Final frontier covers old ground.
Instead, what began as a modestly popular network series of the '60s, resurfaced on UHF and cable in the '70s as a cult classic favored by college students, sci-fi fans, and computer geeks and exploded in the '80s and '90s as a major cultural phenomenon.
Even with the death of its creator and guiding muse, Gene Roddenberry, in 1991 and the rakish Captain Kirk (killed twice in the 1994 "Star Trek" movie "Generations" but always capable of being revived through the miracle of 23rd-century science and 20th-century box-office appeal), "Star Trek" is still going boldly where no other series has gone before.
Its first sequel, "Star Trek: The Next Generation," featuring Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of a 24th-century Enterprise, ran for seven seasons, had a weekly viewing audience of 20 million, and was the highest-rated syndicated show in television history when its crew retired in 1994 to move to reruns and the silver screen - and thereby replace a Kirk, Spock, and McCoy grown very long in the tooth.
Meanwhile, Roddenberry and his successor, Rick Berman, created two further "Star Trek" spin-off series, "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager," introducing Starfleet's first black and female captains - Benjamin Sisko and Kathryn Janeway - and promising to carry "Star Trek" (and Paramount Studios) well into the 21st century.
And what is the reason for this phenomenal success? Fueled by microchip technologies generating increasingly glitzier computer graphics and ever more dazzling digital imagery, as well as a growing millenialism fascinated with dreams and visions of the future, sci-fi shows and films like "Star Trek," "Earth 2," "Babylon 5," "Seaquest," and "Star Gate" have become some of Hollywood's hottest properties.
I think the long-lasting and broad-based appeal of "Star Trek" goes beyond contemporary millenialist and special-effects trends in sci-fi entertainment. The enduring popularity of Roddenberry's original creation, as well as that of its numerous reincarnations, flows to a large degree from two sources: interesting ideas and a humanist view of the future.
As critic James Gorman wrote in a Nov. 15, 1991 New York Times article, "Star Trek: It's a Wonderful Galaxy," this has been a show that wrestled (as subtly as William Shatner's acting talents allowed) with a variety of important human and moral issues.
"It achieved success, although not immediately, with a formula rare on television. At the heart of each show was neither love nor money, neither crime nor doctors. Instead of the disease of the week, `Star Trek' episodes were built on the idea of the week. Space, time, morality, human evolution - all were explored in a future that was really just an idealized present."
Thirty years ago "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." had better gadgets, and only "The Untouchables" had a hammier leading man, but it was the Enterprise's pajama-clad crew that confronted issues of genocide, racism, cultural integrity, population control, and genetic manipulation.
Furthermore, "Star Trek" hasn't just offered a hi-tech vision of humanity's future. It has consistently presented viewers with a strikingly optimistic image of our 23rd- and 24th-century descendants, stripped of all the human race's current biases and savagery.
In "Star Trek" and its "generations" Roddenberry and Berman have, unlike the crews of the various Enterprises or the Voyager, not been very interested in mapping out the uncharted portions of the universe or even in exploring new worlds. Rather, their primary aim has been to sketch out a vision of an idealized humanity.
As Richard Zoglin wrote in "Trekking Onward" in the Nov. 29, 1994 Time, "Despite its techno-talk, `Star Trek'and `The Next Generation' were, at bottom, shows about being human." And the basic shape and central tenets of "Star Trek's' optimistic humanism, which consisted of multicultural harmony, increasing gender equality, and the progressive resolution of societal ills through a mixture of reason and compassion, have, for the last three decades, been rigorously adhered to and jealously defended not just by Roddenberry and Berman, but a veritable Starfleet of Trekkies.
Now before you feel the need to have Scottie beam me up to sick bay for Trek-itis (the disease of taking all this "Star Trek" stuff way too seriously, or of confusing Gene Roddenberry with Moses, Gandhi, or even Kahlil Gibran), I'll be happy to concede that all of this is, after all, just about a relatively entertaining TV show with more than its fair share of pop psychology and techno-babble and not the four gospel accounts, the Magna Carta, or even a good Shakespearean comedy.
As Melinda Snodgrass wrote in "Boldly Going Nowhere?" in a November 1991 Omni article, Roddenberry and his writers often mistake themselves for serious thinkers. "Essentially, however, `Star Trek' hasn't affected the ethics, morality or philosophy of ours or any other society. [The show] has always been a reflector of the country's attitudes rather than a shaper of those attitudes." Still, as an amazingly popular cultural phenomenon, the basic tenets of Roddenberry's sci-fi vision of humanity's future might still bear a casual examination. So, scanners on!
"If there is one idea which characterizes `Star Trek' and its successors," argued Roddenberry's widow Majel Barrett in a recent piece in the humanist (November 1995), "it is that differences among people are not merely to be tolerated; they are to be embraced and celebrated." Written against the late '60s backdrop of Vietnam, the Cold War, and race riots, Roddenberry's original series envisioned a future free of fractious divisions and warring prejudices, a future in which, as the author of Galatians notes, "there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female" (3:28).
On the original "Star Trek" women and minorities were largely relegated to minor roles and positions as nurses, yeomen, and hi-tech telephone operators, with female actresses often being typecast as damsel or vixen foils to Shatner's Kirk. Still, affirmative action eventually had its way in the later series as blacks, Hispanics, and women dented and then finally cracked through the shields of Starfleet's glass ceiling, taking roles as physicians, security chiefs, first officers, and captains. Of course, not all minorities have made it onto the deck of the Enterprise. If there are gays or lesbians in Starfleet, they are obviously following a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
At the heart of Roddenberry's vision of a harmonious future are two commands: Thou shalt not fight, and thou shalt not interfere.
According to "Deep Space Nine" executive producer Michael Piller, Roddenberry believed that 23rd-century humans would have evolved beyond "the petty jealousies and character flaws that hound us in the 20th."
Any dramatic tension in the show, therefore, had to come from encounters with alien species, who were not nearly so constricted in their behavior. Even there, however, Roddenberry preferred to have Kirk and Picard resolve conflicts with testy Klingons or Cardassians by resorting to clever strategies or persuasive negotiation.
And then, of course, there was the supposedly inviolable but often broken "prime directive," a Federation mandate that no Starfleet officer or representative was ever to interfere in the development or internal battles of a foreign culture, even if such noninterference resulted in the suffering and death of thousands or millions of beings. The "prime directive" was Roddenberry's stricture against colonial or cultural imperialism and a cornerstone of the Federation's peaceful coexistence with other planets, alliances, and empires. And obviously enough, it was also his reaction to America's own failed interventions and colonial exploits in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Thirty years later it is easy to see why these two principles appealed to Roddenberry and his audience, and even now the commands to avoid conflict or interference have an attractive simplicity and high-mindedness about them. Still, as the civil-rights and solidarity movements have shown us, confrontation is not always a bad thing, and not every conflict needs to be waged with phasers or photon torpedoes. It is sometimes necessary to engage in sustained struggle against the institutional violence of unjust structures, or to press for the radical reform of oppressive systems, and this struggle need not involve demonizing one's opponents or resorting to brute force.
At the same time, while Roddenberry's "prime directive" may have offered a sobering corrective to the arrogance of American interventionism in the '50s and '60s, it is not always so clear that the moral response to international crises in Bosnia, Somalia, or Haiti is to stand by and watch. Messy and costly as it is, interference is sometimes the right response, particularly when it is measured, proportionate, and collaborative.
For me, the real foreign-policy lesson of "Star Trek" was its supranational vision of cooperation in the United Federation of Planets, an obvious endorsement of the United Nations as our best chance for real peace.
Another major theme of "Star Trek" has been the encounter with the alien and the resulting discoveries Starfleet officers made about the shape of their own humanity.
In "We Have Met the Alien and It Is Us," a March 1, 1992 Humanist article, Stephanie Foote notes how in the original series it wasn't just cheap sets and bargain-basement costumes that made all the aliens look and sound like slightly altered versions of ourselves. For as much as the Enterprise crews were supposedly scouring the universe for unknown life forms, much of what they found functioned as a sort of looking glass into the uncharted territory of their own psyches or unconscious.
As a result of these encounters, Enterprise crew members discovered that - unlike the Pharisee in Luke's gospel - they were not so different from the stranger, nor he or she from them, not even when that person was their foe. "Star Trek" episodes in every series have made the point that crew members were most human when they showed sympathy or compassion for their deepest and deadliest enemies.
Foote points out that this encounter with the alienated self and the resulting compassion for others becomes even more central in the later series, where a number of the key characters are themselves half-alien.
For example, in "Deep Space Nine" science officer Lieutenant Jadzia Dax is a Trill, "a joint species combined of two separate but interdependent entities," which enables her to be one of the shows most interesting and compassionate characters. Like the Samaritan on the road to Jericho, Roddenberry's "Star Trek" characters repeatedly testify to the fact that our greatest humanity is to be found in our recognition of that same dignity in the stranger. Compassion is what makes us human.
Finally, at the heart of "Star Trek's" optimistic vision of the future is a deep faith in human reason's capacity to overcome all sorts of evils. In Roddenberry's 23rd- and 24th-centuries, Homo sapiens have not only resolved all sorts of societal ills by transcending prejudice and superstition but have also made tremendous inroads against sickness, aging, death, and the very limits of time and space. Offering us a vision of humanity's future right out of the Enlightenment, "Star Trek" reflects its creator's belief in the unlimited potential of our species to develop into increasingly saner and more reasonable beings.
Although I find "Star Trek's" vision of a galaxy free of prejudice, ignorance, and disease quite attractive, I confess to being a little suspicious of Roddenberry's confidence in the technological fix to life's problems and a little concerned about what sometimes seems like an attempt to escape our own mortality.
All too often, it seems to me, we humans have tried to do an end run around social ills like hunger, war, and illness by spending millions or billions to build a better insecticide, weapons system, or diet pill. As a result, we end up with the fastest rockets, best pharmaceuticals, and most powerful computers but ignore the decaying infrastructures of our cities, schools, and health-care system and continue to lead highly stressed and unhealthy lives.
Nor will they deliver us from the human condition. Being limited and having to face insurmountable difficulties, suffer losses, and endure failure may not be part of a Starfleet captain's daily routine, but they are certainly a regular piece of the human diet.
No one expects the characters in an idealized adventure series like "Star Trek" to suffer the slings and arrows of life, but it's good to remember that that's why we call it escapist fare. It's also good to recall that Jesus, who the author of Philippians tells us, was not ashamed to take up our mortal coil, gave us the noblest vision of ourselves by embracing that humanity with all its limits.
Still, it is with Roddenberry's vision of religious faith as a medieval superstition that I would like to pick my last bone. In an interview in the Humanist (March 1991), "Star Trek's" creator described his own adolescent estrangement from organized religion - which he saw as hypocritical and superstitious nonsense - and his choice to exclude religious faith from his idealized vision of the future.
It was not just that "Star Trek" and "The Next Generation," unlike "M.A.S.H.," had no chaplain, but that nearly every time Kirk and Picard encountered an alien species with some deeply held religious beliefs they would take it upon themselves to debunk or demythologize what they saw as crippling superstitions. As evangelists of humanist rationalism, early Starfleet officers seemed hell-bent on proclaiming the death of God to the ends of the universe.
This stance has always struck me as slightly ironic coming from a show about the human spirit's hunger for the transcendent, a show so clearly modeled on Homeric and Exodus myths about going out into the wilderness to encounter the face of the unknown and somehow coming home to one's true self.
After all, was space ever really the final frontier? Was the Enterprise's actual mission simply to chart the stars and negotiate treaties with alien life forms? Or was it, as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his "Ulysses," "to seek a newer world ... to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." In spite of Roddenberry's disdain for organized religion, his "Star Trek" is ultimately about a spiritual hunger that cannot be satisfied by the invention, discovery, or conquest of new worlds.
Maybe that's why characters in "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager" seem to take religion more seriously. Captain Sisko's tough-minded second-in-command Major Kira Nerys is a Bajoran for whom spirituality and religious rituals are quite important, while the Voyager's Maquis First Officer Chakotay takes time during an early episode to instruct Captain Janeway in the use of Native American spirit guides.
As the late German theologian Karl Rahner once argued, it is our very hunger for and encounter with the unknown, the transcendent, that reveals our spiritual dimension and points us in the direction of God.
Or, to steal a line from Robert Browning, "If our reach does not exceed our grasp, then what's a heaven for?"
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|Title Annotation:||influence of television program 'Star Trek'|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1996|
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