In the realm of science fiction, there is a big divide between Trekkers and Star Wars fans. I consider myself the latter, and always enjoyed the more mystical, quasi-religious elements of Star Wars to the technical science of Star Trek. That said, I grew up watching both and one of my earliest memories is watching Star Trek on the family television at a young age. My parents remember watching the original series on the dormitory television during their college days. That was over forty years ago. There is a new movie opening today that continues the adventures of those same characters introduced during the days of LBJ, the Vietnam War, and social turmoil. Why does Star Trek persist? Here are three reasons:
First, Star Trek is really about human nature, not space aliens. Kirk is the embodiment of all that makes us human – arrogance, passion, appetites, and courage. He’s the Achilles of space operas – prone to give dramatic speeches, passionate about his ship and crew, brooding when out maneuvered by enemy aliens, and sporting a libido second only to Zeus.
If Kirk is the heart of the show, Spock and McCoy are the head and conscience. Spock is all intellect. He’s the foil to all of Kirk’s antics – logical to the point of frustration, so reserved in emotion that he comes across as frigid, and asexual except when his half-human side gets the better of him. McCoy serves as the voice of human conscience, always at odds with Vulcan logic, seeking compassion and mercy, but also moderation and control. Kirk is stuck in the middle, struggling with these angels and pointy-eared demons on his shoulders. It’s a classic battle among Id, Ego, and Super Ego.
It’s the tension and dialogue between these three main characters that really underscores the franchises’ overarching theme about human nature and our place in the cosmos. Humans are complex beings, and Star Trek’s use of the Appetitive, Rational, and Spirited to drive the show is not a new device to explore the complexity of human nature. No wonder the Greeks enjoyed their theater so.
Second, Star Trek is an eternally optimistic story. Yes, each episode usually has the crew battling for their own survival or the fate of the universe only to be spared by the deus ex machine plot device in the last three minutes of the story. However, within that battle is the affirmation that the human species is at heart noble and enduring. It’s no accident that in most stories, Kirk’s humanity saves his crew and the galaxy again and again. It’s our human nature that is our greatest weakness, but also our greatest strength. Along with all the flaws Kirk posses as a man, it’s his sense of courage, optimism, mercy, and love that carry the day. He is both Achilles and Hector. And in Star Trek, Hector always wins.
Finally, Star Trek is always topical – a reflection of contemporary social and political concerns. The original series was pioneering in its casting of a black female on the bridge of the ship and a Russian pilot at the helm. This was the crew during a time of civil rights struggles and Cold War tensions. Later series reflected other social changes, including a female captain, an African-American captain, a blind crewman, and even a bald, bookish captain for those of us who could never match the star athlete qualities of Kirk. Regardless of who was in charge, the plot lines reflected the headlines of the day. The latest release continues that tradition and deals with a terrorist attack on Earth and the struggle to bring those terrorist to justice while maintaining a just society. The timing is right (though the crew of the Enterprise never let time get in the way of resolving a plot) for such a story.
In the end, what we like about Star Trek is the archetypal characters and the familiar storylines which convey the best parts of our human nature. Star Trek paints us as pioneers and explorers, boldly going to places where no man has gone before. In the grand scope of the cosmos, Star Trek tells us humans that we can make the ‘verse’ a brighter place. And most importantly, we learn from Star Trek that we can be ambassadors of hope, love, and charity to galaxies far, far away.
I did that on purpose.