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Kyle Eller: New Star Trek series may be a vision for humanity's future

Science fiction has always been social commentary -- think Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." George Orwell's "1984" is built into our social landscape, with Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" not far behind.

Science fiction has always been social commentary -- think Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." George Orwell's "1984" is built into our social landscape, with Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" not far behind.
Sci-fi has also influenced the imaginations of real-life scientists and adventurers, like the Jules Verne novels predicting submarines and round-the-world balloon trips.
The year-old James Cameron series "Dark Angel" on Fox, also known for its sexy star Jessica Alba, is a comment on mad military scientists, medical ethics and terrorism: In last fall's series premiere, we learned the title character in the series is an escaped, genetically-enhanced killing machine, running from her military creators in an America turned Third World by an electromagnetic pulse delivered by "terrorist bozos."
But the quintessential example of "social sci-fi" is Star Trek, and its latest incarnation, "Enterprise," is interesting in that regard.
In case you're not a Trekkie, let me catch you up. After the original "Star Trek" came the surprise hit "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Then came "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager," which just ended. These last three overlapped each other a bit.
Voyager was less successful than the first three series, but at least around here the reason was probably not the series -- lacking a regular UPN station during much of its run, your only option was to watch reruns on Duluth's NBC affiliate, KBJR.
The same problem may plague "Enterprise" -- watching the two-hour premiere meant staying up until 2 a.m. Saturday, definitely not part of my normal routine. If KBJR can tweak that, it might be advisable, because I think Trekkies are going to come out in force for this show.
What's special about Star Trek is its optimism. Sci-fi has earned a reputation for negativity, like "Dark Angel," where science and humanity have gone amok.
Star Trek is nearly unique in that it makes its fictional future human history something swell. Ten years after World War III hits in 2053, we've learned our lesson. A man named Zefram Cochrane invents the first warp drive, allowing humans to travel the galaxy, and that, it turns out, makes humans eligible to join the United Federation of Planets and brings the first interstellar visitors -- our pals the Vulcans -- to Earth. Surprise!
Soon "replicators," which take abundant matter and convert it into food and building materials, eliminate hunger. We use our technology to eliminate hunger, pollution, poverty and war, enabling us to pursue nobler goals of science and art. And, most notably for the Star Trek dramas, peaceful exploration.
This history, which is backstory for tales of exploration, is a far cry from the typical sci-fi scenario, in which our technology strips us of our values, our dignity and our fundamental human rights.
Of course, Star Trek is not all philosophy and victimless interspecies sex. Mirroring the Cold War that viewers of the original series were living through, we had a protracted conflict with a race called the Klingons. Later, they become reluctant allies (much like the Russians), but we find other groups to fight -- the hive-mind of the Borg, the senseless brutality of the Dominion and innumerable petty bullies with big guns. Drug addiction, terrorism and medical ethics all pop up, along with more esoteric issues like time travel and warp theory.
Social commentary is just below the surface of all of this.
The new series, "Enterprise," is a "prequel," to use the neologism. It starts with humanity's first official foray as full-fledged Federation members. The premiere featured a bunch of shootouts and fistfights, but led by Captain Jonathan Archer, played by the perfectly cast Scott Bakula, we see our good-guy instincts coming to the fore.
There is room to criticize "Enterprise." Sci-fi television, like the rest of television, relies heavily on sex appeal, as seen by Alba on "Dark Angel."
Star Trek is no different. "Voyager" brought in a human Barbie doll at mid-series -- actress Jeri Ryan, as the Borg-slash-human Seven of Nine, whose skin-tight Spandex uniform was a model of "Borg efficiency." In "Enterprise," it's a central character, Sub-Commander T'Pol, a Vulcan science officer played by Jolene Blalock. The premiere found time to strip off much of her clothing -- for medical purposes.
Hmm ... both characters are super-intelligent, tough, aloof and built like brick holodecks, and aim at a target audience that includes large numbers of geeky teen-age boys. What that says about our future could fill another column.
But I'm interested in the built-in social commentary of "Enterprise" and its implications. How Star Trek writers and producers treat this evolving story of fictional human history, in light of our troubled times, will be interesting. But for a few novelty episodes, "Enterprise," with characters a lot like us, is as close as "Star Trek" has come to dealing with the great gap between us and the glorious human future.
Just how does the Star Trek brain trust envision the path from here back to Eden?
We know sci-fi will inspire tomorrow's scientists, just as it did today's. Let's hope the new Star Trek offers a worthwhile model. (And let's hope we don't have to stay up until midnight to watch it, too -- some of us are over 30.)

Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or 723-1207.

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