Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ten Times Trek Tackled Tough Topics

Growing up on Star Trek, I've always felt an unflinching optimism about the humanist direction of our world culture. I was a child of the 90s. A poor kid, a transient kid, a kid with divorced parents, a kid who went to fifteen schools and experienced therein a variety of micro-cultures. I was a kid from the Mountain South, a kid with strict, Southern Baptist grandparents but liberal-minded, artist parents who had all sorts of friends. I was a kid who stood in line for food stamps, a kid who lived, for a time, in a shelter and, for another time, in a fancy suburb. I was a kid who watched as factories and jobs and coal mines and mountain tops and any sense of pride went out of small town after small town in Appalachia. I was a kid who watched an Oxy epidemic and a low employment rate contribute to the already low life expectancy of those around her. I was a kid who once went hiking in the hills of North Carolina and watched as her mother burned to ash a racist symbol she'd found littering the overlook. I was a kid who grew up with family and friends of various colors, creeds, and sexual orientations. I remember being that kid, looking around at my own world and at the world on Star Trek, and thinking, "We've got a long way to go but at least we're on the right track."

I remember thinking that something like the future portrayed in Trek was where we were headed. And I still believe that.

When November rolled by and things shook out the way they did, I was disappointed by many things but, because of my varied background, unsurprised. I hoped it wouldn't be as bad as I worried it might be but, as January unfolded, I watched as the highest office in the land was filled by a man who seemed incapable of taking us anywhere but backward. I watched as cabinet positions were taken by confirmed bigots and misogynists and billionaires who'd bought and paid for a seat at a table where they might only wreak havoc on the poorest and most desperate families of this country and others. I watched as people on both sides on an invisible line shouted into their echo chambers and posted articles they hoped would garner favor from their like-minded friends. I watched and I retreated into my own world because confrontation and public discource is not something that comes naturally to me. And in my retreat, I continued to do as I have always done. I watched Star Trek. And, one afternoon, at the sound of a single line, about human compassion, I began to cry.

Star Trek has had a long, long history of turning its eye on the current cultural climate, of tackling the issues which tug at the ugliest, fuzziest, darkest parts of our world and brings them into sharp, technicolor focus. These episodes are a cornerstone of Trek and of Science Fiction in general. They allow us to see our own problems through the eyes of others (sometimes subtly, other times less so) and, hopefully, in looking through those other eyes, we can find some empathy or, at least, some empathy can find us. Star Trek says the things I have difficulty saying. It says these things with grace, compassion, and a hope that I will continue to turn to. I figured I might as well make a list for reference so, here it is:

1- A Taste of Armageddon, The Original Series
Two societies are content to let a computer deal out death so their physical culture is preserved. Kirk is having none of it. This is one of my favorites from TOS.

2- Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, The Original Series
Two races from one planet hate each other for superficial reasons the Enterprise crew can't even percieve. This one is easy (or maybe not) to scoff at these days but, in its time, it was a necessary and poignant episode.

3- The Drumhead, Next Generation
A confessed spy, a terrorist plot and a devious witchhunt are the set pieces of this quiet, courtroom episode and Picard is its beating heart.

4- Darmok, Next Generation
(Full Disclosure: This is my favorite episode of Star Trek. I will put it on every list I ever make. However, it absolutely deserves a spot here.) The Enterprise encounters a race of aliens whose language they cannot even begin to understand. Captain Picard is spirited away to a dangerous planet where he and the alien captain must overcome their differences and learn to work together.

5- The Outcast, Next Generation
Riker befriends a member of an androgynous race who considers an individual that identifies strongly as either male or female to be criminally deviant and perverted. Featured here is one of the best speeches in Trek.

6- Duet, DS9
Set against the still tense Bajoran/Cardassian conflict, Kira discovers an infamous, Cardassian war criminal aboard DS9. Things are not what they seem.

7- Far Beyond The Stars, DS9
This one features the crew in old timey duds and no alien makeup or prosthesis. It also features a stark look at the life of minorities in 1950s America as Sisko finds himself in the story of a black Science Fiction author trying to sell his vision of an egalitarian future to a world that's almost but not quite ready.

8- Distant Origin, Voyager
The Voyager gang becomes embroiled in one species' debate over evolutionary science.  This is an often forgotten but very strong outing. I'd also add that I think it's the best Chakota-sode but that would sound like I'm damning it with faint praise.

9- Remember, Voyager
The full title of this one should be, "Remember: Hard to Watch" and that's really the whole point. Basically, Voyager comes upon a somewhat serene society only to find an ugly and evil truth in their recent past. It's a truth most everyone would like to forget. Except they shouldn't.

10- Terra Prime, Enterprise
Alternate title: "Make Earth for Earthers Again!' This one pits Archer and crew against a xenophobic, isolationist leader (in the fabulous Peter Weller) who'd like to build a wall around the world make sure Earth is safe from any further seeking out of new life and new civilizations and/or boldly going.

Of course there are plenty more. When I mentioned to my husband that I was going to make a list of socio-political Star Trek allegories he said, "How long is that list going to be?" And I decided to limit it to ten. But there are plenty more.

Here are a few, in brief:
-TOS: Devil in the Dark (A lesson in tolerance and the dangers of hasty assumptions)
-TOS: Plato's Step-Children (First inter-racial kiss on US TV)
-TOS: A Private Little War (Overtones of the Vietnam War)
-TNG: Measure of a Man (What does it take to be considered human?)
-TNG: Journey's End (Native American rights in the 24th Century)
-TNG: Chain of Command (The horror and futility of torture)
-DS9: Homefront/Paradise Lost (Starfleet goes Patriot Act in fear of shapeshifter terrorists)
-DS9: Second Skin (Problems of identity, point of view, indoctrination)
-DS9: In The Pale Moonlight (Personal Values >/= Ultimate Goals?)
-VOY: Author, Author (Another exploration of humanity and human rights)
-VOY: Prototype (B'Elanna finds herself repairing instrument of endless war)
-VOY: Faces (B'Elanna confronts both parts of her bi-racial identity)
-ENT: Cogenitor (Rights of individual)
-ENT: Dear Doctor (Doctor and Captain grapple with the question of non-interference)
-ENT: Home (Issues of xenophobia in the wake of terrorism)

Welp. I'd meant for this to be a super short, list-form post. It became something... else. But if you're sitting around in your house thinking to yourself, "Gee. I wonder if there's any Star Trek out there that might resonate with whatever complicated feeelings I'm currently feeling regarding the current socio-political climate." The short answer is, "Yes." The long answer is, "Yes."

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