It’s been a tough year.
I’m not willing to recap it all, but you’ve lived it too, so you have some idea. Wildfires, hurricanes, volcanoes, UFOs (or at least the videos thereof), Coronavirus, the constant stream of horrendous news from the Trump administration, and probably a dozen other Disaster Bingo spaces I’ve forgotten–it’s getting to us all. I don’t blame anyone for engaging in a little escapism.
That gives me the opportunity to talk about my favorite escapist fandom: That other controversial space opera, Star Trek. I’ve spent enough time talking about Star Wars, after all; may as well talk about the other team!
It’s a great time to be a Star Trek fan–a Trekkie, if you prefer.* The past decade and a half have given us a wealth of new material, from movies to live action shows to animation to novels, and even a few audio dramas here and there. Trek fans being Trek fans, it’s also given us plenty of things to argue about; but that comes with the territory. Since Star Trek: Enterprise ended, I’ve watched all of that series, all of Star Trek: Discovery, Short Treks, half of Star Trek: Picard (still in progress at this time), and I’ve rewatched quite a bit of The Original Series and The Next Generation. Lower Decks also recently launched, but I’m not there yet, and haven’t decided yet if I will watch it; it looks like it might be Total Drama Island in space, and I don’t know yet how I feel about that.
*(On the topic of nicknames for the fandom: I grew up in the ancient times of the 1980s, when you still had some debate on the proper term for a Trek fan. Are we “Trekkies”, or are we “Trekkers”? There was always competition between the two; researching it now tells me that “Trekkers” were the more grounded fans, who loved the series, but didn’t do all the crazy fandom things–no costumes, no huge arguments, no conventions. “Trekkies” were those who went overboard, who lost touch with reality in terms of Trek–and also the most argumentative fans. Or, as Urban Dictionary puts it, a Trekker is a Star Trek fan with no sense of humor. All snubbing aside, I don’t really call myself by either name, but I identify more with the idea of a Trekker–someone who is a devoted fan, but, you know, just a fan.)
This week it’s Lower Decks that has the fandom in an uproar. Is this animated, comedic series worth it? Is it any good? Is it an affront to all that’s good? Is it even really Star Trek at all? I haven’t seen this much infighting since Enterprise‘s series finale.
At the same time, Lower Decks is doing us a valuable service: It’s reminding us that the Star Trek universe is big and inclusive and has room for everybody. And I may be getting ahead of myself here–giving away my point too early–but I think that’s the most Star Trek thing ever.
Discovery tried to do the same thing, and I suppose is still doing it. It made the leap to modern, arc-based television (all respect to Deep Space Nine, which did some of the same, but the market wasn’t ready yet, and DS9 had more than its share of good old-fashioned episodic and filler TV). It introduced the first openly gay characters that I can remember (apologies if there were others first). I have mixed feelings about those things on a personal level–being a Christian, I’m not in favor of homosexuality, though I don’t hate anyone who makes that choice; and I’ve talked before about my love of episodic TV vs. arc-based. But I can’t, and wouldn’t, deny that the efforts at inclusion and progress are definitely in keeping with Gene Roddenberry’s vision for both the franchise and the future. If you’ve been a fan long enough, you’ve probably heard stories of how he slipped social progress stories past the censors by setting them in space, among aliens–something to which we owe a great deal in terms of progress in entertainment.
Picard is doing something equally valuable, in my opinion: It’s showing us how the future works for everyday life. Now, I have to preface by saying that the galaxy of 2399 (the year in which the series is set) is still no paradise; there are pockets of poverty, such as the Romulan refugee world of Vashti; or even on Earth, when someone’s life takes a terrible turn (in this case, Picard’s friend Raffi). And yet, overall, the galaxy–or at least the Federation–has come a long way. The economy is divorced from personal effort, such that people are provided for regardless of what they accomplish, freeing them to work based on passion rather than survival. There’s comfort if you want it. You have ease of travel locally via transporter technology, and distantly by clean and efficient starship travel; ease of material production via replicators; health care that can repair nearly anything (if not Picard’s parietal lobe disorder). (And before anyone makes objections that involve the words “socialism” or “communism”, let me stop you and remind you that the title of this post as about escapism. I know our world isn’t ready for a reality like that. This isn’t our world.) Earth, at least, has been cleaned up, and as far as we know, other Federation worlds are at a similar standard of living. And, rather than breeding indolence and stagnation, that environment has spurred exploration and adventure–not only through Starfleet, but also on a personal level, as we see with Captain Rios and his privately-owned ship.
All in all, the Trek galaxy sounds like a nice place to live these days.
To me, it always did. I’ve been watching Star Trek since I was a child. One of my earliest memories of it is watching reruns of the original series (we didn’t capitalize it or make it a subtitle back then; there weren’t enough series to need the distinction) on my grandmother’s black and white TV on a hot summer afternoon, the dialogue almost drowned out by the roar of an ancient metal box fan beside me as I sat on the floor. I may have been as old as seven, but probably less. I was there with my parents for the premiere of The Next Generation in 1987, and there watching with my first girlfriend when it concluded seven years later. I’ve seen perhaps hundreds of episodes; I’ve read dozens of novels. Running through every single bit of it was a future that was bright and full of hope, even when the galaxy was threatened. I want that kind of future, even if the details don’t play out exactly the same.
There are different kinds of escapism. I could be could be like Walter Mitty, I suppose. I work a fairly bland office job, and I’m a fairly sedate, quiet husband and father; and so it wouldn’t be unexpected for me to look for escapism in violent, action-packed fiction. When we want a change, we look for what we don’t have, right? And sometimes I do that. I’ve talked before about franchises like Warhammer 40,000, which are full of insane military sci-fi–there’s definitely a place for those. Someone who works a high-stress job might want to indulge in fantasies that are quieter, that take the pressure off of them.
But it’s Star Trek‘s brand of escapism that brings me back. There’s plenty of adventure to be had; it scratches that itch. But it takes that adventure and puts it in a universe far different from our own. You see, you can get chaos by looking around nowadays. If you want betrayal and riots and violence and pain and suffering…well, you don’t need escapism to get that. It’s a rough world out there. Star Trek reminds us that there are better possibilities, more hopeful futures.
We’re far from there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t visit sometimes.
Thanks for reading!