Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Star Trek As Myth of Change

Myth often expresses or supports the values of a culture. That’s somewhat true of Star Trek, but as a mythology of the future, Star Trek has a very striking feature that no Star Trek in our future should neglect: it is not afraid to offer an alternative to values and resulting behaviors that predominate in the present.

For example, Star Trek challenges our culture’s assumptions about the defining role of money. It’s become almost a truism that the most vibrant myth-making in America and perhaps the western world comes from popular culture: not just the comic book superheroes, Disney revisions of old tales, or even the temporary heroes of the TV show or movie that seems to capture the spirit of the moment. The writer Ken Kesey claimed that the mythic hero of America was Superman.

But our mythology is also at least as powerfully represented in television commercials as in the programs. One of the myths of our culture is that money and consumption are the key to happiness. Star Trek provides an important alternative to this, as we’ll explore in more detail in a later installment.

But the primary alternative vision Star Trek makes into a mythology is the nature of the future itself. Star Trek presents a view of the future that opposes the apocalyptic visions that were prevalent when it began, and may still be. I’ve used part of the following quote before, but to me it’s a perfect summing up of that aspect of Star Trek’s approach.

Mike Malotte, Commander of Starfleet (or president of the International Star Trek Fan Association), was on the phone to me last summer describing the kind of visions of the future that prevailed before Star Trek. They were “about people who weren’t on earth because they were either escaping it, it was so overpopulated and polluted that people couldn’t live on it, or it was a charred cinder because we’d screwed ourselves over. Gene’s Star Trek was really the first science fiction show of its time that showed a future where, hey! We actually learn from our mistakes, and we bettered ourselves, and we banded together and we headed out for the stars.”

We would expect our myths of the future to express difference, because in our society we expect change. But most projections into the future foresee change only in technology, and not in how it might be used differently. To see humans changing themselves, and being changed by the encounter with the immensity of space and a diversity of other intelligent beings, is a rare, valuable and essential aspect of the Star Trek mythology. There will be more precise speculations about how this was accomplished in future installments.

Myths live also because they are good stories: people want to hear them, they want to know what happens next. And there’s one kind of mythic story that our age responds to best.

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