Thursday, December 04, 2008

Change is the essential process of all existence.

I've mentioned many times on this blog that I'm a Trekkie - a fan of the original Star Trek television show. I've loved Trek since I was a kid, but really didn't grow to appreciate it until I got older. At some point I realized that my politics and the liberal, Kennedyesque politics of the show segued.

I've often wondered if that television show, along with my progressive Catholic upbringing, actually shaped the basis of the political beliefs I've taken into adulthood. If not then they at least had some influence.

To me Star Trek doesn't just represent sci-fi action, technobabble and the occasional bad acting. There's an optimism that runs through Trek, at least the Trek inspired directly by Gene Roddenberry if not the later television series(*), that presents us a picture of the future in which the superficial is immaterial.

I've been thinking about this as the reverberations of Proposition 8 continue to move through our political landscape. One doesn't need to believe that man will be able to dematerialize one place and appear somewhere else or fly through space in giant ships named after famous nautical vessels to believe that progress is inevitable. The future will be better for all of us regardless of race, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation or whatever else separates us.

Just to highlight my point I'd like to share a few quotes highlighting the "vision" of Star Trek. Here's an old interview with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry given shortly before he died--

"As you know, one of the joys of Star Trek, for me, has been the variety of our fans. When I go to conventions and I see people of all sizes and shapes and abilities, and when I see people with nerve disorders that can’t really sit properly and so on, I still know what’s in their mind. They are saying, “In a better world, I can do anything. I’ll be there in a better world. In a better world, they will not laugh at me or look down their nose at me.”

I used to speak at colleges a lot because it was what kept me alive and paid the mortgage in the days when Star Trek was considered a gigantic failure. I have met some of these people. I remember one night someone called me over and said, “Can you possibly talk to this man?” And here was a fellow with some kind of nerve disorder who had an electronic box, he couldn’t speak, and by hitting the box, he could make halfway intelligible sounds. He could only make grunting-like noises. And finally I began to understand what he was saying and he was asking me why I did a certain thing in a certain show, and why I had invented somebody who had something of his disorder. I said to him, “Someday when we become wise, we won’t look at those things. We will look at communication and knowledge, etc.” And I saw his hand rise up with great determination and he said loudly and clearly, “Yes!!” Those are the high moments in my life."

Here's a bit of a speech Gene's son Rod Roddenberry gave this week--

“The idea of tolerance of something I’ve heard about for a long time,” Roddenberry said. “I’ve always had a problem with that word.

“Star Trek was so far beyond tolerance. I feel like I’m talking to the choir. It goes to acceptance. Enjoying the fact that there are different ideas.

“The different ideas that we all have are what makes life interesting. ...Don’t be afraid of different beliefs. Go up to that person and have an intelligent conversation with them. That’s how we’ll evolve into the Star Trek future.”

Finally here's bit of wonderful speech actor Wil Wheaton gave a couple of years ago as Gene Roddenberry was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in Seattle--

"Like all great science fiction, it held up a mirror and showed us our failings and triumphs – not by beating us over the head with a message, but by making that message easy enough to discover for those who cared to see it. Star Trek dared to do this during an incredibly turbulent time, when it was risky to even acknowledge that the mirror existed, much less hold it up on network television.

It has been more than forty years since Kirk and Spock first boldly went where no man has gone before, and twenty years since Picard and some kid boldly went where no one has gone before.

Today, many of us still dream of living in the Utopian world Gene envisioned, where we play in holodecks, beam ourselves to work, and embrace the crazy notion that race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation are differences to be celebrated and learned from, not feared and destroyed."

Roddenberry wasn't blind. He knew the world was an ugly place. In the interview linked above he was asked if he had any heroes. Here's part of his response--

But I have less of that collection of heroes than an overwhelming affection for humanity. I think the human race is just a fascinating creature. I think we are so wonderful they should build statues to us. (Laughter) The things we are able to do are just marvelous. I know that humans, even today, capture and torture people and commit war and all of that. But that’s because they are still children and children are violent. But I refuse to think any other way about the human race but that they are beautiful children. They will, in the end, persevere.

Isn't that a wonderful way to think of humanity?

(* including some of the movies. Some of my friends are worried about the new film because of the young actors, JJ Abrams, etc. Is long as it has Roddenberry's sense of optimism I'm in.)


Randal Graves said...

Oh, you crazy optimists and your futurrific hope. Humanity will always be one big doofus. Just wanted to get that in there before everyone agrees with you. Hope you're all right and I'm wrong. ;-)

ST query, sir: I know a good chunk of the people like to bag on the STNG holodeck episodes. I actually like most of them. Am I the only one?

Dean Wormer said...

Not at all, Randal.

I especially dig the one where they're stuck in Robin Hood, but the Sherlock Holmes ones are pretty good as well.

I think people probably feel the writers went that holodeck well one too many times.

OTOH Kirk didn't have any stinking holodeck. All he needed was a bottle of green brandy and a green woman and he was set.

Mauigirl said...

Great post, Dean. I'm a huge Trekkie (Original Series) and I've always felt the same way. The beauty of Star Trek was its vision of the future and its ability to take current-day moral issues and put them into another environment that makes the right answer clear. Remember the one with the two guys who were black and white and fighting to the end even though their planet had been destroyed? (Frank Gorshen was one of them). And nobody in the Star Trek crew realized they were any different from each other. And it was because one was white on one side and one on the other. Such a good surrogate for plain old racism - but with a twist. And it shows how ridiculous it is.

The other thing that is amazing is how many things Star Trek "invented" - like the cell phone (communicator!), and flat-screen PCs on people's desks, floppy disks, etc.

The funny thing is, we've invented most of those peripheral things and even gone beyond them already - but we haven't managed to do the space travel. When I was growing up I was sure we'd at least be to Mars by now...

Swinebread said...

JJ Abrams hate star trek 'nuff said

Lockwood said...

I grew up watching the series in the original broadcasts. Once a week. Oh, how I hated waiting. Then in high school, it was syndicated and played each weeknight at 4:00; I was in heaven. But I sort of overdosed, and lost interest by the time I got to college. I basically enjoyed TNG, and I think I've seen all the episodes, but the later series... nope.

But your point is a good one. The optimism of the original is unmistakable. In a way all sci fi set in the mid to long range future is optimistic- it assumes we've lived at least that long. Star Trek goes one better, and assumes we can grow up a little in that time.

I hope so, but I'm not optimistic.

Don Snabulus said...

You must have a lot of faith in humanity to saddle a kid with the name Rod Roddenberry. Looks like he came through it wonderfully anyway.

All I can say about the rest of that is, "Word."

Life As I Know It Now said...

I think it's a toss up between Star Trek and the Twilight Zone--they ran the gamut did they not?

Overdroid said...

Did Swinebread turn into a caveman right there. Me hate star trek! Grr.

Unfortunately the future of humanity lies in the steely metal claws of it's digital progeny. And we will make the cylons look like Santa Claus.

pissed off patricia said...

I have never seen a star trek episode and after reading this, for the first time, I think I might have missed something good.

Dean Wormer said...


Remember the one with the two guys who were black and white and fighting to the end even though their planet had been destroyed? (Frank Gorshen was one of them). And nobody in the Star Trek crew realized they were any different from each other.

I think that's the episode I got this Spock quote from. It also showed what happens when we let racism consume us as their society destroyed itself.

When I was growing up I was sure we'd at least be to Mars by now...

Me too. We've gotten so timid and unimaginative when it comes to space exploration. It's sad really.


What Abrams has been doing is been making a dumb joke at pressers that he never was a big fan of Trek. He's also said over and over that he's made a movie that captures Roddenberry's optimism. If they get this right then I'm willing to not sweat a bunch of the little stuff personally.


I dunno, I've tended to be cautiously optimistic about mankind myself. Consider the progess that African-Americans have made in this country in just it's short 200-year history. From slaves brought here against their will to leading the thing.

I believe progress is inevitable, but slow in coming.


I've only been reading about Rod lately and it does seem he's carried on his father's legacy admirably.


I think it's a toss up between Star Trek and the Twilight Zone--they ran the gamut did they not?

They do. But I do think they had a lot of similarities in that they were driven by brilliant creators, had wonderfully imaginative writing and were a bit ahead of there time as far as the networks were concerned.


How do you know the cyclons DON'T look like Santa Claus? Especially that 5th one? Huh?


I won't pretend the show's for everybody, rather that there's more to the show than cheesy sets and costumes.

Ubermilf said...

And don't forget this:

She considered quitting Star Trek midway through its first season, when her character had been given little to do beyond perpetually opening hailing frequencies. In one interview, she famously described Uhura as "a glorified telephone operator in space". Then, at a civil rights protest, she met Martin Luther King Jr. -- who told her that he was a big fan of Star Trek. According to Nichols, when she told King she was thinking of quitting the show, he was shocked. "Don't you know you have the first non-stereotypical role in television?" she recalls King saying. "For the first time the world will see us as we should be seen -- people of quality in the future. You created a role with dignity and beauty and grace and intelligence. You're not just a role model for our children, but for people who don't look like us to see us for the first time as equals."

Dean Wormer said...


Thanks for the reminder about Nichols meeting Dr. King. One of the things that's interesting if you go behind the scenes is how much Roddenberry and his team had to fight with the network for some of the stuff that's taken for granted. Uhura being a woman and an African American officer on the bridge was one of those things the network hated.

OTOH the network won the fight from the pilot of the series where Majel Barrett played the second in command. The network put their foot down that a woman would never be in that high of a position of authority. Bastards.

Life As I Know It Now said...

we still haven't attained that high position of authority (presidential election) yet either!

Life As I Know It Now said...

oh and by the way, I have infected you with a story virus.

Dean Wormer said...

I'll check it out and carry it on of course!

There are some who call me... Tim said...


Whether anybody likes TNG, DS9, ST-V, or even 'Enterprise", that glass ceiling was absolutely shattered in those series. The Late Great Mr. Roddenberry may not have been able to do in the TOS, but he (or Majel) ultimately triumphed.

To the rest of the folks commenting - What great comments on Star Trek!

ScottyGu3 said...

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC)

...says it all.

bulbul said...

For the record, I consider myself a Next Generation trekkie - that's what I grew up with and, incidentally, that's where I learned English. DS9 jumped the shark with the alternative universe storyline, though I gotta admit I enjoyed the whole show a lot more on second viewing. But if you want to talk about Star Trek and liberalism, you have to mention Voyager. I know some people don't like it and I kinda understand some of the criticism (multiple-personality Janeway, Seven of Nine etc.), but there's one thing you can't deny: ST:V with its faith in science and especially the rule of law (2x14 'Alliances') was Star Trek to the core.

Anonymous said...

While the decision to switch out Majel Barrett for Leonard Nimoy was certainly a blow, it was a case of losing a battle but winning the war: if Roddenberry hadn't budged, the series may not have been made at all, and I'd argue that it did far more good despite that unfortunate substitution than it would have if it hadn't run at all. And as Tim notes, they certainly shattered that glass ceiling elsewhere in other series -- the first female captains and admirals were spotted during the run of TNG, the first black lead of one of the series on DS9, first female lead on Voyager.

You can certainly make some noise about some of the stereotypical decisions that were made in casting and in portrayal -- the women in TOS were typically dressed in a skimpy fashion, a trend that didn't really get fully fixed in later series (Deanna Troi's cheerleader outfit, Seven of Nine's unitard, oh and hey lots of the Enterprise series). You can even argue that the bad guys in TOS were sometimes thinly veiled racial stereotypes. But man, compare that to the other crap that was simultaneously airing and it's a world of difference. And, you know, small steps...especially when you're fighting a network that's probably scared pantsless by what you're doing.

One of my favourite episodes of any of the series is one that addresses just this issue: "Far Beyond the Stars" from Deep Space Nine, where Captain Sisko has a vision of being a black sci fi writer in the 50s, having to keep his identity hidden so the people reading his words don't realize he's not white; other writers on the team have to hide the fact that they're women. It is a rare instance where Star Trek took on actual human racial and gender interactions and prejudices in a very direct way, by focusing it through the lens of the past. And it shone a light, maybe purposefully, on the sci fi scene that was more or less what Roddenberry was bucking up against when the original series came to air.

Larry Nemecek said...

I think people probably feel the writers went to that holodeck well one too many times.

OTOH Kirk didn't have any stinking holodeck. All he needed was a bottle of green brandy and a green woman and he was set.

Actually, the Holodeck on TNG grew as a reaction to the unreality of the Roman planet, the Nazi planet, the Gangster planet, etc, etc, of TOS; at least the Holodeck could knowingly be fake as a construct—the stock costumes and sets had a "more realistic" reason to exist.

This even became an issue on DS9, where the holodeck/suite on the James Bond show was not a "broken program" but how 6 or 7 crew were saved amid an explosion—their transporter patterns were saved as holodeck characters til they could be reintegrated.

And BTW, the TNG Robin Hood show was a Q fantasy, not a holodeck program. Scratch that one. Likewise, the DS9 50s sci-fi writers' racism/sexism show was a comatose dream of Sisko's, not a Holodeck--a great issue show nonetheless.

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