What’s the point of a fictional utopia during a non-fictional dystopia?

What is Star Trek, exactly? A source of sometimes deep, sometimes silly sci-fi stories? Sure. A widely-recognized brand used by soulless corporations to sell us stuff? Undeniably. A long-running fictional universe which holds real meaning for its fans, and has helped many of them through tough times in their lives? Undoubtedly. An inspirational vision of a hopeful future, and of humanity’s collective potential? Yes, it’s all of these things, contradictions and all. It’s just entertainment, and simultaneously, like all entertainment, it’s more than just that.

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2020 has been a strange year to be someone who thinks a lot about Star Trek, just as it’s been a strange time to be, well, literally anyone. When the Covid-19 pandemic first reached Canada, where I live, it was scary and overwhelming. But for me at least, it also brought a strange sort of hope with it, too; that early sense that the need for collective action — for letting the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, so to speak — was suddenly, widely seen as being just as necessary as I believe it’s always been. Sure, “we’re all in this together” was tritely cheesy from the get-go: a slogan for selling us cars at a time when we were being urged to travel as little as possible; a way of making us feel good about ordering fast food which would be prepared and delivered by low-wage workers forced to risk the health of themselves and their loved ones just to keep food on their own tables, while the more privileged among us got to work safely from home. But maybe I was still naive enough to believe that there could be a kernel of optimistic truth behind the opportunistic sloganeering.

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And there did seem to be a willingness, in those around me, to put “normal” aside and do what needed doing for the good of everyone, not just ourselves. If we as a society can actually come together to meet this unprecedented challenge, I can remember thinking in my more optimistic, less terrified moments in, say, March or April, then maybe a Star Trek future isn’t quite as far out of reach as I tend to think it is. It seemed almost like the kind of collective endeavor that something like a United Federation of Planets could really, maybe, be built on. It was, weirdly, the closest I’d been in a while to believing that our future might resemble Trek more than other, more dystopian science fiction stories. And a small part of me still feels that way, thanks in large part to the continuing protests across the United States and the rest of the world, as people show their leaders that they are not willing to wait for justice and equality to be convenient, but are, instead, demanding them now. Make no mistake, if you believe in the sort of truly peaceful, truly equitable future that Star Trek portrays, then you believe in disturbing the current peace for it, because people in power (any people in power, anywhere, anytime) will never, ever let it happen otherwise (and also because whatever “peace” we already had wasn’t actually all that peaceful, not for everyone).

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But in other ways, that seemingly utopian Star Trek future has never felt further away. Six months or so since the pandemic first arrived here, I find myself watching from across the border as the current American president leads the world’s most powerful and influential democracy down a frighteningly antidemocratic path, openly embracing the rhetoric and tactics of authoritarianism in a way that would feel absurdly on-the-nose if it were written into a work of fiction. And whatever might be said (or not said) about Canada internationally, I worry that we, here, are headed in roughly the same direction, as one of our two primary political parties adopts the unsettling slogan “Take Back Canada” (from whom, I wonder), and as the government of my province, Alberta, endlessly doubles down on our dependence on the fossil fuel industry and our belligerent denial of the reality of climate change, even while whole swaths of America are quite literally on fire. I’ve watched paranoid conspiracy theories fully enter the mainstream here in Canada, and in the United States, and seemingly everywhere else, as grifters, trolls, and true believers poison the minds of people who are spending more time online than ever during the pandemic, teaching them to see empathy, social responsibility, and science — the keys to overcoming the short-term and long-term challenges we face, and the foundational values of Star Trek’s Federation — as signs of weakness or tools of oppression. I’ve seen the version of reality that’s fed to those unsuspecting people by the leaders and media they trust, and I am genuinely confused and deeply worried by how little that reality resembles the one I see with my own eyes. Integral to achieving a Star Trek future — or, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, any worthwhile future at all — is our willingness to recognize and work toward a common good; how can we ever truly come together like that, if we can’t even agree on what is and isn’t happening around us, on a basic, factual, easily verifiable level?

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If that all sounds hopeless, well … I mean, yeah. It does. It often feels hopeless — the most hopeless, honestly, that I’ve ever felt for our future. So, then, against that dystopian backdrop, what’s the value of utopian fiction like Star Trek? Is it just a distraction? A fleeting amusement? A security blanket in which to wrap myself while the world burns, both metaphorically and literally? Maybe so. Maybe that would still be better than nothing; comfort, after all, is no small thing, though it doesn’t do anyone else a whole lot of good. Or maybe Star Trek is a source of false hope, offering an inevitable paradise which seems, at this point, objectively unlikely. But then, maybe we were never meant to see that future as inevitable. One of my favorite elements of world-building in Star Trek is its “future history,” the fictional historical events that fill in the gaps between the viewers’ present and the shows’ future. Beginning with the introduction of the genetically altered warlord Khan Noonien Singh in The Original Series, and continuing through glimpses of the Bell Riots and the “post-atomic horror,” this future history is striking for how stark it is, describing not a steady march toward better things, but a descent into totalitarianism, war, and genocide. And even after humanity’s first contact with their first alien neighbors, the Vulcans — the canonical turning point towards a more just society — the humans of Trek continue to waver between hope and fear, as seen in the eerily prescient rise of wealthy industrialist and racist fear monger John Frederick Paxton in Enterprise. I know that some Star Trek fans take all of this as the franchise’s assurance that things are always darkest before the dawn, but I take it a bit differently. Dawn is inevitable, but to me, the whole point of Trek’s dark future history is that nothing is inevitable. At every step along that path, fictional humanity made choices. All of those choices mattered, and some of them led to eugenics wars and post-atomic horror. Other choices, though, led humanity to where we find it in the seemingly utopian 23rd and 24th centuries.

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Which leads me to what makes this moment in time feel like both the farthest from, and the closest to, a Star Trek future that we’ve been in my lifetime: the knowledge, both terrifying and hopeful, that this is the world we’ve chosen, and that we could, we can, choose for it to be different. We didn’t choose this pandemic, but we built the world in which it found us, a world in which our lives are expendable as fuel for an economy that couldn’t care less about most of us, while the Paxtons of the real world aim our fear and anger at each other, for their own benefit. We built this world we live in, and we can build a different one, a process so many protesters in the streets are doing their best to put in motion. A utopia like Star Trek’s is not inevitable, and neither was this dystopia we find ourselves in, because nothing is inevitable. And if you, like me, find yourself feeling hopeless in these overwhelming times, maybe it will help to keep in mind that, if nothing is inevitable, then everything matters. What you do matters, what we do matters. That, for me, is Star Trek’s value — not as a reassurance that everything will some day be better, but as a challenge to try and build something better, however impossible a better future might feel.

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