Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Star Trek: A Mythology of the Future

by William S. Kowinski

“We’re here to remember one of the heroes of the Scottish culture,” begins Black, festooned in a red Enterprise uniform T-shirt and speaking in a Glaswegian burr, as he takes the microphone. “Cmdr. Montgomery Scott—Scotty.”

A ripple of laughter washes through the audience at the pub. Black pauses in mock ignorance.

“Why are you all laughing?” he ask mischievously.”

“Pub Pays Tribute to a True Scot—Canadian James Doohan”
by Jane Ganahl, San Francisco Chronicle, Aug 23, 2005.

Most myths are set in the past, implying that the age of heroes and defining deeds is in the remote long ago. This is especially appropriate for certain kinds of myths, such as explanations of how the world or a people came to be; the foundation stories of a culture.

But in the modern era, a belief in progress through time made myths of the future possible. There is also the sense of a challenging future shaped by changes we can’t really foresee. This is especially true about the far future and the “final frontier” of outer space, which adds the dimension of territory unknown to us, and probably filled with immense yet not completely defined dangers, as the great oceans and the lands beyond them were in the past of many cultures on earth.

The future, and outer space in particular, create conditions that encourage new mythologies---that may even call for a mythology of the future, to give us some framework for conceiving how humanity can see itself in this future.

Still, when such a mythology exists in the present, it can cause some confusion and, let’s say, temporal anomalies. When a contemporary man named James Doohan died, something of a hero in his own right as a severely wounded veteran of D-Day, the character he is best known for playing is suddenly the center of a controversy: where in Scotland will Montgomery Scott be born in several hundred years? Three cities want to claim him now, and erect a plaque in his honor. According to the SF Chronicle’s Jane Ganahl, it’s led to “quite the tempest” in Scotland’s press.

But this temporal oddity only emphasizes an important feature of mythology: whether the heroes and events described in the myth are said to be in the past or in the future, the mythology is very definitely in the now. It is the effect on the present that makes myth important.

This is especially relevant to America, where Star Trek itself was born. Native American cultures have many stories of their past. But as a nation, America has few. Because our age is characterized by looking ahead, and because the future has always been essential to the American identity, our culture is also defined by myths of the future. It may well be that our foundation mythology is the mythology of the future.

But just because the future and outer space furnish the occasion for myth, and our culture has the need, doesn’t mean such myth will emerge. If the Star Trek saga is that mythology of the future---and no other story or set of stories has a better claim---it is only because of all the things it did right. Many of these elements were carefully thought through, some the product of apparent accident, some of a special time, some of artistic responses to the times and to the exigencies of form and business, some to inspiration, talent, intelligence and soul, and much which can be essentially attributed to love.

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