Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In which the Blogger discusses Star Trek

I have never taken the Star Trek universe very seriously. I am, absolutely, one of the generation who grew up on TOS and patiently sifted through the various movies over the years, then the various spawn of Gene Roddenberry's original idea.

Frankly, I will never forgive Roddenberry for his creating the undying lie of a space-based future for mankind, of an eternal and infinite extension of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier, populated by a benevolent and multi-species club of earnest do-gooders and well-wishers. So much time and effort has been wasted on pointless manned spaceflight at the expense of potentially beneficial space-based science...

But recently I watched an episode of one of Roddenberry's bastard step-children, "Deep Space Nine," and found it peculiarly and deeply disturbing. Despite all the thinly-veiled sixties-specific cultural messages borne by TOS, their heavy-handed literalness defused their impact (e.g., "He's black on the right but I'm black ON THE LEFT!"). But this episode of DS9 had a resonance its writers may well wish had never developed.

The two-part episode, entitled "Past Tense (Parts I & II) originally aired in January 1995. It involves a 'return-to-the-past' McGuffin with the usual technobabble, wherein Captain Sisco (the awesomely intense Avery Brooks) and his companions return to a dystopian San Francisco of 2024.

Interestingly, this is not a 'alternate reality' San Francisco—it is the Earth of their past. The setting is a 'Sanctuary District,' a compound within the city wherein the unemployed, the mentally ill, the vaguely criminal, the disenfranchised and the miscellaneous 'other' are warehoused in a nightmare ghetto of abandoned buildings, makeshift shelter, filth, violence and deprivation.

The action takes place as 'Sanctuary A' simmers towards a violent eruption. The upheaval must take place; the world must take notice of the upheaval, so change can take place—the dramatic social change that ushers in the utopia leading to the formation of Star Fleet and the United Federation of Planets.

What I found chilling about this episode, about this concept, was at the time the screenplay was written (say, the early to mid-nineties) the writers essentially inserted an ellipsis between the present day and their imagined future, saying, in effect "bad things happen to get us there." At its airdate, that mental elision was a standard "willing suspension of disbelief" necessary to fully participate in a fictional world.

But watching the episode now, midway to the writer's hellish dystopia—fifteen years from broadcast and fifteen years from 2024—we can clearly and distinctly see every tiny tile laid down on the road that leads us to that awful future:

"The War on Drugs." Halliburton. Tasers. "The Patriot Act." Blackwater. Guantanamo. Sheriff Arpaio. "The Shock Doctrine." "The War on Terror." Torture. Paramilitaries. Endless wars.
The list goes on and on.

It would have been preposterous for the writers to have laid out such a path to the future in 1995; it would have shattered their credibility. And they had no such obligation to do so; the ellipsis, and the viewer's imaginations filled in the gap sufficiently. What disturbs me is what would have been preposterous in foresight seems perfectly understandable in hindsight. (I almost said 'perfectly reasonable in hindsight', but reasonable, it is not).

I fervently hope we are not committed to that path, and that these particular writers will appear as wildly off the mark in 2024 as many of their predecessors appeared when prognosticating the 1970s or 1990s. We need to recognize where we are now, and do whatever we can to change course before our lassitude leads us into a future we would have never wished upon our worst enemies.

Watch it if you can.

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