“The reason that I’m not a nihilist…”

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of Star Trek. Happy birthday, Star Trek! I think we should make it a holiday, like how May the fourth is Star Wars Day. I mean, we already have Captain Picard Day, but that’s Next Generation specific. I like the idea of celebrating all things Roddenberry.

Back in July I went down a YouTube rabbit hole watching Comic Con panels. It’s become something of a tradition since I’ve decided that I’m probably never going to get over my social anxiety enough to actually attend the cathedral of geekery for real. Anyway, William Shatner, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Jeri Ryan, and Scott Bakula did a fiftieth anniversary panel moderated by Brian Fuller, the showrunner for the new series coming out next year (squee!). What struck me immediately was that all six of them, in talking about their love and respect for the shows/movies as well as for Gene Roddenberry, brought up the sheer, unabashed optimism for the future that Trek instills. It’s an illustration, a roadmap, for how humanity could end up if we do it right. They talked about environmentalism, hunger, war, medicine, even adopting shelter animals. They dove deep, man. At the end of the panel, Fuller asked that everyone in Hall H (which holds 6,500 people) join hands and make a promise “to leave this room with love, to leave this room with hope, to leave this room taking responsibility to craft a path to the future that Gene Roddenberry imagined.” I’m not going to lie, I teared up a bit.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: scifi gives us hope. Even the most horrifying dystopian scifi gives us hope, as all cautionary tales do, that we can be better than that. Sure, that sounds reductionist and oversimplified. And yes, at the end of the day, you’re looking at a bunch of dudes in rubber masks and that’s ridiculous. I concede that point, no question. But if the great thinkers of our real history haven’t yet taught us how to live, maybe the ones from our hypothetical future can.

Unfortunately, the rubber masks get in the way. I once asked a good friend why she didn’t like scifi and she said, “Because I like things that make me think. Scifi is silly.” But dammit, it can be both! I equate that sentiment with those folks who say rock or rap or whatever is just useless noise (or worse, a corrupting influence on young people) but have never actually listened to any of the lyrics. I think Eminem is categorically more intellectual and Marilyn Manson hands down a better role model than any of those “wholesome” shitkickers who sing the same boring country song over and over about drinking beer and driving a big gas guzzling truck and wanting to have sex with pretty girls (and only the pretty girls). But the guys with the fuck words and the eyeliner are the bad influences? Out of here with that bullshit. I’d rather watch aliens or ghosts or wizards with something interesting to say about the human condition than any stupid rom-com, any day, I don’t care how many Ryan Gosslings or Julia Robertses you throw at the problem. You take your escapism and I’ll take mine.

Sorry, got a little off track there.

Futurism! Star Trek gives us hope for the future without being a doe-eyed Pollyanna utopia. People are still people with people problems, but with greed and scarcity of resources and many (but by no means all) prejudice removed they seem less…what? Petty? Something. More focused, maybe.

Of course, one must keep in mind that we, the viewers, are looking at Trek through the lens of Starfleet. They are militaristic and hierarchical, a finely-tuned machine. Loyal and idealistic. Real officer-and-a-gentleman shit, right? As in our own time, just putting on a uniform changes one’s outlook on the world (galaxy). Uniforms remove and replace much of identity, creating equality across the institution, while changes in specifics – unit, rank, etc – signify visibly and automatically where and how one should change one’s behavior to give due deference. Weird trick of psychology, that. My point is, small glimpses and the occasional bottle episode aside, we have very little idea what normal life is like in the day-to-day civilian Terran future. We’re stuck in a series of tin cans with a bunch of badasses, ostensibly the best of the best.

All of which is thrown into starker relief by the constant encounters with aliens. To varying degrees, the different life forms and cultures that the crews interact with are metaphors for us, watching, and our hangups and fuckups that need fixing. With a few purely animalistic exceptions, every away mission is an opportunity for aliens to be taught a civics lesson about why they’re wrong and Starfleet is right. In the Original Series this is, obviously, thinly-veiled American postwar/cold war exceptionalism at its height. By the time we got to Next Generation, things were a little more nuanced and usually more subtle, but television had changed a lot in general. Audiences were more primed for thoughtful discourse and Picardian diplomacy, and the need for balls-and-brawn Kirk as a role model was less dire. The 1960s viewer would have asked why Picard wasn’t punching more people, basically, and the viewer from the 80s probably thought that Kirk needed therapy to deal with his daddy issues. The times they do a-change.

Boy, do they. These fifty years, man, some shit has gone down. I just finished two great miniseries that CNN put out about the 60s and 70s. They’re on Netflix, I highly recommend. Made me want to read all the history books. All of them. But consider the Trek timeline as a whole. More has changed in the thirty years since Next Gen debuted than had between Original Series and Next Gen, right? In 1987 Russia was still sort of the bad guy. Carter aside, the Presidents had pretty much all been reruns. You still needed a cord attached to a wall to use a telephone. Michael Jackson had huge hits in both decades, and it would be a few years before his reputation fell apart. The world wasn’t all that different. The initial intended viewing audiences of those shows had more in common with each other, on average, than either would have with us today. We’re probably closer to the crew of the first Enterprise, honestly. Even if we’re not entirely there in a social progress kind of way (yet, but we’re working on it), technologically we’re making leaps and bounds. Now we just need to meet some aliens and build a replicator. Get on that, science.

So, yeah. Happy Star Trek Day. Go celebrate. Drink some Romulan ale or play some multi-dimensional chess. Contemplate our place in the universe. Consider how humanity can better itself, then do your part, however small. When the aliens decide we’re ready to meet them, we need to make a good impression, y’all.