, race relations, war, nuclear disarmament and cultural imperialism à la the Prime Directive.
The pièce de résistance, ultimate shout-out to Christianity in the original, Kirk-era Star Trek series came in the episode entitled, “Bread and Circuses” and had specific references to Jesus as the Son of God. On Stardate 4041.7 (AD 2268 for Earthlings), while orbiting high above Planet 892-IV, Capt. James Tiberius Kirk specifically admits his own longing for the Messiah and wishing to be present when the alien planet's covert religion of “total love and total brotherhood” directly experiences the Parousia.
This wasn’t the first time Kirk defended God, as in the Eternal One, El-Shaddai, Hashem, Adonai Elohim. In fact, while he was arguing with an alien who claimed to be the Greek god Apollo in the episode, “Who Mourns for Adonis”, our redoubtable Captain insisted, “Mankind has no need for gods. We find the One quite adequate.”
Secularist haters might argue that these were merely superficial references meant to pander to Christians which were common to the period but no one cares about their opinions. As far as Trek canon goes, “What is written is FOR EVERMORE written.” Basta cosi.
However, if you put aside the obvious references to Christ and the persecuted early Christian community in “Bread and Circuses”, of the remaining 725 episodes across all five TV series permutations, the Voyager episode entitled “The Omega Directive” best portrays a Christian, and particularly a Catholic, sense and sensibility.
On Stardate 51781.2 (AD 2374) the intrepid Captain Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager, played expertly by actress Kate Mulgrew, herself a devout pro-life Catholic, is lost in a far-flung corner of the Milky Way galaxy, far from Earth. Unexpectedly, she comes to learn about the existence of a rare molecule simply known as “Omega.” When handled improperly, this dangerous molecule destroys the background structure of the time-space continuum. If such an event were to occur, it would render faster-than-light travel and communication throughout the galaxy impossible, permanently isolating every planet and marooning her crew forever.
Her Starfleet-issued order is simple: Janeway must destroy the Omega molecule at any cost, including ignoring any and all other orders and instructions, such as the Prime Directive, in a bid to save the spacefaring cultures of the Milky Way.
However, the ship's newest crewmember, Seven of Nine, an adult human woman who had been abducted as a small child by a race of powerful cyborgs (known unimaginatively as the "Borg" despite the fact they don’t look at all Swedish) and is now in the process of reclaiming her humanity once again, finds out about Starfleet Directive Zero and the rare Omega molecule.
Seven of Nine explains that, while she was a mindless cyborg drone, the Borg Collective, in the hope of harnessing its incredible powers, had managed to stabilize a single Omega molecule for one-trillionth of a nanosecond before it destabilized and destroyed 29 space vessels and 600,000 drones.
The erstwhile cyborg pleads with Janeway to harvest the molecule rather than destroy it. Seven of Nine confides in Janeway that in her previous life as a drone, her highest goal, besides technological perfection through the synthesis and integration of stolen alien technology, was to experience this molecule first-hand.
Janeway cannot risk such a possibility and turns her crewmember's request down.
Seven of Nine, on her part, seemingly acquiesces to her captain's decision.
When the ship's away-team enters the now destroyed alien laboratory to locate the molecule, they come to learn that a great deal more than just a single Omega molecule was created. In fact, the alien physicists were able to synthesize two hundred million of these highly unstable molecules — enough to destroy subspace in half the Delta Quadrant.
Seven decides to disobey her captain's orders and attempts at harvesting and preserving the molecules.
It seems that the mechanized, materialist Borg technocracy had held the Omega molecule, which they called “Particle 010”, in the highest spiritual regard.
They believed it embodied “perfection” because the molecule existed in a flawless state with infinite parts functioning as one — a metaphor of the Borg Collective. And though Seven was no longer Borg, she still retained the desire to directly experience the Omega Molecule herself. She needed to understand its perfection and wouldn’t feel complete without it experiencing what she described as God.
Janeway, of course, wants nothing to do with this nonsense and orders Seven to destroy all of the molecules.
“I don't care if you can make it sing and dance — we're getting rid of it,” Janeway insists.
But even though Seven goes forward with destroying the eminently dangerous molecules, she does so while pleading with Janeway save a few of them. The two argue even in the midst of this unprecedented peril while being fired upon by the starships of the scientists who initially synthesized the molecules.
Janeway encourages Seven's search for perfection but not at the safety of the quadrant. Seven gazes at her intently expressing, for the first time since she has rejoined the human race, true emotion thus reclaiming her lost humanity torn from her by the Borg.
Seven, understanding the error of her desires, reluctantly agrees, again and redoubles her efforts at the destroying the remaining molecules by blowing them out into space. However, as the last remaining molecule is about to be destroyed, Seven becomes mesmerized by it and is incapable of turning away. The molecule's component atoms stabilizes and forms a perfect, complex, molecular lattice structure.
Seven is enraptured.
Janeway sharply orders Seven to leave her post so that the laboratory may be decompressed thus evacuating the remaining molecules into the vacuum of space in order to finally destroy them.
Unfortunately, Seven's attention is completely focused on the image of the molecule before her.
Janeway physically pulls Seven away from the screen and out of the cargo bay seconds before the doors seal shut. The outer doors open and the chamber is decompressed and the molecules are blown out into space. Once there, they are destroyed with a well-placed photon torpedo ending the danger once and for all.
Later that evening, Captain Janeway finds Seven in a holographic recreation of a medieval Italian chapel. She's contemplating a large crucifix suspended above the altar lit only by candlelight.
Seven admits she's considering the crucifix in an attempt at understand her reaction to what she saw in the laboratory computer.
“When Omega stabilized,” she said, “I felt a curious sensation. As I was watching it, it seemed to be watching me.”
Seven explains that the Borg had encountered many species with religious explanations for such experiences but had dismissed their experiences as subjective, irrelevant and unimportant.
Perhaps, Seven admits, she and the other Borg were wrong.
Janeway, Seven's mentor as she reestablishes her humanity, points out that Seven had apparently had her first spiritual experience.
A Catholic exegete would have a heyday with this episode.
Seven's reference of the Omega molecule staring back at her is a reference to Mother Teresa's contemplation of the Holy Eucharist. In fact, those were the saint's very words in describing her experience before the Blessed Sacrament.
It’s not uncommon for an unfriendly and bigoted (read: atheist) science fiction writer to use religion as a reference to zealotry, violence, hypocrisy and anti-scientific thinking, but this is merely a reflection of the writer's ignorance with modern history. If they wanted an excellent symbol for violence, genocide and hatred, they'd portray all evil aliens as atheists.
After all, as John C. Wright, sci-fi writer and atheist convert to the Church reminds us, “If the Vulcans had a church, they'd be Catholics.”
Just like cowboys and desperados, wearing white and black hates, respectively, science fiction always pits good vs. evil. Heroes vs. villains. Right vs. wrong. Peace vs. war. Life vs. death. A macroscopic portrayal of our own interior conflict makes good science fiction even better (Philippians 2:7).
Unwittingly, Gene Roddenberry brought a Christian morality and spirituality to a new expression in science fiction. I say “unwittingly” because this science fiction visionary wasn't a Christian. Perhaps he wanted to use common memes in order to get his message across as when he described Star Trek as a “Wagon Train” to the stars. But no matter how he tried to distance Trek from religion, it kept showing up, as in the example of Captain Janeway and “The Omega Directive” I described earlier.
I think, rather, that Roddenberry was expressing an unconscious acceptance of general morality and cultural descriptions taken from a dominant Christian culture and, sometimes, explicit references such as the USS Enterprise's chapel, Jesus and Natural Law, crept in as he hoped to convey a message of hope.
One is hard-pressed to find Catholicism portrayed accurately on television these days. An exception to this bigotry is definitely Drew Goddard's Daredevil (Marvel) — a web television series created for Netflix — which is highly sympathetic towards Catholics … even though its brooding superhero is a violent vigilante.
At least Daredevil punishes only the bad guys.
If the character were written as an atheist, he'd be a genocidal maniac and would kill only kind, generous, logical people — the very people who challenge atheists the most. (Ps 112:10)
Good science fiction isn’t about aliens with bad prosthetic masks dressed in weird fashions who blow up entire planets. That's just the fun part. Successful science fiction holds a mirror up to our present society and ourselves challenging us to consider them more closely.
This isn't unique to science fiction. It can easily be said that all art is social commentary. However, other forms of art don't have space aliens with bad prosthetic masks dressed in weird fashions who blow up entire planets.
Star Trek examines the human condition. And part of that condition, something unique to our species, is our contemplation of good and evil. Star Wars (which isn't the same thing as Star Trek!) Marvel and DC Comic superheroes, Dune, Firefly, Gataca, Battleship Galactica, Genesis II, Ender’s Game and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World all describe the dangers of certain societal trends such as the dehumanizing effects of technology while still presenting an optimism that things can change as long as we don't abandon our humanity — either morally or spiritually.
I’m gratified Star Trek has incorporated Catholic elements and its worldview in its five television permutations and 12 films. They've become excellent evangelizing tools.
One doesn't need to watch all 726 Star Trek episodes and 12 movies to get a good understanding of the series — but why wouldn't you want to? After all, it's Trek — the series that set the standard for any and all subsequent science fiction.
(By the way, doing exactly that would take 573.5 hours for the TV episodes and an additional 20 hours for all 12 movies. A glorious month-long, non-stop Trek marathon.)
I can't help it — I'm a geek.
Live long and prosper.