Review
Culture
Film & 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.  

Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.