This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series as “The Man Trap”, the first Star Trek episode to make it to air, bowed on NBC at 8:30 pm on September 8, 1966. It was a Thursday night, and the new sci-fi premiered against My Three Sons on CBS and Bewitched on ABC. Now both of those shows are popular and still well-known series in their own right, but only one of the three went on to spin-off 13 movies, six series, hundreds of novels, comics, and video games, not to mention create an entire industry of fan obsession with its own brand name: Trekkies.
Despite that success though, Star Trek sometimes feels like an after thought at 50. The most recent movie, Star Trek Beyond, enjoyed some positive, but not overwhelming success this past summer, its been 12 years without a TV series on the air, and the output of newer, shinier franchises like Marvel and Star Wars seems to have eclipsed the comparatively simple ambitions of Star Trek: to boldly go where no one has gone before. Here’s the thing though, we need Star Trek. Now more than ever.
I’m talking about more than a nerdy need, more than a “God, I love Star Trek, I wish I could watch a new episode or a movie, right now!” need. No, I mean we need aspirational entertainment. We need a world where people aren’t pummelling each other, belittling each other, or killing each other. We need a world where knowledge is a goal, diplomacy is an option, listening is a skill, intelligence is prized, and logic, dare I say, is a virtue. In short, we need Star Trek.
Back in July, Hillary Clinton accepted the presidential nomination the Democratic Party saying, in part, “I believe in science.” Thousands of people in the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and likely millions at home, erupted into applause. Amazing that in the 21st century, an era that was supposed to see us getting around in flying cars off to the spaceport to take a trip to off world colonies, a presidential candidate would need to say “I believe in science” but that’s the way it is. To make matters worse, New Scientist published an article last month that outlined how Clinton’s rival, Donald Trump, has made various anti-science statements on Twitter which included anti-vaxing, climate change denial, and conspiracy theories about the “health effects” of wind mills.
Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” He’s not wrong. Trump sends out dismissive and factually wrong statements on Twitter via a handheld device designed by some of the same people in a different department. Or to use the words of Charles C. W. Cooke from his National Review article, “Smarter Than Thou”, science is done by “popular kids indulging in a fad.” Of course the degree of difficulty in becoming astrophysicist and becoming a hipster is roughly the same, right?
This is where Star Trek comes in. The United Federation of Planets is a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, but one where it seems like most everyone has a working knowledge of it, or an appreciation for those that do. Think about the season 7 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation “Forces of Nature”, where a pair of scientists discover that warp drive use is having a damaging effect on the fabric of space. Picard hears their concerns, Data investigates and deems their research has merit, and the Enterprise recommends to the Federation that a full scientific investigation be begun. At the end of the episode, the Federation and other warp-capable societies decide to limit warp travel to ward 5 unless an there’s an emergency in effort to save space.
There’s an obvious allegory there to climate change; how carbon emissions from cars and other sources are warming the planet, and changing global weather conditions. Even though nearly every climate scientist in the world agrees there’s a problem and it’s man made, there are those in political circles that call “Fake” on the issue, up to an including the Republican presidential nominee who called climate change a Chinese hoax.
Senator James Inhofe, who’s somehow chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, brought a snowball to the floor of Congress last year, almost literally throwing it in the face of all those “eggheads” in “science laboratories” as “proof” that climate change was a fantasy. I wish I could say that was the worst of it, but literally one day after NASA said that June 2016 was the hottest month on record, Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn declared that “the Earth if no long cooling […] For the past 13 years, it has begun to cool.” Blackburn’s scientific field? Family and consumer studies. She has a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1973 for it.
So let’s rephrase “Forces of Nature” through these tinted glasses. Picard tells the Federation there’s a problem and that warp drive is destroying the fabric of space, several Federation politicians then say “No, if we reduce the use of warp drive it will put our dilithium crystal miners out of work, and the Romulan terrorists will win.” Meanwhile, some politicians will take a spaceflight from Earth to Vulcan at Warp 9 and when they arrive safely, they declare that proves that there’s no problem with warp drive. Also, Data’s a robot, and who’s going to take the word of a robot over people with actual flesh and blood. Sure, that’s robotist, but Data doesn’t have feelings anyway.
The science was always been a big part of what makes Star Trek Star Trek. When J.J. Abrams relaunched the new movie series in 2009, many purest complained not on the basis of the idea that new actors were playing the original crew, but because it seemed like J.J. skipped on the science. What is red matter? How does it create black holes? How do those black holes sometimes turn into time tunnels? “Who cares, it’s Star Trek?!?! It doesn’t have to make sense!” seemed to be the answer. Well, a lot of people care, actually. Michael Okuda didn’t write all those technical manuals because no one cared about the actual scientific basis of Trek’s advanced technology, right?
It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that there’s a direct correlation between a lack of Star Trek and a lack of appreciation and trust in scientific institutions, but back when the Next Generation was in the first few years of its ongoing journey, there was another environmental concern, a hole in the ozone layer caused by the use of chlorofluorocarbons. The government at the time took the science at face value and acted on it by joining 197 other countries in the Montreal Protocols, a treaty meant to protect the ozone by phasing out the chemicals causing its depletion. Its been successful, and the ozone is slowly recovering. And the president in the White House at the time was Ronald Reagan, a man cited as an inspiration to modern Republicans more than any other GOP politician, even the party’s first president, one Abraham Lincoln.
The problems we face are not unscary, and they are not small either, but the lesson of good fiction is that we can solve big problems. The human beings of the starship Enterprise were born into a world without greed, want, and hatred. They pursue scientific inquiry for knowledge’s sake, and not because some scientific breakthrough it going to line some company’s pockets for 20 years. When someone’s hypothesis is back up by evidence and reached through rigorous testing and the strictest objective scrutiny, they don’t throw it under the bus because it doesn’t “feel” right.
This is probably more political than you typically like your Nerd Bastards post to be, so let’s just say Star Trek appeals because it’s one of the few science fiction series where the future is better than we have it today. It says that there is a future, and that it’s one with limitless possibilities, rather than it being a dark and cynical place where the worst indicts of humanity have taken us past the point of no return. No one has ever said that they want to live in future Los Angeles of Blade Runner, or that they want to be a cog in the Weyland Yutani machine in the Alien universe, or that they want to be caught between zombie hordes and the openly evil Umbrella Corp. in the Resident Evil series. Why would you? But flying through space in your living room, as Jerry Seinfeld, once observed, that’s something we can get behind.
What we need right now is a reminder of what we can be, and that’s why the subtext of Star Trek Beyond was so compelling. We, as a people, are better than our base instincts and since politics is only really offering us a choice between what’s terrible and what’s pragmatic, we must now look to the stars again. The CNN docu-series The Seventies painted the years between 1970 and 1979 as an endless parade of struggle economically, environmentally, politically, socially, criminally, and let’s not forget Nixon. So consider this: the original Star Trek series ended in 1969 and its cast wasn’t seen again until Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979. Coincidence?
Trek Bastard is a new bi-weekly column that will look at the issues, history and art of Star Trek over its first 50 years. Trek Bastard will be back on September 24.