Over the past few months I’ve been rewatching the entire Star Trek franchise in preparation for the release of the new series, Discovery. I hadn’t watched most of it for a long time, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with this universe that has been a massive part of my life for many years before the new iteration hit our screens. But that wasn’t the only reason. For a while now, the world has, let’s be honest, been going to shit. Fascism seems to be on the rise, and small-minded idiots with ridiculous prejudices based purely on gender, race, sexuality or religion (pick one) have far too much power, emboldening those of a like mind. It’s depressing. Many have pointed out that it feels like we’re on the brink of the apocalypse at times. An exaggeration? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it’s not born of a grain of truth.
I’ve been using Star Trek as an escape from all of that. I’ve been trying to take comfort in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, a utopia in which humanity has risen above its pettiness and works together to make not just a better world, but a better galaxy. Star Trek presents us with a future in which peace and tolerance are the order of the day, and no one cares what colour your skin is, or who you love. Sure, it’s a future that Maurice Hurley, one-time executive producer and writer on The Next Generation, describes as “whacky-doodle” in William Shatner’s excellent documentary, Chaos on the Bridge (I recommend you check it out on Netflix if you haven’t already), and yes, having everyone on Earth get along did create issues for the writers in terms of creating conflict among the characters, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something we should strive for. Star Trek has always given me hope that maybe, just maybe, humanity will be okay. The Next Generation in particular has always been the televisual equivalent of a comfort blanket to me, so I embarked upon my rewatch with optimism that it would help me feel better about the state our world is in right now.
But it didn’t. Instead, while I loved spending time with Kirk, Spock, Picard, Worf and the rest, I found myself also feeling depressed at how we feel further away than ever from Roddenberry’s utopian ideals. If Britain can vote to leave the EU for no good reason at all (still waiting to hear one, guys), if the US can vote in an idiot man-child as president, despite literally every single word that spews from his vile orange face being a pretty good argument to not do that, if Russia can vote to decriminalize domestic violence while still treating homosexuality as a crime, then how can we ever possibly live in a world where everyone comes together for the benefit of the whole human race? I started to agree with Maurice Hurley. Maybe Roddenberry’s ideas about the future were whacky-doodle, and we were all screwed.
Then I watched Past Tense. Originally broadcast at the beginning of 1995 (yes, we’re all very old), Past Tense is a two-part episode of Deep Space Nine in which Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks), Lieutenant Dax (Terry Farrell) and Doctor Bashir (Alexander Siddig) are sent back to a time when the number of homeless people on Earth is at an all time high. As such, every major city has special, walled sections put aside called “Sanctuary Districts”. The homeless people were sent to these districts, where they were processed by admin types who were just doing their jobs, while armed guards made sure they stayed in their allotted, overcrowded districts. With no form of identification on them, Sisko and Bashir end up in one of these districts, where their presence accidentally causes the death of a man named Gabriel Bell (John L. Bennett), changing history. Bell was supposed to survive, and help a group of homeless people take some of the workers who process and guard the district’s residents hostage. This would in turn lead to the Bell Riots, which would only end when the military are sent into the Sanctuary District, killing many people, including Bell. While it’s a dark, violent chapter in Earth’s history, it also led to real change, with people becoming more aware of the plight of the Sanctuary District residents. The districts are abolished, and the US finally starts attempting to tackle the real social problems its been trying to avoid for decades. With Bell dead, Sisko is forced to take his place, ensuring that events come to pass as they should, preserving the future of the Federation.
The idea of the Sanctuary Districts and the way they’re run really doesn’t seem too far-fetched these days. It’s the sort of thing I can see Trump trying to bring in, oh, next Thursday? It’s a horrific idea, but one that would surprise no one if it actually happened. Sure, it makes for a great two-part episode of Deep Space Nine (and it is genuinely brilliant), but it doesn’t make for much fun in reality. And when is this terrible vision of a dystopian society that doesn’t care any more set? 2024, seven years into our future.
It’s when I came to this realisation that another thought struck me. Star Trek isn’t just set in a utopian future. It’s set in a post-dystopian utopia! I dug out my old, battered copy of the Star Trek Chronology by Michael and Denise Okuda, and set about looking at the events that occur before The Cage, the original pilot episode which started it all. Guys, the world went to shit.
In 1992, the genetically engineered Khan Noonien Singh took control of a quarter of the planet, ruling as a dictator and kicking off the Eugenics Wars which wouldn’t end until 1996. The Sanctuary Districts were introduced in 2020, leading to the Bell Riots in 2024. In 2053, World War III begins. The fascist Colonel Green is responsible for the deaths of millions, and multiple nuclear explosions plunge the Earth into a nuclear winter. While a decade later Zefram Cochrane would launch his first successful warp flight, leading to first contact with the Vulcans, that’s not an instant fix. Even in 2079, Earth is still recovering from the War, introducing a legal system of guilty until proven innocent. Once the Earth is finally united and we get to exploring space properly, there’s the massive war with the Romulan Star Empire in the mid twenty-second century, fought with devastating atomic weapons, with the United Federation of Planets finally being established in the aftermath.
Right from the very beginning, Gene Rodenberry and the other writers on the various shows and films have shown us that getting to the future of Star Trek will take a lot of work and suffering. The above paragraph is only the tip of the iceberg. Any one of those events would be more than enough for multiple volumes of dystopian fiction, and it’s all there, in the background of this utopia Star Trek presents us with. And maybe this is the path we’re on at the moment. Sure, it won’t play out exactly the same way as it does in Star Trek (we’re well overdue for those Eugenics Wars for a start), but perhaps we are entering our dystopian phase. Who knows how long it will last before we finally come to our senses and start building towards something better? The peaceful protests against Trump and the British government which have gone on in recent weeks have given me hope that we can get there. There are so many of us who don’t want our present to shape our future, and the younger generations are the ones which are angriest about where we’ve ended up. They’re the ones who will, surely, come through and start enabling real change, and that thought makes me feel good about what’s to come. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of shit heading our way in the next few years, but, assuming we survive it, Star Trek has once again helped me to believe that things will get better.
I say we head into the future, the Undiscovered Country, together, our heads held high, sticking two fingers up at those who would try to preach hate against their fellow humans and boldly go where no one has gone before. If a dystopian present is coming, then the only way we’ll survive it is if we unite. I believe we can do it. I believe we can push through our dystopia, and bring about a utopia. It’ll take time and effort, but it will happen. And then I can finally have a replicator, and get fat. So that’s something else to look forward to.
Of course, once we reach utopia, we have to defend it from the Borg, or the Dominion, or those weird parasite things from season one of The Next Generation that never showed up again, and what happened with that subplot guys? But that’s a whole other thing.