selfaware soup

Esther Weidauer

Terrans and Fascism

2021-04-26

Screenshot of Star Trek Discovery, showing the terran emperor in a throne room

I have a bone to pick with Star Trek Discovery’s portrayal of fascism. In the first season of the show, the crew of the Discovery, through techno-magic shenanigans, is pulled into the “mirror universe”, a repeating idea in Star Trek. It’s a parallel universe where the same species and people exist but things are different in crucial ways, often diametrically opposed to their equivalent in the “prime universe” (where most of Star Trek is set). During their time in the mirror universe, Discovery encounters the Terran Empire, a fascist dictatorship that violently suppresses other species, keeps slaves, uses torture very liberally and casually wipes out entire continents. And those are just the things we see on screen during those couple of episodes.

The Terran Empire in clearly intended as the polar opposite of the Federation, the multi-species coalition that humans are part of in the prime universe. The Federation in Star Trek is mostly described as a pacifist, enlightened, post-scarcity utopia where everyone works for the betterment of society and no exploitation exists. Rarely is this image put under scrutiny, namely in the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and throughout the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Terrans under the Empire constantly scheme against each other, murder, torture, and exploit every advantage possible to pursue more power, more wealth, or sometimes plainly out of cruel enjoyment. All of them are basically monsters, comically evil and painfully unsympathetic.

Here’s the problem with that: fascism exists in the real world and it doesn’t work like this. A fascist society doesn’t mean everyone is a ridiculously cruel villain all of the time. Most people is actual fascist societies would probably claim to greatly care for their family, friends and neighbors, everyone who is part of their in-group. Hostility is projected outward, onto the out-group, a constructed other. I won’t go too much into the theory here but let’s just say fascism is more complicated than “evil people being evil”.

Yet there is a fairly common idea that people who support fascism are these comical monstrosities and it makes it very easy for people do deflect accusations of fascism because they’re “not like that”. They’re “nice people”, “loving family”, “good neighbors”, therefore they can’t possibly be part of a fascist system. Discovery perpetuates this idea through it’s over-the-top display of a fascist state, giving people who would happily live under actual fascism a thing to point at and say “See? I’m not like that.“

This is a mistake. It’s „normal“ people who allow fascism to rise through ignorance and inaction. It only takes a few genuinely cruel ones to steer a society down the path to fascist, it’s the complacent, comfortable, in-group majority that enables them. In a time when extreme right sign politics re on the rise worldwide, I think it’s reckless to misrepresent fascism the way Discovery did.