Where is our Star Trek Future? Or, Some Thoughts on the Ideas of Human Connection, Cooperation, and Hope

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

Well, I started this piece a couple of days ago with the US election in mind, but I did not then imagine the result we now confront.   I originally intended it to be a more playful thought piece timed to commemorate our collective sense of bemused relief, all while pointing to another ceiling shattered. Instead, someone opened the cage for a hateful lunatic fringe that, as it turns out, is not such a fringe. I was naïve and thought that the obvious was obvious and that the choice of candidates was really no choice at all. Hillary Clinton’s hawkish, neoliberal politics might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but come on. Her opponent was Trump, a man who has been colourfully—but not inaccurately—described (by Samantha Bee) as a “casino Mussolini,” a “two-bit used hate salesman,” a “sociopathic 70-year old toddler,” a “tax-cheating, investor-swindling, worker-shafting, dictator-loving, pathologically lying, attorney’s general-bribing, philandering, mobbed up, narcissistic serial con artist.” But I was wrong. Many were. Suffice it to say, I have begun this piece anew, but the driving question only seems all the more urgent: where is our Star Trek future?

In light of the severity of what has transpired amongst our cousins south of the border in recent months, some might find this an unduly cavalier way into the important problem of our future. If it comes off that way, as a good Canadian, I apologize.   That is certainly not the intention. Personally, I do not believe there is anything especially silly about Star Trek’s ambitious and hopeful portrayal of a positive and unified future for humanity. I can only imagine how attractive that must have been for those living amidst the Cold War tensions and social revolutions of the 1960s. And that, the history of our changing visions of the future is the thing I am getting at. I came of age after Rocky and some teenagers in Colorado effectively ended the Cold War, at least cinematically.   So, in order to properly appreciate the future portrayed in Star Trek, I have to first imagine the past of the 1960s so that I might better recognize the vision of the future that belonged to that past. This sort of doubling-back and layering-up can seem a bit convoluted, but it does help one better appreciate the significance and historical contingency of the hopeful future portrayed in Star Trek.

And what a visionary future it was. Star Trek imagined all sorts of impossible technology we now take for granted. For example, it showed us a world of cell phones, video conferencing, and a raft of other “smart” communication devices, apps, and interfaces that generally enabled the level of human-computer symbiosis we now experience every day.  We can go even further.  In fact, we actually did.  Since Star Trek first aired in 1966 we literally followed Cpt. Kirk and his pals into interplanetary space.  Twenty-four of the Apollo program astronauts left Earth’s orbit and took a spin around the moon, while twelve of them actually romped over the moon’s surface.  More recently we have sent a rover cruising around the surface of Mars.  Admittedly, the latter was an unmanned mission, but given that Mars is 225 million km away surely this is still Star Trek stuff.  Indeed, thanks to Star Trek even our first permanent, orbiting space shuttle was christened the “Enterprise” (pictured here with the cast from the show).

Yet, while this is all quite marvellous, what is far more significant than this imaginative technological prefiguring and influence was the way Star Trek portrayed the people of Earth: united, respectful, tolerant, reasonable, moderate, generous, intrepid, and, perhaps best of all, aspiring. The original series was situated about three hundred years into the future from its original broadcast date, in the year 2265. The people of this imagined future had avoided the threat of nuclear annihilation that hung so heavily over the post-World War II world. Having recognized the need to see beyond differences, divisive special interests, identity politics, and other parochial matters they learned to come together and embrace and celebrate their common humanity.[1]

Like many, I have always been attracted to this historical dimension of the Star Trek universe. At its very heart, the show seems to see history the way Rorty sees philosophy, as a form of “social hope,” a means of not simply knowing ourselves, but a way of “creating ourselves” and of shaping who we want to be.[2] Here, I am parroting a point about history made by one of my scholarly heroes, Beverley Southgate, and as I do I become sad because it seems as though this positive, aspiring vision for the future is no longer with us. My thoughts turn to that memorable passage by Hunter Thompson who, reflecting on the late 1960s, wrote:

You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. …

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. …

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

The good Dr.’s diagnosis was sound. Clearly something somewhere changed, and dramatically. The original series of Star Trek went off the air in 1969, and was replaced in 1978 by the sci-fi vision of Battlestar Gallactica, a show in which most of humanity had been wiped out with only a tiny remnant clinging desperately to survival, adrift in the far-flung reaches of space.

The 1990s, of course, produced Star Trek: TNG, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. All were very successful, but none really survived into the new millennium. Perhaps they had all just naturally run their course, or, perhaps the slick technologically sophisticated future they presented lost some of its shine after the tech sector plummeted in the early 2000s. Whatever the case, since then our entertainment has turned to a future full of cannibal gangs, zombies, and Armageddon. I too am interested in End Times, and certainly we live in a world that should think seriously about such scenarios and how we might cope with, or, better yet, prevent them. But I am growing a little tired of the tremendously grim Cormac McCarthy-like future that preoccupies us, and I am not much concerned which version of annihilation and despair it is. It could be the world suddenly ending in a white flash as in The Road, or it could be the blood-lusting racial war of Blood Meridian (though set in the past, at its core it explores a once-held future vision for American civilization, and though first published in 1985 there are renewed rumours of a film adaptation). They are both tired and point in essentially the same direction.

In the end, one thing seems clear. Certain trends should be actively resisted. A scared, and often hate-filled brand of cynicism might be the philosophy all the “cool” neo-fascists and other mouth-breathing politicos are wearing, but it looks like sh*t, and truly none of us can afford it even if, for some reason, one is tempted to try it on. No, surely another more positive path is better. I would like to think with hope in our hearts and determined cooperation on our minds we might just manage to connect in a meaningful way, a Star Trekkie sort of way. Because the stories we tell ourselves matter we might also trade in our preoccupation with a McCarthy-esque future (as imagined by a Cormac or, come to think of it, a Joseph) in favour of a brighter, and more hopeful and aspirational future.

Here, I think, the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences have a key role to play in how we narrate, and thus how we come to understand (or not), the many social, cultural, economic, and political challenges we face, and as such they will be vital to the future we create for ourselves. Disciplines like philosophy and history, for instance, can be powerful engines of “social hope,” but only if we focus our attention and our thoughts in the right way. We are up for the challenge, but we have to act like it and that means acting together. As Tom Waits sings, “We’re chained to the world and we all gotta pull.” Time to start pulling. Onwards and, I dare hope, upwards.

[1] Good on this point is David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond our Differences (Knopf, 2013).

[2] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin, 2000), 69. Beverly Southgate, What is History For? (Routledge, 2005), xiii.

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