From Utopia to Dystopia

I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation lately—benefits of having a Netflix subscription. So far, I’m halfway through Season 4, and by the time you read this, I will have blown past Season 5’s premier. Having watched the series during its first run back in the late 80’s, early 90’s, I’ve come to appreciate all the hard work that went into the show. From props, makeup, set design to story, music and characters, there is a bit of everything for everyone.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Crew
Star Trek: The Next Generation Crew

First, I will have to agree with you that it’s a strange conversation to talk about space, aliens and worlds from a far distant galaxy for my Monday Mayhem post. The thing is, I’ve always found something interesting when I watch Star Trek in that it has appealed to my sense of optimism. No one can say The Next Generation wasn’t way ahead of its time.

For instance, tablets of every size grace the hands of all those aboard. Many scenes with Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) features him in his ready room reading a report on what looks like a prototype for an iPad. He then quickly switches to a small device that looks like an iPod touch. From there, he scans the small display standing upright on his desk—again, another prototype for LCD monitors.

It is evident Star Trek is forward thinking in design and intent. Even today, the show does not look dated in any way. It still has lessons for all of us who are looking for something that would put life into perspective.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Captain Jean-Luc Picard

My biggest lesson I’ve gleaned from many of the show’s social commentaries is that the Prime Directive rules. For those unfamiliar with the Prime Directive, it is a moral code devised by the United Federation of Planets to prevent members from interfering with cultures, either at the cusp of development, or unwilling to have outsiders to work with them in any way. The idea is meant to discourage Federation members from imposing rule on a less than developed civilization against their will.

Funnily enough, many civilizations, in the context of progress and time, are not looking to change, but want to remain stagnant—drawn in their own ways, unwilling to progress from the ameba stage—whether intelligent or not.

One of those civilizations in the show, for example, is the perfect utopia. Visitors to the planet notice the difference immediately. The stark contrast of it citizens wearing a minimal amount of clothing in comparison to their visitors is intentional. Also, their laws are simple to follow and provides a sense of security to all those who follow the law. The planet, however, has one flaw. It isn’t immediately visible. If anyone breaks the law, even the least of these laws—perhaps accidentally stepping on a flower in a greenhouse—the sentence is quick and immediate. Death.

For this planet, the Prime Directive is a no-no. They will handle their own affairs in their own way.

And that’s what I’ve learned most from Star Trek—you cannot help those who do not want help. Try if you may, a person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.

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Have you watched any of the Star Trek shows or movies? What have you learned from the series?

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16 thoughts on “From Utopia to Dystopia

  1. I re-watched some of them on Netflix too, and they’re as good as I remember! One thing that was always memorable for me was the way Star Trek shows different cultures interacting. It really brings across the message that you have to try to understand and respect other cultures even if what they are doing seems utterly weird and different. Then again, it also shows in some episodes “foreign” cultures that have traditions that are totally outmoded and stupid in our perspective. Should one then step in and try to change things? It is an important question, and one that doesn’t have a simple answer, I think.

  2. I’ve seen every film and every series with the exception of Enterprise which left me cold. TNG was the series that delved more than any other into the morality of any given situation. Sometimes went a little far but can’t fault the series for effort. Can’t agree it hasn’t aged – does feel a bit 80’s/90’s in parts.

  3. Great series! What I like the most was the notion that people from all ethnic backgrounds worked together on a starship to achieve an objective. I remember hearing Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) talk about how Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her to stay on the program because she was inspiring to young women of color like myself that were interested in the sciences. I didn’t have many role models, but I clung desperately to people like her and Levar Burton (who played Lt. Com. Geordi La Forge in TNG… and to show my age, was on TV as the narrator/lead for “Reading Rainbow”). TNG was on when I was younger (not reruns, original ones) and I looked forward to every episode! I always learned something and their thoughts were so much more progressive than the small-minded mentalities surrounding me. Kudos to Gene Roddenberry for his vision and giving TNG another go after TOS! May his vision of a more united world come true and take notes from him 🙂

    {Sidenote: Thank you so much for writing a post on TNG. I rarely see them or anyone praising the show… it’s usually just TOS. Much appreciated!}

  4. “Funnily enough, many civilizations, in the context of progress and time, are not looking to change, but want to remain stagnant—drawn in their own ways, unwilling to progress from the ameba stage—whether intelligent or not.”

    Love this sentence because I firmly believe it is true for ALL civilizations. With few individual exceptions (and I mean individual people), societies routinely see their system as the pinnacle of achievement and often do their damnedest to maintain the status quo. It is only through insurrection–often sadly violent–that change is allowed to occur.

    Canada–my home–is seeing something of this with its indigenous peoples. The Arab Spring was evidence of this. Ongoing movements of equality for races, genders, economic statuses. All are fights between those who wish to maintain the status quo and those who feel unfairly treated by it.

    As for the Prime Directive and the desire to intervene, current Terran history seems to suggest “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

    • Thanks so much for the compliment. Much appreciated! And, yes, I agree with your last statement. Much of what the Prime Directive represents is easy to understand, but difficult to implement in the field. That’s what makes the show so compelling to watch.

  5. The Prime Directive was a Vulcan inheritance. I read a Star Trek novel ” Strangers From the Sky ” in the 1980’s that explained a lot. Planets were monitored via robotic probes, then if a civilization was deemed worthy, contact – like in First Contact – was made.

  6. This was the show I started on with Star Trek and I have a vague memory of that episode. With the Prime Directive, it seemed like it was always at risk or getting broken. Shows how hard it is to not alter whatever you interact with whether on purpose or by accident. I think there were a few episodes where simply being present counted as breaking the law. Did they have the Prime Directive in the original series or was that an invention for TNG? Perhaps it was made entirely to stop Kirk from populating the galaxy with Kirk spawn.

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