Reflections on Star Trek Strange New Worlds S1 Episode 1post by ben.smith · 2022-06-02T04:22:02.309Z · EA · GW · 1 comments
This post is something a bit different: primarily recreational, but not without relevance to this forum. Take from it what you will.
The latest member of the Star Trek canon, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (STSNW) recently arrived on streaming services throughout the world. STSNW has been praised for its "back to basics" approach to Star Trek, eschewing recent trends towards dark, serial formats for a more episodic appoach reminiscent of 20th century Star Trek. Episode 1 in particular is worth highlighting here and I want to share why.
SPOILER ALERT: The remainder of this article will contain spoilers
Star Trek has long been known for an optimistic view of humanity's future over the next few hundred years. After a dark 21st century, in Star Trek lore, humanity discovers faster-than-light travel in 2063, and three hundred years later, Earth was the capital of a democratic Federation of Planets spanning over 150 members. The Federation is often portrayed a post-scarcity economy--rather than incentivising work through money, people take jobs that interest them.
STSNW gives us the story of Captain Christopher Pike, who commands the exploratory Federation starship Enterprise, in the year 2253. Pike harbors a dark secret: not so long ago, alien prophets equipped with a future-seeing oracle show him his near-demise ten years hence in the year 2263. Trapped aboard his starship's bridge as the ship is severely damaged, the fire disfigures him beyond all recognition and leaves him disabled and completely paralyzed from head to toe, confined to a mobile life support system that allows him to communicate with others only with a crude morse system: one beep for yes, two for no. As he goes about his duties exploring uncharted territory, Pike is haunted by visions of his future personal tragedy.
Thus begins a central theme at least in the first episode of STSNW: what is the value of knowing your future?
Pike is sent to rescue a Federation team who have gone missing on an alien planet. When he and his crew arrive, they find a more primitive world lacking faster-than-light travel. On that planet lives a civilization (or set of civilizations) at a level of technological and social development that reminds viewers (perhaps a little too heavy-handedly) of their own 21st century Earth. Two major powers have maintained an ideological conflict for centuries. Pike and his crew are mindful of the Federation's General Order Number One: civilizations without faster-than-light travel are so immature and fragile they must not be contacted or influenced under any circumstances, but must be left to develop in their own way, untouched by others, until they independently develop faster-than-light travel and make themselves known to the galaxy.
But when the crew of the Enterprise arrive, they find General Order Number One has already been violated, unintentionally but with the worst possible consequences. In a conflict aimed at preventing a misaligned artificial general intelligence from destroying the galaxy, Federation starships have emitted so much activity in the local sector the inhabitants of the planet have been able to detect their faster-than-light engines just enough to redevelop the technology themselves. But rather than developing interplanetary travel, the planet's inhabitants have used it to develop a matter-antimatter bomb capable of incinerating their opponents. Pike realizes that he must violate General Order Number One in order to alleviate the harm the Federation has already caused on the planet.
In a tense discussion with his first officer, he weighs the value of revealing the potential future to the planet's inhabitants. She tells him of her traumatic childhood, growing up on a Federation outpost, where a predatory hostile alien force captured and ate many of her friends and family alive. She says the final emotion she saw on their faces was one of surprise--they never thought they'd be unlucky enough to die. But she knew she might die, and the knowledge was enough to preserve her own life to live.
Despite--or because of--the trauma inherent in knowing his own future, and as a result of his first officer's childhood dread of hers, he realizes the inhabitants of the planet need to know what their future could possibly bring. He tells them of 21st-century Earth's World War III, a catastrophic event killing one-third of the planet's population due to their (our!) own inability to make peace with one another. Their alternative is to use their new matter-antimatter technology to learn rather than to fight: to travel the galaxy and, if they desire, one day join the peaceful interplanetary Federation. The starship Enterprise hovers over a major city, capturing the dread and inspiring the hopes of the entire planet's population. A montage shows the entire planet enraptured by dreams of the future, no longer plotting bombs but drawing schematics and plans of the Enterprise in the hopes of transcending their own terrestrial boundaries as well.
So what is the value of knowing your own future? Pike knows with certainty his ends in tragedy, although at one point, a crew member suggests perhaps it isn't so written as he believes. The inhabitants of the comparatively primitive planet are given an opportunity to avoid the worst mistakes of earth, through an inspirational vision of the future. I'm not sure the writers of the episode know what they've done: not only have they poised the question of envisioning their own future potential, they've written a delightful piece of meta-commentary about the entire Star Trek franchise: hope in the future can inspire us collectively to aspire to be our best future selves. The lesson for viewers is a bit heavy-handed, but clear enough: can we capture the hope and promise of our own future of humanity clearly enough to avoid the hatred, division, and violence that could be a part of our own future?
And that's where I bring this all back to our community. I'm very grateful for the longtermist vision of humanity's future. Without entirely losing sight of the future, doomerism afflicts Millennials and Generation Z. In a survey published in the Lancet, forty-five percent of respondents under the age of 25 reported climate anxiety negatively affected their daily lives. As an entirely personal opinion, it seems to me the current cultural climate is in dire need of some hope for the future. The Future of Humanity Institute's worldbuilding contest asks writers to paint a vision of how we might get past the hinge of history dangers of the 21st century. As Anders Sandberg and Toby Ord have painted so well in various writings including The Precipice, a long-term vision of the future, where, if we get it right, trillions of our descendants could one day populate the galaxy, could fill the void and galvanize humanity to work for our greater common good.
In the 1960s and 1990s, Star Trek painted that optimistic vision on the world's television screens. In the 2020s, can Effective Altruism improve on utopian fiction by painting an actually-possible vision of our future prosperity?
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