Like nearly everyone, I suppose, my life has been shaped to some degree by television, by which I mean the entertainment offerings developed for that medium, not the news or sports presentations offered there, which are influential to be sure but not formative. Television as a whole is able to hold an audience and in that way can form shared understanding, even shared values, but entertainment is capable of shaping a viewers’ self-awareness, individually and on a wide scale, and in that way the television programs we watch can be extensions of – or even parallel to – our own characters.
The recent passing of Leonard Nimoy had me recalling this understanding, which is not my origination, but it also made me realize I watch very little entertainment broadcast on television in the way that I did when Mr. Spock was a character as well regarded as any public figure.
The original Star Trek series was cancelled after three seasons, but its influence was preserved and even magnified in syndicated broadcasts. The personalities of that universe were conceived just before the highly idealistic popular culture of the mid 1960s began its metamorphosis into the fractious iconoclastic mode it adopted by the end of the decade (a pose it seeks to hold still.)
So, for any of us who watched Spock, Kirk, McCoy, Scott, and all during repeated airings in the following four decades, their icon status was magnified. Not only did they exhibit qualities more heroic and admirable than the intentionally flawed characters that had become current in the 1970s and onward, but they inhabited a future era, a future we could allow ourselves to believe was more exciting, purposeful, and more moral than any other narrative, real or imagined.
If that was their intention, then Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek’s other authors and originators succeeded entirely. Personally, I never grasped the fantastical impulse to live my life as though I were a citizen of the Federation, but I learned from the Enterprise crew and through their adventures that plans must be informed by reasons and that actions will have consequences, for which we must have responses. That sort of instruction was not unusual from entertainment. Indeed, Ancient Greek and Renaissance dramatists, who laid the foundation of our entertainment styles and methods, insisted on such instruction.
Star Trek’s influence undoubtedly figured into the numerous reiterations of the original narrative, in movies of varying quality, and series that sought to examine other goings-on in the same imagined future first outlined in 1966.
The authors of this enterprise succeeded on their own terms, of course, but not mine. Simply stated, every reiteration projected some new commentary on the issues or controversies of the day – the day the story was pitched in some studio conference room. So, for entertainment we were offered supposed 25th Century ruminations on late 20th and 21st Century anxieties, like global warming or gender studies, with an increasing number of narrative shortcuts (the holodeck?) to help accomplish the necessary homiletic resolution: we, the viewers, have much to correct about ourselves.
No one who enjoys the later chapters of the Star Trek opus should take offense at my criticism. It’s mainly a way of identifying what’s wrong with television and entertainment in general, which is that it has lost the connection with the foundational elements of our culture that make me want to know the characters and learn from them.
Today’s entertainment presents a menagerie of ghouls and wizards, meth dealers, serial killers, and bored wealthy people who insist on sharing intimate secrets and scandals. It is diversion, certainly. and perhaps even voyeurism. It may draw an audience, but we must hope the audience sees no extension of itself there.
And if so, then this lack of better quality entertainment is all just a passing parade. The audience will coalesce again around something more edifying, just for an hour or so, before we resume the even more essential task of understanding who we are and where we are taking ourselves.