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The Conflicted Economics of 'Star Trek'

In honor of today's long-awaited (by The Ticker) premiere of "Star Trek," the 11th film in the canon and a prequel to the original series, it seemed a good time to examine the economics of Star Trek.

As envisioned by creator Gene Roddenberry and first aired in 1966, "Star Trek" depicted a humanistic utopia set in the 23rd century, a time when technology had eradicated poverty and hunger and, largely, crime.

Because of this, Roddenberry's universe had little need for ownership of private property or even money, and accumulation of wealth was depicted as anti-social. Those who attempted it were portrayed as vulgar at best and dangerous at worst. (Think Harry Mudd.)

This sentiment carried forward through the following four live-action television series and the so-far 10 films.

Just in case Roddenberry was unsure that fans were getting his point, he gave avarice its own non-human species in the second TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which aired during Wall Street's (first) "greed is good" era of the late '80s and early '90s.

The Ferengi were savvy, snarling, sharp-toothed, big-eared short aliens who coveted nothing more than profit. (It has been observed, and not without some justification, that the Ferengi embodied disturbingly stereotypical Semitic traits.)

The Ferengi currency was based on something called "gold-pressed latinum" and their Bible was the Rules of Acquisition, an ever-growing list of merciless rules of business, such as: "Never place friendship above profit."

And even though Star Trek's enlightened characters competed for currency in various games -- including five-card stud -- it remains unclear, in Roddenberry's universe, where the money came from to build those fleets of glorious star ships.

As with many visionaries, from Rosseau to Hemingway to Mailer, Roddenberry was unable or unwilling to live by his principles.

Though he used his creation to denigrate the accumulation of personal wealth -- lecturing that the religion of technology would unshackle enlightened future humans from greed -- Roddenberry was not above using a Ferengi-like tactic to line his own pockets.

Many people know the instrumental theme song to the original Star Trek, the music that underlies William Shatner's monologue that begins, "Space: the final frontier..."

What most people don't know is that the song has lyrics written by Roddenberry -- purely as a device to secure performance royalties into perpetuity.

The lyrics, which you can see here, are dreadful and were never meant to be recorded or performed. Worse, they are unnecessary. And Roddenberry wrote them and laid claim to the royalties after the show's first season.

So outraged by Roddenberry's tactic that Alexander Courage, the composer of the memorable theme, scored some first-season episodes of Star Trek and then refused to pen another note for the franchise.

So even though the father of Star Trek created a hopeful future largely devoid of suffering and war, as a man, he turned out to be more Gorden Gekko than Jean-Luc Picard.

-- Frank Ahrens
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By Frank Ahrens  |  May 8, 2009; 4:58 PM ET
Categories:  The Ticker  | Tags: Ferengi, Gene Roddenberry, Jean Luc Picard, Star Trek  
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The theme song: it's actually a pretty fast beguine. I have the sheet music in a book of TV theme songs. I believe I tried performing it -- with lyrics -- as part of a lounge lizard act I was in.

In space, no one can hear them applaud.

Posted by: dude11 | May 8, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Complete drivel. The Post deserves to go out of business with "business reporting" of this depth. Oh yeah, Star Trek is going to revitalize my 401(K) and that of its other readers. Is anyone editing this drivel? Or is this a special for The head reads "Economy Watch".

Posted by: enigfv | May 8, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

I have a much more basic question - how do you have an economy once the replicator is invented? What happens to scarcity when you can produce an unlimited amount of anything - including gold-pressed latinum?

Posted by: Alan_A | May 12, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

In response to Alan_A:

Nerd alert - I remember from the Next Generation or DS9 that "Gold Pressed Latinum" could not be replicated, hence it was the ideal store of value for inter-galactic trade between alliances like the Federation and the Ferengi.

Also, I think it's implied that replicators have limits on the size and complexity of what they could replicate. So there's no problem creating a cup of earl grey tea, but you can't replicate yourself a new Enterprise - that needs to be built the old fashioned way (probably with lots of replicated parts).

Posted by: DrHockey | May 12, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

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