The Magic of Star Trek and the Danger of Despair

I went to go see Into Darkness today. I dragged the Minion along. She seemed to enjoy it, but not being the inveterate Trekkie she ought to be – a shortcoming for which I, as senior nerd, must take full responsibility – she missed some of the more subtle nods to the fans.

I’m going to be remedying that shortly, and not just because I’m one of those crazy fans who forces people to watch/read things they care nothing about. Star Trek is culturally significant. It’s something people should know about. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the idea of cultural literacy, thanks to a series of research projects, and while I can’t agree with the high-culture definition that would require every student to read Grapes of Wrath and like it, I do strongly believe that the modern culture of Justin Bieber and Twilight, Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo is dangerously limited, shallow, restrictive.

That culture is cynical and jaded, yet somehow simultaneously arrogant. It denies the possibility that anything can be learned from the classics of the past, claiming that this is the greatest generation, and at the same time paints the future as a backdrop from Terminator, Mad Max, World War Z, The Hunger Games, Neuromancer, After Earth… Even a children’s movie like WALL-E depicts a miserable, hopeless, corrupt humanity. Cautionary tales are well and good, but there has to be an alternative vision, something to work toward as we avoid dystopia.

There are very, very few DOs amid the long list of DON’Ts.

Star Trek is one of those rare DOs.

Gene Roddenberry constructed a world viewers could want. He brought together a multiethnic, multinational crew in an era of lynchings and cold war. He put women on the bridge and later in the captain’s chair when most were still firmly stationed in front of the stove. In his world, the planet Earth has peace and equality, a stable economy, places to go when overpopulation reaches a tipping point, and effective medicine.

There is conflict, obviously. A good story must have conflict, some enemy to be defeated. But in Star Trek, the enemy is almost always external. The good guy is not the underdog, fighting off oppressive governments; the good guy is backed by one of the most powerful organizations in the galaxy. The bad guy is the Klingons, or the Romulans, or the Borg, or some rogue Starfleet officer who most emphatically does not represent humanity at large. The vast majority of characters we meet are the good guys, because goodness is the default. Often, conflict is simply a matter of misunderstanding, culture clash, failure to communicate. Alliances can be formed, friendships forged. Nonviolent solutions are preferable, and one is usually available. We are brought to confront our dark side, but instead of embracing it for the sake of survival, we must reject it to thrive.

It should not be difficult to see why this is important.

There is much talk about saving the world. Ending hunger, poverty, oppression. Using technology to improve the lives of the underprivileged. Fixing things, fixing people. But the dystopian fad is robbing us of our model. It has become fashionable to disregard or deny the impact fiction has on our perceptions, but constant exposure to any idea desensitizes and, with enough time, renders that idea the norm. In 1968, Plato’s Stepchildren was greeted with shock and disgust as the first interracial kiss on American television. Put the same scene on television now, and people might laugh at the campy effects, but no one will bat an eye at the kiss. We’ve seen enough of it that it’s normal. I would argue that’s a good thing.

But imagine an entire generation convinced that despair is the norm, that corruption and greed are the default, that goodness and courage are traits of the select few, and that if humanity even survives the next hundred years, it will be as a beaten, haggard remnant of some apocalyptic war.

I don’t know about everyone else out to save the world, but I want to be able to see what I’m working toward. I don’t want to be confronted at every turn with my own fictional failure. It hurts. It hurts me, and it hurts our culture to be bombarded with these messages of dystopia.

For me, Star Trek is more than entertainment; it is hope.

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4 thoughts on “The Magic of Star Trek and the Danger of Despair

  1. As usual, this is so eloquently put that I haven’t got much to say other than ‘I agree’. 😛

    I would add, though, that it’s not just the dystopia/cynicism that I find worrying. It’s the way that reality shows and celebrity culture sensationalize petty rudeness and competition, as if it’s both shocking and daring, something to admire. It’s that we erase power imbalances — in fiction, in news, or in real-life discussion — either by declaring that these problems don’t exist anymore or by scorning those who try to discuss them.

    Fiction and media act as both a reflection and a reinforcement of our cultural lens. I look at these things, and I don’t like the culture I map onto it: a culture that values the conflict over the resolution, that would rather deny problems than approach them, that rejects those problems it is willing to acknowledge because they are too big, too impossible, to be worth the effort of even trying to solve.

    I haven’t seen any Star Trek (mostly because I have a compulsive streak that demands I watch every episode ever, in order, before I can even think about getting to the new stuff – and with a show with such a huge history, tiiiime is a problem) but this post may have sold the movie for me. 😉

    • I’ve got that same compulsive streak. I wish I could say the new movies could stand alone, but this last one was so heavily peppered with fanservice that I doubt a newbie would get half the significance. Fortunately, the original series is only a matter of three seasons and the films. There were a couple of joke references to other series, but nothing that would seriously detract.

      Ignoring power imbalances is a serious problem, and not one that’s limited to fiction and media. Just hit the Jezebel website and scroll through the comments, counting all the people, male and female, who genuinely think misogyny is an imaginary problem or one that ended in the 70s. That one extends all the way up through higher education, amazingly.

      Conflict over resolution is one that seriously throws me off, and I hadn’t even put much thought into it until just now, but you’re absolutely right. I suppose it’s that Jerry Springer factor, people enjoying seeing people at each other’s throats. That’s actually quite creepy!

  2. I think action is great with movement and positive traveling, other ways to show action without so much violence. I also believe in resolution of problems and a universe that is in balance and harmony. My Dad worked for NASA as a nuclear engineer, he found scientists who did not feel positive about the future of space travels, especially during post-Nixon administration. But in philosophical debates he always said, “How BIG is your God?” when Christians would point out the Garden of Eden. He would also say, “It is a metaphor, a tale passed around campfires of sheepherders and others until it was written down. How could you not gaze at the stars and see our future?” Just a little side comment, he would have loved the movie because it still is talking about space and future…

    • Your dad sounds really cool. And I can’t imagine any Christian rejecting space travel. I mean, “Go forth and multiply” is well and good, but there’s only so much Earth to do it in. If you take that command at face value, you sort of HAVE to seriously consider colonizing other worlds.
      Personally, I’ve always looked up at the stars, not so much for the sake of contemplating the size of the universe, but trying to imagine what they would look like up close, lighting up a different planet. One of my favorite shots from all sci-fi films is the part in Stargate with the three moons over the pyramid on Abydos. I’ve always wanted to see another sky.

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