Garwulf’s Corner #48: Wagon Train to the Stars, Redux
Originally published June 7, 2017
The first season of Star Trek: Discovery aired on Space up here in Canada, and managed to absolutely whiff it — it didn’t commit to its own concept, didn’t understand how wars work, and had a season finale that was flat-out stupid. Season 2 started rough, but got much better, and with the exception of a couple of missteps towards the end, was pretty good television, even if it hadn’t quite nailed down what Star Trek should be.
At the same time, a show premiered that actually did live up to the promise of Star Trek, and carried with it a positive vision of the future with a place of dignity and respect for everybody, no matter who they were or where they were from — and it was called The Orville.
It’s been a long while, but Star Trek is returning to the small screen — and for the first time in half a century, we may truly need it.
The 51 years since the first episode of Star Trek aired on NBC is a long time — long enough to forget just how much it helped those who watched it when it was first broadcast. There’s an old joke about the 1960s: “If you can remember them, you weren’t there.” While this makes a great reference to drug culture, it is just as accurate when describing trauma.
And make no mistake, the 1960s was not a fun time to be alive. The decade began with a near miss of World War III starting with the construction of the Berlin Wall and centred around Soviet missiles in Cuba, and then followed it up with the assassination of a beloved president and the Vietnam War. On the domestic side in the United States, the civil rights movement had begun to make headway, but this had also caused a backlash resulting in an increase in vicious and violent racism against African Americans. The question was not so much what the future would hold, but whether we would have — or deserve — one at all.
It’s also long enough that it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the show was. There was an Asian helmsman named Mr. Sulu — and he was a respected professional who spoke like everybody around him, instead of a cliched bad guy or a sidekick with an exaggerated accent, as were most, if not all, of the other Asian characters on television. Even more remarkable, there was an African American communications officer named Lt. Uhura — and this was at a time when African Americans were not cast in roles that mattered to the plot so that their scenes could be easily edited out prior to broadcast in the Southern United States. When the show decided to add a character to appeal to the youth demographic, the result was Ensign Pavel Chekov — a Russian complete with an accent, who was not a Cold War-style Soviet villain.
The message of Star Trek was clear: humanity has a future, and it is one with a place of dignity and respect for everybody, no matter who they are.
And, unlike the later series, which would present the future as a utopia, the future of the original Star Trek was not a perfect one. Humanity still had its flaws — there were corporations doing the wrong thing, officers making mistakes, and interpersonal conflict. But there was also a certainty that we would rise above it all in the end, and that the better angels of our nature would win out, no matter how bleak or dark it might look as the episode reached its midway point.
Today, we really need this message.
We may not face the spectre of nuclear annihilation right now, but it is not a good time to be alive. The Great Recession still affects far more places than it should, and at least in part due to that a demagogue has won the White House…and one of his first acts was an immigration ban that will likely be remembered as a shameful moment in American history for decades to come. And even if this wasn’t the case, the world must now face the threat of groups like ISIS and a rising white supremacist movement, as well as a resurgence of racism that has been described as being similar to what was happening during the Civil Rights movement.
Today’s televised science fiction doesn’t help — the view of humanity in shows like Westworld or The Expanse is quite negative, and those shows which do have a positive view of humanity, such as Legends of Tomorrow, are either lightweight, focused on the past, or a rare exception. Looking forward to the future with the belief that humanity will actually be worthy of the stars has been out of fashion for years.
But even worse is what I’ve seen in the rhetoric of both the right and the left, a chilling willingness to write people off based on their religion, the colour of their skin, or even where they live. I’ve seen people in the Rust Belt declared obsolete and demonized. I’ve seen refugees fleeing a war zone treated as terrorists because they are Muslim. I’ve seen an attitude on both sides of the divide that can be described as “the bright future we want to create does NOT include [insert group here].”
It’s time for a firm reminder that humanity has a future, and that it is worthy of a good one. It’s time to be reminded that the future should — and will — have a place of dignity and respect for everybody, no matter where you are from, what your genitalia may be, or who you worship.
Or, put another way, it’s time for another Star Trek — and happily, one is just around the corner.