Friday, September 08, 2006

A Passion for the Future: the Soul of Star Trek

By William S. Kowinski

It’s 40 years later, and it’s pretty much the same. When Star Trek’s first episode aired on September 8, 1966 (after Daniel Boone and before The Dean Martin Show on NBC), the country was in turmoil over a long and unpopular war characterized by deception, there were racial tensions in American cities, environmental doom and nuclear destruction were common fears, and television tried to ignore it all. With the patina of prosperity on the fast-paced present, most people either dismissed the future, or viewed it with fatalism.

With hundreds of hours of stories over the past 40 years, Star Trek became the planet’s best-known saga of the future. Its earnestness inspired both devotion and ridicule, but perhaps that was a risk worth taking. While most responses to its anniversary consist of sentimental fauning over phasers and Klingons, warp speed and holodecks, its lasting achievement lies in a vision of the future with guiding ideals and cautions for our real world future, that are as valid and needed now as they ever were. A few of these precepts might be summarized as follows:

1. For a better future, we must become better people. Star Trek brought together believable future technology with identifiable human behavior, but it also modeled a vision of the future where standards were higher, and struggling with ethical issues was central. "To be good," novelist Iris Murdoch suggests, "it may be necessary to imagine oneself good." Bigger challenges require that we fulfill more of our potential, or we may never get to that future.

2. The journey out is the journey in. Because Star Trek's humans had to see themselves through the eyes of the aliens they encountered, they learned to value self-examination on all levels—as individuals, groups and as humanity as a whole. Star Trek also presented technology in human terms, another crucial connection, for the importance of technology is in how it is used, and technology follows psychology. The roles of art, mortality and human relationships all became central to the voyage. " is not the final frontier," wrote Star Trek and science fiction writer David Gerrold. "The final frontier is the human soul."

3. Respect all life. Its conscious championing of diversity became a commitment to respecting all forms of life and civilizations, and its grappling with these ideals in specific situations became its drama. “The continuing mission of the starship Enterprise has been to take us out of the smog of fear and hate into an open space where difference is opportunity, and justice matters, and you can still see the stars," wrote Ursula LeGuin. "Violence on the Next Generation is shown as a problem, or the failure to solve a problem, never as the true solution."

4. We are not invaders-- we are explorers. When Captain Picard said these words (defining the essential meaning of what Star Trek fans know as the Prime Directive), he was announcing a profound change from most of human history, in which exploration led directly to exploitation and conquest. Science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury dramatized the repetition of this pattern on other planets, but Star Trek portrayed the implications of its reversal--and the temptations to revert. This purifies and exalts the human drive to explore and to learn, and through the exuberance of Captain Kirk, portrays exploration without exploitation as joyful fulfillment.

5. Making money is not humanity's prime directive. A future without money was sometimes played for laughs, but it is one of Star Trek's most subversive ideas: people will work to "better themselves and the rest of humanity" (in Picard's words) without being paid. Even though everyone's material needs are met (some have argued since the 60s this is entirely possible now, even without Star Trek’s technological magic), it doesn't lead to laziness but to liberation. "When you take away the need to make a living, a lot of other things are possible," said Star Trek producer Jeri Taylor. Our myth of money, which Lewis Mumford calls "the most dangerous of modern man's hallucinogens," was not present in all of our past. Sociologist Max Weber argued that the acquisition of wealth as an ethically superior motivation didn't appear until the 17th century. It doesn't need to be--and perhaps cannot be--in our future.

6. It takes many hands to make a future. How do you evoke participation, creativity necessary for change, and yet keep focus on the future? Gene Roddenberry insisted on a plausible and self-consistent imaginary Trek future, but equally important, he inspired others to creatively participate in giving life to this future. There were bruised egos and some bad behavior along the way, but also dedication, collaboration and focus on the highest common denominator.

Star Trek saw diversity as strength, and our relationship to the Other as the key to our social evolution, our new sense of ourselves necessitated by the realization that we are not alone in the universe, and the key to the efforts needed to create the future.

7. The future is an adventure. This is perhaps Star Trek's primary vision. The future isn't something to fear or to desire. It is not predetermined by fate or selfish genes. It is something we go out to meet, with heart, soul and wonder. This has always been the key to Star Trek's appeal. "Back in the 60s, most science fiction was about people who weren't on earth because they were 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," explained Michael Malotte, president of an international Star Trek fan organization. "Gene's Star Trek was really the first science fiction of its time to show a future where we actually learn from our mistakes. We bettered ourselves and we banded together, and we headed out for the stars. "

"What is now proved," wrote William Blake, "was once only imagin'd." For those with a passion for the future, acts of the imagination constitute the present adventure on the final frontier. If our civilization gets through the next century or so, it may be because we remembered to boldly go.


toomanytribbles said...

i loved this post. i recommended it on my blog and added your url to my links list.

many thanks

Captain Future said...

Thank you. Nice blog. (We're the same sign.)

Anonymous said...

Great article!!! Have you heard of The Venus Project?