James T. Kirk once stated, “Risk is our business.” “That’s the purpose of this starship. This is why we are aboard her.
A half-century after his original performance, the actor who gave life to the Enterprise captain is now heading for the stars in a completely different setting than his fictional counterpart. William Shatner, in this way, is creating parallel universes or at least allowing them to coexist. This is the utopian spacefaring vision that “Star Trek” portrays and the increasingly commercialized spot that “space” holds in the American psyche.
At around dawn Wednesday in Texas, Shatner board Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin NS-18. This is his first step into the craft and creates one the greatest crossover stories of all time.
It’s all about space and exploration. And, of course, capitalism and billionaires and economic equity. It’s also about marketing and popular culture, entertainment, nostalgia, hope, Manifest Destiny, and, and…
Shatner asked Anderson Cooper last week what he would see out there. A similar question is: What will we see out there?
It will consist of a complex mix of human hopes, technology, hope, braggadocio, cash and the idea that space travel elevates people — all orchestrated and managed by a company that is being criticized for its un-utopian and tech-bro ways.
Are all those and Star Trek a good match?
THE WORLD OF “STAR TREK”
Since 1966’s premiere, “Trek”, starring one of the most varied casts TV has ever seen, has evolved from Gene Roddenberry’s fever dream of a “Wagon Train” to the stars into an intricate transmedia universe rich in subtleties, traditions and rules.
They include: Human beings do not kill each other. As is poverty and hunger, money is usually outdated. Greed is a sinful thing. The most sacred principle is noninterference in other culture. The United Federation of Planets is the spacefaring United Nations of Star Trek. Exploration, not domination is the currency of the realm. This is a far cry from a lot of humanity.
The original 1966-1969 series featured allegory to get around network censors. It told stories about racism, xenophobia, and even the Vietnam War. How did they manage to do that? The adventures of Kirk’s Enterprise were set against the backdrop of space travel in the 23rd century — something that is directly relevant to the world, as humans first set foot on Earth 47 days after the end of the original series.
With the support of a passionate fan base, “Star Trek,” over the next 50 years, roared back to more. This helped cement space travel as a relevant canvas for storytelling.
Even though NASA’s Apollo era faded into the space shuttle program (where an initial craft was called “Enterprise”), and then into uncertainty, “Trek”, a cultural icon for a spacefaring future, remained a central vehicle of culture.
Nichelle Nichols played Lt. Uhura in the series. She was a tireless advocate for NASA, helping to recruit Americans of color, women, and ensure that they could be at the center of the mission’s ambitions.
The 1980s saw movies that focused on the original crew dealing with regret and aging. The next generation of Star Trek was more philosophical, but still utopian. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a spinoff that was set at an outpost keeping a delicate detente presented a darker view — but one in which avarice is anomalous and worthy to be ridiculed. The 2001-2005 prequel “Enterprise” offered a long season about the aftermath of an extraterrestrial attack in the style of 9/11 on Earth.
The myths of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, have both delved deeper into the darkness than their predecessors. They have also explored the possibility that not everyone wants to live in a utopia.
One constant in all the stories was the idea that human space travel would be a source of ethics and goodness that elevates the galaxy, rather than plundering it.
THE PROFITABLE FRONTIER
This brings us to Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — companies that do not build their brands on countries but corporations.
They provide a culture with a late-stage capitalism version of the theme — a narrative that spacetravel isn’t only for diplomats and scientists but also for the rest of us. If you and I have at least a few hundred thousands dollars of cash on hand.
Ravi S. Rajan (president of the California Institute for the Arts) says that the United States has always had private people working for the common good. He is a long-time “Trek” fan and president of the California Institute for the Arts. But how much of it is done privately and how much publically, that is what changes.”
Many have criticized the actions of billionaire space moguls, including the secretary general of the United Nations. The problems with Blue Origin’s corporate culture is well-documented.
The motives of Amazon’s founder are not clear. However, it is clear that he has been deeply influenced by the space travel culture.
Bezos is a long-time “Trek” fan. He tells the story of how he explored space to ensure Earth’s continued prosperity. In the 2016 film “Star Trek Beyond,” he appeared as an alien Starfleet official. According to Brad Stone, Bezos also briefly considered calling Amazon “Makeitso.com,” a reference to Capt. Jean-Luc Picard’s favorite command was in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“The entire ethos of Star Trek showed people who were different-looking and with different skills working together. Richard B. Cooper, vice-president of the Space Foundation, which advocates for the global aerospace industry, says that we are at the beginning of something similar. “People can see this environment and feel like they belong.
Cooper is correct, despite the prohibitive costs (which is a major aside). Although Shatner and others may not be considered “regular people”, the shift from the dominance test pilots and scientists to the populism in our age, where the exactitude of science — it must also be said — is being challenged as never before, is remarkable. Cooper says that it gives people hope. It’s the essential payload that’s lacking in the world.
This kind of story — which includes hope, heroism and competitive dominance, as well as a unerring sense that competence can sometimes overlap with testosterone — is one reason commercial space outfits are flourishing. The entrepreneurs and their marketers are stepping in at a time when NASA and nation-focused satellite travel lack a compelling Hollywood story.
“America’s dominance in space is something that nobody really cares about. Bezos is the one who said, “We can’t continue living like this.” Mary-Jane Rubenstein is a Wesleyan University professor of religion, science, and society. She says that the result is a “kinder, gentler colonialism”, in which humans orbit using premises that are plausible but need closer scrutiny.
Rubenstein, author of the forthcoming book “Astrotopia” (The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race), says that it is the billionaires who have utopian visions.
She says, “The states cannot muster them.” They have no story.
It’s a time when the real and the imaginary are in a complex relationship. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference. William Shatner is a great ambassador for this kind of thing, which is a combination of real-life ambitions and dreams.
Anderson Cooper was told by Shatner that he was present last week while rehearsing.
Cooper stated that training is what they call it. Shatner replied, “I consider it rehearsal.”
It’s there again, the compelling storyline that steals oxygen from important questions. Is it even possible to colonize space? Aren’t there enough things going on at home? Don’t you know of people who have more pressing problems than these and could benefit from the cash?
What if life isn’t what we expect and we end up harming it because we aren’t aware of it? This has happened many times before, on the ground. In the land that put man on the moon and still struggles with a history filled with horrors, from smallpox blankets to slave markets, it’s not like that’s never happened. These are just a few of the many questions Shatner will be asking on Wednesday.
It’s a stunt. Yes. It’s a clever marketing tactic. Yes. It is self-inflating and cynical. Is it designed to get more attention and make more money for the world’s wealthiest man? That is up to you.
Consider, in the interim, the autobiographical song “Real”, which Shatner co-wrote with Brad Paisley in 2004.
“I would love to help the whole world with all its problems.” He says that he is an entertainer and that’s it. “So, the next time an asteroid strikes or a natural catastrophe occurs, I’m humbled that you thought of us — but I’m not who to call.”
It turns out he is, this time. But next time? The future of the last frontier and the culture that has developed around it — in an unusual realm where risk IS business — this will eventually have to be addressed.