September 8, 1966, marked the beginning of what would prove to be an enduring mythology and a grand odyssey, for on that day NBC aired “The Man Trap,” the first episode of its new science fiction series Star Trek. Fifty years later, Star Trek remains a significant pop culture phenomenon. It’s unlikely that even series creator Gene Roddenberry could have imagined its subsequent cultural impact, making icons of its key characters, enshrining several classic catchphrases, and resulting in over 700 episodes and ten movies (plus three reboot films) across five series (six if you count The Animated Series). This summer saw the release of the third big-budget “Kelvin Timeline” film, Star Trek Beyond, and a controversial new series installment, Star Trek: Discovery, is set to premiere in January 2017.
Roddenberry himself was a progressive, deeply ambivalent about religion, and so any thoughtful Christian fan of the Trek universe will have to navigate through his agnostic humanism. Still, believers of every stripe have found qualities to appreciate in the rich secondary world that Roddenberry conceived and countless subsequent writers and producers developed. As a tribute to Star Trek’s lasting legacy, here are some of our writers’ favorite moments.
Star Trek stopped being fun for me right around the time Roddenberry started buying into his own mythology—that is, when Next Generation came out—but the fourth film, which came out the year before Next Gen, manages to combine the original series’ campy fun with Next Gen’s breathless optimism—without being cloying or obnoxious about it. That’s no mean feat. In Voyage Home, the Enterprise crew travels back in time to ’80s America to Save The Whales—a scenario that the film uses both to satirize contemporary vulgarity (“Double dumbass on you!”) and to promote hope for a future where problems are solved through creativity instead of violence. It ain’t the biggest action movie ever made—or an action movie at all—but it’s a great little ensemble comedy. What’s not to love?
“Q Who,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
Much of the joy of watching Star Trek lies in its boundless optimism. But it’s good for the Enterprise crew (and the audience) to be reminded that space is stranger and more dangerous than we might be capable of handling. Episodes like “Night Terrors” and “Schisms” explore this point wonderfully, but “Q Who” trumps them all for one simple reason: the Borg. When the near-omnipotent entity Q sends the Enterprise hurtling across the galaxy, the Enterprise encounters the implacable cybernetic race, one whose philosophy is completely opposed to the Federation’s. Episodes with Q are always a treat, but “Q Who” is one of the best, and ends with a great Q speech in which he warns Picard about the treasures—and dangers—that exist out there in the galaxy.
“Waltz” and “In the Pale Moonlight,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Unlike the other Star Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine explores darker and more complex stories. Often these episodes boldly challenge the very premises of Star Trek, such as the assumptions that humanity always progresses beyond religion, right and wrong can be relative, and good Federation officers show the best of humanity.
DS9’s high point might be season 6, which brought “Waltz” and “In the Pale Moonlight.” Each may work as a standalone story, but viewers who track the whole series benefit more by having followed characters, such as Captain Benjamin Sisko, commander of space station Deep Space Nine. The station is run by the Federation and located near the (highly religious) planet Bajor, which has recently recovered from a years-long occupation by the Cardassian Union.
In “Waltz,” Sisko crash-lands on an empty planet with none other than Gul Dukat, the former prefect of the Cardassian occupation. We’ve spent several seasons watching Dukat approach repentance or moral nuance. Is he merely a washed-up tyrant? Or could he become someone more, perhaps even a loving father or a ruler who truly wanted to help in his own way? But while Sisko is trapped with Dukat, the story takes the tyrant’s side—only to show us in sinister detail how he sees the world. And later, Sisko reflects and rejects any notion of moral relativism, concluding,
Sometimes life seems so complicated. Nothing is truly good or truly evil. Everything seems to be a shade of grey. And then you spend some time with a man like Dukat, and you realize that there is such a thing as truly evil.
Seven stories later, Sisko himself is forced to confront his own shade of grey, which quickly becomes worse. Sisko has become increasingly desperate about the seasons-long Federation/Klingon war against the Dominion. How can the allies turn the tide of war? Sisko reluctantly pursues a complex plot to plant false evidence and force the Romulan Empire onto the Federation side. With
each new obstacle and temptation, Sisko treads deeper into gray areas. Finally his scheme succeeds, but at the cost of his own complicity in deception and compromise. But later Sisko is convinced his decision was right, despite his own wounded conscience. And the story ends. Was his choice right? Wrong? Sisko can’t answer. Neither can we. All we know is that in a fallen world of lies and wars, we face such bounded choices. Apart from Christ, we will always struggle with our fallen, “truly evil” state—even in the humanistic world of Star Trek.
“Death Wish” Star Trek: Voyager
The Star Trek franchise has never been one to shy away from tackling important social issues, including racism and discrimination. And at first blush, “Death Wish” appears to tackle the issue of euthanasia and suicide, after the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager discovers an imprisoned member of the Q Continuum who wishes to shed his immortality. Christians may be disappointed that the episode ultimately seems to condone euthanasia. However, I find the episode a more intriguing exploration of what it means to be immortal, even god-like. When the Voyager crew travel to the Q Continuum, it appears to be a dreadfully boring place. Is that the sort of stultifying existence that awaits us in Heaven? Do we serve a bored—and boring—God? Through its depiction of a dry, dusty eternity, this Voyager episode inspires me to consider God the way Chesterton did, as Someone Who never tires of even the smallest and most mundane tasks. (Also, “Death Wish” sets up some of my favorite Q moments in a later episode, “The Q and the Grey.”)
I could pick from any number of favorites, but I feel compelled to make a selection from Enterprise, in part because I think it has been somewhat unjustly excoriated or ignored. In 2004-2005, its fourth and final season (and the last full season of Trek until 2017), the series began truly to be what I think most of its viewers had always wanted it to be: a thoughtful, entertaining exploration of the nooks and crannies of Star Trek’s history. Season four thoroughly embraced the heritage of The Original Series, bringing back storylines, aliens, and themes that hadn’t been seen in almost forty years. And few episodes did so better than the episodes that make up the Vulcan trilogy. In this arc, an act of terrorist sabotage leads Captain Archer and T’Pol into Vulcan’s Forge, a desolate desert populated by the purported combatants, a group called the Syrranites. But the Syrranites are no terrorists—rather they are devotees of true logic, carrying with them the katra of Surak, the founder of Vulcan philosophy. They’ve been framed by the scheming official V’Las who, we later learning, has been colluding with Romulans to corrupt Vulcan society.
Enterprise’s fourth season is one of the few occasions I know of when the Vulcan embrace of logic was given its fair philosophical due. Even The Original Series seemed desperately bent on cracking Spock’s stoic veneer and having him embrace his emotional “human” side; The Next Generation mostly ignored Vulcans, while Deep Space Nine often seemed actively hostile to them, and Voyager’s Tuvok was never developed enough to make his worldview compelling. When Enterprise began, viewers complained that its Vulcans were even more arrogant (and illogical) than past Trek incarnations. But this arc not only provided an intriguing explanation for the past seasons, it helped demonstrate why the stability and emotional tranquility of rational thinking is compelling. As I’ve previously written, early Christian theologians (and the Bible itself) prized reason far more highly than our passion-driven culture would like to admit. “The Forge,” “Awakening,” and “Kir’Shara” were envisioned by Enterprise writers as a Vulcan equivalent of the Protestant Reformation. And in the midst of the episodes’ pyrotechnics, they still provide a useful reminder that, in service of the Divine Logos, Christians should ever keep true reason as our near ally.