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January 28, 2009

What sci-fi teaches us

I recently saw a preview for the new “Star Trek” movie coming out in May. I’m juiced! I thought everybody was.

Wrong!

Did you know there are people who have never heard of James Tiberius Kirk — the original space cowboy, the greatest captain of the Starship Enterprise (sorry Picard fans)? Are you kidding me?! When using Kirk as a leadership example in class last week, I discovered that some of my students have no idea who he is. What’s the world coming to? Ah, the young.

Seriously, beyond being the province of nerds like me, science fiction (especially “Star Trek” for me), fantasy and comics have always spoken to many of the issues we’re talking about today: leadership, change, diversity, love, morality, political maneuvering, violence and power. What I’ve grown to realize over the years is that I’ve not only loved sci-fi since I was a child but, to a degree, I view the world through lenses constructed by these imagined worlds.

Back to the Kirk example. I’m taking my class through the line of presidents from FDR to Obama. We’re rapping on their strengths, weaknesses and the political climates that existed when they ascended to and left office. We get to Jimmy Carter and I make the point that he was a good man but not necessarily a strong president. Some thought he was too nice, too humane (if that’s possible). For me, the central question here was what makes a strong leader. I used Kirk. Who wouldn’t?

Specifically, I used a lesson from an episode aired during the first season of “Star Trek” in 1966 (no, I didn’t see the original broadcast — wasn’t born yet), “The Enemy Within.” As the result of a transporter accident, Kirk is split into two diametrically opposed versions of himself — one aggressive and brutal, the other sensitive and good. In effect, the personality mix that makes Kirk an effective leader and balanced man is blown apart.

Interestingly, at one point Spock (I guess my students don’t know who the hell he is either) comments that many of the attributes that make Kirk a strong leader actually reside in his bad side. My point was that Carter’s bad side just didn’t seem to be strong enough.

“Star Trek” addresses so much more. In this world, Earth heads an interstellar federation rooted in peace, not war. Money (and, therefore, capitalism) has been eradicated. Racism really is dead. On the bridge on the Enterprise alone we see whites, a black woman, Asian, Russian and Irish brothers — even an alien. Now that’s diversity. In the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode in 1968, “Star Trek” even ventured to feature the first black/white kiss on network television (between the aforementioned Kirk and that fine, ebony princess Lt. Nyota Uhura from the United States of Africa).

Of course, “Star Trek” isn’t alone in ruminations on our world and universe. “Star Wars” has clear themes of political power abuse and the consequences of ignorance and passivity among the masses. It also speaks to the conflicts between love and duty. We didn’t realize until the prequels that it is love, not intrinsic evil, that eventually moves Anakin Skywalker’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader. It is also love that ultimately saves his soul in “Return of the Jedi.”

In the same vein, the most interesting character on “Smallville” (the most recent re-imagining of the Superman legend) is Lex Luthor. This Lex teaches us “the path to darkness is slow.” Good and evil often are not black and white — they mix into various shades of gray. The latest incarnation of “Battlestar Galactica” unrelentingly addresses religious fanaticism and intolerance. Anybody else notice that the “evil” Cylons are monotheistic while the “good” humans are polytheistic? The anti-heroes of “Watchmen” (coming to a theater near you in March) face grim choices about what must be done to save mankind, and the ultimate resolution is nothing less than shocking.

Man, this stuff is great. My advice? Go see the new “Watchmen” and “Star Trek” movies this year and visit my friends over at Comic Book World on Shepherdsville Road. You’ll learn a lot.

Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.

Ricky L. Jones’s column is published in the last issue of each month. Visit him at
www.rickyljones.com