There’s a moment in the premiere episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds that made me tear up. One of the great things about Star Trek are the speeches. Whether it’s Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer, Saru, Burnham—you get the idea—it’s built into the show that people are going to make IMPORTANT POINTS at times. Because Star Trek imagines a future where words can still shift thoughts and inspire. Whether these speeches land or not is largely up to the writing, the context, and the performance. But Anson Mount’s performance as Captain Pike has always felt fully formed the moment he transported onto the Discovery (Star Trek: Discovery S1E2 “Brother”) and his delivery here is perfect, caught somewhere between Kirk and Picard. It landed, for me. Like a ton of bricks.
Minor spoilers for the episode ahead.
The Past is the Future
The moment, toward the end of the episode, comes as Pike is trying to talk two warring factions on an alien planet back form the brink of what will surely be self-annihilation. To help them understand the gravity of the situation, he shows them scenes from his own planet’s past. Our future. And it’s not pretty. And it starts with some scenes that will be both familiar and, perhaps, controversial to some of us here in the present.
Good. As Mount has said in a (spoilery) interview, he hopes it makes some people uncomfortable. That it’s part of Star Trek to help people confront modern issues in a sci-fi context. And I very much agree. One of the interesting aspects of Star Trek is that the optimistic future it is known for is preceded (in canon) by a dark time of war. Even Gene Roddenberry and the other creators who first crafted the future of Star Trek in the original series (TOS) had a sense that humanity was never going to reach enlightenment via an easy, steady path. Roddenberry, who witnessed the horrors of war first hand, knew humanity too well.
City of Illusion
When I was a kid, and got into Star Trek for the first time (via The Next Generation in 1987) the future seemed rosy. I started to become aware of the wider world beyond my school, my little town, and my home, around this time too. A time when Regan’s “shining city on a hill” vision of America was our perceived, collective destiny. Now, there’s a lot to unpack about that messaging. A lot of nuance and hypocrisy I’d only understand later, as an adult. But, the core of it is this optimistic idea of positivity and growth, after the tumult of the 60s and the cynicism of the 70s. In the 90s, when I was older, I truly believed that things were getting better, and that we were progressing as a culture.
Then, things changed. It’s hard to separate out my emergence into adulthood in the late 90s/early 2000s with the changes taking place in the wider world. It was a rocky time for me. I didn’t deal with the reality of the world very well, to start with. On a personal level, I had a lot of personal illusions shattered about the world, humanity, and even my place in it. On a larger cultural level, there are two examples of cultural shifts I’d like to focus on. The Matrix felt like a real shock to the system, personally, and certainly impacted pop culture. In many ways, it’s a collection of thought (from sci-fi and many other sources) that had been brewing for decades and decades thrust into the limelight by a technically creative sci-fi action movie. A call to arms to wake up to the lies we were being fed, and to somehow rise above them. The fact that both sides of the political spectrum have tried, in retrospect, to embrace The Matrix and this “call to arms” as their own rallying cry shows how fractured our views of reality have become.
Then, of course, there was 9/11, which showed how fragile America could be. Not just because we could be attacked in such a heinous way, but that people would fall so easily back into old modes of blind prejudice, and be willing to give up so much of their personal freedom in the name of security. This was hardly the end of it. I don’t feel the need to recount the many woes and cultural shifts of the last couple decades. You likely lived through most of them. But let’s just say, in my own head, the advances and the good stuff started to be overwhelmed by the re-emergence of regressive ideals, the increase in division, and a lack of empathy.
The Future Belongs…
I stumbled upon the quote “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” a couple decades ago. Sometimes the quote is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but it turns out—like many quotes—its provenance is harder to nail down. At the time, it felt less ubiquitous than it does now. I had a little plaque with that on it on my desk for years. Something I’d never considered, until very recently, was that this is as much a warning as it is an inspirational message. Because there are people out there who believe in the beauty of their dreams—dreams that would be, to many of us, nightmares. And the future could belong to them just as easily as it could to those of us who embrace Star Trek’s ideals. It’s these people who were, perhaps, made the most uncomfortable by the end of Strange New World‘s premiere episode. No one likes to realize they are the villain of a story they treasure. It’s from this crowed that cries of “wokeness” tend to come. I see it across all sorts of fandoms. People who seem shocked that the entertainment they have been absorbing for decades has been expressing ideals that are counter to their own. In fact, some patently refuse to see it, caught in their own funhouse mirror reality where lies are common and logic is circular and twisted.
The power of Pike’s final speech is that he’s, of course, giving it to us as much as the Kileans in the story. The past of Star Trek’s future was written long ago. Just as Pike’s ending was. But our future is still unwritten. When I think about growing up in the 80s and 90s, Star Trek’s beautiful future seemed inevitable. Some of that was my youth, but some of it was the societal hubris I was born into. We were given a shining city made of cardboard and duct tape, and the hill upon which it was built was a burial mound, filled with all the marginalized people sacrificed to make it happen. The reason that speech meant so much to me—and felt like it synthesized perfectly what Star Trek can be in the 21st Century—is that it made no promises. It only gave choices, and hinted at the hard work ahead to achieve that dream. And, softy that I am, I was moved that it imagined a time where words mattered and could still change hearts. Even if that world feels far away right now, it felt good reaching for it again.