Star Trek for the Jaded Heart

So, in the first days after opening up The Vaults, I wrote a piece about my favorite sci-fi franchise. I spent a fair amount of time talking about my experiences growing up with Trek, and taking loving potshots at some of its more memorable missteps. But the one thing I didn’t really do was explain why it is that Star Trek has stuck with me all these years, and why, even in my most cynical moments, I keep turning back to it for comfort. There are better sci-fi shows out there, both in terms of actual science fiction, and space opera. I’m hooked on the fairy tale narrative of Doctor Who, and Firefly will always hold a special place in my heart. Hell, I even reminisce about the old MTV show Dead at 21 (which was also good as a dystopian epic when Dark Angel ran with a similar premise). But time and again, I keep coming home to visit the men and women of the U.S.S. Enterprise, to share in their adventures until I can quote the dialogue back to the T.V. at least as well as William Shatner. What is it about this franchise that keeps calling me back? Why do I dismiss the terminally optimistic in real life, and disdain the saccharine on film, and yet seek out something which embodies both? Why do I own all the movies on Blu-Ray and all the shows on DVD?

The future was written in the 60’s, when the world was caught up in the Cold War and Vietnam. This wasn’t some utopia that existed in a world where conflict never happened, but rather, was built upon the ashes of ruin and the threat of extinction. Mankind eventually came to terms with the inevitability of its violent nature’s ultimate conclusion, and made a choice to seek out something better. As the decades passed, and more of the backstory was filled in, we learned that we had help to take those final steps toward a united federation of planets, but the initial desire for peace was brought about by a weariness caused by the unrelenting horror of war. In the 23rd century, the members of the Federation still faced threats, but generally they had come to know how peace and freedom tasted, and had chosen to remain at the buffet. No one was perfect, but there was a constant tone of striving toward something better; a sense that we could overcome our reptile brains and draw everyone together to build a shining civilization in the sun.

In the original series, the messages were a little heavy-handed: the aliens suffering from amazingly symmetrical vitiligo who had been at war because one race had been deprived of pigment on the wrong side, for example. But the messages were sound. It is ridiculous to make war upon a people based on the color(s) of their skin (or the assumptions made because of it). It’s easy to to find fear in the face of The Other, as I’ve mentioned before, as almost any wild animal would tell you (you know, if they could speak); it’s much harder to strip away the prejudices and preconceptions based on protected characteristics, and learn to accept our fellow man.

Please note that I didn’t say anything about tolerance. That term has been floating around for decades as we have tried to find a way to convince people to not to treat each other poorly. But I think that the reason it’s not working, I mean, besides the politics of division, is the very connotation which the word itself is saddled with. If I accept you, then you are someone whom I value. If I tolerate you, I am only promising to do my best not to punch you in the face. I don’t know how many people stop and think about, but words have meanings, and “tolerance” is almost more poisonous than open hatred, as it does nothing to address the ill will within a person’s heart, and, in fact, encourages it. You don’t have to like someone, or approve of who he is or what he does, but you do have to put up with him. That’s a surefire method for lingering resentment, and it almost guarantees that nothing good will come from any interactions with those outside your tribe.

But in this fictional future, we have come together as a species, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and established a society which not only accepts the unknown, but welcomes it. It’s easy to look at the history of our world and come to the conclusion that we will never move beyond our genetic limitations. We are inclined to seek power over others so that we might not feel so small. A look toward the years to come seems most realistic when we are treated to a vision of how humanity has failed. Technology will give us fancy new preoccupations, and alter our societies so radically that those of us living today would have just as good a chance to assimilate as a medieval serf would in our world today, but there would be the same old conflict, and if you stripped away the chrome and polish, touchscreens and neural interfaces, you’d find that maybe life wasn’t so different from how it’s always been. The strong exert their power over those who cannot defend themselves and call it Market Forces. And yet…

There are still those among us who dream of a better world, think that just because this is how it’s always been, that doesn’t mean it’s how it should remain. We’ve progressed, at least a little, over the millennia we’ve been around, in that we have been made aware of our darker aspects, and given some thought as to how we might improve. It’s been a minimal effort, to be sure, as the powerful have no incentive to change, and the powerless have little hope to be able. I mentioned this in a column about ethics, and whether it was possible for an atheist to be a good and decent person: Maybe all it takes is enough of us doing the right thing, and holding ourselves accountable every time we fail, for us to slowly change the status quo.

Let’s come together as a people before we have no other choice. Let’s not wait until our only chance at survival is to listen to the men and women we mocked so long ago for “not living in the real world.” Let’s choose to listen to them now, and not tolerate the state of how things are. We can boldly go where no man, no one, has gone before.


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