Hello from North Haven.
Planet Earth is a difficult place to be right now. Our place names – Charlottesville, Mumbai, Mexico City, Houston, Barbuda, Yemen, Syria, Mosul – conjure up devastation, whether human-made or nature’s wrath, and there’s not an end in sight. We seem ever more fragmented into microscopic factions.
Maybe that’s why extraterrestrial goings-on are all the more appealing. The recent solar eclipse sparked safety lessons, astro-tourists traveling to regions of totality, and a shared sense of wonder at the tangible reminder of those other celestial bodies in our tiny neck of the galaxy. Night sky photography fills our social media, with long exposures revealing the thickly populated stripe of the western spiral arm of the Milky Way, our broader address.
As we look skyward in hopes of finding unity, let’s take a moment to thank the television show franchise that encouraged generations of viewers to do the same, and wish Star Trek a happy 51st birthday. In honor of its longevity, continued relevance and upcoming new series Star Trek: Discovery, here are five reasons why Star Trek holds a special place in my heart.
1. Representation matters, and Star Trek knows it
From its first iteration, Star Trek series have consciously populated the crew of the Enterprise, Voyager and Deep Space 9 with a diverse group of characters, from a variety of Earth races and inhabitants of other planets. While never perfect – but hopefully continuing to improve – that representation matters a lot. In her Fresh Air interview, Nichelle Nichols, known for her portrayal of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, even recounted a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr, in which he urged her to stay on the show so her African-American character could continue to be “seen as the world over as we should be seen.” Renowned animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin, who is autistic, shared in her autobiography the importance of a character such as Spock, whose ultra-logical thought processes mirrored her own. Newer characters Data and Seven of Nine continue the trend of neurodiverse representation.
2. The path to utopia looks a lot like the present
Although the Star Trek series, ranging chronologically from Enterprise to Voyager, take place in a seeming post-capitalist utopia, the path there is hardly smooth. The admittedly awkward and overwrought pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation sees the inhabitants of Earth put on trial for the millenia of war, famine and genocide, including World War III, preceding first contact and the new age of exploration. While the current chaos we’re in seems insurmountable, we can hope that Star Trek will prove prescient and that we’ll pull through to reach the stars.
3. Leadership styles vary, but trust is the key
Each Star Trek series features a strong leader, from Captain Kirk to Captain Picard, Commander-turned-Captain Sisko, Captain Janeway, and Captain Archer, of the original Starship Enterprise. Their leadership styles vary from swashbuckling to cerebral, from stern to diplomatic, but each one instills their crew with a sense of their own competence and trustworthiness. In fact, each series is careful to include episodes that highlight negative and unproductive leadership styles, which always include authoritarianism, micromanagement and rigidity. The real discoveries always happen when the captain and crew are unified in their willingness to dance on the edge of the known universe and “boldly go” a step further.
4. Science rules
If anything can continue to surprise me in these perpetually surprising times, it’s the level of suspicion data, science and scientists continue to arouse in certain segments of the population. The very existence of the Star Trek franchise hinges on America’s 1960s obsession with the science that could get us into space faster than our Cold War adversaries (and Russia even found itself represented on the crew by the second season!) Whether a navigator, communications officer, or member of the security team, every single person on the crew of any starship demonstrates over and over again their ability to calculate, program, analyze data, and think creatively. In a future among the stars, science becomes everyone’s job, all the time.
5. Star Trek is an emotional lifeline
Here’s where I get a little more abstract – beyond Star Trek’s relevance, there’s something about the whole canon that makes it my go-to show when I need to feel like everything will be ok, the televised equivalent of macaroni and cheese and a blanket. Because for all of its science, and political commentary, and utopian aspirations, characters on Star Trek lead emotionally full lives, even those characters who are defined by their lack of emotions. It’s gotten me through breakups and many a life transition. I took a year off from the show as a way of sitting shiva for Leonard Nimoy, and returned to it on his yartzheit, the anniversary of his death. This is mildly embarrassing, but I’ve seen every episode of every series ever, including the animated Star Trek, and late at night when insomnia comes knocking, I can sometimes will myself to sleep by imagining myself in uniform, walking through the beige halls of the Enterprise D, surrounded by that womb-like ambient hum.
Happy 51st, Star Trek! Keep nudging us towards that final frontier.