I sit in a dark room, trapped indoors by a hot mug of tea and a disgusting wet snow falling outside. As I sit in my chair, my face is lit up only by the glow of my laptop screen, which is brighter than usual as it is currently depicting the famous reflective head of Patrick Stewart. Even through some tinny laptop speakers, his deep voice still commands authority as it speaks out, “Make it so.”
I have a few days off from work due to Christmas, and I found out that the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation is available on Netflix. I was pretty shocked by how having a few days off of work immediately destroyed my usual Normal Person habits. Though I had a lot of ambitious plans to get cool stuff done during this mini-break from work, I have scaled those back and I am now mainly trying to avoid a repeat of my awful video game filled Thursday, and I guess watching Star Trek seems like a slightly more positive activity to me.
Even though Star Trek can be rather campy at times and has its fair share of ridiculous moments that would make a black and white cartoon of Jackie Chan throw his hands up in disbelief, I still believe that it is a very special kind of show. I think this is made most clear by comparing Star Trek to Star Wars, a similarly named and yet diametrically opposed franchise.
On a very basic level, both franchises concern themselves with the act of zipping around on spaceships, visiting far-off worlds, and interacting with various aliens that contain sweating Angelenos hoping for a shot at stardom beneath their silicone skins. But their stories work through different methods.
As a child, while I understood that Star Wars took place in a galaxy far far away, I didn’t really understand why we are explicitly told that the story took place a long time ago, even though all the spaceships and blasters and lightsabers and stuff clearly point to the future. As I understand it now, all the Space Age stuff in Star Wars is not actually an integral part of the story, but is really more of a marketing ploy to get people to show up to the theaters in greater numbers and also obtain licensing fees from the sale of Star Wars action figures and SkyMall products. The story could just as effectively been in some sort of Bronze Age setting, for example. All of the advanced technology in Star Wars just results in a gritty world not too different from our own, rather than a utopia as you might expect, and many of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe lead lives that are in essence defined by age-old concerns that are relevant today. They strive to make money, they worry about their safety, and they waste their time on self-destructive activities, so it seems like the technological differences between our world and the Star Wars universe doesn’t really affect the message of Star Wars in a fundamental way. The major difference between our world and that of Star Wars is the existence of the Force, which is a sort of quasi-spiritual power that runs through the story’s examination of Good vs. Evil (as well as the Evil that is ever present within Good, and vice versa). So in a lot of ways Star Wars seems more mythological than realistic.
Star Trek, on the other hand, is set in our own universe, but hundreds of years in the future. It is a world in which technological advances mean that human life no longer has to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. “The Dismal Science,” which is the study of scarcity, is rendered obsolete by the abundance that is made possible by “Science Science.” So I feel that the setting of Star Trek is much more integral to the plot than is the case for Star Wars. Star Trek is more an examination of what becomes possible in an utopian future where every person’s material needs are fulfilled, which is not to say that there aren’t challenges in the Star Trek universe, but they tend to be more philosophical and psychological in nature.
I think that Star Trek has a rather unique storytelling structure. What I mean is, I feel like every movie/TV/book plot ever goes like this: ordinary, unimpressive main character goes about their quotidian life, until some opportunity/person/force gives them the chance to become a part of something more distinguished, and by persevering against setbacks and challenges the main character finally becomes a super cool person who can accomplish awesome things. This, of course, is basically how the Luke Skywalker storyline unfolds.
However, Star Trek distinguishes itself in that the main characters are already awesome people at the beginning of the story. Everyone serving on the Enterprise is one of the best at what they do (or otherwise they wouldn’t be serving on the biggest, baddest ship in the Federation). There isn’t a whiff of incompetence anywhere on the ship. So the story focuses not on the process of an ordinary person becoming great, but rather on already great people at the height of their powers deftly navigating themselves through tricky situations.
Of course, the aim of the generic, Normal Peter Parker to Awesome Spiderman story format is meant to make us sympathise with the story more by allowing us to self-insert, and allowing us to imagine that maybe we too could leave our generally boring and unremarkable lives to become awesome, distinguished, and famous. But actually, I believe that the Star Trek story format works in a similar way too, and this is another way in which Star Trek can be said to be utopian; when we self-insert into the Star Trek storyline, we don’t have to imagine our current selves struggling through the process of becoming amazing, but instead we can imagine a version of ourselves that is already amazing, and has already “made it.” But what, exactly, do we do after we have “made it”? The answer to that question is very tough, as it is ultimately a question of human values. And those are the sorts of big questions that are confronted in a utopia where each person’s material needs are covered, and each one of us has found our life’s purpose, and has become the exact person that we have always believed we could be.