Tim asked me a question a while ago: Does liking Star Trek make one a nerd, geek, dweeb, dork, etc.? I had mentioned Star Trek conventions and that’s what kicked that off. For the record: I have never attended a Star Trek convention, and even though it looks like some of the folks attending need to get a life, I believe the majority are fascinated by the Star Trek phenomenon for pretty much the same reasons I am.
A while back there was a discussion on Usenet regarding science fiction in Norway. The consensus was that there isn’t any. There was a heyday for sci-fi in the 70’s, spearheaded by Norwegian authors Bing and Bringsværd (and I have one of their books), but it died out. It’s hard to rekindle because most Norwegians don’t “get” space or space exploration or science fiction.
When the matter of space exploration comes up during lunch at work, the majority view is, “Why are they wasting money on going out there? What for?” Sometimes followed by, “We have so much to explore on this planet.” And I try to explain, but I realize that they won’t understand because they don’t… dream. And that brings me to Star Trek: Why so many of us love it – according to Keera, of course.
I wasn’t old enough to see Star Trek when it first aired in the late 1960’s, while man was still figuring out how to get to the moon. My mother watched it and I knew all about Spock’s pointy ears, and can remember the excitement when my mother told me she’d seen Leonard Nimoy on a talk show – and the disappointment when she told me his ears were normal. I moved to Norway in 1969, and on Norwegian TV was “Gunsmoke”, enjoying huge popularity as Norwegians like westerns. There was no sci-fi. I moved back to the US in 1976, and there, syndicated on oddball local TV stations, was Star Trek. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu. And I got properly acquainted with them and with their ideals, like the Prime Directive: Not interfering with the natural evolution of any society and some kinky problems that could lead to. And that was the cleverness of it: How to get out of problems without violating that Prime Directive, because some of those societies had some pretty destructive ideas.
One of my favorite episodes is “The Horta”, because it has so many elements that I enjoy: The horta is a species so foreign to us that we have no idea how to relate to it, except try to kill it because it interferes with human activity. And then the discovery that it’s the other way around: The humans are interfering with horta activity. The weird blob-like creature that eats rock, turns out to be intelligent – and to be a female, a mother desperately trying to protect her eggs, which are being destroyed by human mining. It all works out in the end, but the adventure getting to that ending… Ah, that is what is good sci-fi: Not shoot-em-ups with lasers, but challenging human beliefs and behaviors. Good sci-fi is also psychology and philosophy as well as adventure and technology. Star Trek is all that.
Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, had a very optimistic view of the future: He believed that technology would serve us well, and not be a problem; the introduction of the Borg in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is a departure from that view. But “Star Trek” itself had some optimistic views of the future beyond technology.
When Star Trek first aired in 1966, the cold war was intense and so was the animosity between the US and the USSR; only four years earlier we had the Cuban missile crisis, and now the two nations were in a race against each other to the moon. It was also only three years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s so-called “I have a dream” speech; there was a budding women’s rights movement, while girls were still banned from wearing pants in California schools; and the US was fighting in South-East Asia. So what did Star Trek show us? Officers that included a Black who was also a woman (granted, in a mini-dress), a Russian, an Asian, a Vulcan who was also part Earthling (and struggled with trying to unite the two halves in his own way), and assorted other white folk, including a Scotsman and Americans. They all kept their cultural heritages, honored their backgrounds, while not putting anybody else’s ethnicity or culture down. (Though Dr. McCoy tended to make some frustrated remarks about Mr. Spock’s “vulcanness” in heated moments.)
Imagine that future. In the midst of a war in South-East Asia, a cold war with nuclear weapons held at the ready, an assassinated president, and later, civil rights leaders also being killed, and women in America struggling for the right to be treated as independent adults, not their husband’s property, there is a crew on a starship – made up of the very mix of people that in the 1960’s seemed completely at odds with each other – banded together with such loyalty and love that they are family to each other.
I think that is why America fell for Star Trek. It wasn’t just the nifty special effects (which have held up extremely well), the clever stories, the wonderful mix of personalities, and that gorgeous starship – the Enterprise – that is as loved as the humans; it’s the humanity, the spirit, the notion that we can succeed at creating the world that, at the time, seemed so far out of reach and even impossible. To truly unite the world is indeed to boldly go where no man has gone before.
America was the first to get a human on the moon. The whole nation shared a hope, a dream, a vision, a goal, and when I think back, I think that’s what is missing in today’s America: Something grand and positive that gets the whole country thinking in terms of possibilities and solutions. Like the crew on the starship Enterprise, also united no matter what faced them, bravely and loyally and creatively.
And I just can’t explain that sort of dreaming, that sort of vision, that sort of “because we can, or we can’t but we want to figure out how” to the Norwegians. Why both sci-fi and space travel capture the American imagination. How our reaching for the stars, or at least geosynchronous orbit, actually improves us, makes us more human, not less. Though Norwegians are tickled by the first Swedish-Norwegian in space, I’m not sure the whole concept captures the national Norwegian imagination like it does the American.
We fly the space shuttle up to the International Space Station and continue the cooperation with the Russians started on board the Mir (“peace”) after the end of the cold war. And every time that happens – that former enemies get together up there beyond the safety of Earth, with the whole planet in their field of view, beautiful and blue – I think Star Trek isn’t science fiction; it’s science fact that hasn’t happened yet.