Friday, June 26, 2009

(241) What is Star Trek and why are some people so enthusiastic about it?

This essay was written in the Summer of 2009.  Some things have changed since then:

Perhaps you are unsure why so many people are so enthusiastic about a short lived and cheaply produced 1960s TV show named Star Trek. You've seen a show or two from the original series or one of the later series, or a movie. It was fun. It was an escape from your normal life. It didn't shake your world. You wonder, as I have, why does it shake some people's world?

There are a number of different reasons about why people are so enthusiastic. I'll try to enumerate a few.

1. Star Trek (prior to the J.J. Abrams movie, Star Trek XI) was usually real science fiction, rather than fantasy. What's the difference? Science fiction projects future developments in technology, but bases those development on the real laws of physics. For example, The Enterprise is powered by a matter-antimatter interaction. In real physics, nothing would release more energy than a matter-antimatter interaction. They would mutually destroy each other, releasing their entire mass as energy. In contrast, in an atomic bomb, less than one-tenth of one per cent of the matter is converted into energy. This contrasts, with, for example, a fantasy creation like Superman, who flies without any apparent means of propulsion. In creating Star Trek, NASA engineers and scientists were regularly used as consultants to make the engineering and space science realistic. Even Stephen Hawkings, considered by many the world's leading living theoretical physicist, was personally involved in the making of Star Trek. He even appeared as a holographic recreation of himself in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Other examples of real science fiction include a story by Arthur C. Clark long before man had ever created an artificial satellite which suggested that an artificial satellite could be set at a distance from the earth that it's orbital period matched that of earth's rotation, and could be used to carry communications.

Real science fiction is en exercise in imagination that really builds the future. Fantasy, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, can be a lot of fun, but no one will ever try to handle demons better because of Buffy... because there are no demons.

When The Original Series began, many of the panel displays were designed purely for good design, Telephones were hard wired to the walls, and holography was a new idea from the brand spanking new use of recently developed lasers. (According to Wikipedia, the first working laser was made in 1960, the first holographic images of 3D objects were made in 1962. The Cage, the first pilot of TOS was made in 1964). Much of the science and technology developed over the following decades have been inspired by Star Trek.

It should be noted here that J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is primarily science fantasy. See the reviews here: . In contrast, the discovery of Dark Matter was incorporated into the Star Trek: Voyager series.

2. Star Trek provided a positive view of the human future.

Most Science Fiction draws a picture of the human future which is far from attractive. It looks at a world after disaster.  For example, with Terminator, it looks at a world in which our machines have risen up against us to wipe us out.  There are stories about climate change in which most of mankind is baked or frozen.  In other stories the mass of people are wiped out by germs which escape from biological weapons labs.  Many fan films go back to a negative view.  DS9 was accused of this.  Even TNG was said to be guilty when it introduced The Borg.

Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenbury, in contrast, drew a picture of a world in which basic human needs had been met, and people had risen above their baser instincts as a result.  Life in the Star Trek future isn't boring.  People face serious conflicts and challenges, but they are about learning and exploration, not food and clothing.

In his vision, people from all cultures around the world work together to create a bright future for mankind.  At a time when people were still holding sit-ins to fight segregated lunch counters, Roddenbury's Star Trek crews were multi-racial and multi-ethnic.  If not for Network censorship, they would also have shown women in command.  NBC considered that too ridiculous.  At a time when most African-American characters on TV were criminals or maids, Lt. Uhura provided a picture of a successful African-American with more grace than "Julia" (which began in the fall of 1968) and more than a decade before "The Bill Cosby Show."  Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. took note of the inspiration Star Trek brought to minority youth.  See this video in which Rev. King's contribution to Star Trek is recounted by Nichelle Nichols:

Contrast an episode of Star Trek with other TV shows produced around the same period. You will find that Star Trek looks less weird, and more like the world as you know it.  But that's the thing: it wasn't the world as it was AT THAT TIME.

3. Star Trek, Politics, and Ideology.

Star Trek has frequently taken positions on social and political matters.  However, these positions have usually be limited to an individual adventure or episode.  Star Trek IV, The Journey Home, was about saving the whales... mammals who have larger brains than we do, their own language, culture, and who have been around for more than ten times as long as we have been.  But that view did not eat the entire franchise.  It grew naturally out of the view of the franchise that there may be intelligent life which is not human life, not only on other planets, but also on our own.  Generally Star Trek has been happy to simply declare that the environmental problems on earth have been resolved, even while also telling of plans to raise an additional continent.  So, as on most issues, Star Trek discusses them, and may seem to take a position, but contradicts that position.

Of Gods and Men (Blog 24. ) appears to be in that tradition.  Written and produced amidst the trampling of civil liberties in the name of security which came out of the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the characters remind us what America's founding fathers said: That a people who trade liberty for security in the end with have neither liberty nor security.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transexuals ("GLBT") have complained about being left out of Star Trek and have created their own huge fan series, Hidden Frontier (Blogs 100-104).  The idea of the symbiant (which later grew into the character on DS9 of the Dax Symbiant) was originally formulated in TNG to raise these issues.  There was also a show in TNG about a race that had given up sex altogether, and everyone was of a single sex.  However, no professional Star Trek series was formulated for GLBT people like Hidden Frontier has been.

Voyager, arguably a Star Trek: Women's Lib show, only came on line long after women had already pretty much won the battle of entering the workforce and being promoted.  Most young people take these ideas for granted.  Colin Powell was already a real figure on the scene when DS9 appeared, again following, not leading.

However, it can be reasonably argued that Hidden Frontier captures the spirit of Roddenbery's willingness to take on the issues when they are still being fought, and in that sense captures the spirit of TOS.

4. Star Trek and Religion.

Eugene Roddenbury was a lapsed Texas Baptist, who believed religion did the world harm, not good. Religion, as a result, was curiously, and frankly, not believably absent from his view of the future. Even when the Enterprise went back to the 1960s, it never encountered religion.  Eugene Roddenbury probably would have been horrified by the "Left Behind" series, which was first published in 1995. (Eugene Roddenbury died in 1991.) There were a few references to Christianity in The Original Series, and those were positive references, but they were very few.  Later series, especially those produced near or after his death, handled religion in a more realistic manner.  Deep Space Nine and some of the fan films deal with the subject.  The issue of a 'human essence' (a soul?) comes up in TOS, but its meaning is not explored.

One of my surprises so far* (long after this essay was written in 2009, in late 2011, I found a Christian fan film, reference is added at the end, and Star Trek Saladin is planned to have a Christian captain) not found a single Star Trek fan film group that is expressly Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. There is a Turkish film with a character that is clearly a Muslim, but not a pious one. I would have expected to find, at very least some "Christian Trek" which follows the adventures of a small band of Christians who have held onto their faith despite Roddenbury's vision of Christianity becoming less of a force in the world.  So far, I have not.

Curiously, Eugene Roddenbury's vision resembled the Jewish view of the End of Days. In fact, one Orthodox Rabbi who teaches Kabbalah at Yeshiva University in New York, when asked what life will be like after the Jewish idea of the Messiah comes, answers, "It will be like Star Trek." He goes on to say that Kabbalah embraces the idea that there are six ages of man before the End of Days, and that we are in the Second Age of Man. That is supposed to end in 6000 in the Hebrew Calender... 2240 in the Christian calender. The Original Series is set in the opening decades of the Third Age of Man. Man is past greed and need and can work on his next, higher level of intellect and achievement. Although that Rabbi usually speaks about The Original Series, others who teach Kabbalah have used other Star Trek shows to make their points. TNG, Compare:

There have been those who have chosen to see Vulcans as Jews, the dry planet as the Judean Desert. For those the J.J. Abrams film completes this picture.  The Romulans were always the Romans. Emperor Nero started the Judean war in which the Jewish Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. After the second uprising in 140, the Romans slaughtered or exiled the overwhelming majority of Jews remaining in Judea, leaving only a remanent to survive and carry on.  To permanently destory the land and its memory, the Romans renamed it Palestine, making the land disappear from the map.  In Star Trek XI, Romulan Nero destroys the planet Vulcan, making it disappear from space into a black hole, leaving a remanent of exiles to survive and carry on.

{I am interested in improving this section. I would like comments from dedicated Trekkies about what it is that they find that make Star Trek so compelling for them}

Since 2009, in late 2011:
*I have found a Christian group which has created a Star Trek which imposes Christian views on the Star Trek universe.  vis: (c).  Star Trek Saladin, still in the works, also features a Christian Captain.  See (S) at .

In late 2013 an essay, "Why Star Trek?" was published.  It includes links to many other essays, which address this topic.  Link:

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