Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” was a visionary; the Starship Enterprise that he launched on TV 25 years ago has traveled widely through American culture. This season, it will again challenge viewers to boldly go where they’ve never gone before. This season, gays and lesbians will appear unobtrusively aboard the Enterprise in the 24th Century. They weren’t “outed,” they won’t be outcasts; apparently they’ll be neither objects of pity nor melodramatic attention. Their sexual orientation will be a matter of indifference to the rest of the crew.
I’m not otherwise drawn to science fiction, but “Star Trek” taught me a great deal about the tangle of contradictions in contemporary America. During its short initial run between 1966 and 1969, a group of graduate students, gathered weekly to watch the show as a reprieve from news of the Vietnam War. We enjoyed seeing the multiracial crew, debated the eternal struggle between Mr. Spock’s logic and Dr. McCoy’s emotion, and cheered a transnational federation whose prime directive was to never interfere in another society.
Yet “Star Trek” also broadcast the dark side of Cold War liberalism. Capt. Kirk’s good intentions smacked of White House rhetoric about saving Vietnam for freedom. Kirk repeatedly found reasons to violate the prime directive. Then we hooted, angry that the federation, too, couldn’t resist imposing its values everywhere in the galaxy. Hostilities with the irrational, warlike Klingons seemed as interminable as America’s global struggle with communism. The Enterprise stood for democracy, justice and equality, but backed its democratic ideals with weapons of mass destruction. Still, the prime directive expressed a utopian ideal: the search for a more peaceful and decent world.
During “Star Trek’s” last original season, some noticed Kirk’s retrograde attitudes toward women. With the women’s movement just revving up, we were saddened to think that society wouldn’t have changed by the 23rd Century. But “Star Trek” did not lag behind for long. One of the last episodes forced Kirk to live within a woman’s body and confront the social constraints of being a female in his world.
In 1987, many Trekkies greeted the new, syndicated “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with cool skepticism. But the show had grown up gracefully. Its famous opening line, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” was now: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” The new Capt. Picard, played by the elegant British actor Patrick Stewart, brought a thoughtful, mature masculinity to the role. His key officers, women and minorities, created a multicultural community that prefigures America in the 21st Century. Rather than the fixed scenario of a bipolar Cold War, the Next Generation, like ourselves, faces the surprises of a multipolar world.
In “Star Trek,” some of us indulge our most idealistic fantasies of a less contentious and more egalitarian America. Like the once-feared Klingons, gays and lesbians will join the Starship Enterprise as respected members of the crew.
Not so in the American military, or for that matter, in the state of California. In a flagrant display of political opportunism, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the gay-rights bill and returned California to the 1950s. “Star Trek” may be utopian but Gene Roddenberry, unlike our current crop of cynical politicians, challenged us to imagine an alternative society.
Beam him up, Scotty.