I am a bit of an unrepentant Trekker – not a Trekkie, mind you – just a Trekker. I don’t go to conventions, I don’t secretly don Star Fleet uniforms in the privacy of my home, and I have not committed whole passages of the Star Fleet Technical Manual to heart. But I will say that Star Trek, the original series, was a formative influence on my life. I stumbled onto Star Trek at I time in my life when I was desperately searching for an alternative world view.
I grew up in a small town in northwest Alabama, struggling throughout my teenage years with what increasingly became an unpalatable presence in my life: My family’s conservative religious faith. In those days, kids in my faith tradition were regularly admonished that that the world was doomed and that the rapture of the righteous was just around the corner. All the other hapless souls, all those who had embraced apostate faiths or who had basked in all the deceptive comforts of secular modernity would be left behind, deceived and enthralled by a merciless Satanic dominion until Almighty God saw fit to mete out final, condign punishment: eternal damnation.
Needless to say, I was searching, however subconsciously, for some sort of intellectual alternative. Star Trek, which was running in syndication in the late 70’s, supplied that alternative. I was introduced to hope, to a future in which humanity had overcome all those dark atavistic forces that had once seemed poised to destroy it: political ideology, religion, and racism.
Star Trek essentially amounted to a kind of healing balm during my teenage years. Among other factors, it helped me cultivate a different, more hopeful view of humanity. And despite all the bad things that were happening in the 1970’s, there seemed to be at least some cause for optimism. Over the stretch of a mere 200 years – the blink of an eye in historical terms – humanity had overthrown authoritarian monarchies and established republican governments in their stead, ended slavery, emancipated women and, in this country, had finally laid the foundation for the full enfranchisement of blacks and other minorities.
Considering all of this, I reasoned to myself, couldn’t we hold out at least a glimmer of hope that our species ultimately would work through many, if not most, of the other vexing problems that had plagued us for so long? Wasn’t it at least conceivable that we humans were capable of improving ourselves, even perhaps to the point of developing into a benign, peaceful species?
This is why I and countless other Trekkers consider Star Trek and other forms of science fiction so valuable. They comprise a means – the most brilliant and creative means, as I see it – of loosening and sometimes jolting us out of our mental and ethical straitjackets. Indeed, in this respect, science fiction has assumed many of the properties associated with philosophy and religion.
Star Trek carried on this reforming mission in so many ways. But its depiction of humankind’s path to self-discovery and self-actualization, while largely forward-looking and optimistic, also explored the attendant risks, particularly the unintended consequences of technology.
A Facebook discussion a few days ago reminded me of one of the most perceptive explorations of this theme: The Doomsday Machine, first aired on October 20, 1967, and written by Norman Spinrad and directed by Marc Daniels.
The episode centers around the encounter of a highly destructive alien device by the ill-fated crew of the U.S.S. Constellation, a Federation starship commanded by Commodore Matt Decker, aptly portrayed by the late actor William Windom. Without relating the entire episode plot, this Doomsday Machine symbolized what was unfolding in the late 1960’s on a global scale on Planet Earth: the construction by the United States and the Soviet Union of their own doomsday machines, two massive nuclear arsenals that, while capable of destroying the world several times over, were conceived and developed by each power solely with the intention of scaring off the other, thereby rendering war unthinkable – Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as the strategy came to be known.
The alien device encountered by the Constellation crew was a massive killing machine, a conical object, pulsating with energy, that traveled at tremendous speeds, slicing planets and other objects in its wake with “pure” antiproton and then feeding off the energy.
After Kirk and the Enterprise crew come to the aid of the Constellation, viewers learn that the device was designed and developed eons ago in another galaxy, likely by a long extinct species and deployed as a deterrent against a hostile power in a game of wits – a cold war – long ended and forgotten.
Over the span of millennia, the device had drifted into our galaxy, destroying planets, some inhabited by billions of intelligent beings, but for no reason and with no moral purpose.
As I see it, The Doomsday Machine was among the best creative products ever associated with the Star Trek franchise. The late William Windom’s performance as Decker, guilt-ridden over the death of his crew and the virtual destruction of his ship, arguably is the best of his career.
The episode also offered superb social commentary on the unintended effects of technology, one that is even more relevant today in the 21st century than in was in 1967 when the episode first aired.
Nuclear annihilation in the 1960’s was scary enough. Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history, was still almost a full generation away.
Today, science is supplying us with a host of newer, equally lethal technologies: nano-weapons, artificial superintelligence, autonomous robotics, and genetically modified organisms, to name only a few, all powerful and deadly in their scope, all possessing the potential for imposing hideous consequences long after those who conceived and designed them have passed away.
In the best traditions of Star Trek, I still hold out hope that humanity will ultimately prevail, even as I acknowledge that our path toward self-discovery and self-actualization carries its share of attendant risks.