I’VE BEEN GOING THROUGH a bit of a stressful time of late, the details of which I won’t bore you with but suffice it to say that my anxiety has been above my usual millennial, overly-caffeinated, background level lately.
In such times, I have a handy bug-out bag of tools that I can choose from to help me get through. I meditate (yes, I’m outing myself as a sitting in a chair, breathing in for four and out for four, mindfulness, and everything else meditator… minus the sandals and vague spiritual bullshit, of course), I read, get out in the fresh air, and hydrate like a background character in Mad Max: Fury Road, but the one constant is that I invariably stick on many, many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I love it, and always have done. From those chill-inducing opening credits, backed by a theme song that is very much the New Yorker to the Original Series’ National Inquirer, to the wonderful cast of characters, recurring story beats, political subtext, cultural commentary, wonderfully camp fight scenes, and the overall sense of optimism, hope, and confidence that Captain Picard, Commander Riker, and the whole crew of the USS Enterprise bring to my screen, I find it helps me feel better. You, if anxiety is something you deal with, probably have your own media you turn to when it rears its ugly head but TNG, as we Trekkies call it, is very much mine. I adore all 178 episodes, four films, and the plethora of other media it touches (ask me about the Tommy Westphall universe hypothesis one day – I can prove that Captain Picard, the Doctor, Buffy Summers, Ellen Ripley, Arnold Rimmer, and even Homer Simpson and even Frasier Crane all live in the same universe!) and I’ll defend it with the last ounce of power left in my phaser.
Why spend two lengthy paragraphs gushing about a show that went off air a long time ago – this isn’t ThinkMoviesafter all? Well, because of one particular movie in the series and the parallels to recent events that it provokes. In Star Trek: First Contact, often cited as the strongest of the four movies, the Enterprise follows the Borg (basically evil techno-commies covered in the scrapings of a mechanic’s garage floor) through some temporal shenanigans to the point in time that humanity first achieves faster than light travel and meets our first alien race. Their goal is to stop it happening so they can conquer Earth, our heroes goal is to make sure it happens so they don’t – it’s a beautifully simple premise.
I thought about First Contact both as a result of revisiting it as a method of anxiety alleviation but also because of the recent jaunts into space by the human embodiment of the 1980s, Richard Branson, and Doctor Evil cosplayer, Jeff Bezos. The two men, presumably armed with Elon Musk’s spare car keys, recently took off in, and more importantly returned in, their rockets recently in what promises to be the first of many ‘space tourism’ ventures undertaken by the ultra-rich.
The reaction to it was predictably divided along dogmatic lines. Those of us who would vote for the flippant comment party if we could, pointed out that while all rockets are dick-shaped by design, Mr Bezos’ extremely phallic effort was just putting a hat on a hat at this point. Some people marvelled at how cool it was to have happened – as such lovely sorts do with all space flight – while many on the left complained about the tax activities of the two men and bemoaned that their socialist principles were not being implemented fully as the two billionaires blasted off.
Perhaps it’s because I remain, despite my better judgement, an optimist but it is my hope that this is humanity’s first shaky steps towards being able to go into space for leisure and that, many years from now, space tourism will be, like air travel, available to more and more people. Surely even the most jaded Marxist cannot think that’s possibly a bad thing to look forward to? Even if it’s just an idea?
I thought a similar thing when then-President Trump announced the founding of the US Space Force. It was not just because the logo they ended up with was almost identical to Starfleet’s – I’m convinced there was a Trekkie somewhere in the department who decided to ‘shoot their shot’ on that – but rather because it looked, to my naive Trekkie eyes, to be our timeline’s founding of Starfleet and that made me smile a lot but others greeted it with grimaces and complaints, reaching from their usual objections to anything military to bemoaning how much it cost. In First Contact, the engineer who first creates warp drive, Zefram Cochrane, tells the Enterprise’s chief spanner chucker, Commander Geordi La Forge, that he was driven by “dollar signs… money!”, to which La Forge smiles and replies to him with a quote from himself in the future that attests to the opposite. I was reminded of that instance during this particular cultural moment.
As a side note, the creation of the US Space Force also provided for some comedy as Star Trek’s fanbase, which generally leans left-of-centre, was forced to contend with the notion that the man who will forever be remembered as the founder of our continuity’s version of Starfleet was the “grab ‘em by the pussy”, “build a wall” guy. That delicious irony is also, I suggest, worth it for its own scrumptious sake.
My point is that, once again, we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Just because our early tentative steps beyond the confines of our own planet may have been driven by an erratic US President or by billionaires with less than stellar, or very effective (depending on your point of view) accounting practices doesn’t mean that we should not celebrate the achievements or enjoy and look forward to the spill-over benefits that humanity may receive from it. Strict ideological purity very rarely results in positive outcomes and adhering to it may well hold us back – it always has done so far.
In the absence of a willing public sector effort, of course it was going to be the private sector, and therefore those with the money to bankroll it, who were going to do this and, rather than recoiling from it, we should look for what we can get out of it – the prospect of more of us getting to see space close up which, I would argue, is worth it for its own sake. Also, there seems little doubt that even when it is funded by the public sector, as with the US Space Force, it would be done so in a military context and a good chance that it would be done by a politician who thought… let’s just say ‘differently’. Again, the spill-over benefits are, in my view, worth a little ideological murkiness or wishing success for dubious characters.
As I return to my binge of Star Trek: The Next Generation in order to shift the remains of this period of sub-optimal mental health, I can see that the main benefits of it are its encouragement to look to the stars, its profound call for optimism, and its challenge to imagine a better world in which frontiers, including final ones, are barriers to be smashed gleefully. In our reality, even if it involves cheering for a bit of the legacy of Donald Trump or for the heel tag-team of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, I think that’s worth doing so I’ll continue to hope for more billionaires in space… and maybe the rest of us can join them one day.
Live long… etc.
Photo of the Blue Origin rocket courtesy of Blue Origin.