Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why I love Star Trek, Essay #1: Matthew Weflen

Here is the first of a series of essays by the Treknobabble bloggers, guest contributors, and friends, on a very special topic. Look for more of these in the near future. But for now, here's mine:

Why I Love Star Trek
By Matthew Weflen

I was always a thoughtful and sensitive kid. I pondered things like the origin of the cosmos, the problems of a rational economic order, and the dangers of nuclear war, from a young age.

As you might imagine, this had a few quite noticeable effects upon me and my life:

1. The problems of the world, confronting a child under the age of ten, can often seem overwhelming. I spent many a sleepless night worrying about these things. This may have contributed to my “night owl” nature now.

2. Sports and other “normal” child social activities had little appeal for me. Oh sure, I had friends and all, but I’d much rather play with space legos and pretend that I was building a future society than go play kickball or something . (My lego citizens called me “Matthew the Consensus Builder.”) So, to put it simply, I was destined to be a nerd in elementary and high school.

3. Literature and entertainment that did nothing to either address or alleviate my concerns held little appeal. So I was destined to enjoy science fiction (see #2).

All right. So imagine this kid, in the 1980s, scared to death of that mean ogre Ronald Reagan and what he might do to the world. Then, imagine this kid’s dad taking him to see Star Trek IV in the theater.

Yeah. You can pretty much see how this might be a perfect fit, can’t you?

Here was a world in which the great problems that vexed me had been solved. Scarcity had been eliminated, wars of religion and jealousy and greed had been outgrown, and mankind had finally turned towards the stars, to claim the inheritance of its peculiar evolutionary destiny – a mind capable of soaring past the heights of the highest terrestrial peak, beyond the cloud-tops of nebulae, along the event horizons of the phenomena which shape the universe.

Star Trek represented all that and more to me.

As a nerd who was picked on in school, Star Trek represented an escapist fantasy in which people were rewarded and respected for their minds – even in a quasi-military organization like Starfleet, the best and the brightest were the best students at the Academy, those who excelled in Astrophysics, Ancient Philosophies, History.

We need a few more nerds running things. We’ve let football players, actors, and soldiers have their day. They’ve screwed things up pretty royally. I say, the next time we elect a Senator or a Governor or a President, we ask: What’s your favorite episode of Star Trek? Then, secure in the knowledge that our candidates possess the temperament and intellectual capacity to lead, we can make our voting decisions accordingly.

As someone who was concerned about the disastrous course that humanity is clearly and evidently on en masse, Star Trek offered a calming, soothing vision of a future in which human wisdom had finally caught up with human ambition and human technological ingenuity.

Had Star Trek simply been a high-minded Sci-Fi show with boring plots, it might have fallen by the wayside for me. But no, in addition to these lofty and appealing concepts, Star Trek has, for the most part, been imagined and produced by talented writers, actors, and production crew. Characters are engaging, stories are exciting, and the backdrop is compelling and cool. A universe of continuity was created, rewarding both the first time viewer (“Wow! There’s a lot going on here! I should dive in!”) as well as the repeat watcher (“Aah, what a nice reference to something which came a decade before this. I am smart for noticing it.”). All of these pieces supported each other, making Star Trek an irresistibly appealing complete package for a discerning and intelligent viewer.

Star Trek IV was my first real introduction to Trek, but TNG, which premiered on TV in the next season, was my first love in the franchise. I waited every week for a new installment, taped (!) and re-watched episodes (a welcome escape from the drudgery of school), and reveled in the tone of the series, which I still think is the most quintessentially Star Trek of all of them.

Star Trek has shaped my view of the world. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw (and RFK after him): Some men see things as they are and say “Why?” I dream of things that never were and say “Why can’t it be like Star Trek?”

I would be a different person, and I think in a negative way, were Star Trek not in my life. It is, I think, dangerously easy to become depressed and angry at the state of the world we live in today, the inhumanity of man towards man, the seemingly inevitable slide of humankind towards its eventual destruction, whether this doom be military, environmental, or cosmic in nature (I mean really, do you think we’re prepared, anywhere, in any country, in any governing body, for a level 9 or 10 asteroid impact hazard?).

If all of this sounds like a silly over-estimation of the importance of a fictional television show, then I don’t know what to tell you. It’s important to me. And it seems to be important to a lot of other people, too – people who I’d rather spend time with than those who “don’t get it.” Star Trek fandom is not just a lonely pursuit of nerds who live in their parents’ basements. It is a touchstone that intelligent, thoughtful people the world over can meet over and enjoy, a social experience that brings the best out of its participants.

Let me be clear, for me, Star Trek is escapism. There are no two ways about this. But it is escapism of an order that elevates the mind, not that deadens it. It makes me feel better, but it also gets me jazzed about how we might bring about this utopia. It drives me to stay engaged and interested in politics, to keep me pursuing my higher education, to the eventual end of teaching philosophy at the college level, and maybe making a positive impact upon this society of ours that seems so dangerously imbalanced.


  1. P.S. I am indeed teaching intro philosophy courses now, and guess what I assign for extra credit!

  2. I would like to note that this post could also be titled "Why Kelly Loves Matthew."

  3. Absolutely loved your article! That's why TNG is so close to my heart too. As I pondered it deeply, it occurred to me but the real explorations don't just take place in outer space, but in the space between characters as they verbalize the depth and meaning of the philosophical and scientific issues presented in the shows. This personal truth, was a pure takeaway for me, since it presented the real world chance to explore strange new worlds of philosophy and science through the conversations and discussions I could have with like-minded individuals. All my love to the community of Trekkers the cosmos over!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I totally agree that the space explored on the show is also the inner space of human beings. Keep reading!