Even today, Star Trek is generally perceived as an optimistic, idealistic show, even though this perception is too simplistic. When did more realistic ideas enter on a regular basis? Only with DS9 or even before that?

I define the optimistic, idealistic premise of Star Trek as:

  • society works best if everybody (or at least the majority of the people) sticks to his or her intrinsic motivation;

  • paradise can be realized in this world; mankind can save itself by means of living a virtuous life;

  • everybody is essentially the same: there are no limits in regard to mutual understanding, and hence empathy;

  • everything can be broken down to a scientific explanation.

Whereas the “realistic” set of premises (that Deep Space Nine is known for) are:

  • life doesn’t always “add up”;

  • Paradise and deliverance are concepts that cannot be realized in this universe;

  • there are limits to understanding this world as well as each other, which means that there are cultural/racial differences that cannot be overcome — ignorance and conflict of interests must be taken as a given.

Examples of the realistic approach with DS9:

  • the depiction of different views on gender relation of Ferengis and humans;
  • the denial of the Bajorans to let another species settle on their planet.

Neither of those examples were condemned on a narrative level.

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    Technically the words are Antonyms, but I think the implications distract from the intent of your question. I could be wrong. Apr 6, 2013 at 16:09
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    The high idealism of Star Trek began to crumble after Roddenberry's death. Before that, we may see degenerate individuals or hostile aliens but the Federation (esp. Earth) is always a paragon society. Afterwards, we see more and more things going on inside Starfleet and Earth society that go against his vision.
    – bitmask
    Apr 7, 2013 at 21:08
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    @MarkRogers: originally, schlossblick had “conservative” and “liberal”, so we’re at least getting closer. Apr 21, 2013 at 10:25
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    Mr Lister, this has been my first question here, and if I had known that political terms are such hot potatoes here, I definitely would have phrased it differently. The current dichotomy of idealistic vs. realistic may not be what I originally had in mind, but I think it is okay, because the point I wondered about is still conveyed. Perceiving the question as one of ideology was implied my me, yet the issue can be discussed without any political framework - that's something each reader can add later. Apr 21, 2013 at 12:03
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    "Realistic" and "idealistic" regrettably ruin this question, making it seems that the conservative viewpoint (the term the OP originally used) is somehow more realistic. (Which becomes absurd, when you read terms about "paradise and deliverance" in the "realistic" viewpoint). The question made more sense with the original wording of liberal vs conservative.
    – Andres F.
    Apr 21, 2013 at 15:01

4 Answers 4


I refrained from touching this question because of the prior political bent, but now what you're asking seems much clearer. And this answer primarily addresses your comment on the other answer:

I don't look for exceptions but for the moment in trek history, when the paradigm shift occured - given that there has ever been one. – schlossblick

No, it did not happen prior to DS9. The major shift was in DS9 6x18, Inquisition, with the introduction of Section 31, although hints were inserted as far back as DS9 2x21, The Maquis, Part II:

(This entire quote is one massive paragraph on the Memory Alpha page for Inquisition; I've broken it up here to be easier to read)

This episode marks the first appearance of Luther Sloan (William Sadler) on the series. It also introduces Section 31 to Star Trek. The idea for Section 31 was Ira Steven Behr's and was the culmination of his attempts to look into the darker aspects of the utopia created by Gene Roddenberry, to look under the surface of the idyllic Federation to see if everything was really as perfect as it appeared to be.

He began this examination in the episode "The Maquis, Part II", with the line "It's easy to be a saint in paradise," and his investigation continued in episodes like "The Jem'Hadar" (where Quark points out that Humans are far from perfect), "Past Tense, Part I"/"Past Tense, Part II" (where the hell that humanity went through to get to Roddenberry's utopia is examined), "Homefront"/"Paradise Lost" (where those who protect paradise are shown as fanatical enough as to be willing to destroy it for its own 'safety'), "For the Cause" (where Michael Eddington compares the Federation to the Borg) and "Doctor Bashir, I Presume" (where a less than successful 24th century human from Earth is introduced).

Section 31 was the culmination of this process of examination, a covert organization within Starfleet who could be said to be the "weasels under the coffee table" to which Behr referred in relation to "The Maquis, Part II". As Behr explains, "Why is Earth a paradise in the twenty-fourth century? Well, maybe it's because there's someone watching over it and doing the nasty stuff that no one wants to talk about." The very idea that such an organization as Section 31 could exist within Starfleet would have been completely alien to Gene Roddenberry's original vision, and as such, Section 31 represents one of Deep Space Nine's most controversial ideas, something which proved unpopular amongst many fans of both The Original Series and The Next Generation.

(Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion)

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    This question has already accepted an answer, but I will say that it might have started before DS9 - with the introduction of Ensign Ro on TNG. (This might have happened around the same time, as TNG and DS9 were broadcast at similar times.) Ensign Ro was supposed to be a counter to the "bland" characters of TNG who had no interpersonal conflict.
    – user14952
    Jun 29, 2013 at 0:48
  • While Section 31 certainly introduces a changed perspective on Starfleet, the ideological themes the OP is asking about are already present in DS9 Season 1, and there are unflattering parallels drawn between Starfleet and Cardassia since their introduction in TNG. Nov 1, 2019 at 14:31
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    @lunchmeat317 IIRC Ensign Ro was part of a coordinated introduction of the Marquis, to build the context for what Voyager was going to do.
    – OrangeDog
    Nov 1, 2019 at 14:53
  • @StopHarmingMonica Ro was also supposed to transfer to DS9, Kira was created when the actress declined the role
    – Izkata
    Nov 1, 2019 at 15:15

I believe that Harcourt Mudd would be a perfect example that baser aspects of humanity still existed within humans at the time of Star Trek: The Original Series. He exhibited pride, greed, lust, sloth and envy in copious amounts.

If you're looking for an example that the Federation and/or Starfleet itself had darker aspects then the first example I can think of right now was in Star Trek VI. In this two high ranking Starfleet officers, Admiral Cartwright and Colonel West (along with Lieutenant Valeris, Yeomen Burke and Samno and possibly others not revealed), conspire together with the Klingons to kill the Klingon High Chancellor and then later to attempt to kill the President of the Federation.

  • Thank you very much for your insightful answer - yet, I don't look for exceptions but for the moment in trek history, when the paradigm shift occured - given that there has ever been one. Apr 18, 2013 at 19:55
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    Oh, I get you now. Likely it started sometime after Gene Roddenberry's death.
    – Xantec
    Apr 18, 2013 at 20:07

Hmm, this went a little long. Oh, well, I've already written it.

Science Fiction doesn't tell us much about future, but it tells us a lot about the time a work was written in because science fiction writers extrapolate their current knowledge and expectations to the future. You have to understand the zeitgeist of both the writers and the audience in historical context to under a work of science fiction.

In a very important way, science fiction as a genera is more important because of what it tells of the past, of history, than what it might tell us about the future.

In the case of Star Trek, the overall tone of "idealistic" vs "realistic", optimistic vs pessimistic, and even light vs dark, tracks the overall cultures attitudes towards Democratic Socialism in America.

Socialism is at it's heart an optimistic vision wherein intellectual elites can prefect humanity with the power of the state. Roddenberry spent his life immersed in a vision of the power of American style Democratic Socialism to perfect humanity and society. It follows that he would extrapolate a future in which Democratic Socialism had so perfected humanity that individuals had to hie off to "The Final Frontier" just to find some conflict and adventure. When socialism eventually fell in the 90s, so did the optimism themes of Star Trek that were pegged to it.

Roddenberry was a member of the Greatest Generation, came of age during The Great Depression, flew as fighter pilot in WWII, etc and like most of that generation saw big government as trustworthy and effective mechanism for improving the world. After all, they had believed the US Federal government had mitigated the Great Depression, whipped the Nazis and held the Commies at bay.

The early 1960s where the high water mark of American Democratic Socialism and the Space program was it's symbolic heart. In Star Trek TOS, Roddenberry extrapolated the positive vision of Kennedy's New Frontier America two hundred years into the future. Star Fleet was just 1962's "Failure is not an option", NASA gone interstellar.

If he had made it into production five years earlier, when Kennedy was still alive and space fever was at its height, who knows how big the show would have gotten. Instead Star Trek's arrived at the wrong time and it was that very it turned out optimistic tone and confidence in classic Roosevelt/Truman/Kennedy vision of a socialized America that doomed the TOS in the culture of cynicism and anti-Americanism that erupted in late 1960s.

In the original series, the socialistic themes are actually fairly muted, likely because in the mid-1960s, there wasn't much of a debate about big government in American just a debate about how big. Likewise, in TOS, you don't see much of the rest of the Federation. There are no politicians, corporations, or just plain folks. It's just Star Fleet, the odd colonist, artist on a couple of occasions, and, of course, Harry Mudd as the solitary representative of business people, who personified Roddenberry's vision of the innate immortality of "greedy" business people compared to the altruistic agents of the State.

Ironically, it wasn't until the Reagan era, when culture shifted to become more optimistic about America, that Star Trek and it's optimistic themes became acceptable again.

On the other hand, still see Roddenberry's turn to the Socialistic vision gets more heavy handed, probably in semi-conscious counter reaction.

In "Encounter at Far Point" Roddenberry clearly adopted the post-60s cynicism about America in respect to the rest of the world. One of Q's manifestation is a pre-1970s American Marine Officer talking about patriotism and beating the commies, a stance which Picard mocks (by contrast imagine Picard mocking the same phrase with Nazis substituted for Commies.) In "Arsenal of Freedom", the entire premise of which centers around a left-wing view of defense contractors inevitably running wild. Neither have parallels in the more optimistic original series.

The real howler though is the introduction of the Ferengi, who represent all the non-socialist in Roddenberry's vision. According to some, they were originally intended as primary villains of ST:TNG.

In the beginning, the Ferengi are every thing bad and nothing good. Revealingly, their entire culture concerns trade and commerce and in Roddenberry's vision that makes them not only evil but also viscerally disgusting. (BTW, the exact opposite of real-world trading-dominated cultures e.g. the Dutch Republic, which are open minded, tolerant, curious and prize honesty and self-sacrifice.)

And just to top it all off, physically, the Ferengi are nothing but the centuries-long anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews translated to space aliens. Anti-semitism is grounded in the traditional hostility towards those who traded instead of farmed or conquered. Not only are they depicted as more or less genetically amoral, greedy, craven little liars who literally worship money, but physically the are short, swarthy-skinned with big ears and noses. All lifted straight from centuries of European depictions of greedy Jews. (Not that Roddenberry et al were consciously anti-Semitic, that's just the cultural template we all inherited from centuries of propaganda of what a greedy little business person is supposed to look like. When they set out to design a greedy alien, they naturally choose the existing cultural iconography, probably without thinking about it.)

Contrast this with the sympathetic treatment of the Klingons, an imperialistic race who worship war and conquest under the guise of "honor" and you see just how intensely a negative view Roddenberry and the other writers had towards those who engaged in commerce instead of politics and war. The Klingons are tragic, the Ferengi vile. This is in keeping with the traditional social ranking, with intellectuals at the top, the masses in the middle, the military under them (if strictly needed) and the economic creatives down in gutter like pigs.

Star Trek, with its implied socialist society in the background, was optimistic as long as enough confidence in the Socialistic vision held in the audience, but as faith in Socialism and the State failed, so to fell the plausibility of the perfected Federation utopia. Star Trek themes concurrently grew darker and more morally ambiguous. Even in the ST:TNG, you see a progressive darkening from the almost chirpy 1987 start, with the Soviet Union still carrying the Socialist banner, to 1992-94 after the Fall of Communism and the cultural reevaluation of socialism in all its strong and weak forms.

By the time DS9 really took off, Socialism was out of fashion and with it, all the easy answers it promised. Unlike Kirk or Picard, Sisko grapples with slippery practical and moral issues with no clear cut solution, right or wrong, or sometimes, even an objective reality. We start to see more the rest of Federation society and see that perhaps it isn't the socialist utopia long implied.

The biggest change came with the sympathetic treatment of the Ferengi personified by Nog who, although he leaves private business to become a soldier of the State, is depicted using his trading skills for the common good. We are even given a peek at Ferengi religion in which trade and commerce are seen as positive forces for the common good. This story line echos the reevaluation of positive role of Free Enterprise that occurred in the mid-90s throughout the entire world. After that point, the utopian vision of Socialism was dead as door nail and all the Star Treks since have played out under darker themes.

I really doubt we will see another optimistic fictional universe like the original Star Trek again until someone comes up with another utopian doctrine that can seize the greater imagination to a degree to let enough of the audience believe that a utopian society seems plausible at some point in the future. People have to be optimistic in the now, to both write and watch science fiction about an optimistic future.

Until then, it's probably more Captain Mel's than Captain Kirk's. Given the troubles the all the utopian Socialist caused, directly or indirectly, I'll gladly take the grubbier, smaller scale vision of Firefly in trade.

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    You, sir, have thought way too much about this, and I salute you for it. Jan 21, 2015 at 11:34
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    Most of the world still believes in what Americans call socialism (e.g. universal healthcare is considered a given in pretty much all other developed nations, and it's typically in the form of a single-payer state-run system, and likewise the Nordic nations aren't eager to abandon their efficient and egalitarian social democracies for the American model). The only change has been that America has gotten more and more conservative/reactionary in recent decades, and Rick Berman obviously doesn't share Roddenberry's politics and views on societal evolution. Nov 20, 2015 at 21:37
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    Given how history has panned out in the past decade and a half (namely the drastic rise in military conflicts, along with the associated rise in sectarian violence, terrorism and xenophobia), perhaps Berman's view that societies don't change (only technology does) feels more plausible, but that's a very shortsighted view that ignores the drastic social progress that humanity has achieved in larger timescales. I'm convinced this is an an example of the "Reality is Unrealistic" trope, but none of us will live long enough to know for sure. Nov 20, 2015 at 21:43
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    Roddenberry's future society seems more like the high-tech vision of a post-scarcity economy than a traditional socialist or communist one; in communism there is no real private property, while market socialism is based on significant redistribution of property through high taxes. In a post-scarcity economy, on the other hand, there's so much of everything to go around that elimination of private ownership or appropriating of what people own/earn is not necessary.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 20, 2015 at 22:02

Why is it that everyone has forgotten "A Private Little War", which ends with Kirk arming the friendly tribe with firearms knowing it's going to bring large-scale warfare to the primitive planet, because the Federation can't allow the Klingon-supported tribes to gain the upper hand on the planet, regardless of the societal cost? Note: written by Roddenberry.

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