Review
Culture
Film and TV
5 min read

To boldly hope: how Star Trek dares us to be better

Amid dystopian dramas, Paula Duncan analyses the attraction of the Star Trek franchise.

Paula Duncan is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen, researching OCD and faith.

Spock and Kirk stand on the bridge of a spacecraft.
The young Spock and Kirk, in 2009's Star Trek.

It’s something of a running joke that the popular animated series The Simpsons can predict the future – so much so that this was addressed by Time magazine. It is far from the only show that has a take on our pending fate. There is no shortage of dystopian futures available to us – nuclear war, rising sea levels, zombie apocalypse, super-contagious virus… Some of these no longer feel quite as fictional or remote a possibility as we might like. Such storytelling allows us to consider what it might mean for us to live through such scenarios and, perhaps, think more carefully about how we might prevent them.  

I’m sure there are movies, games, books, or TV shows that spring to mind for each of us when we think about this. For me, it is the Hunger Games and the Divergent book series by Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth, respectively. Even when these stories offer us a hopeful possibility of redemption, they do so in the wake of disasters that humanity has failed to prevent. We are invited to dwell in the worst parts of humanity and human nature. In some stories we destroy ourselves. In others, we find ourselves simply destroyed. I find it all too easy to become preoccupied by the potential horrors in our near or distant future. 

This is why I’m so drawn to the vision of the future that the Star Trek franchise offers. There’s a hopeful message at the heart of the series that makes our continued existence seem plausible but doesn’t discount the changes we need to collectively make to achieve this. I am slowly making my way through Star Trek: Deep Space 9, having now completed The Original Series (TOS) and The Next Generation, and I’m always struck by this ultimately hopeful view for our future. It’s a not-quite utopian view of the future. We don’t achieve perfection in any way but we do learn to survive and thrive despite the challenges presented to us.  

What do we pass on to our literal next generation? What morals, what values? What hope for a future in which we both survive and thrive? This, I think, is the crucial point. 

It's certainly not perfect. There are definitely things that are uncomfortable on the show – the portrayal of women, for one thing, often misses the mark in TOS. But I do think it represents a beginning, a promise that things can get better. I’m reluctant to write any line that begins “for its time”, but I think there is something in that here. I also defer to the judgement of someone who was actually there, contributing to the formation of the Star Trek universe: Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura. She wrote compellingly about the importance of diverse representation in the cast and what it meant to viewers in her autobiography Beyond Uhura. She reflected there:  

Like all of Gene’s characters, Uhura embodied humankind’s highest values and lived according to principles that he was certain would one day guide all human endeavor. In Star Trek Gene created a work of fiction through which he communicated a timely, yet timeless message about humankind’s power to shape its future. But most important, he gave that vision to the world: to writers, to enlarge upon; to directors, to dramatize; to actors, to personify and make real; and to audiences, to enjoy, cherish, and incorporate into their own hopes for the future and for humanity. 

For all its flaws, TOS set up a universe where we could see a better and fairer future for ourselves. In this early series, there are certainly problematic elements that would be written differently today. But there is, at least, hope.  

What speaks most clearly to me is the idea of stewardship. For those unfamiliar with the franchise, it began when TOS originally aired in 1966 and follows the crew of the star ship Enterprise on a five-year exploratory mission through space. On the bridge, Captain James T. Kirk is accompanied by some of the best crew Starfleet has to offer. We follow them through the stars, visiting new people(s) and places and getting into an uncanny number of scrapes.  

Airing in 1987, The Next Generation shows us the new and improved Enterprise is now captained by Jean-Luc Picard and a whole new crew with new skills and talents but the principles are the same – a crew that looks out for one another and their ship, caring for their home away from home. The Enterprise changes and different people take the helm, but the common goals remain. 

Perhaps if we contemplate our world to be something like this: if we consider that we might each be given a collective opportunity to hold the fate of our planet, how should we act to make sure that we hand over the best possible future to those that come next? What do we pass on to our literal next generation? What morals, what values? What hope for a future in which we both survive and thrive? This, I think, is the crucial point 

There are some key messages that we can draw from Star Trek’s view of our future. Captain Kirk frequently talks fondly of an Earth that has eradicated poverty and many unjust power structures. What might need to change for us to get to a position where we hold the same values? Where might we need to sacrifice personal gain in order to create a more sustainable world? I cannot help but think that we are not acting on this as quickly as we should be. The BBC recently published an article focusing on the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in which 2024 is shown to be a year of riots and unrest on Earth. Even in our sci-fi not-quite-utopian future, our progress is slow.  

I’d like to conclude with a reference to the 2009 movie reboot of Star Trek. Captain Pike says to a young Jim Kirk:

“your father was Captain of a star ship for twelve minutes. He saved eight hundred lives, including your mother's. And yours. I dare you to do better.”  

What if we looked at our stewardship of our planet in the same way? We briefly, collectively, have a chance to make a difference. We have a chance to do better. We need, therefore, to boldly go.  

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.