Star Trek is an awesome fantasy, zipping around the galaxy at the speed of light, visiting alien worlds and watching Capt. Kirk make out with green women.
James T. was one cool customer, equally capable of diplomacy and anger. What a great role model for kids watching the show in the late 60s when it felt like the world was falling apart. I’ve met many of the actors from the shows (yeah, I’m a nerd) but never Shatner. I’ve heard the story of how he visited Jeff Cook a few year’s back.
The other leads on the show were Leonard Nimoy and Forrest DeKelly playing First Officer Spock and ship physician Leonard “Bones” McCoy, played in the movie reboot by Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban. When I attended the first-ever week of Space Camp in Huntsville (told ya I was a nerd), my team member nickname was “Bones” because I was skinny as a rail.
I’ve always appreciated Spock’s ability to be purely logical, which is pit against McCoy’s folksy manner and moral commentary. The characters are excellent role models themselves, typically very annoyed at each another but also complimenting their respective strengths. Even though they can be viciously blunt with one another, there’s a foundation of professional respect aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.
I wish people in our country could be more like Spock and McCoy these days, engaging in the spirited back-and-forth without always being on the verge of starting a mutiny. Maybe we lack a Kirk figure, a strong but compassionate and measured leader, to balance the two. I’d take a Jean Luc Picard right about now.
In the Star Trek fictional universe, everybody on Earth co-exists, having abandoned selfish ways and greed. Not thrilling drama, though, so conflict was generated by the original villains, the Klingons. Then, over a long time, they became allies, the antagonists becoming the Romulans. Then the brutal Cardassians (Kardashians?) and the goofy Ferengi, the shapeshifting Changelings of the Dominion, and my favorite baddies, the Borg. The show is built on hope of a better tomorrow, yet the storytelling reflects a depressing truth about human nature.
We ultimately make peace only when we share common enemies and need to unite against mutual threats.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, we found ourselves battling international terrorism. When ISIS got snuffed out, we fought the menacing “other” closer to home. And on and on until balance elsewhere has us at our neighbor’s throat, trying to kill each other over one cutting down another’s favorite tree. We may never experience a society where all of our needs are met and we all just hold hands and sing Kumbaya in blissful harmony. No, in the real world, someone’s always going to try to dominate others and force reluctant submission to their will.
Star Trek is a show about ideals like equality and self-determination. Even if a goal is ultimately unattainable, we should “reach for the stars” anyway because just look at how far we can move in the direction of the good, even if it isn’t the perfect. A toast to the undiscovered country, the future.
I realize it’s all make-believe (for now). But with such a vast universe, I wouldn’t be all that shocked if alien visitors played cosmic Christopher Columbus, arriving with a flag of peace and then gobbling up our resources. Which of us would be served as steak dinner and which would they collar as their pets?
Four episodes of the original Star Trek series stand out for me.
“The City on the Edge of Forever” is a heartbreaking story about how the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, as Kirk must allow the woman he loves to die in order to prevent history from changing for the worse.
“The Doomsday Machine” is a cat-and-mouse adventure touching on themes about duty and sacrifice, along with the unforeseen consequences of creating weapons too horrible to ever use because doing so would ensure mutual self-destruction.
In the episode “The Enemy Within,” a transporter malfunction scrambles Kirk into two versions, a good side that’s kind but indecisive and an evil counterpart that’s strong but selfish and volatile. No Sunday sermon could tell a better parable about humankind and our capacity to do both good and evil. Or how neither side alone defines us as fully realized human beings.
The episode “Day of the Dove” finds the crew manipulated by an entity that feeds off the violence between them and their Klingon captives. Kirk implores their leader to stop because they may become its puppets for a thousand lifetimes if they continue their pointless fighting. They both lay down their arms, defeating an enemy playing them against one another.
The show and movies provide hours of welcome distraction from so much darkness and division in the real world, just campy enough to be silly fun while speaking out underneath on so many truths cleverly disguised as science fiction.
In these episodes and movies are nuggets of wisdom about colonialism, the dangers of automation, drugs and addiction, labor, gender, the right to life and death, race, the calculus of waging war, making the best of “no win” scenarios and the complicated morality of terrorists vs freedom fighters. Issues that are tough to tackle at face value.
That’s quite a service to viewers in morally confused times, offering moral narratives masquerading as mindless spectacle and entertainment. It brings to mind the quote by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”
— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: email@example.com.