Monday, August 15, 2005

Star Trek: Story and the Soul of the Future

by William S. Kowinski

There can be little doubt that the Star Trek saga has created the most widely shared vision of the future in our time. The examples tumble around us. Its cultural influence is reflected in so many references that they pass by without much notice.

It's there in a feature film as seemingly distant from the Star Trek universe as Steven Speilberg's The Terminal, a contemporary comic drama about a man (played by Tom Hanks) trapped in the between-world of a large airline terminal, unable to return to his country yet without the proper papers to officially enter the United States outside the terminal doors. One of the characters, a young black woman who works there, turns out to be a Trekkie who goes to conventions dressed as Yeoman Rand. When another employee is about to propose to her, he flashes the Vulcan hand sign, before revealing the engagement ring.

The Trek universe has simply become part of ours. In an article on an aspect of human behavior first published in the New Yorker and included in his forthcoming book, biologist Robert Sapolsky writes, "If I were a Vulcan researching social behavior on Earth, this would seem like an irrational mess." It isn't even particularly relevant to readers that as far as we know, no planet Vulcan, or extraterrestrial intelligences called Vulcans, exist. Yet Sapolsky's meaning is clear. He is not even simply referring to an alien point of view on Terran behavior, but to a particular kind of view---one attuned to seeing things as logical or illogical. He does not have to explain Vulcan culture, or that it is Star Trek lore. He assumes that reader of the New Yorker will know.

But even more specifically, it is just about impossible to think about the future without thinking about Star Trek. In the improbably popular movie called What the Bleep Do We Know which uses quantum physics to discuss the relationship of thought and reality, one physicist more or less complains that people don't understand the significance of a certain experiment (in which the same dot of matter appears in two places at once) because they're used to Star Trek's transporters and replicators. People simply assume these things exist, or will.

Another person interviewed in "What the Bleep" refers to human beings as "carbon units," the exact terminology used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There's even an appearance by Armin Shimerman, who played Quark on Deep Space 9, to cement the bond.

Why do so many people know the fundamentals of the Star Trek universe? Why can they easily identify Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Captain Picard and Data? Klingons, Vulcans, the Borg? Transporters, warp drive, red alert, the starship Enterprise? "Beam me up, Scotty," "Make it so," "Live long and prosper"? And for almost as many people, much more?

The most fundamental answer is they remember aspects of the Star Trek universe, and have a general impression of the Star Trek future, because they learned it from stories. For Star Trek isn't just a vision of the future, it is a set of stories. That turns out to be very, very important.

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