50 years on, we need Star Trek’s optimism more than ever
This article contains spoilers for Star Trek Beyond.
Jean-Luc Picard taught me how to speak. I’m pretty sure that I already knew how to say words by the time that I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents, but Patrick Stewart’s captain is how I remember learning that words and communication are noble and important. That you can be strong without imposing yourself physically on others. That making an effort to unite yourself with other people is powerful as well as merely desirable.
My earliest memories might be of rewinding VHS tapes of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes (two per tape) to watch them again. I didn’t always understand everything that was going on in them but, while young me naturally loved the adventure of fighting the Borg and the Romulans, I connected more than anything to the hopefulness of it all. Whether it was grander things like humanity being put on trial and passing in TNG’s beautiful finale, ‘All Good Things’, or smaller-scale achievements like the simple ode to communication of ‘Darmok’ or Wesley fulfilling his potential in ‘Journey’s End’, the optimism was inspirational.
Star Trek’s original series celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. I’ve only been around for half of that time, but I think that’s part of why it means so much to me. The series’ optimistic, progressive core was here before I arrived and, I hope, will continue long after I’ve gone. It’s something very comforting, on which I’ve found myself reflecting a lot during one of the worst years for the world through which I’ve ever lived.
The original series wasn’t quite my Star Trek. I saw enough episodes here and there to broadly understand the characters, and enjoyed what I saw, but my nostalgia for it is more intellectual than emotional. No, when I think of Trek, what I really think of is the two shows that most directly followed it: TNG, which spent longer fleshing out the values inherent in the original vision, and Deep Space Nine, which dealt with the place of those values in a more practical, messy world.
TNG’s best episodes are always worth revisiting, but it’s DS9 to which I return in full time after time. As someone who’s into Star Trek for the optimism, that might surprise you. DS9 is the gritty Star Trek: the one with the protracted war, the one where the main characters are often in conflict with one another, the one that boldly stayed in one place. Among its many influences on TV are, if you squint, some of the first seeds of the antihero tropes with which so many shows are these days utterly infatuated. But it is comfortably the best that Trek has to offer and stands up today as a full series much better than even TNG.
While TNG’s episodic nature saw most of its well-considered issues resolved within an hour, DS9 was a thorough exploration of how the goodness of humanity is both forged and tested in the long term. It challenged the optimism of Star Trek by portraying a world in which consequences are real and lasting. And it was sometimes terrifyingly prescient in the way in which it did so.
I recently rewatched most of the series’ seven-year run. While I was ploughing through the fourth season, I saw the two-part story ‘Homefront’/’Paradise Lost’, in which Captain Sisko returns to Earth and witnesses a militaristic crackdown on security as a result of paranoia over potential infiltration by the malevolent, shapeshifting Founders. As I watched characters persuaded to give up their own freedoms in the name of the protection of those freedoms, I marvelled at what I thought was a tremendously on-the-nose response to our post-9/11 world. Then I looked it up on Wikipedia and remembered that the episodes aired in 1996.
That had come not long after I rewatched ‘Past Tense’, another two-parter in which the DS9 crew are thrown back in time to the year 2024 and explore an Earth in which thousands of people are abandoned to poverty, hunger and hopelessness while society passes the buck on dealing with its inequality. It was in the run-up to the UK’s referendum on Brexit and I could not help but be reminded of the far too many people in this country who are forced to rely on food banks, while many more in stagnant, neglected regions had their anger fester into a terrifyingly damaging decision that rejected togetherness.
Of course, DS9 showed us a humanity who had overcome the 21st-century mess of ‘Past Tense’ and had its values vindicated by walking back from the paranoia of ‘Paradise Lost’. With those dark futures that it depicted now so horribly present, now more than ever I am determined to hold onto the optimism that won the day in those stories, despite how difficult it feels to do that.
I was again reminded of the Brexit disaster when watching the series’ newest instalment, Star Trek Beyond. In it, Idris Elba’s villain, Krall, is revealed to be the former captain of an old Starfleet ship stranded far from home who has spent many decades slowly transforming his feelings of abandonment into misdirected anger at the very concept of unity. Good timing.
Justin Lin’s film is not at all subtle in explaining that its message is the victory of unity over domination, which is a good thing because it doesn’t get nearly enough time to develop that theme in between the relentless action beats that seem to have been a necessity to get any of the new films made in the first place. We watch the crew work together to overcome their problems and we see that the Federation for which they stand has been able to build architectural and technological marvels like the Yorktown starbase.
The Yorktown, however, is an example of how the Abramsverse films ever-so-slightly blur the line between Starfleet and the Federation — every time that I rewatch 2009’s Star Trek (a film which I mostly love), I get twitchy when Captain Pike refers to the governmental Federation as a “peacekeeping armada”. It’s that failure to show us anything that feels truly civilian that stops Beyond from giving us a properly fulfilling picture of how the spirit of unity benefits everyone in its depiction of human society.
In the meantime, there are lots of explosions and collisions and fistfights. As usual, Zachary Quinto’s Spock gets the best of the limited character development, but there’s a welcome increase of things to do for Karl Urban’s Dr McCoy and Chris Pine continues to pleasingly evoke William Shatner. It’s all fine, though I don’t think that the film will live all that long in anyone’s memory. In that way, it stands as an enormous improvement on its infuriating predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness.
The image that I think will stick with me for the longest is that of Quinto’s Spock gazing at a picture of the original series’ crew after the passing of his prime-universe counterpart (the movie handles Leonard Nimoy’s death, as well as that of co-star Anton Yelchin, with appropriate respect).
I responded to that scene probably not in the way for which the film-makers hoped, in that I was reminded of the many ways in which the new movies are not really want I want from my Star Trek. Fifty years on from the first adventures of the original crew, neither Star Trek nor the future looks quite as I hoped that it would.
Despite the great deal of laudable progress that our society has made in the last 50 years, it feels increasingly like we are tearing ourselves apart. My native UK is in chaos, with racism, ignorance and uncertainty on the rise. There is a very real risk that the USA will elect a fascist as president. Barely a day has passed in the last few weeks where I haven’t been numbed by news of another horrific taking of lives. It’s very hard to see ahead to the optimistic future of the Federation in times like these — and, while well intentioned, not even the current incarnation of that vision can stop itself from being distracted by constant explosions.
Spock, inspired by that photo of a better future, decides to go back to the Enterprise and maintain his pursuit of hope despite the tragedies that his people have seen. I’ll try to do the same. While I don’t necessarily expect anything transformative from future instalments of the Abramsverse movies, I was incredibly enthused by Bryan Fuller’s discussion panel at July’s San Diego Comic-Con.
It’s been too long since we saw Star Trek’s outlook regularly on our screens — and longer still since we saw it done well. But I have faith that 2017 will see in Fuller’s new series, Star Trek: Discovery, a more fleshed-out exploration of the values for which I grew up loving Trek and which ought to be celebrated in 2016, its well-earned anniversary year.
George Ankers has almost finished crying after rewatching DS9’s ‘The Visitor’ two weeks ago and strongly recommends revisiting Star Trek’s back catalogue, which is now on Netflix almost everywhere.