I’m not sure I’d have made it through my teenage years without Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I’d get home from high school – which required a half-hour train journey across the city – at around 4:50 PM, and my grandmother would always have dinner just about ready. I’d take my plate, relocate to the living room, and switch on the TV.
We didn’t eat dinner together as a family; my father was gone by that point, and my mother taught in the evenings at her dance school, which was attached to the house. I’d see her occasionally, but not really until nine or ten o’clock at night, and then only briefly.
Dinnertime, for me, was all about Star Trek.
The episode started at 5 PM each weeknight, and I’d be ready and waiting. I had the Technical Manual for the Enterprise-D in my room, and at one point I even made an LCARS computer panel on my desk, with hand-drawn fake buttons, and a sheet of glass laid over the top. I think it was the front of an old hi-fi cabinet that had finally fallen off.
I had the Starfleet uniform, and the toy phaser, tricorder, and combadge. My school trousers and shoes went well with the burgundy and black command-track uniform top. There was a Star Trek exhibition here in Edinburgh one year, and a friend and I skipped school to come through from Glasgow on the train and see it.
We both had Starfleet uniform tops that we changed into in the railway station’s toilets. It was a weekday, and we were the only attendees who had dressed up. When it was quiet, a couple of the security staff let us stand on the transporter pad from the Next Generation set, and powered it up.
I dreamed of that fictional 24th Century often. Star Trek has a wonderful dramatic conceit called the holodeck, which is a big, empty room. You walk in, tell the computer what environment you want to simulate, and boom - you’re in a three-dimensional virtual reality that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. Choose your own time, place, and characters. There are even holo-novels, including adaptions of the classics for you to participate in. You can exit at any time (just tell the computer), but things can go wrong. The holodeck malfunction episode is a beloved Trek trope, and fodder for some truly fun episodes - and probably some interesting challenges for the wardrobe and scenic art departments.
Computer, end program.
I used to say that, sometimes. Always with just a frisson of nervous anticipation. Perhaps one day, finally, it’d be answered by a series of electronic acknowledging tones from somewhere above, and then the world around would just fade, leaving me standing on the holodeck grid. There were days when I held onto that hope tightly.
That’s what science fiction is about, of course: hope.
It’s inherently optimistic, even if some of its specific flavours are dystopian. Science fiction says we’ll still be here. We may still be fucking things up completely, but at least we’ll still be around. And if we’re still around, there’ll be another tomorrow. Another chance.
Sci-fi is more than that, though. It’s also a lens through which we can examine ourselves. It’s a way for us to explore the human condition, in a context that’s safely removed from the muddying and frustrating factors of contemporary civilisation.
We can learn about morality, and test our sense of ethics. We can explore politics, and the danger that some ideologies bring. We can recast some of the darkest moments of our history, and reanimate them, watching them play out once more. We can even change a few names, costumes, and practices, and scrutinise our supposedly sacrosanct belief systems.
We can analyse and reconsider, and most importantly we can gain the necessary perspective to see how ridiculous we are, if we’d just stop taking ourselves so damned seriously.
Science fiction is our attempt not just to learn from the past, but also to gain the benefit of hindsight for the present. To step outside of this time, and even our own species, and really look.
The vehicle for that gaze isn’t the starship Enterprise, or Voyager, or the Cardassian monstrosity re-badged as Deep Space Nine. Those are just settings. The real lens is the Outsider.
Spock was an Outsider. So was Data, and even Worf. Odo, and occasionally Quark. The Emergency Medical Hologram, and Tuvok, and from time to time, also B’Elanna Torres, and Seven of Nine. T’Pol and Phlox too. And those were just the regulars. We’d also have to mention the magnificent Q.
The Outsider is science fiction’s mirror for ourselves, who looks, listens, and implicitly judges. That judgement might be disdain (Q, certainly, and often Seven of Nine), puzzlement (Data, sometimes Worf), quiet vexation (all Vulcan characters), or something else entirely.
They watch, and they notice, and thus through their eyes they allow us to notice things that have been right in front of us all along. They bring things to light, sometimes by drawing attention to them, and sometimes by not understanding why there’s anything to draw attention to.
When we saw how unremarkable it was to have a woman (and an African American woman, at that) on the bridge, with a Russian alongside, it was because the Outsider failed to see any meaningful distinction between these various humans.
When we decried the ludicrousness of racial discrimination amongst aliens whose faces were sometimes white on the left side and black on the right, and sometimes the opposite, it was really the Outsider’s bemused eyes we were seeing though. The observer, whose quintessential alienness was just a thin veneer for the rationality and perspective we strive and yearn for.
In these imagined futures, the Outsider was the yardstick for our own progress. A way to measure it, and thus truly see it.
And progress brings hope.
We can visit these possible tomorrows, and see that we will make progress with all of the unnecessary problems we face, and that one day we’ll tear down the barriers we’ve needlessly erected amongst ourselves. Even the continued existence of some of our problems in these fictional futures is comforting in a way, showing that we’ll have another opportunity to learn our lessons. Science fiction lets us skip ahead, when our need for those changes becomes too great to bear.
It’s a bitter and amusing truth that, despite our ability to create the universes of distant centuries in endless variations, we lack imagination regarding the years immediately ahead. We can’t see the path that connects us to where we want to be, and today’s problems seem insurmountable.
For us, things only become normal by first being seen to be normal - like a woman on the bridge (perhaps as Captain), or a world without hunger. With a fantasy of the future, instead of asking how we get there, we show ourselves what it’ll be like when we do.
It lets us get far enough away from our current lives that, when we turn around and look back, we can finally see things clearly.
This will be unremarkable someday, science fiction says.
Why not tomorrow?