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.