One of the things I have been thinking about lately is the original Star Trek series. It was one of the teevee shows I was fascinated with as a kid. It was one of those things we looked forward to as the “fall line-ups” were revealed after the summer re-runs had stopped their re-running. In its later iterations, the summing up of the various star-trekking crews’ mission changed from going where no man to where no one has gone before- a nod to gender and species inclusivity, but without saying so much. To be fair, they had been pretty inclusive from the start. The captain and the doctor were two white guys, but among the core group on the bridge or at the controls in the engine room there was a Japanese man, a Russian, a Scotsman, a black woman and an alien with pointy ears, and they all seemed to get along pretty well for being cooped up in a tin can for five years at a stretch. It was a subtle message, and one that seems to be entirely lost on the people of our own future now, whether that message was actually intended there or not. I wasn’t thinking of race and gender relations way back then and I don’t recall that the mix of bridgemates at that time was controversial, although it may have been and I just missed it. As it was, the show did get cancelled after only a three year run. Perhaps all that diversity was a bit too much to handle for some people, while at the same time there were all-white and all-male crews flying into space in real life.
In the ten year interim between Star Trek on the teevee and Star Trek, the movie, there came along in the summer of 1977 another star adventure. As I remember it, I was up in the North Carolina mountains at the time in a sort of semi, self-imposed isolation at the Penland School of Crafts, making photographs and drinking beer, sometimes not necessarily in that order. At the time Penland was in a dry county where no alcohol was sold, although that didn’t mean you couldn’t go elsewhere to get it. This meant a trip to Tennessee in one direction or to Asheville in another if you wanted to exercise your right to party. As it turned out, for most of my time there I was an official driver for the school, which in a work-study kind of arrangement allowed me to attend my photo classes for free.
It also meant that I was making somewhat regular trips to Asheville for school supplies and to pick up or drop off students who were coming from, or going back to, elsewhere for the six sessions of craft classes that ran all summer long and into the fall. This regular change over of the student body meant new waves of news from the outside, as there were no teevees up there (except at the director’s house), only a few radios, and this was years before cell phones and the internets. And so it was at one of those mountain sea changes that conversations in the dining hall all of a sudden turned to this new star movie. There had been rumors for years that a Star Trek film had somewhere been in the works. While I don’t recall getting the full story about the film at any of the meals, out of curiosity I left early for one of my supply runs while just assuming that this new movie was the long-awaited Hollywood version of Star Trek. What I couldn’t figure out from the poster outside the theater in Asheville as I walked by it on the way to the box office was why they had changed the name to Star Wars, where Kirk and Spock were and why that guy was holding that weird flashlight shaped like a sword. It turned out to be neither the droids nor the film that I was looking for, but I thoroughly enjoyed the viewing while wondering if the rest of the sparse, matinee crowd had left or gone to sleep.
Both Star Trek and Star Wars made sense in the context of my having grown up being herded into one central classroom in fifth grade and getting to watch John Glenn and the others blast off into space in real time. What Star Trek and then Star Wars represented were an imagined future for the baby steps we had been taking into space in the 1960’s, even if one of them happened in a galaxy far away and long ago. The travelers of both Star series were the beneficiaries of technology that allowed them to bridge the giant voids of space in fractions of time and with engines and fuel that were seemingly super efficient and bordered on the magical. We won’t get into the buzz kill questions of the problems with light speed travel and communications over massive spatial distances. We could mention the problems we and our current or recent space programs have had with basic weather. After watching Han Solo maneuver the Millenium Falcon through meteoroid fields and blaster explosions, it seems crazy that at this point in time we still can’t launch a rocket through a little rain and thunder.
One of the things I always was puzzled by about the space program was the quarantine period the astronauts had to go through when they got back down here on terra firma. I mean, it was the aliens that died of our bugs or viruses when they showed up in ‘War of the Worlds’. The main dilemma in Gareth Edward’s film ‘Monsters’ was that we accidentally brought back a living space menace that took over part of Mexico. But both Kirk and Skywalker were only worried about breathable atmospheres when venturing on to really foreign soils. In the bright light of our current crisis with a virus, it would seem that going either way, with a visitor coming here or one of our missions landing elsewhere on a distant orb, a concern with microbes would dominate ones worries of survivability. In the film ‘Arrival’, the scientists and linguists tasked with establishing communications with the visitors did carry along a canary as something more than just a companion or as an example of where ancient giant earth reptilian beasts had evolved to, but it would seem, like today, that really good test kits would have to be a part of every space explorer’s landing gear that could tell whether it was really all clear and safe to pop off that space helmet and take that first deep breath of an alien atmosphere.
Beyond that, one would really have to wonder what it is that we might be going out there to find in the first place. Would we be looking for strange new worlds and be seeking out new life and civilizations? Would we have in place anything resembling the Federation’s “Prime Directive” of non-interference in whatever cultures we might find. Or would we be sending out a landing party of Space Force Trumpian nitwits packing enough heat to neutralize any curious space beast that had gotten stunned in their glaring headlights, and then stripped of enough essentials for the trophy wall back on the bridge of their Enterprise. Indeed, it is interesting to think of the difference between a mission into space with the Prime Directive guiding a Riker or Picard versus a mission with a mandate from Donald Trump. It is also curious to contemplate the metaphorical twists in play when imagining how a spaceship named Enterprise, when being manned by these two divergent sets of crews, would define their mandate in outer space, and what enterprise each might choose to undertake.
One of the most enlightening things a friend said to me a long while ago regarding my getting back into what revealed itself to be a really bad relationship was this: “What has changed?” Since the answer at the time was – nothing- it became quite clear that getting back to it would most likely return a similar result. This is a similar and simpler way of that timeless definition of insanity as being what is indicated by repeating the same action and expecting a different result. One need to only just look all around us now at how we are really screwing things up here. Why would we think that going into space and finding a nice clean planet to inhabit once we have decimated this one would result in something other than finding ourselves with a ruined and exploited former garden of Eden and the desperate need for yet another ticket out of town? One could talk about learning from history, but then one could once again simply say- Look Around! We have the capability to create amazing learning tools and the capability to instantly transmit them around the world, and at the same time we have the capability of creating documents and media that refute that self-same set of tools and data points. We have already been told all of this. George Orwell said it succinctly in his book ‘1984’: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?” He also wrote this: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” First we need to get back to some basic math- then we can work on greatness.