FOUR decades ago, when the starship Enterprise first settled into orbit around Planet M-113 on Sept. 8, 1966, I was 2 years old. I could not have known it at the time, but “Star Trek” would literally change my life.To say that any television show has changed one’s life is to invite both mockery and pity for a poor, shuttered geek who must surely have been denied direct sunlight and the attention of women for the better part of his days. But in lieu of offering documentary proof that I do not, in fact, still reside in my parents’ basement, let me simply tell you how “Star Trek” informed the way I look at the world.
“Star Trek” is often reduced to kitsch: Kirk’s paunch, Spock’s pointy ears, green-skinned alien girls. But it was more than escapism and rubber-suited aliens. It was a morality play, with Capt. James T. Kirk as a futuristic John F. Kennedy piloting a warp-driven PT-109 through the far reaches of the galaxy.Kirk, for me, embodied an American idea: His mission was to explore the final frontier, not to conquer it. He was moral without moralizing. Week after week, he confronted the specters of intolerance and injustice, and week after week found a way to defeat them without ever becoming them. Jim Kirk may have beat up his share of bad guys, but you could never imagine him torturing them.
A favorite quote: “We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we won’t kill today.” Kirk clearly understood humanity’s many flaws, yet never lost faith in our ability to rise above the muck and reach for the stars.“Star Trek” painted a noble, heroic vision of the future, and that vision became my lodestar.
As I grew into adolescence, the show provided a handy reference against which to judge the questions that my young mind began to ask: What is the obligation of a free society toward the less fortunate? Does an “advanced” culture have the right to spread its ideas among more “primitive” ones? What does it mean to be human, and at what point do we lose our humanity to our technology?And as I grew into an adult, and my political views took shape, I treasured “Star Trek” as a dream of what my country could one day become — a liberal and tolerant society, unafraid to live by its ideals in a dangerous universe, and secure in the knowledge that its greatness derived from the strength of its ideas rather than the power of its phasers.
In my 20’s, through a combination of luck and determination, I fulfilled my childhood dream — I became a writer for “Star Trek.”For 10 years, I helped propel the latter-day incarnations of “Trek” into new territory while keeping alive the set of moral principles I’d taken to heart. As I plotted the adventures of the Enterprise-D and the travails of the space station Deep Space 9, I gradually became interested in pushing the boundaries of “Star Trek,” and began to let Captains Picard and Sisko find the shades of gray in a universe Kirk sometimes saw only in black and white.
Science fiction on film and television has, over the past four decades, moved decisively away from the optimism of “Star Trek.” “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “The Matrix” posit much darker, dystopian futures; even the “Star Wars” movies posit the rise of a galactic empire founded on “the dark side.” Social and commercial explanations abound for this shift, but my theory is that “Star Trek” set the gold standard for the idealistic vision of tomorrow and no one has successfully challenged it.Nowadays, it may appear that I’ve turned a blind eye to my lodestar as the crew of the battlestar Galactica behave in ways that would’ve been unthinkable in the “Star Trek” universe that Gene Roddenberry created. But “Battlestar Galactica” remains very much informed by the lessons I learned from that slightly paunchy man in the gold pajama top on the good ship Enterprise.
My characters may not have all the answers (sometimes they’re not even aware of the questions) but they contain kernels of both good and evil in their hearts and continue to struggle for salvation and redemption against the darker angels of their natures. Their defeats are many, their victories few, but somehow, some way, they never give up the dream of finding a better tomorrow.And, thanks to a 40-year-old television show, neither do I.
Ronald D. Moore is the writer of “Battlestar Galactica.”