Whatever happened to the idealism of Space: The Final Frontier?
Scottish Review, September 21st 2016
All life cannot be about politics. That is a definition of tyranny and dictatorship.
In the last couple of months whilst working on some big projects I have chosen to relax late at night by watching the 1960s original TV series ‘Star Trek’.
I haven’t watched it since I was a kid in Dundee. It has proven to be a real piece of time travel taking me back to when I viewed the world in more simplistic and naïve colours.
Viewing ‘Star Trek’ now by complete accident – as the series celebrated its 50th anniversary a couple of weeks ago (it began on September 8th 1966) – has been utterly compelling and captivating. It more than stands the test of time, while raising all sorts of questions about then and now.
First and foremost, there are the characters. Captain James T. Kirk, Spock and Bones of the Starship Enterprise are almost ageless – held in a kind of limbo which only TV and becoming virtual heroes can bestow; while a great supporting cast of Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov represented a united humanity.
Equally important, there is the spirit of the series. It is filled with hope, optimism and limitless possibilities. Crossing the vast distance of space there is a powerful belief in humanity and its qualities of constantly learning, growing and adapting. There are also historic references to the conflicts humans have inflicted on each other, particularly through the 20th century and the standoff of the nuclear era – it being the Cold War era in which ‘Star Trek’ originally filmed.
There is a palpable sense that even the biggest misunderstandings and chasms of difference can be bridged. Miscommunication, ignorance and misreading the signals of others are the most common reasons. Reconciliation, empathy, and the power of reason were some of its defining characteristics – with the writers and creators of ‘Star Trek’ having their beliefs shaped by the horrors of the Second World War and then the hopes of the 1960s.
Then there is the understanding of space at the height of the Space Race in the 1960s. This was part of the Cold War between the US and USSR – about status, scientific achievement and with military overtones, but also about pushing humanity to new limits and territories. This was against the backdrop of John F. Kennedy’s commitment to take mankind to the moon, with ‘Star Trek’s famous opening lines of ‘Space: The Final Frontier’ evoking the American Wild West and Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’.
More than all this ‘Star Trek’ showed us a future both utterly different and yet utterly familiar. It is a universe populated with life, culture and civilisation, but for the most part very human or mostly taking human form. Yes, on occasion ‘Star Trek’ encounters life as pure energy, but usually life across the universe comes in human form, has personalities, and a concept of the self and identity. Some of the aliens do even come across as less a threat, or insights into another way of life, and more a bad 1960s psychedelic party gone wrong!
There is the interaction between the main characters. Captain Kirk the leader of the ‘Enterprise’ is charming, boyish and with cheeky appeal, but is always fair and consistent in how he makes decisions. It is a bit of a boys club – with Spock, Bones and Scotty – but it is a fraternity and one with the exotic add-on of Spock’s half-Vulcan, half-human character as well as the inter-racial, multi-cultural diversity of a humanity which has transcended today’s differences.
There are so many wonderful dimensions to watching a sci-fi series about the far-future made in 1966 (and whose original series only lasted 1966-69 before the never-ending franchise began). The most obvious feeling which stands out is the unashamed sense of hope in the series – which ranges from storylines and characters to a wider philosophy of human nature and indeed life. There is a belief that throughout the universe, good can conquer evil, or even better make it see the moral superiority of good, and than conquest, submission and colonisation are poor substitutes for wisdom and enlightenment. Rather tellingly, when we live at the point where robots and Artificial Intelligence are making an impact, in ‘Star Trek’ humans always outsmart technology and computers.
Watching this series years later, and after first seeing them as a young boy in the late 1970s, there is a humbling effect. It raises big question – where has all that hope, idealism and goodness gone? Even more, what happened to faith in humanity – and our forward march of progress?
Personally I don’t want to live in cynical times. I don’t want to think the worst of people just because I disagree with them on politics or some tribal basis. My late summer and autumn watching of ‘Star Trek’ has taken me to other worlds – but other worlds of the mind on this small planet. Ones which are far distant and even unattainable to many in the age and spirit we currently live in.
It is too early to say whether I have changed my views of the world through ‘Star Trek’ or more, become a later day ‘Trekkie’ believer. But it seems to me that intrinsic to being human are stories of hope, optimism, and endless exploration. Somehow in today’s age of cynicism and disbelief in the power of good across the West we have to not forget the qualities that have built civilisations and cities, conquered diseases, and created new insight and knowledge.
Pessimism and miserablism never offer much but a predictable diet and future; the world of ‘Star Trek’ offered us an open, expansive future – one where we were still clearly the creatures of our time, but with an insight and self-reflection which we are still centuries away from. ‘Star Trek’ apart from showing how to make optimistic sci-fi – offers us a warning from the past – on what we have become in a relatively short period of time – and something noble – a reminder of the future we once believed in and still can have if we don’t stop trying and reaching for those far distant stars.