“Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes,” says Captain Christopher Pike. He’s in a roadside bar in rural Iowa, the kind of old-school dive that still serves Budweiser Classic and shots of Jack, despite far more interesting drinks having been invented by 2255.
“He saved 800 lives—including your mother’s, and yours,” Pike continues. It’s quiet in the bar—past closing time—and Pike’s talking to a dipshit farm boy who just yanked a wadded-up napkin out of his bloody nose. The rest of the blood on James T. Kirk’s face is starting to dry—a reminder that, while the kid’s pretty good at starting bar fights, he sucks at finishing them.
Pike looks at Kirk. “I dare you,” he says, “to do better.”
As scenes in 2009’s Star Trek go, that’s a big one. (For Kirk, at least—otherwise he’d have never bothered scraping that blood off his face and ignoring his hangover long enough to enroll in the “peace-keeping and humanitarian armada” of Starfleet.) But Pike’s challenge also serves as a reminder of what Star Trek is all about: he fact that, as a species, we can do a hell of a lot better.
That sentiment probably felt less forced when the original Star Trek was beamed into Americans’ TVs in 1966, right in the midst of the Space Age, an era that embraced science and humanism. In 1966, it might not have seemed likely that humankind would set aside our differences to cure disease, stop war, eliminate money, and explore the stars in bright, plastic spaceships, but at least it didn’t seem impossible.
It does seem kind of impossible in 2016, when any glance at the news makes JUST FUCKING BURN IT DOWN ALREADY feel like a reasonable course of action. So maybe it’s worth remembering that both the Space Age and the future seen in Star Trek—a future where crews of multicultural scientists departed a thriving Earth to discover, and learn from, other civilizations—came about thanks to conflict. The race to the Moon wouldn’t have happened without the paranoid tensions of America and the Soviet Union; the Civil Rights movement came about only after centuries of atrocities were tolerated and encouraged on American soil. If 2016—when we’re still giving Russia the side-eye, when authorities still spill black people’s blood on our streets, when fear-stoking demagogues still determine our cultural discourse—seems so awful, it’s because 2016 feels so little like the future and so much like the past.
It might seem desperate or foolhardy to turn to Star Trek to show us what we’re capable of, but that’s what Star Trek already did. Creator Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek inspired future scientists and current technologies, and showed the rest of us a way, however fantastical, that people of different colors and beliefs could work and live together, pushing humanity forward. With a billion TV episodes and a slew of movies (Star Trek Beyond comes out this weekend, and next year brings a new streaming TV series), Star Trek has morphed into one more monolithic genre franchise—one that’s sometimes clever and sometimes stupid, one that sometimes devotes hours to space diplomacy and at other times just sets off some space explosions. But five decades after it premiered, Star Trek serves as reminder: We’ve had shitty times before. We got through them. There will be more shitty times. We’ll get through those, too.
Despite the twenty-first century having surpassed many of Roddenberry’s wildest technological dreams, those of us living in 2016 find ourselves struggling with some of the same social and political issues as those who were alive in the ’60s. That can make Star Trek’s interstellar utopia seem goofy and preposterous—like it’s merely one more fantasy world for us to gaze into as we retreat from reality. But every once in a while, the future of Star Trek can feel like something more—like a melding of entertainment and ideology, of adventure and potential. Every once in a while, Star Trek feels like an actual glimpse into a future. A future where, if we wanted, we could scrape the blood off our faces and do better.