With all that is threatening us, whether war; climate change; the economy; or the next round of Roe v. Wade, one needs a reminder that the future of humanity is not all hopeless – even if the road ahead is perilous and downright frightening at times.
For those of us who grew up in the 1960’s, another time of war and civil conflict, a television program released in 1966 gave us that hope.
Star Trek (now informally called The Original Series) was a breath of fresh air with a future of humanity exploring the galaxy in the 22nd century.
There were the amazing technologies: “warp drive”‘; “phasers” that were used to stun rather than kill (except under extraordinary circumstances); and best of all “transporters” that could take you from place to place in seconds – everyone wanted those in real life.
And the starship Enterprise was crewed by multiple races and genders, as well as aliens – including the unforgettable Mister Spock from the planet Vulcan – who could find common purpose in creating a better future for all.
And if, looking back almost 60 years on, the series is recognized as sexist and uneven, downright dumb at times, and unable to escape the sensibilities of the time and the nervous decisions of censors, it gave us something new, and a reminder that even the vision of one man, Gene Roddenberry, could provide hope to all in a time when everyone needed it most.
Since the original three-year run of the first Star Trek, there have been movies; television series (both animated and live); novels; comic books; and video games. There was even construction of the Klingon language.
Most were good with a few that were great, but there were some duds. The earlier duds need not be recounted here.
However, the newer ones merit a bit of discussion in order to set the stage for what I hope will become the next great Star Trek series.
Paramount in 2017 released its first streaming Star Trek series – called Star Trek: Discovery.
Its timeline is ten years before The Original Series. The lead is a woman science officer named Michael Burnham, who was raised by Mister Spock’s parents on Vulcan. She winds up at the end of the first season being named Captain of the star ship Discovery.
Reflecting the times it was released, the crew is multi-gender, multi-sexual identity, and multi-alien. I respect the choices made to be more inclusive, but I find the focus-on-feelings theme didn’t work for me.
No organization, let alone a semi-military one, on a deep space mission could survive with the the lack of discipline and emphasis on aspirational goals (however implausible) rather than proven competence.
And the narrative choices made gave Michael Burham an outsized role in directing the evolution of the Federation and time and space – the Federation particularly when the Discovery winds up in the 32nd century. The judgment of the movie critic, The Critical Drinker, might seem harsh, but it is spot on: Michael Burnham is the “diverse, female, space Jesus.”
And it was a much bleaker universe than the one Roddenberry conceived. Whether that was a wise decision remains unresolved to most.
In 2020, Paramount released its next serialized (like Discovery) series called Star Trek: Picard on streaming. Obviously, the focus is on one of the most beloved characters in the Star Trek universe, Jean-Luc Picard.
The new series starts 20 years after Picard’s retirement from Star Fleet, living at his vineyard chateau in France, and continuing to mourn the loss of Data (in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis).
He is soon drawn into an adventure involving the synthetic daughter of Data. At times, well done; at other times, disappointing – the first season did still make for an overall entertaining ride in what again is a much bleaker universe.
That set the stage for the recently completed season 2, in which the supreme alien Q, sends Picard back to 2024 to resolve his personal history and set humanity on a better course in his own time period.
While wandering a good deal over the seaon’s arc, the last episode ended on a high note with a different future for the Borg (Star Fleet’s primary opponent) and even better – a moving, well-acted scene with Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Q (John DeLancie).
And that brings us to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and Captain Christopher Pike.
Originally introduced as a supporting character in the two-part “The Menagerie” from The Original Series, Pike is a crippled, horribly burned man who was injured saving Federation cadets from delta rays during a baffle-plate rupture on a training vessel.
The two-parter resolves his future with a return to the planet Talos IV, which was enabled by Mister Spock, where he will live the remainder of his life in the happy illusion created for him.
His character has also appeared in several movies in a different timeline of the Star Trek universe.
Pike makes an appearance in season 2 Star Trek: Discovery. In temporary command of the Discovery (while Enterprise is undergoing repairs), Pike leads an away mission to the planet Koreth, where at a Klingon monastery he is given a view of his own future and sees the same fate as explained in the original Star Trek – he will be horribly burned and crippled on the training ship at a point in the future.
Played by the charismatic and forceful Anson Mount, Pike was widely popular (to my mind, the single best thing about Discovery) and fan calls for his own series mounted.
The new series was conceived to be episodic – with opportunities for adventure, comedy, or drama in each episode, before the Enterprise warps off to someplace new. The universe then would be one of unlimited possibilities and no constraints imposed by a serial approach.
And so, yesterday, the first episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds premiered.
And what a premiere episode!
Pike is reluctant to resume command of the Enterprise, seeing his own future visage in everyday surface reflections. And when he returns to the Enterprise, he confides to Spock what will be his future a decade out.
But it provides a fascinating question that forms the basis of the first episode – how do you live your life if death is not an uncertainty in how and when, but a certainty – at least for the end of your life as you know it?
Their mission is to rescue Una-Chin Riley, “Number One”, and that effort – and Pike’s determination to help the planet where she was held, includes revealing Earth’s terrifying history in the 21st century (a theme in most of the Star Trek series) – allows him to come to grips with his future.
His message to warring factions on the planet is one of determination and hope:
“Perhaps somewhere all your ends are written as indelibly as mine. But I choose to believe that your destinies are still your own. Maybe that’s why I’m here. To remind you of the power of possibility.”
And maybe the possibility that this new series can inspire the same hope for the future that drew us into the world of Star Trek in the first place.