My previous post on Star Trek and wonder caused a reader to ask what I thought of the thematic darkness of Deep Space Nine, one of the later Star Trek series. The show takes up war and crime in the Star Trek future to a greater extent than any other—its final seasons are tangled up in a war between the Federation and the totalitarian Dominion. But this show is no darker, I think, than the two darkest Star Trek movies—and all of them manage to preserve wonder. To understand how, it’s worth turning to the best English-language science-fiction self-help book out there, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. He poses the following thought experiment:
Imagine that you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look—it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on the serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions—good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide—be a bore?
Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.
Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?
This is, in a sense, the situation of the final season of Deep Space Nine and the self-conscious Alamo analogy it constructs. It also helps to explain the end of The Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk has been feeling his age—and, peering through reading glasses in the midst of a battle, has looked it. But in the movie’s closing moment, he declares, “I feel young.”
He doesn’t feel invigorated by his reunion with a former love or the son he never knew about, by his resumption of command or the thrill of battle. Only coming within seconds of losing all these things allows him to say that he feels young. A life that has become too mundane is threatened—and because of that threat, Kirk, for a moment, is allowed to perceive the sublime.
Maybe Star Trek and other cultural markers weren’t optimistic despite Vietnam, the threat of nuclear warfare, or Carter-era “malaise,” but were hopeful precisely because of them. It’s a wonderful thing to live in an era without existential threats to national survival—but, as Walker Percy knew, it’s very difficult to see the Acropolis when the only thing that threatens it is air pollution. With their darker, more dangerous plots, our contemporary re-boots of famous franchises put us in a position to wonder at what, threatened, we can suddenly notice. The Batman of The Dark Knight is certainly in a position to do this. But while he’s by no means bored, it isn’t at all clear he can see the Acropolis. There’s only the shadow of an object there, just as dark as anything around it.