"The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential, and I hope that 'Star Trek' has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities."
Gene Roddenberry wouldn't want to be my friend. All his mumbo jumbo about human potential and optimism? It gets no play with me: humans kinda suck, and continue to kinda suck, and society is shitty, because it's led by the shitty. My bleakness comes from a bland bowl of life experience, so call me a pessimist, but somehow I'm still a Star Trek fan.
And you're right, that's a weird thing to say. The series after all is the antithesis to anything negative about the human race. Insurmountable self doubts aside, Roddenberry always believed in our potential to do the right thing; time was the only recipe to our mental evolution. The usual suspects of the genre thought more like myself, in all their disheartening, dystopian dung-filled outlooks; but still, I found myself loving the series just the same.
Imperfection obviously took a back seat with its characters through all that optimism. Reality says that we're a flawed bunch, and not in Roddenberry's sense either; Captain Picard of TNG having family issues, or Wesley Crusher's venture into puberty isn't what I'm referring to here. I'm talking about the meat, the complexities; our potential to be aggressive, greedy, lustful and murderous all in one. No, what I liked most about Roddenberry's work came from something that Star Trek: Discovery reminded me of. It wasn't the rose tinted version of us as humans that ever did it for me, it was that "the humans" were never really us.
Yeah I said it.
It's my framing so roll with me. Humans were only the ideal. Humanity was always reflected in the aliens of Star Trek, as Kirk, Picard and the other humans of Starfleet feel far more alien in comparison.
Discovery and past iterations feature a bunch of uppity, (red) suit wearing, perfectly straight-backed folks on a very clean set of ships. I can confidently say that most of us are not "that." I doubt you're even sitting straight as you read this. The pursuit of wealth ( The Ferengi), the goal of total supremacy ( The Borg) or the urge to become isolationists ( The Klingons) are so much more like us historically.
Case in point: In the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery, "The Vulcan Hello," we're re-introduced to the Klingons by way of T'Kuvma (Chris Obi), whose honor obsessed, patriotic humping, leather wearing, isolationist attitude-having-self, looks strangely familiar. He of course comes from the black-faced race that started as dry fodder for Kirk and fam in 1967. But in Discovery, they all seem more topical; with the whole allusions to a warrior race of purity and "Klingon Supremacy" being painfully obvious. Let's be real here. Give em a shade of white, a white hood and we know who this is with a capital K.
It's funny how some of us have been lead to believe that the aliens of the series were something other than us. Sure, they looked like that "other,"; these strange and unknowable things that throw near perfect humans into a state of imperfection, but they were almost always our truest reflection.
I spoke to Jim Davies, a professor at the Charleston University Institute of Cognitive Science to ask if there was anything more to why some of the aliens of the series were so much more like us than their human counterparts. According to him, a lot of it comes down to personal experience, and the fact that the human mind can only diverge so much from what it knows.
."A lot of the aliens in Star Trek are actually very humanoid. Not just in looks, but in their motivations, their human psychology. They act in ways that are more relatable. They get angry and want to hurt things, and when upset, they lower their body poster like we do," he told me.
This is his thing. He's created computer models of human thought that play on imagination, and wrote two chapters in a new aptly named book, Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier.
"Being able to relate to these creatures is very, very important. What appears to look like super superficial alien aesthetics doesn't hide what they are. There's even a good argument to be made, that if things went too far overboard, and they were too different from us, they wouldn't be as compelling."
And many ways, the best parts about what made past "human" characters interesting (Picard, Kirk, Benjamin Sisko, Kathryn Janeway) were those moments when our very flawed counterparts (the aliens) reduced them to what they once were, human. Like us. Much of what we think about ourselves is negative. Most of us don't walk around thinking happy thoughts about people left and right. I'm sorry to break it to you if you thought otherwise. We relate most to what makes us imperfect, because we mostly think on imperfect terms. It's why the concept of "authentic" and "real" do so well economically. (Think of the Kardashians).
Star Trek: Discovery by comparison still works with that flawed alien perspective, but still reminds us that yeah, the human characters that look like us are just as defective as the alien counterpart looking to cause problems .
We're in a climate where we have to look at ourselves and understand what we really look like, right here, right now.
Take Michael Burnham in Discovery, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, for instance; a perfect example of what I hoped to see in a human from the rest of the series. She's unpretentious, but a little self-absorbed; much different from past leads of high-browed perfection. A lot if it can be blamed on her full-human/raised-Vulcan upbringing; which we should of course note can be a problem, considering the Vulcan aversion to yucky human emotion. This plays into a constant battle between her humanness and this adopted side of her. She's thorny in attitude, often miss-know-it-all, prejudiced against Klingons, and can seem like an impulsive maverick at the expense of lives. She believes in her world-view above all, even when it means going up against authority figures she cares for, pulling a mutiny via Vulcan neck pinch. In the end of the two-part pilot, we see her become a convicted criminal, and that's just at the beginning of the series.
I get that Star Trek is a science-fiction show about intellectually enlightened humans that boldly go where no one has gone before. But we're in a climate where we have to look at ourselves and understand what we really look like, right here, right now. For me, it was the aliens that did that. And with Star Trek: Discovery, I'm hoping that it's the human as a character that remains imperfect, not in the momentary manner that comes with some Alien conflict. This is what we are and what we'll always be and that shit will always be compelling.
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