I still have vivid memories of coming home from middle school, grabbing a quick snack, and then gathering with my family in front of the television to watch Gene Roddenberry’s classic science fiction creation, Star Trek. Since the television was a recent addition to our family, I was unaware that each episode was a rerun, or even considered that what I was watching was more than twenty years old. The show fascinated me. It was fun to imagine an alternative world with other creatures and think about what the future might hold.
The original Star Trek series began airing in one-hour episodes in 1966 and ran for three seasons. It was eventually cancelled due to low ratings—hard to believe, since by now there have been five spin-off TV series and eleven films based in the universe Roddenberry created. While Roddenberry passed away in 1991, he has had an immense influence on science fiction.
Science fiction is a fascinating genre because it casts a vision of a possible future based on a scientific worldview. With vast technological progress, especially in the last hundred years, science fiction captures the contemporary imagination by telling a story that considers a “what if” scenario about the opportunities and consequences from further insights and developments in scientific knowledge and application. These imagined futures provide a story in which we can reflect on cultural problems and technological issues that we currently face. At its core, most science fiction deals with what it means to be human in the conflict between individual freedom and the limits to that freedom in society. These stories serve as parables that question and challenge the values that humans espouse.
Star Trek is best known for commenting on contemporary issues by following the travels of the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise spacecraft is sent by the humans to discover and explore other life forms in the universe. Each alien species or planet confronted the crew with all kinds of challenges that increased their knowledge not only of the universe, but also more fundamentally about what it means to be human.
Analysis of Star Trek often focuses on the archetypal characteristics of the crew. Captain Kirk is bold and intuitive; Spock controls his emotions and is ruled by logic; Dr. McCoy is always the pessimist. While the characters often play to these biases, this kind of critique simply reduces the characters to one note, rather than understanding them as multi-dimensional people.
J.J. Abrams (best known for writing the TV series’ Lost and Alias) directs the latest film in the Star Trek franchise, which takes the viewer back to the origins of the USS Enterprise and its main crew members: Capt. James Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy. It is not the plot that surprises in this excellent film. Instead, it complicates the simple archetypes by showing how each character has to understand their own abilities and trust in the abilities of others. So, while Spock tries to control his emotions, it is his loss of control that allows for Kirk to take charge and think clearly and logically to outwit the enemy.
The film does a wonderful job of showing how important friendship is, and how no one can make it alone. Each character is able to see how they need each other if they are all going to survive and excel at their mission toward greater knowledge and exploration. It is the complicated and lasting friendships that ultimately drive Kirk and Spock and the rest of the crew “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”