Star Trek is 50 years old this year, and its hopeful message has never been more important.
With huge national and global challenges ahead, politicians seem to be desperately in need of inspiration, so where better to look than a show that celebrates the best of human nature?
In the wake of Brexit, there was hardly a resignation or backstabbing that didn't get compared to a scene from 'House of Cards' or 'Game of Thrones'. These had been two of my favourite shows; I enjoyed the morally complex characters, the personal motivations and convictions that replaced a traditional storytelling setup of good versus evil, the Machiavellian plots and counter-plots. But I suddenly had no appetite for this kind of entertainment. Britain wasn't the place I thought it was; it seemed smaller, meaner. Everything seemed uncertain, and 2016 began to seem like the pre-credits sequence of a film about a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Looking for some escapist light relief, I started re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, hoping that a fun show about space that had been a favourite when I was a young child would take my mind off things. There is nothing edgy about TNG; it doesn't have the retro appeal of the Original Series, or the moral complexity of Deep Space Nine. But watching these competent, well-adjusted characters working as a team to help people they'd only just met was like a balm for my soul, and made me realise how important it is to have more representations of hope in our media.
Recent political campaigns have been fought using fear, and the result is a divided, isolated Britain. We are so obsessed with nostalgia, with trying to capture a past that never existed, we are forgetting to look to the future.
When Gene Roddenberry introduced Star Trek to the US in 1966, the Cold War dominated international politics and Civil Rights campaigners were still fighting against decades of racist segregation. His vision of the future was a post-scarcity society, where people from different races and backgrounds work together in a spirit of scientific discovery. Watching the show now, as a 21st century cynic, it's easy to laugh at the wobbly sets or roll one's eyes at the casual sexism, but that would be dismissive of the huge impact the show had at the time. Roddenberry understood that representation matters: famously, actor Whoopi Goldberg and astronaut Mae Jemison were both inspired to pursue their respective careers after seeing Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, a capable black woman, working on the bridge of a starship. Many female fans have also credited Star Trek: Voyager (the first of the shows to feature women as captain and chief engineer) as their inspiration to pursue a STEM career.
One of the most refreshing aspects of watching Star Trek is how proficient everyone is at their jobs. Michael Gove may have had enough of experts, but the Star Trek universe clearly hasn't, and watching characters excelling at, and genuinely enjoying their work is surprisingly cheering. Their pursuit of knowledge is tireless, fearless, and even reckless at times, but it always seems preferable to the 'post truth' situation we find ourselves in now. The supportive aspects of the Starfleet workplace also seem very utopian, especially aboard the Enterprise: the idea that good mental health provision is vital for an efficiently functioning workforce shouldn't still be the stuff of science fiction.
The portrayal of non-traditional families in the Star Trek universe is also very positive: Commander Sisko and Doctor Crusher are both single parents who are shown doing a great job of raising their children. Sisko's calm and gentle parenting is a wonderful depiction of fatherhood, and pushes back against a lot of negative stereotypes. The crews of the ships become as close-knit as a biological family, and demonstrate the importance of 'found family'; with more people living further away from their relatives, being able to establish new communities through a stable work or living situation is vital.
The idea of embracing our differences is woven throughout the franchise, from the Original Series to the new spin-off movies. As well as physical differences (usually conveyed through a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ear and forehead prosthetics), the more three-dimensional non-human characters (for example, Spock, Data or Seven of Nine) often had a different emotional or philosophical outlook to their human counterparts. These characters were integral members of the team, but also demonstrated a valid resistance to suggestions that they should always aim to be more like everyone else. This message of 'different, but equal' could not be more important today.
The newest film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, had a positive (if heavy-handed) message for an increasingly dystopic 2016. "Unity is not your strength!" bellows the villain, Krall, like a humanoid embodiment of Brexit. Krall drains the life out of anyone unfortunate enough to crash-land on "his" planet, and seems impossible to defeat (I did say this wasn't subtle). Of course, the crew of the Enterprise do manage to defeat him, using a combination of friendship, teamwork, superior science and engineering skills, and Beastie Boys tunes.
The Star Trek universe is not a utopia, but the implication always was that the characters were trying to be their best selves: to be constantly striving for the best case scenario or a positive outcome even when the odds were against them. The in-universe timeline suggests that the first half of the 21st century becomes the sort of future dystopia we see in countless other stories. But the real world has already been influenced positively by Star Trek inspired technology (you are probably reading this on a touch-screen, hand-held device), so wouldn't we see a positive effect on world affairs if politicians were a bit more Jean-Luc Picard and a bit less Frank Underwood? Nichelle Nichols perfectly sums up this aspirational, hopeful element of the Star Trek universe:
"Star Trek did not promise that people would magically become inherently "better" but that they would progress, always reaching for their highest potential and noblest goals, even if it took centuries of taking two steps forward and one step back. Ideally, humankind would be guided in its quest by reason and justice."