The BEST: Star Trek: The Original Series
Created by Gene Roddenberry
by Aryeh Klapper
Summary: Star Trek: The Original Series was a science fiction television program which aired between 1966-69 composed of 79 episodes. The show, set in outer space in the 2260s, follows the adventures of the USS Enterprise and its crew. Each episode begins with a voiceover describing the starship’s mission, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Star Trek eventually spawned a franchise, consisting of (to date) six television series, 13 feature films, and numerous books, games, and toys, and is now widely considered one of the most popular and influential television series of all time.
Why it is The BEST: Some artworks are Platonically great. Their value lies in the ways they manipulate the interplay between our senses and the material world, or between our minds and metaphysical forms. Star Trek is not among those artworks. I can attest that its appeal is not visual, because I “watched” it at midnights on fuzzy broadcast TV on a low-end black-and-white set, usually while reading. Sometimes you could tell that Spock or McCoy was raising one or more eyebrows; that was all that mattered anyway. Instead, Star Trek falls in the category of works that are great within cultural contexts of an intellectual bend. Likely, the most fertile soil for its relevance is yeshiva culture.
The core personality of Star Trek is Mr. Spock, the child of a human mother and a Vulcan father. Vulcan is a planet with a passionate and martial ancient past which it has overcome by means of rational philosophy, so that the cultural goal is the extirpation of emotion. Vulcan believes itself to have refuted Hume and demonstrated that reason is not inevitably the slave of passions, but rather can be their conqueror.
Animal urges are suppressed by placing all Vulcan children in an all-encompassing and highly demanding academic and ideological program, and by ensuring that cultural recognition and professional achievement depend entirely on intellectual success and ideological conformity. The only problem is that Vulcan sexuality (at least for men) runs on a seven-year cycle, and no one can make consistently rational choices when the Pon Farr period hits. To domesticate the wild force of eros, Vulcan parents rationally choose their children’s spouses at a very early age.
But Spock, alas, is half-human. His body and soul – and perhaps his mother’s influence – keep betraying him into emotion and irrationality. Moreover, his relationships with the humans around him work well, especially in times of crisis, only if he is sensitive and genuinely responsive to their emotions. Finally, because he is honest and open-minded (and Vulcans pride themselves on their integrity and dispassionate pursuit of truth), he comes to recognize that emotions can add great value to life, are essential to effective leadership, and sometimes even yield better if less well-reasoned decisions, while pure logic can easily be used to justify callousness and cruelty.
Vulcan is a reasonable facsimile of Litvak yeshiva culture, and Spock is a teenaged Brisker prodigy. His struggles to make sense of humanity – his own, and that of the tzalmei Elokim surrounding him – are those of every serious and sensitive yeshiva bochur. Why must he have a body, when the palaces of the mind are supremely beautiful? Why must he care for and about people who don’t appreciate those palaces? Star Trek provides a safe space to think through these issues. When in the mid-1980s I joined a YU Kollel with a deep left-right wing religious split, we could displace our controversies into discussions of specific episodes.
Star Trek also provides a powerful and necessary challenge to moral insularity. It challenges racism (well), and sexism (poorly); it questions both cultural imperialism and cultural relativism; and above all it demonstrates faith in humanity without deifying us. It represented much of what American pop-culture of the late 1960s had to contribute to Torah.
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership.
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[Published January 30, 2020]