Star Trek challenged the dystopian future
Can modern writers do anything less?
Happy Anniversary! 50 years ago a “wagon train to the stars” began a mission to explore the Human condition in a post-scarcity universe.
A man who was not a part of the television world would take his aberrant idea and bring it to an industry not known for taking risks.
To make it more challenging, he would insist on roles feature people of every color, shade, personality and dare to create aliens who would superior to us in every way. This man was Gene Roddenberry.
This show which came into existence through a strange confluence of forces, would live and die filled with controversies, struggles, and ambitions equal to those of the cast of characters.
Star Trek, now called the Original Series, would exist for a brief moment, as the best and the worst of all things science fiction. What we could be, what we could create, what we could envision, in direct conflict with greed, profit and personal aggrandizement.
Three seasons, 79 episodes were all that were made of this, at the time ground-breaking, future-shaking television series that was cancelled and left for dead by the network.
Except, like all things Human, we didn’t miss it until the well ran dry. Fans, no, let’s call it what it was, fanatics who while lacking the internet would send letters for decades praying for a revival.
For decades they were ignored. There was always talk of bringing Star Trek back but the timing was never right. The climate was never right. Science fiction was not a big market and after Star Trek only grew smaller. Science fiction shows were disappointing, uninspired, completely illogical. Remember Space 1999? Good. It’s better you don’t.
From an unlikely corner of the Universe, a savior was born. Star Wars (1977) and its mythic themes reinvigorated space opera. Like a phoenix, Star Trek burst into flame and rose from its own ashes.
Humbly, I might add.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is more of a lovefest to the return of this crew and their ship. Little happens and honestly, little needed to. They were back and tears of joy were wept. I know. I was there. It was akin to welcoming family back from a long trip, gone so long you could almost forget what they looked like but the familiarity was overwhelming.
The Original Series Crew made five more movies, odd numbered were awful, even numbered wonderful and when the last ensemble shot is made, the last time they would share the screen together, the last time these pioneers of a possible future were gathered together, you knew in your heart this was the final voyage of the starship Enterprise.
But that crew had done their job. They reignited the passion for this future. There was Star Trek: the Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. After a long hiatus, the crew of the Original Series had given us a chance to fulfill their amazing purpose. To create a future we could aspire to.
Each of these series would explore different aspects of Gene Rodenberry’s Universe. TNG would explore the legacy of the Federation, what became of Enterprise A’s efforts to protect their future. TNG struggled to find its footing but by the end of its tenure, they too had earned a place in the firmament, lead by the impeccably cool Captain Jean Luc Picard. The Next Generation would have one of the best episodes with the Hugo award-winning “The Inner Light” lauded as the best Star Trek ever.
Deep Space Nine challenged the goodness and light of the Federation. No matter how utopian it seemed, there were still dark places and often darker people willing to dwell there. DS9 was also the rare Star Trek which discussed religion and issues related to the worship of the Prophets of which Captain Sisko found himself involved in the issues of Bajor and Cardassia.
Deep Space Nine was a deeper look at the Other, aliens abound in this series, they define Deep Space Nine better than any other Star Trek series. We see the Federation through their eyes and it is often found wanting. Hence, its secret greatness was also Sisko’s quest for redemption.
Captain Benjamin Sisko’s adventures toured the dark heart of the Federation, through diplomacy, treachery and war at a galactic level. A departure from Roddenberry’s post-scarcity future, but necessary to show the commitment to the dream of a better Federation.
Star Trek: Voyager, was an outlier. Loved and hated, its stories were both great and terrible. But when they were great, they were magnificent. Tales of adventure, time travel, exploration unlike anything before it. No help. No supplies. No chance of success. Can you hold on to what you believe when things grow difficult. How about when they become impossible?
This was the challenge of Voyager, to keep the faith, and the peace when nothing is as you know it. Of all of the descendants of The Original Series, Voyager embodied the essence of what Roddenberry wanted: Humanity in space, finding its place, learning to be strong and gentle as needed, sharing its time, its resources, its reliance with others across the universe. Protecting itself but doing its best to harm others as little as possible. This was an insurmountable task and Captain Janeway and her talented crew never flagged at the challenge.
Little Enterprise, NX-01 and her crew appeared to be a mistake, at first, going back in time, retrofitting the Universe, adding new threats, new challenges, but in the end despite its short run, the Captain Archer and the Enterprise crew had no reason to be ashamed of their efforts. It appeared that Star Trek had run out of steam and the writers simply couldn’t manage to interest the viewers any longer.
They had done their job too well for too long. Star Trek had exhausted itself. Perhaps it was because of the competition. New media abounded, new space operas had come and gone, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and the never-ending Star Wars, had saturated the market. Combine that with a culture of dystopian ideals and you have the perfect recipe for the death of a utopia.
Star Trek had reached the end of its ability to inspire in the light of dystopian fears about the future.
Gene Roddenberry’s vision isn’t dead. It’s just resting. It’s being renewed.
Whether it be through the Kelvin Timeline with New Trek, or with the latest attempt returning to the Prime timeline with the latest television series on the board, Star Trek: Discovery, or whether it is within the beautiful work of the fans in their private creations such as Axanar and other such projects.
Now more than ever, with fear of the future running rampant, with technological expansion changing the world for the worst, corporate powers leading to the exploitation of the Earth and everyone on it, with the environment dying around us, killed by us, and in return killing us, humanity is in need of a future to believe in again.
We need Gene’s vision and the vision of other writers to pave the way to a future that matters. Whoever you are, whatever you write, take time to create a future we can aspire to. It shouldn’t be that the future can only be dystopian, filled with the end result of what we know could very well be the end of the species. We need you to do what Star Trek has tried to do for the last fifty years.
To make us believe in the future. The mission hasn’t changed. It isn’t impossible. It isn’t unattainable. It only requires someone believe in it as hard as Gene Roddenberry and his crew of writers, actors and producers did. Enough to subsume their lives, their wills, their very essence to this dream.
Can we do less?
Thank you, Gene and Majel Roddenberry.
To those various crews past and future, we are indebted to your efforts. Live long and prosper. May we be worthy of your example.
Star Trek’s mission was simple: to explore strange new worlds, both within our hearts and without, seek out new life and new civilizations, renewing ourselves metaphysically at the well of these possible futures, and boldly going where no one had ever dreamed of going before.
To a future worth having.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.