Skip to content
Starts With A Bang

Weekend Diversion: Spock and the legacy of Star Trek

Whether you loved the original series or never saw it, it changed our world.

“An ancestor of mine maintained that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” -Mr. Spock, Star Trek

The power and beauty of fiction is that it allows us to speak about the best and worst of humanity — including our hopes and fears — that we couldn’t talk about otherwise. Have a listen to Summer Fiction’s song, By The Sea,

while you consider a specific type of fiction: science-fiction.

While many people out there simply don’t enjoy (or “get”) sci-fi, as our understanding of the fundamental laws and history of the Universe have improved, so has our ability to harness that understanding to bring about new technologies. Classic authors like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs used the genre to look at how humanity might respond amidst the adversities we’d face when confronted with the exploration of new frontiers, while Godzilla — and today, Black Mirror — bring to life our fears about technology creating a dystopian world that takes away important aspects of being human itself.

Image credit: Black Mirror, Season 1 Episode 2.

But Star Trek was something different and entirely new when it came along. A combination of factors gave us a new vision for what our future might be like, and simultaneously brought us, if not a utopia, a vastly improved future where we not only retained our humanity, but where the very best aspects of what it means to be human enabled us to create a fictional civilization that gave us every reason to hope for something grander than we’d ever be able to achieve in a single lifetime.

Image credit: Star Trek fan art, via https://nasimali.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/film-star-trek-should-not-follow-guardians-of-the-galaxy/.

Star Trek brought us into a world where its inhabitants came in not only different races, religions, and countries of origin, but also from different species and planets-of-origin. No one was treated any differently for any of these traits, but rather was judged exactly as all of us would hope to be judged: by our characters, capabilities, intentions and actions. For those of us who’ve ever felt different from “normal” in some way — which should be all of us, if we’re being honest with ourselves — there was always a character who embodied that, starting with Leonard Nimoy’s “Mr. Spock.”

Images credit: Star Trek: The Original Series.

Spock was, right from the outset, all of the following:

  • An alien (well, half-alien),
  • With physical characteristics shared by no human,
  • With a reverence for logic and an inability to express emotions,
  • With a unique set of knowledge and a unique perspective on affairs,
  • Whose very differences made him uniquely valuable.

Star Trek, unlike any of the other science-fiction Universes out there that had come before, was rooted in the idea that bringing a diversity of living beings together — with their own individual experiences and histories — would produce a stronger civilization than any alone. As time went on in the Universe, that became true even of species whose histories represented some of the worst aspects of humanity: our warlike nature, our imperialistic history, our financial greed, and the treachery we commit for our own gain.

Images credit: various Star Trek series, of (from left to right) Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi and Romulans.

Yet for all of our flaws, Star Trek offered an incredibly optimistic view of how our civilization would turn out. Instead of being driven by these impulses, we decided to be driven by working towards the universal benefit of everyone in the Universe. Not just the people of our city, or our country, or even of our planet, but of every living, intelligent species on every world. Technology wasn’t something to be feared or even something to be harnessed for our individual gains, but rather — along with the joys and wonders of scientific knowledge itself — something to be shared freely for the benefit of all.

Yes, there were battles, wars, disputes, and struggles for everything from power to riches to life satisfaction even in this futuristic vision, but they allowed us to have a conversation about our present difficulties in a new, somewhat detached context. This was one of the central premises of the original series and all the other television incarnations of Star Trek.

Image credit: Star Trek (2009), via http://screenphiles.com/2011/07/14/new-impressions-of-the-2009-star-trek-reboot/.

When I first saw the first J. J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, I thought it was a quality, entertaining film, but it felt a lot more like “Star Wars” than like the Star Trek I was used to, although I couldn’t understand why. (And I loved the original three Star Wars movies.) Looking back on it, I think it’s because it was much more of the old-style “adventure” story than a true Star Trek story that focused on the moral ambiguity of trying to do right by all parties in a technology-rich world full of flawed individuals.

Travel the Universe with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. Subscribers will get the newsletter every Saturday. All aboard!

Even in a world of seemingly unlimited resources — which our world would certainly appear to be to someone living even 100 years ago — these questions and struggles still remain. As the world remembers, mourns, and celebrates the life of the man who portrayed the first alien who captured our hearts in the Star Trek Universe, it makes me think of how the world needs, perhaps now more than ever, another Star Trek television series to help us talk about and deal with the issues facing our society today, and to help reignite our vision of what the future can be.

Image credit: Star Trek Into Darkness, via http://cltampa.com/artbreaker/archives/2015/02/27/so-long-mr-spock-leonard-nimoy-dead-at-83#.VPOekbPF8zM.

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy / Mr. Spock, for you truly are at one with the Universe now.


Leave your comments at the Starts With A Bang forum on Scienceblogs.


Related

Up Next