Star Trek turned fifty years old yesterday.
See, it begins when you’re a weird little kid. The quiet one, the smart one. The one who doesn’t understand other people or why it’s not okay just to sit down in the middle of the soccer field and start reading a book. Seeing too deeply means that to the other kids you think too much and you act too little.
Star Trek told us that it was going to be okay. That the outcasts and nerds and weirdoes whose intelligence and imagination made us pariahs on schoolyards the world across, that we were not alone. That the meek might inherit the earth, but we would inherit the stars.
When your imagination is big enough, the world is always a bit too small. Horizons are meant to be conquered, frontiers meant to be pressed backwards, whether they be frontiers of knowledge or lines on maps. Curiosity might kill the cat, but at least it died happily a lion instead of a dull-eyed house cat that lived out its days basking.
For fifty years, Star Trek has been the anthem of those who would die to know what was over the next metaphorical hill.
That other franchise, you know the one, it’s about adventure of course, and that’s fine. But it’s only when you look at something like Star Trek as the exception that proves the rule that you realize just about everything else out there is at its core about violence. Whether a long time ago, or in the distant future, it seems that it all comes back to war in the end. The heroes of most science fiction are warriors, and their victories are by force of arms.
Star Trek certainly isn’t a manifesto of pacifism, nor do its stories exist in an oasis free of violence, but at its core it is a story about explorers and diplomats and scientists. It’s about the people who may be forced to violence, who may make stands as courageous as any, but who are not defined by that violence. They are defined by their thinking.
That simple distinction is what made Star Trek such a bastion of story-telling, that made it legendary for exploring societal issues even as our contemporary culture ripped itself apart over the same issues again and again. It begins with the simple framing of stories as not being about defeating a bad guy, but of thinking of a solution to a problem. The problem might be political, social, technical, emotional, or of any category of the human experience. The solution might be peaceful or violent, cathartic or triumphant, but it will be a solution derived from thought rather than seized in victory.
Science fiction at its best - Star Trek at its best - reflects us through a scanner darkly so that we see ourselves all the more clearly than we could have in crystal.
There’s an anecdote that Leonard Nimoy used to tell in the wake of his return to affection for Star Trek. He had hated the way that his career was forever conjoined to Spock, that this cancelled three seasons of low budgets and low ratings had somehow overshadowed his identity for his entire life. Until the nineties when he had his first cell phone, and automatically pulled it out and flipped it open. My god, he described realizing, I am Spock.
We build the future first in our stories. We go to the stars and find ourselves waiting there. Happy fiftieth birthday, Star Trek, and here’s to fifty more.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods.