Far more than sci-fi: the enduring appeal of Star Trek. Undercurrents

For many years I’ve successfully kept one deep dark secret from most people who know me: I’m a life-long Trekkie!

Star Trek is one of the longest running science fiction shows of all time.  Since its premier in the autumn of 1966, Star Trek “The Original Series” (which ran for just three years before ultimate cancellation) has gone on to spawn many sequels: “The Animated Series” (1973-1974), “The Next Generation” (1987-1994), “Deep Space Nine” (1993-1999), “Voyager” (1995-2001), “Enterprise” (2001-2005).  In addition in that same period 10 feature films were released – not to mention the expanded universe of novels, comics, video games and fan films.  Then after over a decade off television, Star Trek received a new lease of life on the big screen with the J.J. Abrams’ reboot “Star Trek” in 2009 (and its two sequels).  The last five years has seen the revival of episodic Star Trek, thanks to new online streaming platforms, with the launch of “Discovery,” (2017-), “Picard,” (2020-2023), “Lower Decks” (2020-), “Strange New Worlds” (2022-), “Prodigy” (2022-) – and Paramount have announced several more series’ in production.  If you were to sit down for a marathon watch of all things Trek then it would last more than 700 hours, or a month of non-stop viewing.  As someone who struggled to watch a marathon of “The Lord of the Rings” extended editions, I don’t think I could stomach it!

Star Trek is the creation of writer and producer Gene Roddenberry.  He sold it to the television networks of the 1960s as a western set in space: ‘a wagon train to the stars’.  Thus the series began with these unforgettable words: “Space, the final frontier: these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  Her mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before”.

What explains the enduring appeal of Star Trek?  Why does it continue to resonate with the hearts, minds and imaginations of millions of people, the whole world over?

I would suggest it’s because we secular people live in a disenchanted world.  As C.S. Lewis reflected in “The Discarded Image,” we no longer look up into “the heavens” which display the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), but instead out into the dark, cold void of “space”.  We no longer imagine the “music of the spheres” but instead listen to cosmic background radiation.  Yet, in the words of Charles Taylor we who live in this secular age are “haunted by the ghosts of transcendence”.  Our hearts are aching with the sense that there is something missing from our lives and longing for something more.  We desperately hope that we are not all alone in the universe and that our lives are part of some bigger story.

Star Trek resonates with these longings in our hearts.  But the problem is that its vision of that something more remains wholly on the horizontal secular plane.  We’re not alone – because there are other evolved lifeforms on other planets (usually characterised by a funny looking prosthetic nose or forehead in the days before CGI).  These aliens experience and wrestle with many of the same challenges as us on present-day planet earth, just out in the depths of space.  Star Trek’s answer to those many problems is its vision of an enlightened peaceful secular utopia built upon the foundations of diplomacy, science and reason – a vision reflected in the counter-cultural (for 1960s Cold War American television) make-up of the bridge crew with different Races, Women (Uhura), Americans (Kirk), Russians (Chekov) and Aliens (Spock) all serving together (and to the dramatic script writers dismay, there was the Roddenberry rule of “no conflict” between them).

This leads many people to regard Star Trek as an atheistic show.  For example, one of the longest running producers of the series, Brannon Braga, said at the International Atheists Conference in 2006: “[Star Trek] is a vision of a world where religion has been vanquished and reason drives our hearts to explore ourselves more deeply.  It is a template for a world that every single one of us in this room longs for.  And in that regard, it is an atheistic mythology”. 

Often online you will find people attributing this quote to creator Gene Roddenberry: For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain”.  However, it is not actually an accurate quote!

Although Roddenberry embraced his father’s indifference to institutional Christianity, and shunned his mother’s personal faith in Jesus Christ; he was more of an agnostic than an atheist.  For example, when interviewed in the Humanist magazine back in March/April 1991 he voiced a dissatisfaction with a felt lack of evidence for Christian beliefs: You need a certain amount of proof to accept anything, and that proof was not forthcoming to support those statements”.  But he did not shut the door on the possibility that additional evidence could convince himself otherwise.  Likewise in some of his last recorded interviews (published in “The Last Conversation”) Roddenberry confesses: “I believe in a kind of god.  It’s just not other peoples’ god.  I reject religion.  I accept the notion of God”.  Indeed, throughout his early scripts for Star Trek he is critical of those who misuse religious power and pretence in order to enslave and exploit people.  But he continues to be open to explore spiritual themes and questions about our origins, meaning, morality and destiny.

Above all, Roddenberry was searching for answers about the human condition.  That’s why his stories have often been described as “morality plays” rather than “sci-fi sagas”.  Through the medium of Star Trek he was exploring the timeless issues of humanity’s relationship with itself (both our glorious potentials and our shameful evils), the universe and God – our creator.  Perhaps most famously in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, where the long lost Voyager space probe returns to earth seeking to find and be united with its creator to ascend to the next stage of evolution.

All this leads Kevin Reece to reflect in “The Gospel According to Star Trek” about how the Bible offers a better story and better answers to the one suggested in Star Trek:

“Where Roddenberry saw human beings as a part of God, Christians see the fingerprints of God on his creation—a creation made in his image. Where Roddenberry concluded that God could not be a person, Christians see that he is a person unlike any other. Where Roddenberry saw humanity evolving and improving on its own, Christians see the plan and design of God for humankind coming to fruition. Where Roddenberry saw humanity as its own Savior—if indeed it needed saving at all—Christians see human beings as participants in their own salvation, partners with Christ, in the outworking of the grace of God… [Roddenberry] never saw the connection between the longings of his heart, the observations of his mind and the fulfilment they would find in Christ.”

The good news is that we don’t have to build the Starship Enterprise, break through the warp barrier to travel faster than light through the universe and beam down to alien planets in order to find the answers that we seek to our greatest questions and needs.  Because the son of the living God, Jesus Christ has come down to the planet earth – not as an alien visitor or an actor in a prosthetic costume, but actually as a human being like you and me.  That’s not just a science fiction fantasy, but a historical fact.

In Jesus we find the one who explains where we’ve come from, what is the purpose of life, how to live the good life, why there is so much wrong with the world, what God has done to begin putting it right, and how He has given us a hope that is greater than death.  With Jesus in our lives we can “boldly go” where He has gone before to prepare a heavenly home for us, where we will truly “live long and prosper”.

Whether you’re a Trekkie or not; Jesus invites you to become a Christian – to find in Him the fulfilment to the longings of your heart and the answers you are searching for to life’s greatest questions.