It seems strange to ask; “What is Star Trek?”
At first glance, it looks like a campy science-fiction series about warp drive and aliens and phasers, and a very recognizable starship. And a certain cast ensemble led by a swashbuckling captain and a logical alien.
But those things are just the setting, not the gemstone. The gemstone is an idea. To be specific, Gene Roddenberry’s idea. That idea is the dilithium crystals of Star Trek.
“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
– Gene Roddenberry
Roddenberry wasn’t future-man. He struggled with internalized ideas of his time, like racism and misogyny, and many episodes are more anachronism than exemplar.
He had a lot of restrictions on him. He fought to have black crew members. He resorted to bookkeeping trickery to keep Nichelle Nichols on the bridge. The show couldn’t have been made at all if it weren’t somewhat an artifact of the visual conventions of its time.
But in all that, he kept trying, pursuing this idea about humanity. That we don’t have to hate. That we don’t have to kill… today. That our differences may actually be a good thing, if we learn to look at them the right way. We can learn from each other.
We can choose to be better than we have been. We can value intelligence and logic, over aggression. The fact that we have not done it yet, doesn’t mean we can’t do it. Star Trek is US, imagining what it would be like. There were some silly episodes, yes. Some driven by network executives, and some making it all too clear that he and most of the writers were white men in the 1960’s. But everywhere, the idea.
If you have only seen JJ Abrams’ hyper-amped-up action films* of the same name, you might not realize that in Roddenberry’s vision, Captain Kirk was fully qualified to be in command of the flagship. The Enterprise was a powerful ship, a ship of consequence. To make decisions with that kind of power, Starfleet needed a captain who was absolutely obsessed with ethics. Many episodes revolved specifically around the captain wrestling with some ethical conundrum. Or on occasion, his failure to do so.
When Kirk needed an external conscience, (which was fairly often) his officers were a rare kind. Especially Spock. A misfit in both his father’s and mother’s cultures, he has no real home, except on a ship. He is the voice of science, of peace, of logic. He valued life, pondered ethics, and calculated risks.
The crew checked each other. Even Spock went wrong sometimes.
All fiction begins with “What would things be like if they were different?”
Roddenberry asked us all to imagine: How far could humanity go, if we could stop killing each other and work together? He had no illusions that this would be simple or easy. In fact, by comparison, war-making is easy.
Seriously, how hard could it be to get young men stirred up, and engineers interested in weapons, and politicians to posture over some conflict that will look trivial to our descendants? We’ve been doing it for our entire recorded history. It is the well-explored path. It’s like a play we don’t how to stop performing. We know exactly where it ends up, over, and over again. Except we’re always sure this conflict will be different.
But Peace? Now, THAT’s the Undiscovered Country. We’ve barely begun to think about it as a challenge worthy of our existence. Peace is more than the absence of war. It is more than cold war; it is more than keeping our enemies more frightened of us, than we are of them.
The hardest things require thinking in a new way. We would need to overcome fear. In effect, to master ourselves. In Roddenberry’s world, waging peace was a lot more complicated than just disarming Yes, there were dangers, so the Federation was no pushover. But waging peace requires seeing things from the other person’s point of view. It means playing the long game, as many steps ahead as you can possibly muster.
“But what if it doesn’t WORK?!” cries our war-conditioned amygdala. Well in that case, we fail, and maybe even die. But those things can happen in war, too. When you care about something, you take risks for it. The universe doesn’t give a damn one way or the other what we do, but we can try. We can goddamn well try.
Roddenberry was optimistic enough to create a universe where the Federation grew by acting on these principles, not by wars of conquest. And even though the stories were told from a human point of view he credited meeting the Vulcans as the historical turning point of our species. Vulcans had had enough of the passions that led to war. In the Trek universe, we didn’t become like them, but we were inspired by them.
There’s enough cynicism and despair in the world already. Star Trek is almost unique in its optimism. I can think of no reason not to adopt it in the real world.
If we fail to do better, it isn’t fate; it’s a tragic and stupid choice.
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- This post was prompted by the passing of Leonard Nimoy. I always knew I liked him, but my own grief at his passing took me by surprise. I really teared up, and realized his life had affected mine in unexpected ways. And certainly the lives of many other people. Read up on him; that was a life well-lived, and we are all richer for it.
- Jon Stewart speaks for all of us to JJ Abrams for the mess he made of Star Trek. *My response is a lot more visceral: When JJ Abrams says he didn’t like Star Trek because it was “Too philosophical”, I can only say to him: Screw you. Go create your own goddamn franchise, you unoriginal hack.
- While I was writing this post, Lance Mannion wrote “Fascinating.”: Random thoughts on Leonard Nimoy, Mr Spock, the romance of Jim Kirk and Carol Marcus, and J.J. Abrams’ plot to ruin Star Trek.
- Leonard Nimoy was a mensch.
- Bonus points if you know where the title quote of this post is from, and how I’ve intentionally misapplied it.
The model of the Enterprise shown above, is actually a telephone that someone once gave to me. When it “rings”
(Bridge hail sound) you pick up the saucer section and talk into it. The nacelles don’t light up; I retouched the photo a bit for that effect. In the photo at left, you can see the RJ-11 phone jack. It’s actually way too fragile to use as a phone, but it’s a nice model of my favorite spaceship.
- Some other time, I’ll write about other Trek captains. Suffice to say, I’m a big fan of Picard and Janeway.
- IO9: Why Star Trek Voyager Meant The World To Me
- Strange Horizons; Freshly Remembered, Kirk Drift. An outstanding deconstruction of the popular remembrance of Kirk as being anything like Zapp Brannigan, or even worse, the Kirk in JJ Abrams’ films. An hour-long read that touches as well on the same phenomenon as it applies to other literature including Charles Dickens and Helen Keller.