It has been just over two months since Patrick Stewart’s epic announcement: Captain Jean Luc Picard would be returning in a new Star Trek series continuing the storyline of Star Trek: The Next Generation and would be played by Stewart himself (of course).
Intense, giddy speculation as to what we could expect from this “new Picard” ensued with fervent curiosity at all levels of Trekdom, from fans to cast and crew. I was eight rows back in the main pavilion at the August 2018 Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas when Stewart appeared on the stage to an uproar of Trekkie elation, and I was among the fans who teared up with him as he explained the reason for his return: that over the years, the overwhelming message from Star Trek viewers had been that the show gave them hope. Hope that humans can aspire to profound greatness. Hope that the devastating struggles we face today, both on a personal and global scale, can be overcome. Hope that each of us can be the best possible version of ourselves, still imperfect but united as one species seeking connection among all living things.
Be still, my heart. The hope is just beginning.
As profoundly as this humanist message resonates among fans of the show, it seems to manifests minimally in the world. From the moment we open Twitter on our phones or scan the headlines in our web browser, we are gutted of hope. The political polarity in our country, the continued environmental crises across the planet, and the escalating racial and cultural tensions as our species’ numbers surpass our resources are constantly tugging our psyches into a visceral malaise. Evidence of hope is scarce. But as quoted in the most recent Star Wars movie, “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”
Oh yes, I did. I just quoted Star Wars in a Star Trek article. But it was necessary, because if we Trekkies can’t reach across the fandom aisle and embrace our hopeful vision in other franchises, then there really is no hope for the rest of the human race. It’s indisputable, Star Wars provides an emotionally compelling and truly entertaining series that provides every element of storytelling that we crave: the hero’s journey, adventure, and victory to the underdog.
But that galaxy far, far away lacks the crucial nuance inherent in our every societal endeavor. We don’t see a version of our current selves down the road. Star Trek, on the other hand, is much more than an allegory. It is a possible outcome of us, and with that it forces us to face the inherent complexities of the human condition. Rules are never simply followed. Heroes and villains exist only in the eyes of the beholders. The definition of “sentient being” is perpetually challenged. And best of all, this happens when we have resolved the differences among groups of our own species and are challenged in similar ways with aliens the galaxy over.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wove an ethical smorgasbord with every possible life lesson explored to a level that only science fiction can achieve. This role has always been a popular topic of discussion at conventions and Trekkie happy hours—the ability of science fiction to show us to ourselves, clearly and objectively. A 1969 Star Trek episode titled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” featured two races of the same alien species: one with black on the left side of their face and white on the right, and the other with the exact reverse coloration. These two races fought in political opposition on the basis of this difference, which the Enterprise crew found to be puzzling and absurd. Truly, among a twenty-third-century multiracial human (and alien) starship crew, it was unfathomable that such a petty difference as skin color could generate that level of hate and chaos.
Today it is still racism. And it is women’s rights, religious freedom, environmental stewardship, poverty, education, and so many more struggles that humans have overcome by the time Captain Kirk (William Shatner) commands the Enterprise. We’ve come a long way since the powerful first interracial television kiss between Kirk and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Star Trek: Discovery features an African-American female lead and the most diversity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality we’ve seen in the franchise thus far. In America today, many white people have been confronted with racist momentum they thought had been largely eradicated but was merely dormant, now awakened by fear. It’s understandable that we feel defeated and hopeless at this apparent social regression. We reflect it strongly in the myriad of dystopian fiction that has captured young readers most strongly in recent years. While I certainly praise works such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and The 5th Wave for imaginative storytelling, I recommend that in order to nourish our collective human soul, we look to the stars. We look through a speculative lens to the best of ourselves and what we can become.
Roddenberry’s vision provides a framework with which to do so. As Children Defense Fund’s president Marian Wright Edelman once said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” We need the cautionary tales of dystopian fiction, but we also need to see the best of what we can aspire to. Sure, it doesn’t need to involve spacecraft and aliens. The landscape of storytelling possibilities is as endless as the human imagination. But right now, Star Trek provides a powerfully compelling model of how we can envision the future of humanity.
If you’re not a Trekkie, maybe give this fandom a try. Star Trek now comes in many distinct flavors: seven different TV series (eight, with the upcoming Picard series), fourteen movies, unknown numbers of books and video games. There is truly something for everyone, and to anyone who dreams of a future far beyond our current struggles, beyond what divides us and disconnects us from each other, you are Roddenberry’s vision.