Monday, January 18, 2010

Why I love Star Trek, Essay #3: Richard Lorenc

Why I Love Star Trek
By Richard “Rocket” Lorenc

Star Trek is different than most science fiction.

Where a vast amount of sci-fi focuses on bleak, desolate, and sometimes post-apocalyptic worlds, Star Trek aims higher. It shows a human race that’s overcome its prejudices, ignorance, and disease, and become a leader in a galaxy filled with other intelligent life.

And, thanks to six TV shows and 11 movies, it’s had nearly 750 hours in which to do it, a record unmatched by any other screen-based story.

At its core, Star Trek is about people at their best, and people who strive to –and can– become better than they are.

People at their best

By and large, characters in Star Trek are good people. They’re ethical, curious, intelligent, and, perhaps most important of all, they value their relationships with others.

They build true, lasting friendships.

Kirk and Spock had one of these friendships, depicted concisely in my favorite scene from the latest movie when Spock reminds the audience of his memorable line from The Wrath of Khan: “I have been and always shall be your friend.”

Picard and Data enjoyed a similar dynamic: the human who teaches the outsider about humanity. I’m touched when Picard decides to stay on an Enterprise minutes from self-destruction to rescue Data from the Borg. And I’m touched when Data says goodbye to his friend in Nemesis as he equips Picard with the sole means of escape moments before dying in an explosion that saves the crew of the Enterprise.

Deep Space Nine explored friendships differently, focusing more on family than the previous two live-action shows. One of my favorite episodes from the show is Time’s Orphan, in which the O’Briens’ eight-year-old daughter Molly falls into a wrinkle in time and emerges 10 years older. Her parents try to reintroduce themselves to their daughter, but fail in the attempt, choosing instead to return her to the time from which she came. In the end the writers choose to use the infamous “reset button” to return things–mostly–to the way they were at the beginning. But the audience gets a number of heartfelt moments between all three O’Briens.

Although not the overall best example of what Star Trek is, Enterprise had some good nuggets, particularly in its final year. Its finale, although called a “valentine to the fans” by long-time executive producer Rick Berman, was a slap in the face to anyone who grew to like the show’s characters and the uniqueness of their mission.

Still, the finale had something to offer in terms of the relationship between Captain Archer and his friend engineer Tucker. During a conversation between Tucker and the ship’s chef, Tucker describes the relationship he has with the captain, and what he means when he calls someone “friend.”

"I can count on one hand the number of people I trust. And I don't mean trust like, 'I trust you aren't lying to me, or I trust you won't steal my money.' I’m talking about the trust where you know someone's not going to hurt you, no matter what. You know they're always going to be there for you, no matter what."

Tucker then asks the chef–played by Commander Riker of The Next Generation–if he knows anyone like that, to which he responds in the affirmative.

I feel good at that moment because I know whom he’s thinking about. I know his story, and the story of his friends. I have an idea of the background of this character, and because this is Star Trek, I even know his future.

When I watch Star Trek, I feel like I’m part of these characters’ deep friendships. I’ve learned how to become a better friend because of it.

People becoming better than they are

Friendship is one way through which people can improve themselves, but Star Trek gives us many other examples of people engaging in radical self-improvement.

Of course we have the Spocks/Datas/Odos/Seven of Nines who are on the outside of humanity looking in. In a bit of human hubris, they always seem to endeavor to become more human, which, I suppose in the 24th century isn’t a bad aspiration.

But most characters in Star Trek are human. After all, that’s the point.

In Deep Space Nine's premiere, having unexpectedly traveled through a stable wormhole near their new space station, Sisko and Dax turn around to return home. However, their ship stalls en route, and lands on solid ground. They exit the ship. Sisko sees a barren wasteland during a storm, while Dax sees a sunny meadow. Surrounded by white light, Sisko begins to experience visions of people and places from his past and present. The aliens are using his memories to communicate with him. The best part of this episode is when the aliens are speaking to Sisko in the setting of his wife’s death several years earlier. Sisko wonders why the aliens keep bringing him to this place, to which they respond, “You exist here.”

Sisko’s life as he knew it ended when his wife died, and he was never able to move past that experience. He had been prepared to leave his new post and settle for an ordinary life back on Earth. But it made sense to him when the wormhole aliens told him he existed in that time, with those memories. He was able to overcome his most debilitating memory, and returned to the space station as the sole person to whom the wormhole aliens had communicated.

There are so many ways the stories in Star Trek serve to improve the characters. There is so much material, and everything connects, thereby creating a rich storyline that is unraveled, tied up, and unraveled again. The characters are the sum of their experiences, a line I’ve appropriated from a conversation between Sisko and the wormhole aliens.

Perhaps the best example of people becoming better and more than they are is in a few lines of dialogue in the final episode of The Next Generation entitled All Good Things… . In it, Picard is returning to his senses after witnessing the destruction of his past, present, and future. (It would take a long time to explain, so I’ll leave it there for now.)

Picard’s long-time nemesis Q – a godlike being who is fascinated by humanity – is sitting above him dressed in the same judges’ robes he wore in the premiere episode of the series in which he began a trial for all humanity. Picard asks why Q helped him save humanity:

Q: We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind to newer horizons, and for one brief moment you did.

Picard: When I realized the paradox.

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you, not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

Picard: Q, what is it you’re trying to tell me?

Q, moving in to whisper in Picard’s ear, but smiling and stopping before giving the answer: You’ll find out…

There is something more than Star Trek even in Star Trek. The characters don’t just explore the galaxy because it’s cool, or fight badass aliens for the battle scenes.

As fantastic as traveling faster than the speed of light is, or as amazing as beaming from one planet to another may seem, there is still so much more. Humanity has made great strides in Star Trek, but it’s still only the beginning of what existence is all about. This may sound like religion, and I suppose it is similar in that it’s a dream about the meaning of life. Like religion, Star Trek has heroes who are kind, righteous, flawed, and experience gain and loss. But unlike religion, Star Trek doesn’t pretend to be the only route to salvation or grace. It’s simply a story that has informed my perception of the possible.

I’ve tried to get friends to watch Star Trek with limited success. There’s so much of it that diving into a single episode or movie can be confusing and overwhelming. Or it can be boring. Some of them don’t like science fiction, which is a perfectly valid reason not to care for it. But I don’t love Star Trek because it’s science fiction. I love it for the people, and what they teach me about the life I’m living today in the year 2010.

And that’s why I love Star Trek.

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