The Measure of Mankind: Why Star Trek: The Next Generation is Needed Now More Than Ever

by Hannah Reigle


“Oh, I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony, I say with conviction: ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!’”


—Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Hide and Q”


These lines, taken from the rocky first season of TNG, form a concentrated thesis of Gene Roddenberry’s humanist vision. Through its science fiction escapades, interstellar politics, and ethical dilemmas, the core ethos of this series was always optimism—the idea that in the twenty-fourth century, the human race has overcome prejudice, violence, and social, economic, and political strife. Now thirty years old and counting, and with times and technology having changed so rapidly since its inception, this incarnation of the Star Trek franchise may seem, to laymen, dated and dusty. But, I argue, the Enterprise-D and the stories she tells are more relevant now than ever.


We are in uncertain times. In the midst of the global pandemic and the ever-roiling political typhoon that seems to characterize modern American society, it is comforting to imagine the idea that someone out there knows what they are doing. Competence is a virtue native in Star Fleet officers. Even when dealing with unprecedented phenomena, the Enterprise-D crew solves its issues logically and scientifically. The philosophy of the show is as ironclad as its science (and by that, of course, I mean usually ironclad… mostly). The Prime Directive’s proscription of cultural relativism is the law to supersede all laws, moral and political. With ideology so cohesive and universal, the crew acts and reacts almost as one being. Even if the crew was composed of lackadaisical, insolent hotheads and scaredy-cats hailing from all corners of the moral landscape, viewers could still comfort themselves in knowing that, due to structural necessity, the problem-of-the-week would be solved before the episode’s runtime is up. Comfort, then, is the shallowest reason I give to watch this show—we may live in uncertain times, but humans of the twenty-fourth century do not.


If I say the words ‘contemporary science fiction’, what do you picture?  Battles between gargantuan spaceships? Attractive, relatable androids? Bleak social critique? Meaningless technobabble? Laser beams? Who are the heroes? Women who look like pop-stars? Men who look like comic-book renegades? How different they must look and sound than the bald, British, bard-loving Sir Patrick Stewart. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is no mindless action hero. He is thoughtful, literate, moral, wise, nuanced—flawed! And not just my-beautiful-mother-died-when-I-was-a-baby-and-now-I’m-roided-out-and-physically-incapable-of-crying flawed! His leadership inspires loyalty and confidence; he encourages deliberation and dissent; he values empathy and understanding. All of these qualities in combination with a truly radical notion of non-interference and cultural relativism help to create Jean-Luc Picard—not only an ideal captain, but an ideal man.


Or perhaps not. Perhaps Roddenberry’s vision is too optimistic, too simplistic. It might even be problematic. It could be, and, I believe, has been argued that the franchises’ ‘color-blind’ take on race fails to consider the histories and realities of racial minorities. The female characters of the show are not as rounded and fleshed-out as their male counterparts, especially in earlier seasons. Queer representation is sparse, hidden, and coded—if it really exists at all. Though Star Fleet is technically only a pseudo-military organization, starships are structured like navy vessels. Does Star Trek glorify the military? Even pushing aside valid political and representational concerns such as these as products of Western culture in the 1980s, there may be yet another fundamental problem in the series’ philosophy. Is there always an answer? The series tries to wrestle with this issue itself, but it usually turns out in the end. At the very least, it can nearly always be assumed that by the end of the episode Picard and the crew, if in their right minds, are morally in the black. Is that possible? Can any group of ten or so beings be so righteous, so sure?


Maybe the time for Star Trek: The Next Generation is over. Maybe it is no longer a time for ideals, but a time for challenges and critiques, realities and rebellions. Maybe, as Picard once said with conviction, but which I say with irony, “we’ve grown out of our infancy”. 


Like any good member of the Enterprise-D crew, I know who to look to for answers. After listening to the captain quote Hamlet in “Hide and Q,” Q asks,


“Surely, you don’t see your species like that, do you?”


Picard answers, 


“I see us one day becoming that, Q. Is it that which concerns you?”


And maybe that is the lesson. It is not about the ideal—or its actualization—but the eternal striving, the cosmic journey, the continual self-improvement of the human race. So, if you’re looking for hope, go give Star Trek: The Next Generation a watch. Either way, better yourself. Keep reaching for that human ideal. Boldly go.