This Is Our Work: What Star Trek Asks of Us

“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”—Rabbi Tarfon

I was tremendously lonely my first year in high school. My parents had insisted I go to a prep school they could barely afford instead of going to the local high school with all my friends from elementary. The girls at Miss Porter’s seemed alien to me—most of them came from far more wealth than I did, the sorts of families that endowed buildings and wore trendy clothes I couldn’t even recognize, much less afford. Those girls often spent spring break in the Bahamas; I spent mine at home, babysitting my little sisters.

And of course, I was a brown girl, born in Sri Lanka, raised in Connecticut, at a school that was overwhelmingly white. After classes, I took refuge in the library, waiting for my dad to come pick me up (there was no bus service, of course, since most of the students were boarders). The adult librarian was probably my closest friend at school that year; she always had a kind word for the short brown girl with glasses who curled up in a wing chair and steadily worked her way through the stacks of paperbacks from the spinning wire racks.

Until one day, something magic happened—I forgot my copy of Diane Duane’s Star Trek novel, The Wounded Sky, in English class and one of those blonde girls, Lisette, picked it up and told me, excitedly, she loved that book. We traded our other favorites: The Final Reflection, Uhura’s Song, The Romulan Way, Dwellers in the CrucibleIshmael, The Prometheus Design, Triangle. Many of our favorite Trek novels shared similar themes: attempting to understand alien cultures, to find ways to connect and avoid the lurking potential for violence. Lisette quickly became one of my best friends. It’s a very Star Trek story—two people from different worlds, coming together in shared delight. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

I’m now a college professor, which means my summers tend to be less scheduled than the rest of the year. In between trying to write books, I usually end up rewatching one of the Star Trek series; this year it was Enterprise, which I had somehow gotten interrupted watching the first time around. That series has its flaws, certainly—they all do, in one way or another. Enterprise was perhaps the weakest of them all. But still, I find it valuable, immersing myself in the Trek universe. I laugh; I sometimes cry. I’m reminded of the values I hold most dear.

Star Trek is my comfort TV, my comfort stories. Like Terry Pratchett’s work, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s, like the Arthurian saga, the Trek universe is one of my touchstones. It’s work I return to when life is feeling too hard, too dark, whether personally (as in my last two years of cancer treatment) or more broadly (as in the various challenges facing our planet—environmental, economic, racial, gendered, etc., and so on). When the news on my Facebook feeds seems an endless stream of death, callousness, horror, and more needless, greedy death. When I can’t bear to listen to NPR anymore, for fear of breaking down in tears on the highway—that’s when I need these works most desperately.

Comfort does not mean simple escape. This is not work that centers on running away from the world’s problems to some lovely place where they don’t exist. Often, there is just as much darkness in these stories as in our own world. But! Those very different works all share a certain angle of vision. They feature characters who value integrity highly, who struggle to do the right thing, even in the face of overwhelming difficulties, even at great personal cost to themselves. Sometimes they fail, because they are only human (or Vulcan). But they keep trying.

Much of the credit for that approach in Star Trek is due to Roddenberry’s vision; he crafted a universe which holds darkness and even evil, but centers on a bright dream—a galactic Federation where species can come together in exploration, in community. It’s there in the original show. Even when the crew was engaging with the monster of the week, when each episode had to be finished off with a neat little bow and a joke (due to the network priorities at the time), the community and camaraderie were there, between diverse races and even species, facing the darkness together. The friendship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was strong enough to withstand everything, even death. I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

And even though Starfleet is a quasi–military organization, even though they too sometimes fail to live up to their own bright ideals (I’m looking at you, Section 31, secret police)—it matters greatly that their primary purpose is exploration. To seek out new worlds and new civilizations. There is space within Starfleet for individual judgment, for bending or even breaking the rules when it’s the right thing to do. Some things do transcend the discipline of the service.

In 1969, Star Trek: The Original Series was cancelled, in what was later called one of TV’s greatest blunders. A brief animated series was offered in 1973–1974, and we were given four movies between 1979 and 1986. There were novelizations of the original show and a host of new novels. But there is something particularly powerful about having a live–action series on television; it reaches a massive, broad audience, people flipping channels and landing on a starship inhabited by a shockingly diverse crew. It would be 18 dire years before ardent fans succeeded in their letter–writing campaign to bring a live–action show back to TV, with Star Trek: The Next Generation premiering in 1987.

The original series opened with the words “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five–year mission…” That five–year mission was truncated. But because enough people cared, because they poured their time and energy and hearts and words into fighting for Trek, they brought it back, for all of us. I am so grateful. When I watch Next Gen now, the words have changed slightly. Patrick Stewart tells us, “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission…” Continuing. That word brings tears to my eyes because for so long, we feared the TV show would never come back.

If we want to shape a brighter, better future, the future of Roddenberry’s vision, we must continue to fight for his vision—not just in the fictional realm, but in the real world as well. We must hold onto integrity and complexity and nuance, letting go of our prejudices and preconceptions. We must struggle to understand the Other, no matter how different their origin or point of view.

Though each Trek captain approached the universe’s problems very differently, they shared the same goal—a universe where diverse people could come together in peace. Jim Kirk might charge in boldly, relying on charm and luck and sheer courage. Jean–Luc Picard asked us to reflect, to think deeply before we act. Benjamin Sisko offers quiet power, the certainty of a man who knows where he comes from, deeply rooted in his people’s history and culture. Kathryn Janeway sometimes struggled to find space for her personal life as a woman, but she never compromised what she needed to do as captain; in the end, she brought her crew safely home.

As for Jonathan Archer—he was perhaps the most suspicious of the Other, the captain nearest to us in time and spirit, and with the furthest to go. But eventually, Archer came to embody the best ideals of Roddenberry’s universe, and it was his actions that made it possible to finally found the Federation. If he could get past all of his preconceptions and prejudices, then maybe we can too.

When I am overwhelmed by the world’s grief, when the work of fixing even a small part of it seems more than one small person can encompass, Star Trek lends me strength to continue. I am not in this alone—just as Trek brought me and Lisette together in those high school years, Trek has brought together a host of ardent fans who share that vision of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. When I look forward into the future, I feel them by my side. I feel Kirk and Picard, Sisko and Janeway, and yes, even Archer, looking over my shoulders.

Oh captain, my captain. Let us build a world you can all be proud of. This is the work we have been asked to do.