Star Trek TNG/Doctor Who: Assimilation
Writers – Scott and David Tipton, Tony Lee
Art – J.K. Woodward, The Sharp Brothers
May 2012 to December 2012
Should the hero remain an outsider to a corruptible society, or should he actively recover that society from within? Political heroism is explored in the comic crossover Assimilation (2012), an 8-part mini-series that unites the science-fiction sagas Star Trek and Doctor Who. One franchise has heroes defined by their desire to advance the interests of their society. The other franchise focuses on the altruistic intrusions of a time-traveling pariah. In both properties, the characters are grounded in distinct journeys with their own narrative, pacing and coda. Both parties also find their efforts justified by the moral systems of their own universes. How can we reconcile the altercation between the two structures? Either the heroes are antithetical, or there must be some rapport that surpasses socio-politics.
We must understand that Star Trek combines Ancient Greek nation-building with 1960s liberal optimism. The central conflict of the ancient statesman was how their polis, or nation-state, should be operated so as to be beneficial for all its constituents (Hartog). Debates raged on what the physical reality of that nation should look like; should their be an executive leader or a parliament, or something in-between? Despite constant renovation to the leadership entity of Ancient Greece, there remained a preference for some form of parliament as well as a democratic institution.
Star Trek infuses that Greek model with modern liberal values. In the show, the Federation is a parliamentary democracy infused with a non-interventionist discourse. There doesn’t seem to be a currency, but some sort of free-market voluntary trade system (Foldvary). Meanwhile, the Prime Directive, which is the standard for engagement with outsiders, dictates that its followers should not “intervene in matters which are essentially the domestic jurisdiction of any planetary social system” (Joseph). This regulates the ability for corporations or government representatives to politically or economically dominate lesser societies.
One of the primary conflicts in the television show is whether the crew should pertain to their society-wide moral guideline or follow personal altruistic desires. But the heroes of Star Trek do not wonder how best to exploit the societies they encounter (unless it’s to defeat a hostile foe). The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise would regularly find exceptions or ignore the Prime Directive, but these deferments were saturated in moral righteousness. In other instances, the Prime Directive prevented them from interference because it would not be ethical, leading to a culture’s extinction or collapse.
The crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise are engaged in an utopian bureaucracy in which they sustain a galactic empire. In Assimilation #1, the U.S.S. Enterprise travels as Federation representatives to a mining colony. The crew are established as judicious but forgiving supervisors of a known frontier. Their skills in diplomacy are shown through their peaceful dialogue with the selfish, semi-hostile Dai-ai, an indigenous fish species. While the U.S.S. Enterprise could easily use superior weapons to coerce the Dai-ai to relinquish their gold ore, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise prefers to use conciliatory tactics to push for collaboration. This treatment corresponds with the internal philosophy of the United Federation of Planets, that beyond cultural and biological disparity, every society can co-exist peacefully.
In a microcosm, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the patriarchal executive in charge of the ship, with his crew acting as loyal civic servants. Picard is the cerebral agent of peace, and his personal conflict is how exactly to achieve resolution within morally-civilized means. Picard is also an intentional representative of a culture “based on freedom and self-determination” (Bole). In Picard’s point of view, highly-developed culture should proactively ensure its citizen’s plurality, recognizing their twofold nature as equal and distinct (Knapp). Meanwhile, his crew loyally and lovingly follow his orders, surrendering to his reasonable appeals when their ethics clashed.
The counter-image to the interior of the U.S.S. Enterprise is the Doctor and his companions. These TARDIS travelers are on a never-ending journey more out of curiosity than to pursue any body of politics. In Assimilation #1, after the completion of their Egyptian hijinks, the crew’s next destination is arbitrarily as needing to be someplace “cool” and “foggy.” The scene is interrupted by a green flash of light and a mysterious teleportation to San Francisco in the 1940s (thus fulfilling their quota but not by the method of travel they would have preferred). But destination wasn’t integral to the journey. In fact, the Doctor and his companions are the patrons of a sporadic, cosmic vacation with any saving-the-day activities completed as side-product. Contrary to the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Doctor’s friends are emotionally raw, less sophisticated and often insubordinate, although they do possess moral integrity. They are companions, not a crew. Ultimately, the greatest strength in Doctor Who doesn’t come from any organization of government but through compassion and cunning.
The Doctor is defined not by his participation in society but his removal from it. He is a detective, a thief, a mystery, an aloof trickster expressed not only through different personalities but different persons. In his backstory, he stole a time traveling police box and withdrew from a highly-developed race known as the Time Lords. As of the 2005 series revival, the Doctor is the sole remnant of the Time Lords and is mostly alone in his role as galactic custodian. “He’s so alone. He’s done everything for everyone, for so long,” says Amelia Pond, revealing his selfless nature even in isolation (Assimilation #4). In essence, the Doctor travels a vast but knowable universe that is to be perused for mysteries much like a detective might scrutinize a familiar cityscape for obscure secrets. His companions are kept to both pacify his loneliness and retain his ‘humanity.’
At some length, Picard is opposed to the galactic anarchy that the Doctor thrives in. Picard has excellent reasons for detesting the absence of a moralistic trans-planetary authority. Human history in Star Trek is fraught with catastrophe – genocide, endless war, disease. Only since the formation of the Federation has there been an effort to improve the galaxy for the better (Sargent).
Furthermore, the Federation practices a non-interventionist program that the Doctor steadily breaks. While Picard and his people might understand the Doctor’s good intentions, they would find the physical reality of his methods to be ineffectual and potentially damaging. The Doctor conducts little research on the current status of the places he visits, relying on memory over analysis. He might enact micro-changes but doesn’t remain long enough to see the consequences of his actions. Despite his persistence, there is always a new monster to take the place of the last; we see the many he misses in the show’s spin-offs. He is undermanned, and his exploits usually see a high number of casualties because he cannot successfully suppress the enemy. In retort, the Doctor would hate being bound by regulations that restrict his incredible capabilities.
Likewise, the Doctor would disapprove (or have some squeamish reaction) to a civilizing force like the Federation. As an ancient being, he understands how a naif empire can evolve into tyranny. Especially a society proud of its superior moral conduct and non-interventionist politics. “Ten million years of absolute power. That’s what it takes to really corrupt,” says the Doctor of his own people, a race that tried to civilize time and space (The Ultimate Foe). In the end, the Time Lords nearly sacrificed existence in a desperate gambit for self-preservation. The Doctor recognizes that every political entity runs the risk of denigrating into egomania and the desperate desire to survive.
Returning to the situation with the Dai-ai, the divide in Picard and the Doctor’s dialectic can be recognized through their negotiation tactics. When the Dai-ai’s cooperation is an absolute necessity, the two heroes make alternative appeals. Picard, in his authoritative way, makes a plea for civil service. His speech is not included in-panel, although the reader can infer that Picard reasoned that the Dai-ai’s contribution would help defeat a grave threat and that the Federation would make sure they were recompensed. This would be a mission of morality, a Samaritan sacrifice. The Dai-ai leader is unconvinced.
The Doctor, far more misanthropical, creates an argument that includes an individual’s selfish nature and desire for celebrity and wealth. Not only would Seelos gain certain advantages, but he and his people would “earn the gratitude of thousands of worlds” while Seelos would “benefit politically from helping [them], raising [his] status here and across the galaxy” (Assimilation #6). The Doctor’s invocation of the individual’s success prevails over Picard’s plea for civic duty.
The oil-and-water relationship between Doctor Who and Star Trek is harmonized by their opposition to the CyberBorg. Assimilation explores the ontological similarity of the Cybermen to the Borg by combining their forces. There is little difference between this CyberBorg incarnation and their factions in their respective shows except for aesthetic and military strength. Like their TV show counterparts, the CyberBorg are engaged in a ruthless campaign to convert every sentient being into their drone collective. While their desire for utopia might be altruistic, their methods of conversion are a form of slavery “from the inside, a most devious form of bondage” (Assimilation #7). The CyberBorg’s ultimate goal to civilize every sentient creature comes at the cost of free will, beginning with their inability to reject their offer.
Picard and the Doctor may be at odds regarding the utilitarian hero verses the cynical hermit, but they are both opposed to despotism. Picard carries an Apollonian mentality that celebrates creativity through self-discipline and reason (Pink). His classic enemy the Borg might pursue self-perfection, but they do not practice informed consent in converting their opponents. Their politics are totalitarian, not dialogical; their philosophy is viral, not persuasive. The Doctor supports a refined Dionysian outlook as his reasoning is based on the necessity for feeling (Thro). His complaint is that the Cybermen converts have had their “emotion stripped away as cavalierly as they’ve torn the flesh from their bodies” (Assimilation #3). By removing emotions and empathy, the Cybermen have had “all their humanity taken away” (Rise of the Cybermen). In tandem, both heroes are opposed to the CyberBorg’s violent policies.
The heroes’ moral ground is tested when circumstance puts the Borg completely at their mercy. Picard sees the end of “all the pain, suffering and slavery” that the Borg have caused and is about to allow their mass genocide at the silver hands of the Cybermen (Assimilation #4). His proposal is consistent to his role as the protectorate of his own society, as the Borg have been the greatest threat to the Federation ever. In a moment where others might have relented, the Doctor counters Picard’s reasoning with a potent proposal for peace – that the decision to “help our enemies” is what “makes us better than them” (Assimilation #5). This follows a compelling trip to the potential future, where the CyberBorg have assimilated the galaxy.
When Picard chooses to assist the Borg, the reader might wonder whether that was the proper moral decision. Did the Doctor omit his better judgment in convincing Picard to have mercy? Was Picard failing his role in society?
The decisions made by Picard and the Doctor are consistent to a powerful thesis being developed by Assimilation - that it takes both politician and private party to keep a society safe from corruption. Symbolically, Picard’s desperation is similar to the Time Lords’ dilemma at the end of the Time War. By choosing to save the Borg, Picard not only differentiates the Federation from the CyberBorg, but from the legacy of the Doctor’s own failed race. That it takes the Doctor to mentor his decision is not an arbitrary narrative choice. The Doctor acts as philosopher and prophet, both lonely occupations in the immediate presence of society. In the desperate struggle between a society’s survival instinct and the presence of a greater mode of thought, it might need to rely on the transgressor of cultural boundaries. The mind that has removed itself from physical politics might be able to make an analysis that appeals to higher principles. And the statesman with a sound mind might be able to intercept this analysis and make ethical decisions.
Assimilation does not suggest that hero-politics must align to some divine authority or principle. In Star Trek’s 23rd Century, every religious impulse has been bred out of humanity. The show’s creator Gene Roddenberry was a secular humanist himself and was quoted saying that mankind must “question the story logic” of Christianity (“Gene Roddenbury”). In one episode, the Doctor comments on an alien mythology, saying it’s a “nice story” (The Rings of Akhaten). Both shows have battled against false gods, false devils, organized religion, idolatry, cults, and superstitious idiocy.
Nor is moral relativism the answer. Both Star Trek and Doctor Who clearly privilege their moral systems over others. While the U.S.S. Enterprise practice a policy of fallibility and non-intervention in the fear of violently adjusting a culture, there are countless examples where they recognized their reasoning to be superior or intervened over lesser-developed ideas. The Doctor fights to his last breath for freedom, the preservation of life, and human dignity. Both properties are against any incarnation of enslavement, be it to one’s selfish nature or to dogma. Neither property believes their doctrine of knowledge exists only in their own culture.
What unites the political discourse between Star Trek and Doctor Who is the hero’s concern for others. Heroism takes self-agency and the ability to assert one’s morals. But it also takes humility and the recognition of differences in cultural value. What is not needed is the selfish statesman, or the man on the mountain. Both properties feature heroes whom actively engage in their worlds.
In determining which side manifested the most effective heroism, the judgment comes down to personal choice. Both hero archetypes are valid role models. This sort of literary tolerance, of self-determination to the reader, is a fluidity that both Star Trek and Doctor Who would approve. Does the hero conform to patented moralism or is heroism found in reinvention? Should the hero use violence as a means to an end or should the hero embrace complete pacifism? Should the hero make a greater society or deny it? This line of questioning offers a fermented discussion on moral rhetoric. After the intent for good has been established, a dialogue is needed on its best application.
The outlook of the Picard and Doctor friendship is very positive. Perhaps it takes all kinds of heroes to oppose tyranny, support reason over superstition, and to create a world in which we are allowed flavor – in which we are not just soulless automatons. If anything, we learn that a hero retains his moral dignity in the face of bleak conflict, whatever that dignity represents.
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