Sunday, September 27, 2020

How Gene Roddenberry made me a progressive.

One of the things I've been doing since retiring is re-watching all the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I bought a boxed set of all seven seasons last winter and I'm now, finally, getting around to binge watching the shows. I haven't seen the early seasons in decades.

I consider ST:TNG "my" Star Trek. My father watched the original show, and I watched it with him (because in those days, kids, families had only one TV and you watched whatever Dad wanted to watch). But I was eight years old when the original series debuted in 1966. 

In fact, I just figured out that Star Trek debuted four days before The Monkees. Clearly I was at the developmental stage where long-haired singers made a bigger dent on my psyche.

Anyway, when ST:TNG began in 1987, I was at a much different stage of life: married with a six-month-old. My then-husband was a big sci-fi fan and many of our friends were into speculative fiction, too. And I was working in radio news, and beginning to meet people who had been dealt a lousy hand in life and who were never going to get long enough bootstraps to pull themselves out of their misery. 

The original series was kind of like a Western, with lots of action along a frontier and definite good guys/bad guys. ST:TNG had all that -- plus a society where money had become obsolete. The reason? Replicators.

Shisma | Wikimedia | CC3.0

Oh, there was a big explanation about how humanity had nearly snuffed itself in World War III and had evolved, as a result, into a caring and compassionate race. But come on -- if you can walk up to a machine on the wall and say, "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot," and the machine fabricates it for you, you don't need to go out and buy cups or tea. Or clothing. Or anything else, really.

In "The Neutral Zone," the final episode of season one, Capt. Picard explains what that has meant to society. The episode opens with Lt. Worf and Cmdr. Data boarding a 21st-century ship that contained a number of human bodies that were cryogenically preserved at death, the idea being that they would be brought back to life once science developed cures for what killed them. Of course the cryogenics company had gone out of business and the ship had gone adrift. Most of the preservation units had failed over the intervening centuries, but three people were able to be saved: a middling popular country singer, a tycoon, and an average mom whose husband couldn't bear to lose her forever. The tycoon insists that Picard put him in contact with his bank or his lawyer or someone who can get him to his money. Picard tells him how pointless it would be: "People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We've eliminated want, hunger, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy."

Because people lack for nothing in the 24th century, they don't have to work for a living -- and yet they do work. They still strive for excellence, but not for money; the striving is its own reward. Without the need to support themselves, they have the freedom to pursue whatever activity interests them: education for its own sake, the arts, or even traveling to the stars. 

That all sounded pretty good to me. It still does. Which I suppose is why the progressive proposal for single-payer healthcare caught my attention a few years ago. Why should we be tied to a job just to be able to afford healthcare? 

Today we're in the midst of a pandemic, and not only do we still not have single-payer healthcare, but our economy is being remade while we watch. The very landscape of our big cities is changing. As office workers do their jobs from home, their employers are wondering how much longer they can afford to pay rent on their pricey high-rises with ventilation systems that will have to be retrofitted to bring in more fresh air. Public transit is losing money, airlines are laying people off, hotels are closing, and restaurants that catered to both the lunch crowd and special events are locking their doors for good. Office workers may go back to the office eventually, but some of those jobs will probably cease to exist. And their neighborhood will never be the same.

Gene Roddenberry created the Star Trek franchise with the original series. ST:TNG was the last in the franchise that Roddenberry was directly involved with, and his optimistic vision of the future is largely gone from the later series. I guess that's understandable -- viewers today seem to want darker, grittier shows. 

But life itself is pretty grim these days. We could maybe use some hope. And here's the thing about watching ST:TNG right now: it's profoundly hopeful. The crew of Picard's Enterprise is smart, resourceful, and above all, upbeat. Humanity has survived its darkest hour and is better for it. But humans had to put aside hate, injustice, and the meaningless striving for things to get there.

Seems like a decent template for our own future.


These moments of hopeful blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Mask up and wash your hands! 


Leland Dirks said...

Great minds think alike... I'm on season 2 of the original series and about two episodes away from my favorite, The Trouble with Tribbles. It was and is a remarkable series, and still has lessons to teach us all.

Lynne Cantwell said...

I *love* The Trouble with Tribbles. 😊