Where is our inspiration today? What films or shows will inspire tomorrow’s scientists and technicians and dreamers and explorers? I suppose media are so diverse now that it’s impossible for any one film or show to gain the same level of support as the classics of yesteryear (for a given definition of ‘classic’ of course).
Looking over the past couple of decades, popular entertainment has focused on magic, fantasy and the supernatural: vampires and zombies, Harry Potter, Marvel and DC superheroes, Tolkein’s stories from ‘Middle Earth’, Game Of Thrones, various incarnations of Star Wars, and the return of Doctor Who (any show whose protagonist utters the line “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff” is not science fiction as far as I’m concerned) – these are entertainments that thrill with the impossible, rather than what might be. They are set in the modern day or fantastic realm – but not a hopeful future.
I miss that. I liked reading books and watching films and TV shows that said that no matter what we were going through (socially, politically, economically, environmentally), humans will find a way to overcome our difficulties and achieve great things.
I don’t think anything has championed optimistic, humanist values quite so well as Star Trek. And there can’t be much doubt about its influence on the technologies we have now: mobile phones, tablet computers and e-readers, gigantic wall-mounted flatscreen TVs, Bluetooth earpieces, medical scanners and spray injections all featured in the 1960s series.
Speaking of technology, the design of the original starship Enterprise is about as aesthetically perfect as you could hope it to be (unlike the most recent incarnation, which is to the original what Hapsburg royalty was to the average face). It actually looks like something that could be constructed, if only we knew how. The designer Matt Jeffries included a good deal of thoughtful pragmatism – so much so that the communications centre in the US Naval Air Station in San Diego was apparently influenced by the layout of the starship bridge. (Jeffries, like Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry and Canadian ‘Scotty’ actor James Doohan, flew aircraft in the Second World War.)
We might not yet be living in a world where we can accept each other’s differences, but after her stint on the show, ‘Uhura’ actress Nichelle Nichols worked for NASA, helping to improve diversity. NASA employees have been inspired by Star Trek in all sorts of ways – never mind the fact that Trekkies persuaded US President Gerald Ford to rename the first space shuttle the Enterprise.
All science fiction is a product of its time. The dystopias of We, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four were reactions to different aspects of modernity in the early 20th century – fears of changing social mores and totalitarianism. The first far-future space adventure (and a likely inspiration for Star Trek) was the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, featuring a paramilitary human crew exploring interstellar space.
At this point, the USA had benefited from the outcome of the Second World War like no other country. Culturally and materially unharmed, it was only natural that it could project confidence in the way it went about its business: a democratic, multiracial, cultural melting-pot! (As long as one overlooked fiery crosses burning on lawns, McCarthyism, and the continued existence of racial quotas in the 1924 Immigration Act. Yet it was also the country that gave itself the New Deal and war-torn Europe the Marshall Plan, and was now involved in the ‘space race’ against the Soviet Union.)
Taking this panglossian view – the best aspects of the USA – Gene Roddenberry put together his science fiction universe (originally so US-centric that the starship was to be called ‘Yorktown’). The USA was a world leader; surely its way of doing things would always be best?
The 1970s – with its oil shocks, VietNam, and Watergate scandal – were fertile grounds for more dystopias (such as the nihilistic Planet Of The Apes sequels, or the environmental catastrophes of Silent Running and Mad Max, the technology-gone-wrong in Michael Crichton’s Westworld or The Andromeda Strain). It’s no wonder people took to the moral clarity and fairytale ending of Star Wars…
The 1980s, like the 1960s, seemed to be a good time to produce a variety of original blockbuster films and iconic TV shows (as well as inevitable sequels). With President Reagan’s declaration of “Morning In America” (as long as you weren’t living in the rust belt, or a crime-ridden inner city) and, after the Reykjavik summit, the impending end to the Cold War, perhaps the timing was right for a successor to the original Star Trek.
Star Trek: The Next Generation might have taken a little longer to find its feet, but it matched, exceeded, and outlasted the original show (at worst, Gene Roddenberry was apparently a control freak when it began, but he was at least able to pass on the advice to the writers that each episode couldn’t just be some story or other; it had to be about something). Its protagonists may not have been as clearly-defined or complex as the original crew at the start, and the show could lapse into the habits of a soap opera serial drama rather than thoughtful science fiction.
Deep Space Nine is my favourite of the series (even if it probably owes a lot to Babylon 5): it brings something new and different to the universe; it deals with consequences (so problems aren’t neatly wrapped up at the end of an episode and the crew don’t leave for parts unknown); at its best it deals with religion, politics, morality and philosophy in ways only promised by the original 1960s Star Trek pilot The Cage. Of the recurring antagonists, one is a religious leader (her first confrontation is essentially a battle over teaching creationism in schools), another is a military dictator who can only see short-term gains, and a third leads a group of infiltrators nursing a historical grudge, who spread terror and distrust throughout the galaxy (predating 11th September 2001 and arguably doing a better job of exploring the issue than Enterprise or the Battlestar Galactica reboot).
Deep Space Nine also dealt with Star Trek history by bringing back old characters played by their original actors (and at one point, going back in time to visit Captain Kirk in his hey-day). It also touches on what it takes to maintain this utopia, and how outsiders might regard it; a level of depth and insight that doesn’t get explored much. (It also teases the possibility that the Star Trek universe is the escapist fantasy of a pulp sci-fi writer dealing with racism in 1950s America.)
As for Star Trek: Voyager, I had no interest. It didn’t seem to offer anything novel to me. And Star Trek: Enterprise was a missed opportunity – the theme song hinted that the show would show how we got from the present day to the utopian future, but studio meddling apparently diverted a promising concept into an average adventure show. Were the episodes ‘about something’, or were they merely telling stories? (I still have a soft spot for it, despite what might have been.) Falling ratings and overfamiliarity with the franchise led to its cancellation – familiarity leads to contempt, perhaps?
Star Trek is the McDonald’s of science fiction; it’s fast food storytelling. Every problem is like every other problem. They all get solved in an hour. Nobody ever gets hurt, and nobody needs to care. You give up an hour of your time, and you don’t really have to get involved. It’s all plastic.
– Star Trek script writer David Gerrold
Of the movies, they might have begun with grand themes woven into the storytelling, but they too ended up becoming nothing more than simple adventures – shallow spectacle.
- The Motion Picture: what will become of our attempts to probe the universe? What purpose to we give ourselves? (Any message in the film gets lost in the sluggish pace of what is a glorified special effects reel.)
- The Wrath Of Khan: deals with aging, mortality,and consequences (such as Kirk’s love-child and a vengeful antagonist) with a neat science-fiction maguffin.
- The Search For Spock: turning the concept of ‘the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few’ on its head; sacrifice; it also deals with hubris and nemesis as the maguffin from the previous film falls apart.
- The Voyage Home: deals with environmentalism, but is most obviously holding up a mirror to modern times when it was made.
- The Final Frontier: a reaction to a resurgence of evangelism on television; but it also deals with coming to terms with one’s personal regrets; for all its cheesiness, Kirk’s line “I need my pain” says in four words what the Next Generation episode Tapestry explored in 40 minutes.
- The Undiscovered Country: could be seen as a reflection on living past one’s usefulness, or why we need to (eventually) retire? But mostly it’s a reflection on the end of the Cold War.
- Generations: hm; this is where I have difficulty. ‘Bad things happen’? ‘People die and things get destroyed’? I am not a fan of this film. I think it’s mostly awful.
- First Contact: mere storytelling; action adventure in space. There’s nothing deep here, but at least it’s fun.
- Insurrection: again, storytelling; there might be something about living in the moment versus the desire for immortality, but I reckon it’s weak.
- Nemesis: storytelling; and I reckon it’s not very good storytelling at that. I think it’s almost entirely awful.
- Star Trek (2009): storytelling – maybe there’s something about destiny. I doubt you’d watch this and glean any philosophical insights from it, but at least it’s fun.
- Star Trek Into Darkness: storytelling that gets sucked into plotholes and can’t escape. Instead, it relies on spectacle and the audience ignoring what’s going on. I think it is -actually entirely- awful.
- Star Trek Beyond: I have to admit I foolishly got my hopes up; as the film progressed I thought a disillusioned Kirk would pit himself against a philosophical opponent to everything he stands for, and rediscover his (and the franchise’s) purpose. Instead, it ended up with a fistfight and special effects sequence while a 1990s Beastie Boys track plays in the background.
So what now?
At time of writing there’s a new series Star Trek: Discovery in the making, but it will only be available to subscribers. The days of Star Trek being an inspiration, something that shows us how we might want to live our lives in the future, available to everyone, look like they’re gone.
What will inspire us now? Where is the optimistic vision of the future? Who will show us the world(s) we want to live in? I can’t believe I’m the only one who’s not satisfied with fantasy; there must be others who want to see possibility too.
Happy Birthday, Star Trek. You’ve lived long and prospered.
I just hope your ideals do too.