The planet of hats is usually regarded as Star Trek’s most persistent plot hole.
When you love Star Trek as much as I do, the tropes that others may dismiss as lazy writing, like the infamous planet of hats, start to look like smart and insightful decisions. Perhaps I am being too charitable here, but that’s my prerogative.
Specifically, I am referring to a trope that will be familiar to all sci-fi fans, especially Star Trek fans, and to the types of people who can lose hours to tvtropes.org. TV Tropes named it The Planet of Hats… The planet of hats is where every member of an alien species shares one defining characteristic. Every single planet has one single monoculture, and that monoculture can be reduced to a stereotype that every member of the species conforms to.
If you see the planet of hats as a flaw, then it’s easily Trek’s biggest flaw. Star Trek is all about not judging others by their background, but with every alien character, their background tells you everything you need to know about them. It feels contradictory at best and hypocritical at worst.
But the planet of hats is actually making a salient point about humanity, just like sci-fi is meant to do… Hear me out…
It feels hypocritical at blush. But as I aged into a more zen-like, less hypercritical appreciation of Star Trek, it started to feel intuitively realistic. It’s not that alien cultures lack variety; it’s simply that humans can’t see that variety. Every alien species on Star Trek could be as varied and diverse as humans are, we’re just really bad at recognizing the diversity of other cultures.
We know this to be true from the history of the real world. When we encounter other cultures, we tend to hone in on the one most visible difference between them and ourselves and see that one difference as their one defining characteristic. We view them only as caricatures of their culture. And even worse, this causes us to flatten regions of the world that contain thousands of distinct cultures into one monoculture. We’d surely do the same to aliens from another planet.
And they’d probably do the same to us… Would real-life aliens see humanity’s true diversity, or would they fail to see past a caricature? Well, I think Trek inadvertently answered this question too…
When the Ferengi were first introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation season 1, they were intended as the main villains, TNG’s answer to Star Trek: The Original Series’ Klingons. And where the Klingons (in their TOS iteration) were an expansionist empire that mirrored the concerns of the time, the Ferengi reflected a more contemporary concern—rampant greed.
Except we all remember how that turned out. The Ferengi were too comical to be the main antagonists and were downgraded to comic relief. Think about that. A villain designed to mirror humanity at its worst was too over-the-top and one-dimensional to be taken seriously! The writers who came up with the Ferengi were trying to view contemporary humanity from the point of view of a more enlightened future, and what they saw was a culture too reductive even for Star Trek.
The Ferengi were viewed as a failure at the time, but I believe they’re the most insightful addition to the Trek universe in its history, as they are exactly who the aliens would see when they look at us.
Or perhaps, instead of reducing us down to our greed, they’d focus on the weird way we’ve split our species into two categories that define much of our lives. Perhaps they’d see our insistence that gender determines how we live our lives as being just as overwhelmingly strange and arbitrary as the Klingon warrior code or the Vulcan’s rejection of emotion.
There is one problem with this rosy view of the planet of hats, as it relates to Star Trek. It’s not very utopian. If the humans of the Star Trek universe still view Klingons, Vulcans, and Ferengi as a monoculture, then they’re not much more enlightened as we are. But again, this feels real to me. Star Trek is a utopia, not because all individuals have shed all the negative aspects of humanity such as prejudice and avarice. It’s a utopia because we managed to build a society that’s above the dark impulses of individuals. It’s a society that reflects the best of humanity, through cooperation. The humans of Star Trek are as flawed as we are. The difference is that they can work together to be something better.