'Star Trek' Chronicled Human Nature. (The Aliens Were Gravy.)
Last week was the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” -- or more precisely, as my Bloomberg View colleague Stephen Carter notes, the airing of the first episode of the series. It’s not often that after a half-century, a television show sparks a national celebration (including a set of commemorative stamps from the U.S. Postal Service). What accounts for the series’ enduring appeal?
The answer lies in its portrayal of experiences and societies that, by virtue of their radical differences from our own, allow us to see the most familiar things in a new light. That’s what the best science fiction does. It offers a topsy-turvy world, or a twisted version of reality, which uncovers neglected truths (about, say, what really matters in human life), or which shows the contingency of how things are (and how with a small turn, a nation’s politics could go horribly wrong).
With that point in mind, here’s an account of three iconic Star Trek episodes -- ones you’d show someone who wants to know what the fuss is about.
1: The Enemy Within. In Star Trek, people move long distances by “transporters,” which ordinarily operate flawlessly. But by a transporter malfunction, our hero, Captain James Tiberius Kirk, materializes as two people: One is good, the other evil. The good Kirk is gentle, calm, and kind. The evil Kirk is aggressive, even violent; he’s angry, cruel, and selfish. He’s out of control.
You might well think that the good Kirk is the real one and that the bad version is a demonic twin. In its early scenes, that’s exactly the reaction that the episode invites. But there’s a twist: Kirk has actually been divided into two. Stunned by that fact, here’s the good Kirk, speaking of his counterpart: “He’s like an animal. A thoughtless, brutal animal. And yet it’s me. Me!”
What emerges is that the two are equally indispensable to the Kirkness of Kirk. Without the apparently evil side, Captain Kirk is indecisive, passive and weak, a kind of ghost. Dr. McCoy informs the good Kirk: “We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly. It’s human.” In the end, Kirk’s halves reunite. They can’t function on their own.
2: The Inner Light. The original Star Trek series is the classic one. Its successor, The Next Generation, is less lovable, but at its best it’s smarter.
In its greatest episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is transported to the planet Kataan, where he turns out to have a wife, who convinces him that his memories of having been a starship captain are a delusion, produced by a terrible illness. His real name is Kamin, and he and his wife have two beloved children, a daughter and a son, whom they raise. He tells his daughter: “Live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
On Kataan, he grows older, and then old, and he has a grandson. His life is full and gentle and good. But eventually he learns that because of increasing radiation from the sun, his entire world is doomed and will soon be destroyed.
Aware of that tragic fact, Kataan’s leaders place memories of their culture into a probe and launch it into space. They hope, desperately, that the probe would eventually find someone who could learn about their species and ensure that it would not be forgotten. As the elderly Kamin, having lived his life for what seemed to be decades, Picard understands. He’s heartbroken, and he’s stunned: “Oh, it’s me, isn’t it? I’m the someone . . . I’m the one it finds.”
What makes this episode so beautiful is that it captures both the preciousness and impermanence of our eras, our cultures, and our individual lives. In a short period, Picard/Kamin is able to see himself as a relatively young man, a husband, a parent, a grandparent, elderly and near death. In a sense, all of his selves become present to him. This is all the more moving because he lives in, and makes enduring, a civilization that is now entirely lost.
3: City on the Edge of Forever. The greatest Star Trek episode is based on a prize-winning script by Harlan Ellison. With the accidental intervention of a time travel machine, Dr. McCoy ends up thrown back into the 1930s. In their own time, Kirk and Mr. Spock learn that while in the past, McCoy did something that enabled Nazi Germany to win World War II. As a result, he sent human history careening off course, thus eliminating not only our heroes’ ship but the entire universe that they know.
To restore the proper time line, Kirk and Spock must also return to 1930s to prevent McCoy from doing whatever he did. While there, Kirk meets and falls in love with Edith Keeler, a charismatic social worker. It’s a funny, tender, terrific romance.
In the meantime, Spock discovers what McCoy did to alter history’s arc: He saved Keeler from being killed in an automobile accident. Allowed to live, Keeler became a leading pacifist, and she helped lead a campaign that prevented the U.S. from entering World War II -- guaranteeing Hitler’s triumph. Kirk’s unthinkable task? To ensure the death of the woman he loves.
It’s searing stuff. After Kirk stops him from saving Keeler, McCoy asks Kirk, with outrage and disbelief, “Do you know what you just did?” The answer comes not from Kirk but from Spock: “He knows, Doctor. He knows.”
That’s Star Trek’s second-best moment. The very best is the last line of the same episode, which barely escaped the censors of the time. It’s delivered by the shattered Kirk, who has succeeded in his mission: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Happy 50th anniversary to Star Trek; may it live on the edge of forever.
The discussion of this episode and The Inner Light draws on my book, "The World According to Star Wars."
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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