Few people these days believe in a better future for humanity. Those that do often see only a technological fix for our myriad careless acts. As for the more venal aspects of our nature, well, they appear to be in ascendance, with no immediate relief in sight.
You can track this evolution of attitude through the Star Trek franchise, as one series gave way to the next. The moral divide got muddy. Virtue became a currency for manipulation (as in Sisko’s deceit to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War, in DS9). Even the stoic, logical Vulcans were exposed as liars (Enterprise).
Every compromise could be seen as the search for drama, for complexity. But, curiously, they all shared the singular characteristic of disenchantment, delivering again and again the same depressing message: we were fools to believe, fools to trust others, fools to stand firm on principle. Ambiguity becomes ambivalence, and ambivalence becomes the justification for any means to an end.
All of this evolved against the real-world backdrop of the War on Terror that has brought with it heightened paranoia, fear and mistrust, leading inevitably to the moral abomination that was Star Trek Into Darkness, where even Spock (both versions) surrenders to the necessity of deceit and then attempted murder. The moral quagmire of that film struck me as the end-run to a sequence of fundamental ethical compromises, until the very characters whose names and roles had become iconic, were now, despite sharing those names and roles, virtually unrecognizable.
No doubt the forces arrayed against the franchise, so disparate and so powerful, have contributed to the loss of faith in the future’s better humanity, and by the same token, Star Trek is not unique in the chorus of despair coming out of Hollywood for the past two decades – with its cycling slate of sociopathic super-heroes and the mass destruction of 911 repeated ad infinitum (although strangely cleaned up in that we see the buildings crash down, we see the dust, but we never see the crushed bodies, the severed limbs, and all the rest of the ugly truth. Massive destruction is now part of our ethosphere, part of our cultural and mythological language – what I find disturbing is the sanitized bludgeoning of the imagery assaulting us from Hollywood. What the hell are they up to?). This seamless conjoining of product is in itself a symptom of Star Trek’s loss of faith, as Star Trek has long ceased to offer a bold vision of a better future. Now it simply runs with the same dystopic, nihilistic crowd arriving in the cinemas every summer.
Surely, we can do better.
I long for a Star Trek that looks back, not in dismissal or sneering contempt, at the ideals of the original series. I long for a new Star Trek that flies in the face of that churning (and oh-so-tiring) blockbuster crowd of cynical, vicious violence-fests rushing towards the box-office every summer, trailing blood and suffering like bread-crumbs before a benumbed audience.
Does this desire of mine comprise a manifesto? Perhaps the word itself was too bold; even, dare I say it, too optimistic. The essay’s title invites Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman – the men at the helm of the upcoming new Star Trek series – to consider my words here. Rumours abound on this new series, ranging from being an anthology set before TNG, to something post-everything else. It seems a strange given that it will feature no Enterprise, no central ship to symbolize the journey into the unknown. If I am to read subtext into that, I begin to suspect an inward turn for the storyline, perhaps an exploration of what already exists in the ST universe. In contrast to that, there have been official statements hearkening back to the Original Series and its core precepts. I perceive a contradiction there.
Tolerance is not simply something externally opposed upon the ‘Other,’ whether that ‘Other’ be alien in physical manifestation or in attitude. The notion of a humanity so united that it has ceased to honor the necessity of tolerance within itself, hardly strikes me as a humanity capable of tolerating any other species or civilization. To use a very extreme example by way of elucidating the absurdity of this idea: Nazis tolerating other Nazis doesn’t make anyone else safer, or, to use a religious context: Christians tolerating other Christians doesn’t help relations with Muslims, does it? Tolerance is an individual virtue not a collective one, and it can only exist when there are a multitude of attitudes and opinions one must then tolerate: a humanity where everyone agrees is not a tolerant one; rather, it is a humanity where tolerance is extinct. Somewhere between The Original Series and The Next Generation, Roddenberry lost the train of thinking on this, creating a situation those who inherited the series after him could not help but fight against. Alas, it was the wrong battle.
At the very least with this new series, I can hope for iconic characters: characters unafraid of confrontation and debate; characters even at odds with one another despite their common goal. I can hope for real drama, characters with convictions, characters experiencing the extremes of human emotion and unconstrained in expressing them (modern thinking notwithstanding, one can actually pose situations where both sides are right). We’re in a world of not-rocking-the-boat, in a world of surveillance-as-threat, where peaceful protesters get pepper-sprayed, clubbed and kicked, and then arrested, where dissent is synonymous with an attack on civilization itself. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a Star Trek peopled by heroes who embody the very opposite of all of that: defiant of oppression, bold in their hard-won freedom to be diverse, to hold disparate opinions, and above all, to espouse the value of each and every one of us?
The idealism and optimism of the Original Series delivered a promise to its audience: it still does, if we care to look. There is no law written in stone that says the future will be miserable, oppressive and dark. If these traits seem to be the only option in the name of realism, then we’re already as good as done. Star Trek does not belong in a grimdark universe. If defies those nihilistic precepts and stands in bold opposition to that ultraviolent array of films and television that exults in the worst we can be.
So Bryan and Alex, here it is: as a lifelong Trekker I humbly ask that you consider doing with this new Star Trek series what the original one did: break the mould. The dystopic visions of the future are getting pale, threadbare and numbingly homogenous, and there are hints that it’s about run its course. Running with that crowd will get you nowhere: choose instead to stand apart. As some recent blockbuster bombs are indicating, what sold last summer is a dubious justification to simply rinse and repeat. Maybe even the money people are starting to get it, but if not I’ll say it plain: we’re tired of a grim and dark future that offers up a promise of more of the same, especially when that promise is as bleak as hell.
Star Trek is not just the names of the races, not just the names of the ships, not just space battles and action heroes. Star Trek is an ethos, and that ethos has at its core unbridled optimism. This was Roddenberry’s original vision, and we need it again. Star Trek is about a better future for humanity. The cynics might tell you that such notions are too naïve, that it will never sell, that you need explosions, and war, and darkness or it will never work. But I have to ask: how many times will the Enterprise have to blow up or crash; how many city landscapes will need to be flattened; how many planets and homeworlds will need to be destroyed, before the franchise simply self-destructs?
Bryan and Alex, you have a chance to be better than that. The Original Series offered us an optimistic vision of the future, and it looked good, without ever compromising the necessity and vitality of dramatic conflict among the crew-members. More than that: the Original Series inspired us. Please offer it again. Invite us into the spirit of hope, embodied by a vision of the future that sees and celebrates the best in us. Now more than ever, we need it.