Musings on Star Trek: The Next Generation

A buddy of mine from work does a ‘zine called The Jernigan Post and asked me to write an article for it. I wasn’t sure what to write, but I’ve been watching a good deal of Star Trek: The Next Generation lately. A few months ago we got DVR and I started recording them; watching them when I get off work or school. It’s really a great show; a standout in the world of televised science fiction. Yes, there are cheesy moments and it’s a bit obnoxious that a head application is what determines what race one is (Klingons have a turtle shell, Cardassians have an ashtray, the Borg have kitchen appliances on their bodies and useless wires on their faces, etc.). I know some think the acting is corny, but personally I think it’s pretty good. Picard is a superb actor, Riker is a hammy ladies man, Data is Pinocchio, and so forth – all the main characters play their parts well.

Back to my original point: I was asked to write an article for a ‘zine. I wrote an article about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m not sure if it’ll get published but I’ll find out in the near future. Here’s the article.

The Utopia of Star Trek: The Next Generation

The utopia of Star Trek: the Next Generation is a liberal optimist’s paradise – a world without capitalism, hunger, war, disease, and the other calamities of the human condition in our time. Instead of strengthening our pocketbooks, we strengthen our minds, our souls, our societies. Seems like a fable, especially in light of the world we inhabit – a world filled with famine, out of control corporate influence, starvation, endless wars. How is it that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was able to see past these obstacles and create a fictional world devoid of these problems?

Actually, the Star Trek universe isn’t devoid of some of these issues. Even though humans have evolved to a point beyond nationalism, materialism, and money, the colonization and exploration of the universe has its own problems: war with alien races being the primary issue. In the original Star Trek series from the 1960s, the Federation was warring with the Klingons and just finished a bloody conflict with the Romulans. Fast forward about a century and the crew of the Enterprise-D are now friends with the Klingons, incorporating one into the Enterprise’s primary crew. Tension still exists between the Federation and the Romulans, and other beings are introduced into the Star Trek universe: the Borg, Cardassians, Ferengi, and others. Intergalactic conflict isn’t gone, but been replaced as the primary focus of the series. The original Star Trek explored contemporary issues through the guise of science fiction and Star Trek: the Next Generation continues this tradition, yet without the need to provide action on each episode. There are episodes of this sequel series devoid of any action whatsoever; episodes relying on the ethics, morals, and diplomacy of the crew to figure out problems. In essence, the show’s about problems in space instead of battles in space.

The government of Star Trek’s future isn’t fully explored, yet the absence of corporations, money, and finite materials (replaced by matter replicators) implies a fully realized socialist state. It’s not communism, since each citizen’s role is freely chosen. The championing of democratic values indicates a freely functioning democratic electoral system and the leaders shown on the show don’t resemble dictators or other kinds of despotic leadership. Basically it’s a world where the prime needs (food, shelter, clothing, health care) of a citizen are met, the choice to choose one’s life path isn’t determined by financial stability, and pursuing one’s personal interests is paramount. Sounds like a great world to me…and unfortunately one I’ll never see in my lifetime.

Technology is an important part of Star Trek, if not of primary importance next to the welfare of the individual or individuals. Without technology, humans couldn’t trek through the stars, solve world hunger, and create a utopia. Even issues of technology’s pro’s and con’s are explored – a critique that would make the late sociologist Neil Postman proud (possibly). Postman argues in his book Technolopy that the creators of a technology aren’t the best determiners of a technology’s implementation. I believe he’s right, and Roddenberry’s society is dealing with this issue constantly. Certain technologies, such as matter replication and interplanetary travel are not questioned, yet advances jumping off these foundation technologies are constantly being explored. The holodeck is a good example: there are episodes dealing with the psychological addiction associated with fantasy, the real world implications of theories explored in holodeck simulations (such as experimental medical procedures), and many others. The episode titled Ethics explores issues of assisted suicide and experimental medical procedures untested on humans. Ultimately, the crippled Lt. Worf consents to the untried operation, which is a success. Yet the maverick procedures employed by medical science are explored fully, with the conclusion being that a technology needs testing before it becomes part of the lexicon. If only our world was able to see this, we wouldn’t have our personal information running through fiber optic cables, fodder for corporations and research groups. We wouldn’t take part in cellular phone games like Foursquare: a game on Android phones where a person checks in at locations they visit to receive a badge. Unfortunately, this information is used to determine how to market to the player more efficiently. In essence, Foursquare players are willing to share their personal information for shiny digital trinkets. When I question people about this, most shrug their shoulders and nonchalantly say, “I don’t care.”

The last piece I wish to discuss is education in Roddenberry’s futuristic society. In our contemporary world countless art forms vie for our attention – everything from video games, movies, television shows, music, printed works, and so forth. This overabundance of information, impossible to navigate properly, can’t be digested in one lifetime. In the Star Trek universe, television and film seem to have disappeared. In one episode, Lt. Commander Data discusses the demise of television in the early 21st century. So far this is a false prophecy, but who knows what the future holds. The extinction of film and television in Roddenberry’s vision are not surprising, especially when thinking about Ian Svenonius’ assertion that, “film developed out of topsy-turvy industrial capitalism.” Capitalism is absent on Star Trek, so why shouldn’t art forms created by this system disappear with it? However, the educational practices of Star Trek indicate a society focusing on the classics, especially in regards to artistic expression. Mozart, Shakespeare, Joyce, and a litany of others receive mention on the series, each discussed as important examples of human expression. But what happened to the excessive outpour from the 20th and 21st century? Where is punk rock, hip hop, or metal? What has become of writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz? Did they fall by the wayside, like so many 18th and 19th centuries novelist have? Will the music and films we place importance on disappear in both the real and imaginary future?

The role of education, and educational institutions, is to provide a curriculum emphasizing the important contributions to humanity over the years. Missing are supposed to be the trivial artistic forms; those that become irrelevant quickly. In addition, these institutions are supposed to create inquisitive citizens, able to function and think critically in their respective societies. With the artistic examples shown on Star Trek, it seems like the educational institutions of the 24th century are doing just that. However, being a citizen of the early 21st century, I find it distressing to think about such writings as my own fading into complete obscurity, forgotten by all. An inhabitant of Roddenberry’s 24th century would never read an essay like this, trained from a young age to explore only the pinnacle of human achievement in addition to texts relevant to their own time. Personally, I believe it a decent price to pay. I would trade absolute obliteration for a future society focusing only on overwhelmingly triumphant examples of the human condition, using them to create a just, moral society.

If a society like Star Trek’s does come to pass, what will happen to Star Trek? Will it be part of a dead medium, a curiosity like Lincoln’s Zoetrope or will pieces of the television lexicon make it into the history books, examined by historians of 20th and 21st century? When placed against other television shows, Star Trek: the Next Generation is an oddity – a show that relies on ethics, the human struggle, and ultimately, moral decisions to solve problems. It stands out like a sore thumb in comparison to shows like Cops or CSI; it’s amazing the show lasted seven years and spawned four feature films in addition to two other spin-off shows (Deep Space Nine and Voyager). Maybe it’s possible future people will watch Star Trek, examining the optimistic message it expounds. Maybe it’ll fade into obscurity, a relic of a society that gave way to either complete destruction or evolved into a social form comparable to Roddenberry’s. Either way, it’s refreshing that television once contained a show that explored humanity in this fashion – a fashion not suited to commercial interests, not interested in the lowest common denominator, and not trying to place commerce before substance.

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