7QT–Intro to Star Trek for Snobs

So maybe you’d be embarrassed to be caught watching Star Trek? I used to be like that too. Here’s 7 reasons you won’t regret giving it a try:

1.  It’s a great blend of intense philosophical, political, or emotionally gut-wrenching storylines with pure comic relief, action adventure, and cheesiness. It’s not just fluff, but it won’t drag you down if you watch it every night, either. Episodes often consider issues like when a natural or artificial creature crosses the line into sentience, how legitimate it is to interfere with someone else’s culture, what the rules of privacy are when you’re telepathic, and when you’re justified in breaking the law. The Original Series deals more heavily with logical and philosophical issues; The Next Generation deals with the struggle between fighting for justice and forcing your ideals on someone; Deep Space Nine deals with political intrigue and the struggle for ethics in the middle of war, deception and suspicion, racial tension, and a corrupt economy; Voyager deals with the struggle to adapt in crisis situations without losing your essential identity; and Enterprise…well, it’s horrible, but it has some great fight scenes. Don’t watch Enterprise.

2.  The Prime Directive. This exists mostly in the world of The Next Generation, and it dictates that Starfleet explorers may not interfere in the natural development of a civilization; for instance, they can’t burst into a primitive society and blow holes in its religious worldview, and they can’t give advanced technology to people who aren’t ready to use it responsibly. This leads to a lot of thoughtful episodes where well-meaning captains break the Prime Directive when it seems like their obvious moral duty to step in, but their actions have disastrous unintended consequences. Shades of colonialism and nation-building!

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3. The Borg. An honestly terrifying collective of “assimilated” cyborgs who think with one communal mind, the Borg raise questions of free will and individuality. The character Seven of Nine, in the Voyager series, struggles to regain her humanity after being freed from the collective, embodying a major Star Trek theme: what does it mean to be human? Some of the best parts of Star Trek involve the struggles of Seven of Nine, Data (an android), and The Doctor (a hologram) to define their sentience and individuality. Similarly, Vulcan characters, who rely on logic and suppress all emotion, struggle to appreciate the value of human emotion, and pagan, warlike Klingons struggle to embrace negotiation and compromise.

4.  Bajorans and Cardassians. This racial conflict in Deep Space Nine, obviously based on Nazi history as well as Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yields some of the most moving episodes. Cardassians struggle (or not) to respect their former conquests and take responsibility for their atrocities; Bajorans struggle with dehumanizing Cardassians and demanding an eye for an eye. The stars of this subplot are Gul Dukat, the former Cardassian dictator who fluctuates fantastically between arrogance and hatred, blind self-justification, and a bizarre Messiah complex; and Kira, the Bajoran ex-freedom fighter and terrorist, who struggles to overcome the violent, black and white worldview she’s accepted since youth. There’s a really knock-out episode (“Duet”) in which a Cardassian, a low-level government employee haunted by his failure to resist the atrocities committed by his superiors, takes on the identity of a war criminal to bring himself to justice.

Brent Spiner as Data

5.  Fantastic acting. You probably think I’m joking, since Star Trek is known for its heavy-handedness and William Shatner style; but there are some really amazing performances: Brent Spiner, a Broadway veteran, convincingly plays the emotionless Data as well as Data’s misguided human creator Soongh and his corrupt counterpart Lore; Patrick Stewart, with his Shakespearean experience, plays Captain Picard with grace and deep emotion; and Andrew Robinson (who played the serial killer in Dirty Harry!) brings mesmerizing complexity to the role of clever, obsequious Garak, the “simple tailor” with a dark past that’s never quite revealed. Garak’s ever-changing life story and his subtle manipulation of everyone around him make him fascinating to watch.

 

Andrew Robinson as Garak

6.  The Ferengi, chiefly present in Deep Space Nine, offer spectacular comic relief. They’re a race of swindlers, and their lovingly detailed society is built around Sacred Commerce and the Rules of Acquisition (“Employees are the rungs on the ladder of success. Don’t hesitate to step on them”). The character Q, from Next Generation and Voyager, is hilarious every time he shows up. He’s an omnipotent but silly being from the supremely evolved Q “Continuum” who shows up at inconvenient moments either to lecture humanity on its primitiveness or to use his powers to amuse himself by annoying the busy crewmen. Next Generation and Voyager also feature a lot of comic relief episodes on the holodeck, where the crew can unwind in any simulated setting they can imagine–historical, fictional, or fantastical.

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7.  I don’t care what you say, William Shatner is cute.

Make sure to visit Kelly at http://www.thisaintthelyceum.org for the rest of the 7 Quick Takes!

 

 

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“I Could Never Do Something Like That:” Dehumanizing Terrorists

Everyone is talking about whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves to die.  Yes, of course he deserves to.  But so does almost everyone else in the world.  Most of us have committed sins–in action or in our hearts–which are, if not as serious as Tsarnaev’s, certainly serious enough to merit Hell.  I think it’s a mistake to base any decision about punishment on what a criminal deserves, rather than what will serve as a deterrent, a protection to the public, or an opportunity for reform.  What’s really on my mind, though, is the way that people are treating Tsarnaev as if he is not even human, and as if they could never have done what he did.  Let’s face it: a lot of us could have done something just as horrible.  I’m not trying to diminish his guilt in any way; I’m just trying to respond to the outrage that takes away our common humanity with him.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writing about his terrible treatment by the Soviet government and prison guards, refuses to dehumanize them by treating them as something completely other from him: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Now, Tsarnaev is about as close as you can get to this hypothetical evil man commiting evil deeds.  There’s not much you can say to mitigate what he did.  But that doesn’t put us on a different plane from him.

In one episode of Star Trek, the crew encounters an alien whose mental powers are so strong that he can simply will something and it will happen.  His planet and his wife were destroyed by a hostile race.  At the end, he reveals that he is in self-imposed exile because of the revenge he took in a moment of impulsive grief: not only did he kill his wife’s murderers, but in a single act of will, he annihilated their entire race.  Captain Picard condemns the genocide, but there is a strong note of sympathy for the alien, who succumbed to the terrible temptation that his powers constantly presented to him.  The episode leaves you wondering–if I were able to make my darkest thoughts come true in the blink of an eye, what would I do?

Let’s pray for Tsarnaev, who acted on the anger and the impulse that all of us are susceptible to, and let’s imagine what we are capable of.

Tsarnaev immediately after planting the bomb next to a little boy.

(photo credit: The Telegraph)

How to Lose Your Faith in Human Nature and Find Your Faith in Something Else

Today’s a snow day, and I’m reading Hemingway for the first time and wondering when it became acceptable for the majority of 20th century stories and novels to end with those vague, inconclusive observations on the meaninglessness of life.  My husband thinks it’s a result of the disillusionment that followed World War I and II, the disorientation that resulted from feeling betrayed by the efforts of church, law, diplomacy, and authority in general to prevent war.  People had “lost faith in humanity” and didn’t know where else to look, so their literary heroes were just as lost and wandering as they were.  Later on, they placed their faith in evolution, acknowledging that human nature wasn’t to be trusted, but declaring that it would one day evolve past its flaws–whether into socialist man, or into the enlightened explorers of the Star Trek universe, whose technological achievements would free them from the need for hatred, greed, war, and so on.  (Of course, in order to make this believable, Star Trek had to transfer the dark side of human nature onto the countless less-evolved species that their new humanity encountered!  Even Star Trek didn’t seem to believe in the possibility of a universe where everyone is good. ) These days we don’t have the same faith in politics as the generation before the world wars, and the utopian promises of socialism and technological development have failed to materialize; but we still seem to have a vague faith in “human nature” that is just as vulnerable to betrayal.  Social media is full of stories of stupidity, inhumanity, or appalling ignorance labeled “just lost my faith in humanity” or “I no longer want to live on this planet.”  Meanwhile, stories of people sacrificing themselves for the sake of strangers, treating animals with humanity, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed are guaranteed to “restore your faith in humanity.”  We seem to be still suffering from the same problem as our turn-of-the-century ancestors; since our highest faith is in humanity and its accomplishments, it’s awfully easy to have that faith crushed. How can we inoculate ourselves against this constant, emotionally-draining tug of war?  Put a little less faith in “humanity” and a little more faith in something else.  Remember who made humanity, or at least remember the eternal principles of goodness and truth that human nature in action often falls short of.  But don’t be like the post-war generation, and let your exposure to the very worst side of humanity make you toss the baby out with the bathwater.  Find something unshakeable to put your trust in, and you won’t be stuck scrambling to find enough good people to tip the scale. Thank you for reading!  I’ve got a lot on my mind.   Please stay tuned for thoughts on Langston Hughes, Bruce Springsteen, therapy and self-help books, original sin, natural family planning, existential crises, why I love the authority of the Church, and probably more Star Trek.