I watched Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) before I was old enough to read. It wasn’t during the original run, but it was the early 70s. It was broadly acted, certainly, and is, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly cheesy, but it taught me some things:
– Too much emotion or lack thereof causes problems. Balance is best. When Capt. Kirk is split into two people, neither one can function alone. When Mr. Spock is in charge of an away mission, he shows it’s possible to logically do everything right but still do it wrong.
– Gods can be capricious. Granted, it’s the Greek gods, but still.
– Being pretty isn’t enough, even if you do look awesome in that crisscrossed, overall outfit.
– Adult supervision can be a good thing. When everyone dies when they turn 18, society turns into Lord of the Flies.
– Racism is bad. I mean, I knew that already, in a background way, but in that episode where the people are black on one side and white on the right side but the dominant race is white on a specific side, it made me really think, “Oooh. It really IS stupid.” The straightforward clarity has stuck with me.
Star Trek: TOS is the Sesame Street of science fiction. It wasn’t subtle, but sometimes when you have lessons to teach, you need to be clear.
Of course I watched The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager. Capt. Picard and his crew started out a little on the cheesy side, especially with the uniforms, but became much more sophisticated with time. Truly, some of the best science-fiction ever came from that show.
I liked Voyager okay, but I chafed at the family dynamic. A single mother with rowdy children and the prodigal daughter just wasn’t my cup of tea. However, they did have the best doctor of any Star Trek series, but he was one of their Pinocchio characters (I’m a real boy!) and they were always the most interesting because of the tension between who they were and who they wanted to be.
My heart, though, belongs to Deep Space 9. The story arcs, character trajectories, and spectacularly awesome villains surpassed any of the other three series. (I can’t speak to Enterprise as I only saw the first half of the first season, despite my Bakula love. I have some guilt about that. Let us not speak of it again.) From the first episode, when Cmdr. Sisko punches Q, Q says Picard never hit him, and Sisko and says that he’s not Capt. Picard, you know this series is not your standard Star Trek. For one thing they’re standing still in space; initially the adventure mostly comes to them, so it’s the interaction between the characters that keeps you watching. In a way, because they are not traveling in space like the Enterprise, Deep Space 9 managed to tap into the most important aspects and themes of Star Trek: the relationship between people, and peoples, directs our destiny.
I’ve tried to explain this to non-Star Trek fans when they ask me why I like the show. Honestly, most of them didn’t really want to know because I could see their eyes glazing over after three or four sentences of explanation. I managed to distill it down to the following: the Star Trek universe is our universe. They’ve gone through everything we expected to go through–nuclear war, poverty, mass riots, societal breakdown–and they come out okay on the other side. Gene Roddenberry wanted a universe where everybody got along, but even in his world there were mistakes. Khan Noonien Singh, anyone? But in Star Trek, we learn from our mistakes, and move forward productively.
Some people learn these lessons more effectively than others and sometimes the lessons are learned from those characters who are unable to entirely incorporate these ideas themselves: Mr. Spock, who struggles daily with emotions his people have suppressed, but with time we see he has incorporated many of the best qualities to which humans aspire; Mr. Data, whose programming doesn’t include any emotions but who wants nothing more than to be able to experience them; Odo, who is not only not human, he’s not even humanoid, but who clings to humanity all the more after discovering his species is humanity’s enemy; 7 of 9, who is the only one who comes full circle, starting as a human, becoming Borg, and returning to humanity, although not always smoothly or with the requisite tact, a common feature with all of these characters.
These characters’ struggles with their own humanity, however they define it, reveals them as a microcosm of society: they are us. Their struggles are our struggles. Their questions are our questions. Who are we? Why are we here? Their behaviors ask the questions; the answers are writ large in the series and movies. We work, we fail, we learn. There is no event or obstacle or emotion or loss that is insurmountable. Not everyone succeeds but working for a larger purpose is the goal.
There are a lot of episodes and scenes that express this throughout the Star Trek universe, but nowhere is it more effectively expressed, in my opinion, than in the opening scene of JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek movie. Say what you will about lens flares, those first few minutes managed to capture everything that is good and true and right about Star Trek. The mission is a disaster, half the people die, but none of the speaking characters question their sacrifice if it is to save others. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
For someone who didn’t really know very much about Star Trek, he really nailed it there. Too bad those hipster glasses of his don’t allow him to see plot holes. But anyway.
Kirk père, dies, saving not only his family but a large number of Federation citizens. His (reboot) son, James Kirk, stumbles throughout his entire childhood and early adulthood, only finding his footing when he can act on what he has learned about the actions of his father. His father died to save him and others, and at the end of the second movie, we see how well Kirk fils learned that lesson. Kirk’s destiny is shaped by his past and by his relationship with others. Before joining Starfleet, he was an extroverted loner, acting only for himself, but by becoming part of something larger, he strengthens it as well as himself.
Truth be told I started this essay intending to go in another direction, and I’ll probably go there next time, but for now, I’ll stick with everything I ever learned from Star Trek. Sometimes the lessons we have to learn are not found along traditional paths, and we could all do far, far worse than Star Trek.