50 years on from its first screening, one thing keeps Star Trek as relevant, engaging and important as ever: Its vision for a better humanity.
Let me come clean. The 8th of September is Star Trek day, so I forced our Editor to let me write a blog post about this sci-fi universe because I’m a Trekkie and I literally grew up watching the second wave of ST shows.
But I had no clue what to write about that would make sense for this blog. I am not ashamed. This is nerd pride, ladies and gentlemen and everyone in-between and beyond.
And yet, I think I finally found an angle that I can stretch to justify this moment of uber geekiness and that angle is: vision.
Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, the pen behind The Original Series from the 60s, the first motion picture, the first season of The Next Generation and the creative mind behind all things Trek, until he passed away in 1991. Gene Roddenberry was the first writer and producer to ever receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and whose ashes have been shot into space. Gene, the Bird of the Galaxy.
Gene was a visionary.
A More Human Future
It’s possible to see his direct influence down to the beginning of Deep Space Nine. He was strenuous in defending his vision in the writers’ room. As a showrunner, which is the boss of all the writers working on an American TV series, he kept his team focused on a vision for humans that always included positivity, optimism, total inclusivity and the shredding of our worst instincts.
That doesn’t mean that humans always had to be virtuous. Naivety, distraction, sadness, duplicity, or sarcasm were all commonplace. They had to write stories, after all.
The Original Series had a Bridge with people from all sorts of backgrounds. They had a black woman as the Communication Officer, a Japanese man at the helm, a Russian man at navigation (remember, it was 1965, relations between the US and Russia were not exactly hunky-dory) and an alien as First Officer.
It was the most diverse cast ever seen on TV. If you wrote an ensemble TV series today, you would probably have a cast just as representative as that one. But this was the 60s. Star Trek was literally light years ahead of its time.
The Impact of Technology
One of the most exciting aspects of his vision was the impact of technology. In Star Trek’s universe, many issues that humanity is facing today were surpassed thanks to technology.
Roddenberry saw tech as an enabling albeit occasionally defective tool for positive and radical change. He foresaw iPads well before touchscreen technology reached the mainstream. The same goes for long-distance and portable communicators, the hypospray, voice-activated computers, automatic-doors, even wireless earbuds (remember what Uhura used at the Comms station? You’re welcome, Gen Z).
One scientific advancement, in particular, was the foundation for all the following tech. That was the ability to directly convert energy into matter and vice versa. This led to the creation of the replicators, which made regular mass production obsolete, including the accumulation of capital, and made energy production completely clean and virtually endless as you could literally scrap anything to generate energy without negative impact.
Think about: from a practical perspective, our inability to do this is one of the biggest causes of the global climate crisis today.
Technology as an enabler for good. That’s still the dream. People like me still hope to live in a better future, mostly because of Star Trek. Because it just made sense.
Aliens as Metaphors for Human Failings
Some of the alien races used as a metaphor some human traits were also, particularly on point. Even if they were not created by Roddenberry.
Think about the intuition about the internet which gave birth to the Borg Collective, which is a pretty accurate depiction of the “social media persona” craze.
We can easily say that resistance to Instagram stories is futile. Connected continuously, always receptive of what comes from the net. A “hive mind”. Isn’t that how people ask for suggestions? Yeah, the Borg collective is just a very successful social media network, obsessed with itself and hungry to assimilate/get more likes. And just like Borg, like Seven of Nine or Hugh, we are also able to still be our authentic selves when we step away from the social media craze for a while.
What about the Ferengi? A race that embodies the traits of extreme capitalism and consumerism and the pursuit of profit above all else? The Rules of Acquisitions might have been a cautionary tale back in the early 90s, but they sound dramatically current in 2019. You could swear that some lobbies, corporations, companies and individuals actually follow that book to the letter. Like Rule of Acquisition #211: “Employees are the rungs on the ladder of success. Don’t hesitate to step on them.”
Resistance to Roddenberry
Vision, then, as the ability to imagine a better, different future as the result of the forces at play in the present day. This was the main quality of Gene. And just like many tech founders, he wasn’t always supported in his vision. While fans recognised the value of his humanism, his network colleagues found all that annoying and cumbersome. Sound familiar?
Bear in mind: it was a good thing Gene had people working on Star Trek besides him. Visionaries need practical people around them to break down the long journey to a utopia into a series of achievable steps. Your product should be your central focus and, while being unique, you should always pay attention to the need of the market. In Star Trek’s case, they were producing a show for network television. Great storytelling comes from high stakes and great conflict, and Gene’s extremely optimistic humanism didn’t always allow for that.
Still…I personally believe that, after Gene’s death and Maurice Hurley’s departure from TNG, everything took a slow downward spiral. TNG stayed absolutely great but got darker and darker. DS9 was fantastic, possibly some of the greatest drama the Star Trek canon has ever produced. But it embodied a completely different approach to the future and idea of cultural integration. Voyager went even farther out. Until out of ideas, they went back in time to produce Enterprise, which was entirely disappointing (despite being well produced).
That’s when Star Trek went away and became just another IP that a Studio could use to produce new media. J. J. Abrahams films are everything Star Trek has never been, and that is both good and bad. It’s good because the name lives on. It’s bad because that vision is gone.
Roddenberry’s vision was special. The kind that is both precursive and inspirational. Star Trek was able to predict technological and societal changes meanwhile a plethora of scientists and engineers have been inspired by Star Trek’s universe to pursue innovation and research.
If there’s anything we can take from Star Trek, it’s the courage of imagining a brighter, better, more open and positive future, where humans have all the same flaws but have evolved nonetheless. It’s a message of hope, of creation, of faith in humanity.
If that’s not something we need today, then beam me out of here, Scotty!
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