What Makes Star Trek Unique?
After forty-three years and many hours and pages of storytelling, what makes Star Trek unique? Star Trek is different from many current science fiction adventure stories, especially on TV and film, because it deals with real current and future issues, something suggested here last time for the next Star Trek movie, and apparently now embraced by that movie's writers (though I'm not sure "war and torture" is the best choice.)
But while such science fiction of consciousness is increasingly rare in the video game age, it isn't all that unusual historically or even in contemporary novels.
What has truly set Star Trek apart is its attempts to model the future: to show aspects of a better future, and the attitudes, characteristics and actions that both lead to a better future, and make the future itself a better place.
This direction has led to a lot of frustration for writers looking for easier ways to create familiar kinds of conflict, as well as general mockery of Star Trek as unrealistic. But it also accounts for Star Trek's appeal to many people around the world. Among other things, it encourages hope.
Let's face it: the future is seen most often with despair. That was true when Star Trek started, and it is at least as true now. Nuclear annihilation was possible at any moment in the late 60s, and besides the ongoing military, social, political and racial conflicts, the spectre of environmental Armageddon was already forming.
Today, the nuclear threat seems to have lessened (somewhat deceptively) as the interlocking consequences of the Climate Crisis have grown to seemingly overwhelming proportions. Add the barely imaginable changes that new technologies can quickly create, and the future can look terrifying.
While it may be easy to dismiss the movies and video games that promote Apocalypse as our default fate because of the bias towards high adrenalin visual effects violence that most easily hooks the audience, there isn't a lot of optimism in more thoughtful science fiction these days either. Check out these flash fictions and prediction for the next century in a New Scientist magazine section edited by s/f great Kim Stanley Robinson, or this review of the new novel by Margaret Atwood, a mainstream novelist who is also famous for speculative fiction like The Handmaid's Tale.
Though Atwood's Apocalypse in her new novel (The Year of the Flood) is one of plague, the reviewer (Jeannette Winterson) begins with this observation: "Nuclear, ecological, chemical, economic — our arsenal of Death by Stupidity is impressive for a species as smart as Homo sapiens."
And that's certainly one of the reasons that the science fiction of consciousness, and Star Trek's modelling of a better future, is so important. We need to confront these Death by Stupidity futures by getting smarter, in the present. Stories can help us do that by presenting thoughtful allegories, including cautionary tales. But they can also do that by presenting us with alternative futures: futures which are, for one thing, not shaped by Stupidity but by intelligence.
Star Trek links intelligence to leadership and heroism. It shows that intelligence both expresses and results from diversity and equality. It shows the rationality of common purpose, of the sense that we are all in this together.
Those who say Star Trek is unrealistic believe that selfishness, greed, hate and psychological and emotional as well as intellectual stupidity are "human nature" and they always result in the same catalog of ugly conflict. Looking at the past and the present in a certain way, it's hard to argue against that. But there are counterexamples. And there is evidence that compassion, cooperation, empathy and altruism do exist--in other animals as well as humanity--and that they too are part of human nature.
To some degree, Star Trek says, it is a matter of choice. "We are killers," Captain Kirk said. "But we aren't going to kill today." To some degree, it is a matter of what a society or a culture values and champions --including the culture of Starfleet, or simply the culture of the Enterprise-- which is often the lesson imparted (or modelled) by Captain Picard.
For it is not just better technology, nor even just the better use of intelligence that is necessary to save the future. It is the soul of the future.
After evaluating recent studies on the possible effects of the Climate Crisis on geopolitics and societal stability, Mike Davis concludes: "The real danger is that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards." Reviewing Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road (with the film of it due out in a couple of weeks) George Monbiot responds: "Civilisation ends with a shutdown of human concern. Are we there already?"
There is no shutdown of human concern in the Star Trek future. That concern extends by its 24th century to all life forms. It is modelled in how people on the Enterprise treat each other, something which has inspired Star Trek fans from the beginning.
In its details, the Star Trek future is complicated, and resulted from global war and resulting traumas, suggested in some stories such as TNG's "Farpoint". And in its details, the Star Trek future is a very unlikely one--because it is a future made for us, a set of stories told to people in the present.
So its possible influence on the future is through its influence on the present. By incorporating its soul into the soul of the present, we ourselves can model what the next generations may see and learn and adopt to create the future.
But the Star Trek future has always been a model for the present as well, and it has changed lives in the ongoing present, by changing ideas, attitudes, behaviors and relationships. Hope for the future is a condition--and a commitment-- of the present. Star Trek models qualities we can adopt now, to make a better present, and maybe even a better future.