Forty Years of Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before

Star Trek 40th AnniversaryThe original words in the opening credits, spoken by William Shatner, were:

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Of course, it took a while to get there.

Standard Opening Narration. Is that really Hollywood-speak for “voice-over used in the opening credits”? It sounds almost military.

And one of the oddest things about Star Trek is that it’s a show about a futuristic military organization (Starfleet) that bears little resemblance to a military organization. They never had any overprecise jargon such as the U.S. Army’s infamous manually operated high impact delivery system (what we civilian folk would call a hammer).

Instead, it was always, “Scottie. Four to beam up.” Or, “Uhura, open a hailing frequency.” Even Jean-Luc Picard (who violated the prime directive more often than Kirk and fired first more often than Kirk) seldom sounded like a military officer. “Number One, why is that asteroid circling our ship?”

Real military crews, at least in our modern professional western civilization forces, speak with a drilled precision that is as meaningful as it sounds meaningless. The elocution of army-speak is a science waiting to be explored by Hollywood and the television industry. I think it works well enough in movies like “Soldier”. You almost hear the jargon in Stargate-SG1 (and I don’t mean, “Colonel Mitchell, congratulations on getting the band back together”).

Nonetheless, despite its lack of a true militarisic air, Star Trekshaped a generation’s imagination. And in ways we never imagined. Today we’re more likely to tell people to boldly go where no man has ever gone before when we’re angry, or when we’re trying to motivate underpaid overbullied corporate workers to be innovative and caring of their bosses’ jobs and bonus schedules.

Modern hospitals now have vital sign monitoring stations that, if not quite as cool as those we saw in McCoy’s sick bay, at least serve similar purposes. We’re using robotic surgical instruments cased in housings placed over patients’ bodies, just as McCoy’s surgical unit was. And we’re approaching a tricorder-like technology where doctors and their assistants can quickly scan our bodies for signs of deteriorating health. Blood sugar and body temperature can both now be checked in a matter of seconds with only the barest of invasive technology.

And that’s what it was all about for many of us: the cool technology. The phasers, tricorders, sensors, gadgets, and the oh-so-cool computers and holodecks (which were introduced in the second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation — which actually occurred several generations after Kirk’s day).

But is that what it was about for the people who made the show? One could easily get the impression that it’s all about money. But that’s not wholly so. In the early days, it was also about passion.

Passion is what makes great things great and bad things evil. You put enough passion into a cookie, and the memory of that delicious savoricious moment will stay with you forever. You fill your soul with enough hatred and you become as memorable as Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, two of the most evil men in human history. They will be forgotten, in time, but for now we remember them for their godless crimes and sins because they really, really enjoy(ed) being evil.

If Star Trek is to continue, Paramount needs to understand that it will make more money by not caring about money. It has to care about discovering the impact of technology and new ideas upon the human experience. Star Trek has to struggle with moral questions. It has to ask why we’re in Iraq without mentioning Iraq, and it has to make the explanation sound as plausible as the rebuttal.

Star Trek has to resonate with the generation that grows up with it. The Viet Nam War is over. Kirk and Spock no longer have to agonize over whether to give weapons to one side or the other. And while we may be in danger of losing ourselves to global warming or other human-influenced traumas of the environment, we need to find new voices to ask whether playing with the DNA is an acceptable risk.

Star Trek thrives as it moves forward. I hear a new ST movie about young Kirk and Spock is in the works. Maybe I’ll go see it. Maybe not. At this point, it sounds about as interesting as dustballs under the bed. Looking at the young Kirk and Spock is hardly a step forward. Maybe that is why Enterprise only lasted four seasons. Instead of looking forward, it looked back.

In my opinion, it’s time to move on. We’ve spent 40 years in the desert. We don’t need to go for 50. We can see the promised land. Have we not yet purged ourselves of past sins, so that we can all go down into the land of milk and honey?

Star Trek needs to boldly go where nothing (in the human experience) has gone before.