The rap against “Star Trek” is, usually, that it is simply too clean, ordered and harmonious. In the universe that Gene Roddenberry created, humanity not only overcomes disharmony among races and nations, but with a multitude of alien species.
As Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” boldly passes the 50-year mark Thursday, the series is in impressive shape.
The latest movie — “Star Trek Beyond” — made about $250 million at the domestic box office and received an 83 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is far better than most of this summer’s hideously awful blockbusters. A new series, “Discovery” — No. 7 in the franchise — makes its debut on CBS at the beginning of 2017, seemingly in a serialized fashion where the characters and plot lines change every season, much like “American Horror Story.”
Most impressive, though: It’s impossible to name another series from the early days of television that has enjoyed as lasting an influence. From “Star Trek’s” own decade, only “The Twilight Zone” (1959-64) comes close. Nothing from the 1970s or even the 1980s matches its longevity in the public imagination.
'Star Trek' at 50
“Star Trek’s” long reign is fraught with complications. “Star Wars” (1977) both overshadowed it and, arguably, led to the series’ rebirth by proving that science-fiction franchises have huge box-office potential. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” — the first of 13 franchise films — appeared in 1979.
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In more recent years, newer science-fiction shows have signaled their disillusionment with “Trek’s” paradigms. Joss Whedon’s short-lived science-fiction western “Firefly” (2002-03) pitched itself as the anti-Star Trek. The show featured a gritty band of heroic outlaws who were often pitted against the depredations of a star-systems-spanning alliance of planets — an anti-utopian version of “Star Trek’s” United Federation of Planets, without the aliens.
The argument against “Star Trek” is, usually, that it is simply too clean, ordered and harmonious. In the universe that Roddenberry created, humanity not only overcomes disharmony among races and nations, but with a multitude of alien species. There are warlike empires out there, but within the Federation’s purview there is peace and plenty. Capitalism as we know it no longer exists because technological advances have allowed people to survive without working, money has pretty much been done away with and hunger is no longer a threat.
There’s a 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which the famous economist frets over what humanity will do with its free time after progress and technology have eliminated “pressing economic cares.” “Star Trek” posits that this supposed conundrum won’t be much of a problem. We’ll be free to pursue our hobbies and interests, which may include touring the galaxy, engaging in scientific discovery and forging enriching alliances with varied alien species.
These days, the internet is full of fascinating dissections of “Star Trek’s” political economy, from Vox editor Matt Yglesias’ review of the entire series in Slate to Jacobin’s Peter Frase, who has a new book titled “Four Futures” that examines possible outcomes for a postcapitalist world. Some of the options are pretty scary, but the one that is explicated using Roddenberry’s world is by far the most appealing. In the original essay, Frase writes that “many people are already familiar with the utopia of a post-scarcity communism, because it has been represented in one of our most familiar works of popular culture: ‘Star Trek.’”
Needless to say, such a society has never existed on this earth. “Star Trek” bashers disdain it for this very vision of a semi-utopic future where humanity has moved beyond the tribal conflicts and narrow self-interest that have defined much of our history. Too unrealistic, critics say, and lacking even the faux grit of a Han Solo, much less the jaundiced view of institutions (not to mention humanity writ large) on display in “Firefly” or the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica” (2004-09).
But that hopeful vision is one of the most appealing aspects of “Star Trek.” Science fiction is meant to be speculative. We have plenty of images of what a totalitarian or primitivist or postapocalyptic future would look like. Writers are great at dreaming up ways that everything could get worse. Degradation and woe — and zombies — are the norm when we dream of the future.
In the context of the rote grinding pessimism of our prognostications for the future, sci-fi and otherwise, what could be more interesting to imagine than how humanity would function in the post-economics world that intellectuals from Marx to Keynes to the average stoned undergraduate have fantasized about?
Roddenberry forged the original Star Trek in the mid-1960s, the era of the Great Society and the heights of the postwar economic boom. It was an entirely different world, where few could imagine the depredations the 1970s would bring. Humanity was reaching the moon, the economies of developed nations seemed to be on an ever-expanding trajectory, and real progress was being made in advancing the welfare state and in addressing the quintessential American problem of racial segregation and oppression.
In that context, it perhaps didn’t seem so far-fetched that the Enterprise could be helmed by a black woman, an Asian man, a Russian (testament to an imagined amiable end to the Cold War) and an alien with pointed ears.
Today the outlook is much different. The future political economy Keynes dreamed of hasn’t arrived. We aren’t working less, wages have stagnated for decades, the American middle class is shrinking, the social safety net is fraying, and racial segregation is very much still with us.
All that would seem to indicate that the naysayers are onto something. Humanity will never live up to “Star Trek.” Perhaps that is right. But perhaps we can also have both, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to disregard utopianism.
It’s far better to have, or at least imagine, a better option rather than just surrender to the cynicism and despair that have so dramatically narrowed our vision of what is possible.