Five decades ago, I was at the perfect age. Almost sixteen, pumped with eagerness for science and fiction and outer space and dreams of escaping the dreary prisons of home and high school. And suddenly on the dreary wasteland of TV, in vivid color, appeared something completely unlike anything we ever saw before. Star Trek.
Oh, there had been science fiction. A couple of years earlier, my friends and I were hauled into the Jr. High Vice Principal’s office for circulating a petition to bring back The Twilight Zone. Though most of us thought it never quite matched the best episodes of Outer Limits. (Of course, when O.L. sucked, it really sucked.)
But Star Trek was something else, something new. It lifted, surprised, challenged and offered hope. Amid the ructions of that awful decade – from Vietnam to civil rights to riots and assassinations – here was the notion that hope was conceivable. That (shoo-be-do) things were going to be all right.
On Trek’s 50th anniversary, I could go on with personal stories (like one sadly typical-amusing story where Caltech freshmen abandoned a dance – with real girls – to watch an episode). Or talk about optimism, which all but a few other films or shows (e.g. Stargate) avoid out of primitive reflex. (See my article, The Idiot Plot.)
But no. The airwaves, netwaves and blogosphere has plenty of that stuff. Instead, I want to talk about the Enterprise… the underlying meaning of that ship.
There have been many comparisons between Star Trek and its chief competitor for the hearts of science fiction fandom -- Star Wars. A contrast that illuminates two very different views of fiction, civilization, and at the meaning of a hero.
Here’s one way of looking at the underlying implications of these two sci fi universes. Consider the choice of which kinds of ship are featured in each series. Let me invite you to ponder, for a moment, and contrast the Air Force metaphor vs. one that hearkens up images of the Navy.
In Star Wars, the ships that matter are little fighter planes. Series creator George Lucas made liberal use of filmed dogfight footage, from both world wars, in some cases borrowing maneuvers like banking slipstream turns, down to the last detail. The heroic image in this case is the solitary pilot, perhaps assisted by his loyal gunner -- or wookie or droid -- companion. It is the modern version of knight and squire. Symbols as old as Achilles.
In contrast, the federation starship in Trek is vastly bigger, more complex, a veritable city cruising through space. Its captain hero is not only a warrior-knight, but also part scientist and part diplomat, a plenipotentiary representative of his civilization and father figure to his crew... any one of whom may suddenly become an essential character, during the very next adventure. While the captain’s brilliance and courage are always key elements, so will be the skill and pluck of one or more crewmen and women. People who are much closer to average -- like you or me -- yet essential helpers, nonetheless. And possibly even -- when it is their turn -- heroes, themselves.
The naval metaphor makes a crucial difference. Like Cook’s Endeavor or Darwin’s Beagle, the Enterprise is meant to do much more than just fight, or carry the hero to his next Campbellian-personal challenge. The Captain is nothing without other members of the team. And this means that she or he will be written as human, flawed and limited, merely way-above-average and not a “chosen one” – not an ubermensch-overlord-Ender-Neo demigod, destined to do it all himself, while peons stare in abject admiration.
The Captain, in Star Trek, is perennially challenged. Even when she’s right, there’s always something to be learned from someone else. And sometimes he admits that he was wrong.
In fact, what happens when the crew of the enterprise encounters some pompous demigod… a mutant or super-evolved being with attitude? The mood is always skeptical curiosity. An eagerness to learn, combined with a steadfast willingness to stand up to bullies.
In any event, the ship -- Star Trek’s Enterprise -- stands for something, every time we look at it. This traveling city is civilization. The Federation’s culture and laws, industry and consensus values -- like the Prime Directive -- are all carried in this condensed vessel, along with the dramatic diversity of its crew. Every single time there is an adventure, the civilization of the United Federation of Planets is put to the test, through its proxy, the hero-ship.
At times, this lets the show poke at mistakes, ways that some error or flaw or even crime is being done, in civilization’s name! And generally, it is shown best healed by light. Only, when the Enterprise (or Voyager or DeepSpace Nine) passes each test, often with flying colors, so too, by implication, does civilization itself.
A civilization that might – perhaps -- even be worthy of our grandchildren.
Compare this to the role of the Old Republic, in the Lucasian universe. A hapless, hopeless, clueless melange of bickering futility whose political tiffs are as petty as they are incomprehensible. The Republic never perceives, never creates or solves anything. Not once do we see any of its institutions actually function well. Or even (take note) function at all!
How can they? The people, the Republic, decent institutions... these cannot be heroes, or even helpers.
There is no room, aboard an X Wing fighter, for civilization to ride along.
Only for a knight and squire.
Does ship morphology control story? Yes, in many ways. But essentially it reflects the underlying assumptions of the storyteller. As I point out – serving as the “prosecutor” in the fun argument-tome Star Wars on Trial – George Lucas cannot conceive of civilization as a vibrant, living thing, even though it was a pretty good one that raised and pampered his youth, then gave him prodigious opportunities to make his dreams come true. The poison current underlying Star Wars is one of steaming ingratitude.
(But get the book! Lucas has some able defenders who stand up for him!)
Me? I like Gene Roddenberry’s vision. GR, for all his many faults, believed we are in a boat together. And yes, we’ll need way-above-average heroes. Even average ones! Lots of the latter, in fact. And that means you, right now, are needed by your civilization.
We need you. Yes, you. We cannot do it without you.
That is the real meaning of Star Trek.