Friday, March 07, 2008

Humans in the clutches of much more powerful beings is an often repeated situation in Star Trek, and it speaks to eternal questions of fate and the human predicament as well as ideas arising from the nature of each particular confrontation. But one function, especially in these introductory episodes of Star Trek series, is to judge human progress and that human condition.

Q accuses humanity of being a dangerous child race, scientific giants perhaps, but ethical infants. At first he seems to see them as the Great Pirates, extending their so-called exploration to invading and attempting the conquest of space. He then appeals to their small-minded concerns on Earth (“You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies.”) Though Picard tries to accuse him of being self-righteous and toying with them (which is certainly familiar from original series stories), he makes his point clear through his devastating re-creation of the 21st century.

So what is different about humanity four hundred years in the future from this 21st century Dark Age? That will be a theme that TNG explores for the next seven years. But here we see one key aspect. When the Enterprise is confronted with a huge space vessel, entirely unknown, Q expects their reactions to be led by fear. This time, by fear of the unknown. “It's unknown. Isn’t that enough?” Q asks, while urging Picard to fire on the ship in orbit. Picard answers: “If you’d earned that uniform you’re wearing, you’d know the unknown is what brings us out here.” So this is a key change, a sea-change as well, in human attitude: they don’t fear the unknown, but seek it out.

Why they seek it out is a question for another day, but Star Trek fans already know it isn’t greed or the desire to conquer. Still, that intent isn’t necessary to start a war or to cause destruction. All that’s needed is disproportionate fear of the unknown, of difference—a fear that may seem rational, but is not. Fear that can be nurtured by those who wish to take advantage of it. Fear that is giving into an impulse that in other circumstances has value, but in many circumstances leads only to tragedy, and perhaps even to another Dark Age.

Q derides what he calls “human intelligence,” but while Picard does exercise creative intelligence in figuring out the mystery of Farpoint Station (as well as some amazing intuition granted to him by the writers), the intelligence that's necessary is more than rational thinking. It is also imagination, the kind involved in empathy. It is emotional and psychological intelligence, all of which will be explored in the Next Generation.

This story, like others in Star Trek past and (in 1987) in its future, sees the beauty of humanity in its middle state, between more powerful beings like Q and less “advanced” planets the crew will encounter, or in our terms, between angels and animals, between pure spirit and the mostly physical. And more than that, in the human adventure of grappling with these contradictions, of growing and yet remaining grounded.

Reconciling and harmonizing all these human aspects—body and spirit, mind and heart—is the work of the soul, according to many philosophers of the subject. It is also the work of the soul of Star Trek, which also reconciles and synthesizes time and the timeless, the past and the present, in an imagined universe called the future.

There is another sense of what soul means: the defining essence, where the ideal and the real must combine in how life is lived. The particular nature of the Star Trek future urges us to change in particular ways now. GR’s 21st century is a cautionary tale—of what could happen if we don’t change, or don’t change fast enough.

Star Trek’s 23rd and 24th centuries don’t show perfect people in utopia, but they do show humans thinking, feeling and acting in different ways—including some that are no longer so different. In 1966, a multi-ethnic crew with an African woman officer on the bridge was so very different that it inspired a generation. But analogous situations today already look like that bridge.

The differences from our past attitudes, behavior and thinking in Star Trek are there because without these changes, humanity can’t get to any future where there’s a peaceful, vibrant Earth, and we band together and head out to the stars (literally or metaphorically)—not as conquerors, but as explorers. But before we can go out, we must go in. Then we can grow up, and no longer be a savage child race (or an adolescent one, as GR sometimes said we are.) Then we can explore what it is to be human, further along in fulfilling our best potential.

And what about our future? We return to our first observation: that in “Farpoint,” our immediate future is shown to be pretty bleak, and not very “optimistic.” But I’ve never agreed that Star Trek’s view of the future is optimistic. I regard it as “hopeful,” and there’s a difference.

In a general sense, we’re hearing a lot these days about the difference between hope and optimism, particularly in Barack Obama’s campaign for President, which has captured the imagination of so many. "Hope is not wide-eyed optimism,” he said in one of his speeches. “Hope is believing and then working and fighting for things."

In Star Trek, the difference to me is this: optimism might imply that we are going to have a brighter future. Hope implies that we can, but it is by no means a sure thing. Humanity will have to change in profound ways -- to make that future possible. Star Trek suggests ways in which we can change. It models a future in which we have changed in particular ways, and dramatizes or explains those changes. That to me is the basic message of Star Trek: its very soul.

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