In the earliest days of my Netflix pandemic-surfing, I stumbled across an unlikely TV addiction: “Star Trek: The Original Series.” Unlikely, because it is not the sort of product the streaming service had been pushing, and I never expect it to crest into Netflix’s top 10 most-viewed shows. It is, to put it bluntly, old and unfashionable and awfully un-woke.
“Star Trek” doesn’t contain the elements that great TV tends to exhibit in our dark, cynical, nihilistic zeitgeist. It doesn’t have the trashy compulsion of “Tiger King,” the Shakespearean gravitas of “Ozark’s” flawless third season, the slide into moral bankruptcy and acute long-form sprawl of a “Better Call Saul” and its new Golden Age ilk.
In contrast to these and most critically acclaimed series of the day, “Star Trek” is earnest rather than ironic, and it promotes a fundamentally decent and optimistic vision of our scientific frontier. Funny, then, that I discovered it through one of the most dystopian, if brilliant, Netflix shows, “Black Mirror,” and that series’ visionary 2017 episode, “USS Callister.”
Having never seen “Star Trek” at the time, I missed many of the Roddenberry Easter eggs embedded in that episode’s postmodern “Star Trek” pastiche (“All the buttons do the same thing…”). But hear I am now, with nothing else to do, finally filling this gaping hole in my pop-culture library, and belatedly screening the Original Series in its entirety, in sequence.
By the third or fourth episode, I was hooked.
Sure, there are elements of “Star Trek” that make the modern viewer cringe: For all of the pioneering inclusivity in the casting, the dressing of the Enterprise’s female staff as cocktail waitresses, and the general deference the starship’s women display toward their mainsplaining peers, betrays the pre-women’s-liberation era from which it sprung.
But its ideas were bounteously ahead of their time, and not just in the prescient tech onboard the Enterprise—the flip-phones and video chats—that inspired Gen-X nerds to build them IRL. Episodes dealt head-on with the evils of racism, fascism’s pernicious allure, the mining of natural resources to the detriment of our fellow species, the perils of artificial intelligence, and concepts of theoretical physics we’re still trying to wrap our heads around. Again and again, they scolded us small-minded, tribal humans on our warlike ways, a savagery no less potentially self-destructive as it was during the show’s Cold War subtext.
These elements all ensure the longevity of “Star Trek,” but there’s another reason why it is, for me, the perfect pandemic binge: Every single episode offers the illusion of absolute order prevailing in the face of existential chaos. In each and every “Star Trek”—and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, as I’m partly through Season Two—the end is imminent for at least one beloved character, if not for the entire starship, if not for life as we know it. It’s like clockwork: The panicked score reaches a fevered pitch of fear as the faux commercial break beckons, and sometimes Kirk or McCoy or Scotty actually dies midway through, or at least appears to, until some deus ex machina revives them.
Could viewers in the late 1960s have fallen for the show’s hysterical suspense, and thought with any degree of credulity that the show’s marquee names would actually perish in, say, Season Two Episode Four? I doubt it, but that very comfort—the certainty that by about 48 minutes into the drama, everybody will be OK, and will spend the next two minutes cracking sly jokes about Spock’s emotional vacuity—brings us solace at a time when the world is tearing at its seams.
Surely if a few middle-aged people with lame phasers and a rotating crew of anonymous lantern-jawed men and statuesque women can conquer parallel worlds of no escape, paranormal phenomena unknown to mankind, and alien species hell-bent on their destruction, we can defeat a respiratory virus. We just need to boldly go.