It’s hard to imagine the Earth we know today ever being admitted to, let alone being a founding member of, the United Federation of Planets we see depicted in Star Trek.
What would a wise starship captain, tasked with evaluating our application for admission, see when visiting a planet like Earth in the year 2016?
Global unity — on anything — is out of reach, as glaciers melt away forever despite droves of data defining the problem, and its solutions. Information is more accessible than it ever has been, but access is restricted on a sometimes continental scale.
In the most powerful nation on Earth, the U.S. presidential campaign has devolved into a he-said, she-said schoolyard back-and-forth where foreign governments flex their influence and lies are easily papered over with denial after denial — even with cameras everywhere and everything anyone has ever said readily available for playback. The candidates don’t shrink from their outrageous, inaccurate and inflammatory statements — doubling down in an unconvincing display of unilateral strength. Compromise and cooperation are nonexistent. And the Russians are the bad guys again.
It’s a bleak picture, a lot like the one our outside observer would have found in 1966, when Star Trek premiered on American television. Racial tension, some say, is as high now as it was then. Then as now, an unpopular overseas war continues to claim American lives. Violence or the threat of violence seeps into people’s lives everywhere, much of it coming from the fractious Middle East — while we’re statistically safer at home than at any other time in our history, fear is the common language in almost all social and political interactions.
Any attempt to defend the dignity of those who dare not to conform, or for those people to assert their legitimate rights, is condemned as political correctness (“the ultimate tyranny!”) and shouted down. “You’re playing the race card,” they sneer. “You’re playing the woman card.” “That’s not fair.” “We have freedom of religion!” (That somehow means they have freedom to discriminate against you if your religion doesn’t match theirs.)
Maybe the Q entity was right all along: We are a “dangerous, savage child race.”
Space: The Final Frontier …
All of this strife today is somehow blamed on the first non-white president, who was barely 5 years old when the USS Enterprise first flew across America’s television screens. Another Democratic president had put our nation on the course to the moon — a feat that didn’t happen until almost three years later, when the show had just finished its original run. For a time, after a giant leap, we truly stood on the edge of the Final Frontier, with all of the universe in reach.
Then we turned back — and kept on turning backwards, it seems.
Star Trek itself remains a very “liberal” idea: a colorblind, secular, gender-blind society without nations, universal healthcare, open access to education and pursuit of the arts — and no money to speak of.
It also brought us a brilliant, tyrannical and vaguely Eastern villain named Khan who represented all that was despised in the world that post-Federation humanity left behind. Now, in 2016, we live in a world when a real man named Khan is demonized for speaking out against a self-proclaimed tyrant who consistently doubles down against individual dignity. This Khan doesn’ back down — he doubles down himself when it seems few other people will stand up to this demagoguery. He inspires thousands to think there may yet be hope of stopping the bully. Still, this Khan and his family cannot escape being illegitimately linked with terrorists who pervert their faith. His son gave his life fighting that extremism, but that’s not a shield his kind are permitted to carry.
Do “conservatives” who idolize the cowboy conquests of Capt. James T. Kirk even notice that he serves a world government run out of Paris, and a science-tempered military commanded from hippie haven San Francisco? Cosmopolitan coexistence and flat-out socialism comprise a huge part of the vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Star Trek isn’t Star Trek without them.
Is Star Trek, for them, the same as it is for those who see the peaceful pursuits of the United Federation of Planets as the true goal for our civilization?
Star Trek Beyond
That peace and unity come under fire in the latest big-screen sequel, Star Trek Beyond, as they have before — but this time, the danger isn’t the external attack of the Klingons or Romulans or Borg or the Dominion, but an isolationist Starfleet captain who served a mostly human Earth before the Federation, and more closely resembles a man of our world than that fictional future world.
Beyond villain Krall, once known as Capt. Balthazar Edison, was a MACO (Military Assault Command Operations) — a commando who fought on the front lines against the Xindi and Romulans, then was absorbed into Starfleet when the Federation formed. (This was during the Star Trek: Enterprise era, between First Contact and the Kirk era.) Edison didn’t share the ideals of peaceful coexistence and compromise that the Federation were based upon. Stranded far across space with his doomed command, the USS Franklin, and kept alive and changed by hateful alien technology, he feels abandoned by the Federation after already having been betrayed and failed by its very existence, and commits himself to its destruction.
Edison/Krall is just another version of the fictional Khan, the man out of time, returned to shake things up — in this case born not of Eastern stereotypes but of Western prejudices. And he is damned all the more for it as a villain.
The Star Trek reboot movies that include Beyond are fun, but I’ve always likened them more to fast-paced theme park attractions based on Star Trek than a true representation of the spirit Roddenberry labored to build. Beyond goes a long way toward addressing that by daring to question, and ultimately validate, the Federation’s unity — a big issue, worthy of Star Trek. But to be honest, big-screen Trek has always served me more as a tribute to the franchise than pure Trek proper — a way to celebrate the TV show’s cultural impact, and widen its audience, but not the main attraction. It demands more complex stories and character development than a movie every few years can achieve and hope to impact a fast-changing world.
And with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s premiere approaching Sept. 8, that tribute is appropriate, welcome and even overdue. What just a few short months ago looked like a lackluster golden jubilee year is at last shaping up to be a fascinating celebration. It must be time travel, as if some studio executives realized the missed opportunity that they let slip through their fingers and sent a starship sling-shotting around the sun at Warp Factor 10 to go back and set things right. It’s not quite the global celebration we saw a few years back for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, but it’s much better than the nothing I expected a short time ago.
Star Trek: Discovery
And then came news that the franchise was returning to its TV roots with a new series: Star Trek: Discovery, which will take place in the “Prime” timeline of the original Star Trek and its sequels instead of the “Kelvin Timeline” of 2009’s Star Trek, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness and this summer’s Beyond.
The captain in this new series, producers have hinted, may be based on Dr. Mae Jemison, a real-life U.S. astronaut they have been consulting, who was inspired to reach for the stars in her youth by Nichelle Nichols’ historic portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek series and even had a cameo on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
With Discovery, the franchise is coming home where it belongs — serialized television (or streaming, to be precise).
What matters is that it is an ongoing mission, boldly going where no other franchise has gone before — shining light regularly on the painful truths that we must discover and face fully in order to change the world for the better and join the Federation of vision.
That bright future Roddenberry promised is still out there, waiting for us to finish laying the foundation he started for us. But only if we want it.
Star Trek Beyond images courtesy Paramount Pictures