The world of 2016 can learn a lot from the crew of the Enterprise.
As Peter Finch said in Network, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad.” This calendar year in particular has seen Great Britain vote itself off a cliff, and the United States in extreme peril of doing the same. Paranoia, bigotry, and the hardening of interpersonal borders are rampant. Journalism is largely in thrall to commerce, and truth is too widely regarded as that which is convenient or comforting to believe. Hope is fleeting. Despite numerous major dissimilarities, frequent comparison has been made between this particular cultural moment and the summer of 1968; while greatly fraught in its own way, I mainly bring this era up as a bridge to Star Trek, which was still on the time, and which was conceived specifically as an antidote to the social ills of its age, a beacon of optimism in catastrophic times. The latest iteration of the franchise, Star Trek: Beyond, opens this week, and not a moment too soon.
I was introduced to Star Trek by my dad, a fan of science fiction in general and Trek in enthusiastic particular, for two principal reasons: because it was good and because it represented a holistically positive view of the world, as outlined in the text that opened each episode of the original series:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
The show was set in a future where war had been largely, if not wholly, abolished. The Enterprise’s crew was racially diverse (quite so by 60s standards), with the Cold War-relevant touch of also featuring a Russian. The two leads represented the duality between emotionalism (Kirk) and rationalism (Spock), in a cooperative balance. The show was fiercely beloved by a fan base of insufficient size to keep the show on the air longer than three seasons, but its audience grew exponentially over the coming decades and Star Trek is now a cultural institution and a landmark work of science fiction.
Over the years, I’ve maintained a fondness for Star Trek as an idea, and ideal, but am a “bad fan” when it comes to completism. I’ve seen most of the original series, most of the first few seasons of The Next Generation, and most of the movies. The best of the bunch I love dearly, the worst I regret, and it’s largely the lows that kept me from delving further in. This more reflects a personally piecemeal approach to canon than it does any kind of negative judgment of Star Trek as a greater whole.
Additionally, there’s the matter of inconsistent execution, in actually translating Star Trek from an ideal to actual, tangible art. This most notably crops up in the first series of films with the original cast, in which the oft-noted tradition of only the even-numbered movies being any good was established (which I’ve found to be true: Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country are all fabulous, the rest considerably less so). I didn’t see the movies with the Next Generation cast. The first J.J. Abrams Star Trek was a wildly enjoyable experience, although the second felt curiously as though it was made by someone who’d never seen Star Trek before, and was an alternately enervating and infuriating experience. Still, the prospect of a new movie is a promising one.
And that’s because Star Trek, at its most elemental level, is about hope. It’s about all of humanity (and alienity) coming together as one in the name of noble ideals. Peace. Harmony. Justice. Knowledge. Curiosity. Daring. It is not the world as is, but as it could be if the burdens of perfidy were cast aside. It’s about making the conscious choice to be better. Star Trek doesn’t present a perfect world, because it is still, in its various incarnations, beholden to dramatic conflict. It does, however, dare to dream of a time when people can get dressed up in the height of Third Millennium fashion, get on a spaceship, and do some good. And, of course, have sex with some green aliens.
This world has a lot to learn from that one.