As Shatner heads toward the stars, visions of space collide
“Risk is our business,” James T. Kirk once said. “That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”
More than a half-century later, the performer who breathed life into the fabled Enterprise captain is, at age 90, making that kind of risk his own business and heading toward the stars under dramatically different circumstances than his fictional counterpart. And in doing so, William Shatner is causing worlds to collide, or at least permitting parallel universes to coexist — the utopian spacefaring vision of “Star Trek” and the evolving, increasingly commercial spot that “space” holds in the American psyche.
When Shatner boards Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin NS-18 in Texas around dawn Wednesday, his one small step into the craft creates one of the ultimate crossover stories of our era.
It’s about space and exploration, sure, and certainly about capitalism and billionaires and questions of economic equity. But it’s also about popular culture and marketing and entertainment and nostalgia and hope and Manifest Destiny and, and, and … well, you get the idea.
“What will I see when I’m out there?” Shatner wondered last week, talking to Anderson Cooper on CNN. An equally valid question is this: What will WE see when he’s out there?
It will be a complex blend of human dreams superimposed upon technology and hope, braggadocio and cash, and the notion that space travel elevates us — all orchestrated by a company under serious criticism for what some call the decidedly un-utopian, tech-bro ways that it operates.
Is all that and “Star Trek” a good fit?
Since its 1966 premiere with one of the most diverse casts TV had ever seen, “Trek” has grown into an intricate transmedia universe full of subtleties and traditions and rules.
Among them: Human beings avoid killing each other. Money is generally outdated, as are hunger and poverty. Greed is aberrant. Noninterference in other cultures is the most sacred principle of all. And within the United Federation of Planets, the spacefaring United Nations of “Star Trek,” exploration, not domination, is the coin of the realm. In short, unlike a lot of humanity right now.
Humans first set foot on the moon 47 days after the original series’ final episode. Over the next half century, backed by a vocal fan base, “Star Trek” roared back for more and, in the process, led the way in cementing space travel as an ideal canvas for relevant storytelling. “Trek” remained one of the culture’s central vehicles for a spacefaring future. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the show, was a particularly tireless advocate, working with NASA to recruit Americans of color and women.
The vision has evolved but remained generally utopian, though two of the latest iterations, “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Picard,” have dipped deeper into darkness than their predecessors. In all that varying storytelling, though, one constant remained: the notion that human space travel would become a vector of ethics and goodness that elevated the galaxy rather than plundered it.
Which brings us to companies like Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — endeavors that build their brands not upon countries but corporations. They offer a narrative that space travel isn’t just for scientists and diplomats but for you and me, too. If, that is, you and me happen to have a few hundred thousand dollars or more of walking-around money on hand.
But the motives of the Amazon founder himself remain unclear. It is evident, though, that the popular culture of space travel has influenced Bezos deeply. A longtime “Trek” fan, he made a cameo as an alien Starfleet official in the 2016 movie “Star Trek Beyond.” And according to biographer Brad Stone, Bezos even fleetingly considered calling Amazon “Makeitso.com,” after Capt. Jean-Luc Picard’s favorite command.
“The whole ethos of `Star Trek’ showed people who were different-looking, with different skills, working together. We are in the opening moments of something like that,” says Richard B. Cooper, vice president of the Space Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the global space industry. “People can look at this environment and say, `Hey — I belong there, too.’”
Prohibitive costs aside (and that’s a big aside), Cooper has a point. Though the likes of Shatner may not be “regular people,” the shift from the dominance of the test pilot and the scientist tracks with the populism of our era, where — it must be said — the exactitude of science is being called into question as never before. And as Cooper points out, “it gives people hope.”
That kind of storyline — hope, heroism, competitive dominance and an unerring sense of competence that can at times overlap with testosterone — is powerful. At a moment when NASA and nation-focused space travel lacks a compelling Hollywood narrative, the entrepreneurs and their marketers step right in.
“American dominance in space, nobody cares about it. It’s Bezos who says, ‘We can’t go on living like this. We have to save the planet,’” says Mary-Jane Rubenstein, a professor of religion and science in society at Wesleyan University.
“It’s the billionaires who have the utopian visions,” says Rubenstein, author of “Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race,” an upcoming book. “The states can’t muster them. They have no story.”
Should we even be colonizing space? Don’t we have enough going on here at home to worry about? Aren’t there people with problems more pressing than this who could use the cash?
And what if we encounter life that’s not life as we know it, and harm it out of obliviousness or greed? It’s not as if that hasn’t happened countless times here on the ground, in the land that put a man on the moon but still grapples with a history brimming with horrors from slave markets to smallpox blankets. These are only some of the questions that will ascend and descend with Shatner on Wednesday.
Is it a stunt? Sure. Is it a genius marketing ploy? Absolutely. Is it cynical and self-aggrandizing and designed solely to make more money and grab more attention for the world’s richest man? You’re going to have to decide that one yourself.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990 and watching “Star Trek” since 1969. His younger son’s middle name is Kirk. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted