Paradise Lost: The Forgotten Virtue of Star Trek
Joshua Sikora | On May 17, 2013
“Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”
— Gene Roddenberry
As a long-time fan of the Star Trek franchise and a long-time fan of J.J. Abrams, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the new Trek films. While I enjoy these fast-paced adventures, I can’t help but feel like something significant has been lost in the process. Into Darkness, the franchise’s latest entry, probably would’ve been better as a generic sci-fi-action film, but even then it’s not without its problems. The two best reviews I’ve read come from Matt Zoller Seitz and Steven D. Greydanus. For me though, what’s most discouraging is that despite all of the Trek trappings, the real heart of the concept is all but gone.
Roddenberry’s Bold Vision of the Future
Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek during the tumultuous years of the 1960s. Piggybacking on the inspirational rhetoric of Kennedy and MLK, Roddenberry crafted the fictional world he wished he could live in — a futuristic utopia where mankind had eradicated war and strife, racism and poverty. With the vastness of the cosmos at their fingertips, he truly believed that humanity would band together in peace and harmony to explore those strange new worlds.
His aspirational philosophy wasn’t uncommon in that era — just look at the similar yearnings expressed in John Lennon’s “Imagine” — and even today there are plenty of people who dream of a brighter tomorrow. Nevertheless, as our planet has become smaller and more connected over the last few decades, the idea of world peace or a humanistic utopia seem all the more distant. Our technological advancements seem only to have made us more acutely aware of how big our challenges are and how difficult it will be to overcome them.
Yet before the J.J. Abrams reboot, the Star Trek franchise managed to produce thirty seasons of television and ten feature films — more than 700 distinct stories — that all reflected this unlikely future. Of course, not all of those episodes are good (in fact, some are quite dreadful), but on the whole Roddenberry’s universe is packed with compelling characters, engaging missions, and challenging philosophy. Across six television series, Roddenberry and his successors gave us a vision of distinctly moral, virtuous men and women who stood (and when necessary, fought) for the principles they believed in.
This was not without its challenges — many of the screenwriters found it quite difficult to write for a series where none of the principal cast were supposed to argue with each other or harbor resentment, selfishness, or hate. However, this actually pushed the writers to be more creative. They had to find new ways to create conflict and craft compelling stories. While competing television series relied on formulaic, repetitive plots, Star Trek remained innovative and groundbreaking for much of its multi-decade run.
Roddenberry’s model proved so successful that even after he passed away, the writers worked to maintain his hopeful vision of a humanity. In perhaps the most successful of the Trek spin-offs, Deep Space Nine, the writers went a step further — they did not share Roddenberry’s belief in a utopian Earth, but worked within those constraints to create some of the most honestly human episodes of television I have ever seen. Against the backdrop of peace and prosperity, every character flaw became amplified — as if we were studying these characters through a microscope — allowing the writers to craft truly resonant, thoughtful stories about who we are, who we hope to be — and why we ultimately can’t get there.
Falling Into Darkness
When J.J. Abrams and co. rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, long-time fans had plenty to complain about. Forty years of continuity were thrown out the airlock, along with many of the storytelling elements that made the franchise thought-provoking and unique. Instead, we were given a fun — some would say very fun — action-adventure film that owed as much to Star Wars and Michael Bay as it did to the series it was based upon. Certainly, the film brought a lot more people into the Trek fold, and that’s a good thing — but my fear at the time was that this would ultimately come at the expense of what made Trek special. The concept, once centered on those core beliefs Roddenberry held dear, is now just a brand name, not all that different from any other sci-fi series out there.
I think most people look at Roddenberry’s idealistic vision of the future as something of a pipe dream — something unattainable and unrelatable, and therefore irrelevant. In their minds, it is no great loss that Abrams has so thoroughly jettisoned this part of Trek lore. To be clear, I also find Roddenberry’s utopia to be absurd and counter to most everything I believe about human nature. Any student of history can tell that as a species we aren’t exactly improving. We’re still putting up with the same stupid faults and failings that we’ve faced for millennia. A culture may eradicate one great evil, only to succumb to another. Slavery, war, oppression, abuse, disease, poverty, hunger — there have always been and always will be places where these evils thrive. We live in a fallen world and mankind cannot save itself from our own depravity.
But to dwell on this fact misses the point of why Star Trek as a myth has endured and been beloved. The perfect Earth that Roddenberry created may be impossible in reality, but as a story, it gives us a grand picture of the value of virtue. Like the Arthurian legends of old, where noble knights modeled honor and chivalry, the almost-too-perfect crews of the Enterprise, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were my noble heroes growing up.
I first encountered Star Trek at a young, impressionable age. Looking back, I can see clearly that I was personally shaped by the ethos of Kirk, Spock, Picard, Sisko, Worf, and the others. From them, I learned about leadership, ethics, honor, and friendship, because they modeled these virtues in every episode. It wasn’t that I ever thought that the Earth could be as perfect as Roddenberry dreamed, any more than I thought that knights were really as perfect as the legends made them out to be — but that didn’t mean I couldn’t learn from the good characters that inhabited those worlds.
Certainly, there are “lessons” to be learned from the character arcs in Abrams’ films. Both entries seem to be coming of age stories for Kirk, who twice over now has been given the Captain’s chair before he’s ready and must learn what it means to be a leader in the midst of a crisis. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these arcs (other than some gaping plot-holes), but this kind of storytelling fails to inspire us. We look at the young Kirk of Abrams’ films and see someone we’re supposed to relate to (he listens to contemporary music to drive this point home) and as such we’re supposed to go on this journey of maturation with him (that this journey gets repeated in the new film exposes just how hollow his arc really was the first time around).
But despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, we don’t empathize with this Kirk. We look down on him, hoping that he will learn his lessons before it’s too late. He is a kid, out of his element and out of his league. Viewers, neither young nor old, have much of anything to glean from him. Compare that to Shatner’s Kirk of the original series — sure he was brash (as sixties heroes were prone to be), but he was also a steady anchor, trusted and respected by his crew. He was clever and resourceful, not unlike Homer’s Odysseus. Then there was Picard — wise, measured, and diplomatic, yet never afraid of conflict when necessary. As a kid, I found Picard a bit boring, yet in retrospect I may have learned more from him than any other fictional character I’ve encountered. These characters were adults — mature and thoughtful, not without failings, but I looked up to them.
Ultimately, they modeled virtue because in Roddenberry’s world, that’s the way people were. Roddenberry crafted a myth where all of the heroes wear white hats, and that didn’t mean that there weren’t conflicts or challenges or temptations or failures; it just meant what virtue has always meant — that we are striving towards an ideal. Even as the crew of the Enterprise ventured out to explore strange new worlds, they were beckoning all of us to follow, not just into space but into a better life.