Review of Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films
Russell Alexander Stepp
Stefan Rabitsch. Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2019. Paperback, 279 pg. $45.00, ISBN 97814766-64637. EBook ISBN 9781476634197.
Since 1966, the Star Trek franchise has made significant contributions to popular culture, spanning six television series, one animated television series, thirteen full-length motion pictures, and numerous novels, comics, video games, and other media tie-ins. The franchise has frequently been described as “Wagon Train to the stars,” stemming from shared themes and a format with the television program Wagon Train, which follows the adventures of settlers in the American West during the nineteenth century as they travel from Missouri to California. The program was popular in the fifties and sixties just prior to the original Star Trek’s premiere on NBC in the fall of 1966. Wagon Train, like Star Trek, was episodic in nature, each week’s program taking place in a new location as the settlers moved West followed by a new location in the next week’s episode.
While much has been made of Star Trek’s connection to the genre Western and the mythos of the westward expansion of the United States, very little has been made of the franchise connections to a shared Anglo-American naval tradition. Stefan Rabitsch, in his book Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films, seeks to right that omission. This book is the first major publication to argue that Star Trek owes as much of its legacy to a trans-Atlantic naval tradition as it does to the American Western. It would be just as accurate, if not more so, to state that Star Trek is as much “Horatio Hornblower in space” as it is “Wagon Train to the stars.” The volume itself is divided into two major sections: “Elementary, Dear Trekker (A Primer)” consisting of three chapters, and “Rule, Britannia! Britannia Rules Outer Space in Star Trek! (A Voyage),” four chapters. The volume also includes a shorter preface, introduction, and conclusion, and an impressive bibliography and extensive endnotes.
Rabitsch’s approach is principally literary, rather than historical, and oriented in a post-colonial approach. He centers his argument on, but does not limit it to, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, a series of novels centered on the career of a British naval officer in the Age of Sail, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. The novels were published between the late nineteen-thirties and mid-sixties, and thus were very much part of popular culture at the time that Star Trek was released. These novels were set at the height of British imperial power, and, as they were hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, tap into American interest into its own historical colonization and growing awareness of its increasing prominence on the world stage, as well as British notions of empire during the Age of Sail. Forester’s Hornblower was a combination of skilled strategist, charismatic leader, dedicated naturalist, and caring friend—the prototype for a Starfleet captain.
The author’s focus on Forester and his literary works should, in no way, be taken as a lack of intellectual rigor or scholarly attention. Rabitsch not only shows fluency in critical theory, but has also clearly mastered several literary corpora, which he has incorporated into his book. To begin with, Rabitsch is intimately familiar with the bulk of the Prime timeline in the Star Trek franchise consisting of the first five live-action series, the animated series, and the first ten theatrical films. He largely excludes Star Trek: Discovery, as the series was in its infancy at the time the volume was being prepared for publication, and the Kelvin timeline (i.e. the J.J. Abrams films). When necessary, Rabitsch also incorporates production notes and other archival texts related to the production and development of the franchise. His knowledge of Forester’s Hornblower corpus, as well as the life and writings of Horatio Nelson and James Cook, nineteenth century British naval officers on whom the character of Hornblower was largely based, is equally impressive. Furthermore, Rabitsch manages to interweave these various threads into his prose to create a compelling argument, frequently presenting an idea from Forester of historical accounts of the British navy, followed by a methodical analysis of the same point in each of the Star Trek series. The depth of Rabitsch’s analysis gives his work a feeling of completeness and elevates his argument that “Hornblower in space” is a much better description of the franchise than “Wagon Train to the stars.”
This is not to say that Rabitsch’s analysis is above reproach. At times, the author seems to be so concerned with his postcolonial analysis, in which he compares the Federation and Starfleet to British and American colonialism, that he ignores conflicting evidence that would undermine that narrative. This is particularly evident when it comes to Star Trek: Enterprise, which depicts a time in franchise history in which Earth was not among the more influential planets, prior to the foundation of the Federation. With this said, Star Trek and the British Age of Sail deserves praise for the quality of content, the depth of research, and the clarity of thought, and should be of value to any academic interested in the history of the Star Trek franchise.