With the exact date of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary coming up shortly on September 8th, celebrations of what started as a strange little show with low ratings are in full swing. Star Trek: Mission New York promises to take over Labor Day weekend with a slew of panels, screenings, autographs, and other festivities, and this past weekend, Cherry Hill hosted a Star Trek 50 year mission tour convention.
Though much of the aforementioned convention was based around entertainment (with celebrity Q and A’s, a Rat Pack performance on Friday night, and karaoke), there was also intellectual stimulation to be had for the sci-fi nerd, including panels on Women in Star Trek, Star Trek and Shakespeare, and a discussion of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. Two actor appearances – William Shatner and LeVar Burton – also stood out; both spoke passionately about science fiction and science, speaking of its potential and of its influence.
William Shatner began his panel by talking about what projects he’s been working on lately, but this quickly segued into a short talk about the nature of science itself. His most recent project – titled The Truth is in Our Stars, and slated for release in December – is a series of interviews with scientists influenced by Star Trek, including Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking (whom he interviewed just last week). Shatner spoke with great passion about the questions science asks – what are we all doing here? What are we? What the hell does it all mean? These are the same questions that mythology attempts to answer: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And science fiction, as he has so often previously stated, is deeply mythological, in taking these metaphysical questions and giving them realistic answers. He made some short quips about the answers to all these questions – “we’re all vibrating!” he summarized, after snarkily suggesting that scientists talk for fifteen minutes but have no better answer to the above questions than anyone else.
But this snark was quickly replaced by deep seriousness. He looked almost enraptured as he spoke about his experience with Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, telling the story of how, once, when he was speaking about the mathematical beauty of music with Michio, he asked him, “Kaku, what instrument do you play?” Michio pointed to his head, his brain – which, almost ecstatically, Shatner suggested was an instrument like any other, capable of touching the beauty of the universe in some way. He spoke also of Stephen Hawking, who lives in a body that doesn’t work – but his mind does. He had similarly asked Hawking once, “what instrument do you use?” to receive a similar answer – his mind.
Shatner also spoke about the very real impact of – and crosspollination between – Star Trek and real science, and, in particular, space exploration. He went back to the late 60s, when, he claimed, the achievements of the space program brought in ratings to Star Trek. These ratings, in turn, inspired scientists and the continuation of the space program. He even suggested (citing an unmentioned source) that it was the influence of Star Trek that caused Congress to vote for funding for the space program, calling Star Trek “instrumental” in getting money allocated for the space program. (as a side note, William Shatner is what one might consider a primary source on the topic, given that he was at the center of things during the Space Age of the 1960s; at the same time, I have no written sources at this time to back up his claims).
In short, my admiration of William Shatner (which was already great) has grown even more with this conversation. He seems to have a deep respect for both Star Trek (whose ideas and philosophy he said he admired, even producing a moral/political reading of Star Trek’s funniest episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and science (whose potential he spoke about with visible admiration, ending his appearance with words of admiration for the brilliant young scientists currently working at NASA that he’s interviewing for his project).
In short, when he claimed “I’m Captain Kirk!” halfway through the panel, he wasn’t joking – he seems to have James T. Kirk’s openmindedness and sense of wonder about both the world around us and the fiction that describes it.
This influence, which Star Trek had on so many lives, also touched LeVar Burton, who played Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. While Shatner had mentioned more abstractly the various influences Trek had had on scientists, inspiring them to pursue science, LeVar spoke of the way that the Original Series (of which he was a huge fan) showed him that he had opportunities as a young black kid- something he loved incarnating in Geordi, a character with a disability who is still able to pursue his passion.
He also wholeheartedly admitted that he’s a science fiction nerd, because science fiction invites us to contemplate “what if” – which, he said, are two of the most powerful words in language. He also called imagination a superpower- a thought process that essentially enables us to travel through time and space in a way that no other species can. And storytelling is what connects us to the imagination, that brings it to life. In short, though he didn’t say it in those words exactly, he spoke of science fiction as similarly mythological: just like Shatner suggested that sci-fi lets us answer the question of “what’s out there?”, LeVar suggested that it lets us ask “What if?” (LeVar also mentioned as I was getting his autograph, on the very same isolinear chip that he refused to fix for me, that his favorite science fiction author is Octavia Butler).
They both spoke about a topic that’s been of deep interest to me in my research: the relationship between storytelling and science, as well as the way that our penchant for narrative extends beyond the obvious – literature. Over the summer, I had the chance to read The Storytelling Animal, which suggests that storytelling – that is, the ability to ask “what if” and work out the consequences of potential scenarios – is not only programmed into our brains, it’s how we have survived as a species. That is, not only is the imagination a superpower, it is a fundamental survival skill of our species. And science fiction, in its incorporation of science, is particularly apt at working out those consequences and projecting hypothetical scenarios, giving it the power to answer not only “what if?” but also the more mythological question of “What for?”
In short, LeVar and Shatner both spoke with amazing understanding about a topic that I’ve been focusing on as an academic for some time now; at the same time, they gave these talks at a venue that more than proved them right: a 50th anniversary celebration of Star Trek. Star Trek really does showcase the mythological, magical power of storytelling in general and science fiction in particular.