These are the voyages of the star ship Enterprise, its continuing mission
to seek out new worlds, new life, and new civilisations. To boldly go
where no one has gone before.
– from the Star Trek: The Next Generation opening credits
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.
– Revelation of John 21.1
Part One: The Phenomenon
At the end of 2016 the SciFi saga Star Trek celebrated its 50th anniversary. Originally conceived as a “space western” of sorts by its creator Gene Roddenberry, going far beyond a collection of idealistically utopian TV shows and feature films, Star Trek has become one of the most influential cultural impulses of the past decades. Rugged Captain Kirk, analytical First Officer Spock, short-tempered Dr “Bones” McCoy and many more besides and after them have become icons of popular culture – as evidenced by generations of fans all over the world and T-shirts sporting slogans like “All I need to know about life I learned from Star Trek.”
Initially, however, this kind of success did not quite seem to be in the cards. Launched in 1966 on a limited budget (so strongly evident in sceneries, make-up and special effects as to become a characteristic of its own) the show quickly gained a small yet loyal following. When cancelled after three seasons due to poor viewer ratios, frequent re-broadcastings on TV, private screenings and fan conventions turned it into a cult phenomenon. The fans’ persistent loyalty eventually paid off: after an animated sequel aired in 1972/73, six feature films were produced from 1979 through 1991, followed by four more TV shows from 1987 through 2005 and another four feature films until 2002. 2009 saw a relaunch so far comprising another three feature films taking place in an alternative timeline, re-telling the origins with younger actors portraying the revered characters of old. Lastly, the latest spin-off by the name of Star Trek: Discovery was launched in September 2017.
The original series is often ridiculed for its “cheesy” sceneries and rudimentary make-up supposedly turning barely changed actors into exotic aliens. But this critique is too busy patting its own back to actually hit home. Star Trek never aimed at depicting a technologically advanced society of the future as “realistically” as possible; scenery, costumes etc. merely provide the backdrop for the often surprisingly profound philosophical questions the show negotiates.
While heavily relying on its pseudo-scientific framework (unlike e.g. Star Wars which is rooted in the archetypically fabulous) Star Trek mainly aims at the audience’s hearts, idealism and empathy (just like Star Wars, at least the original trilogy, does so amiably). The audience is trusted to get involved with their own emotions, aspirations, and hopes – taking plot holes, fantastic chains of events and funny make-up with a pinch (sometimes a fistful) of salt. Unlike cynics claim, Star Trek’s continuous success over five decades testifies not to the audience’s naivety but to a deep, universally human yearning for a life not weighed down by the well-known imperfections. It is about the vision of a better reality rather than mere escapism.
Launched at the peak of the cold war, Star Trek originally draws on the tension between anxiety towards the present and hope for the future. This is epitomized by the eponymous ship’s layout. The star ships employed by the United Federation of Planets come in a vast variety of types and sizes but they all share the same basic design: the relatively small “secondary hull” sprouts a short “neck” which, in turn, carries the circular “saucer section”. This prominent part of the ship houses the main bridge (mind), crew’s quarters (soul), sensors (perception), and armament (volition). Its discoidal shape is reminiscent of the “flying saucers” whose sightings of the day speak to the hope for extra-terrestrial life and peaceful coexistence: the projection of hope for an external “other” to remedy one’s own imperfection.
The secondary hull not only carries the saucer section but also houses the engine room and main engineering (the “belly brain”), shuttle bay, and the ship’s “heart”: the main reactor called “warp core”, the ship’s power source. In the core, harnessed by crystals of the fictional element “Dilithium”, matter and antimatter neutralize each other setting free the incomprehensible amounts of energy required for interstellar propulsion and powering the ship’s systems. True to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage that “any sufficiently sophisticated technology is indistinguishable from magic” these technologies all but cancel the everyday limitations of the 23rd/24th century. In a later part of the article we shall look into the three main technologies: warp drive, transporters and replicators.
At the secondary hull’s front (where the solar plexus might be) the “navigational deflector” is located. It projects a force field which pushes obstacles out of the ship’s flight path. And of course, the ship is also equipped with protective energy shields surrounding it like an invisible sphere capable of deflecting outside attacks – unless energy levels dwindle or the attacker knows the shields’ modulation frequency so as to adapt.
From the secondary hull’s aft end two beams protrude upward and outward, carrying the “warp nacelles”. These, together with the warp core, form the main propulsion system enabling the ship to cross interstellar distances within hours or days. Their basic shape is a sleek cylinder with a pointed front end. In other words: they resemble the rockets of the day. As intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads they represent the era’s ultimate display of destructive. As employed in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, carrying humans into Earth orbit and even to the Moon, they represent the pinnacle of scientific ingenuity and bold pioneering spirit.
The ship’s design combines a symbol of hopeful aspiration towards the other and a symbol of human ingenuity but also destructivity, sophisticated engineering and sheer, unparalleled physical power. Thus, it combines the two sides of human existence (animal and spiritual) and the very principle of our universe (the ever-changing play of complementary opposites) is its source of nearly unlimited power. It is therefore the perfect vehicle to follow the leading principle of Star Trek: To boldly go where no one has gone before.
In our context of spiritual philosophy, this bold journey is considered a metaphor for the individual journey into one’s inner dimensions of divine infinity rather than a tale of travel into the vastness of outer space.
(To be continued in part 2)