Far Beyond the Stars
Star Trek: The Next Generation started on September 28th 1987. I was three months and fourteen days old.
My parents watched the first episode, and I was in the room with them, absorbing it on whatever level. For the next seven years my family watched Star Trek every week. We almost never missed an episode.
As you can probably imagine, this had an enormous impact on how I thought, felt, and interacted with the world.
Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place in a universe without war, money or religion, in which most people’s primary goal is to make themselves better, thereby helping to enrich humanity. There is no bigotry. A series of benevolent, all-consuming technological innovations have provided people with everything they could possibly want.
Because of Star Trek I believe that a group of smart, well-intentioned people can come together and solve almost any problem by talking about it. Because of Star Trek I’m also a socialist and pacifist. My family encouraged my feminism and atheism, but Star Trek gave me an additional nudge in those directions.
Because of Star Trek I cannot function in the real world. I see how much better the world could be, which leads to a constant state of exasperation and frustration. But- again because of Star Trek- I am an incurable optimist. I believe the reason we haven’t reached the future of Star Trek is because we haven’t worked hard enough, and maybe because we don’t deserve it yet.
The series also provided me with a solid role model while I was growing up. His name was Data, and he was an android who wished that he was human.
Data stated that he was unable to feel emotions, and as a result of this, interpersonal relationships were complicated for him. He often felt isolated and out of place. His sense of isolation was exacerbated because he was almost entirely alone in the universe. There was only one other android in existence (and he was evil, so fuck him).
Data had a powerful, black and white sense of right and wrong. He was thoroughly, reflexively decent.
Not only did I idolize him, but I also identified strongly with him. I saw myself as Data. I understood from an early age that I was different from other people, but didn’t quite understand how. I was obviously smart, but- like Data- there were all these little things about the way the world works which eluded me. I wanted to be like other people, even though it was clear that- like Data- I had unique gifts to offer.
I can’t begin to describe how important it was to see myself represented on television. They’ve done studies, actually, about media representation of different minority groups, and how that affects both girls and children of colour. The effects are toxic, because generally they’re represented on T.V. as ugly stereotypes, or they’re conspicuously absent. It’s important for kids to see people like themselves on T.V. and movies, and for these people to be complicated and essentially good. If kids are exposed to positive representations of their gender or race, it will have a long-term positive impact on the formation of their identity.
To this day, there aren’t a lot of positive, nuanced portrayals of autism on television. And Data was never intended to fill that role. But- entirely by accident- he filled that role for me. Because I got to see him every week, I grew up much more functional and accepting of my circumstances than I might have been otherwise. Data was respected by just about everyone; his fellow crewmembers believed that his differences were not only his strengths, but the crew’s as well. I saw that, and absorbed it.
I’m not the only one who has had this experience. Star Trek has an enormous and deeply loyal fan base of autistic people. One “Aspie stereotype” is that we’re all Trekkies. Well, there’s a reason for that: even beyond Data, Star Trek has a rich history of accidental representations of autism, all of which are positive.
There have been five Star Trek series, and all of them have had at least one character with strong autistic traits. I don’t know why or how this happened- it certainly wasn’t deliberate- but the impact on autistic culture has been incalcuable.
The Star Trek universe even features an entire species of Aspies: the ultra-logical, hyper-intelligent Vulcans, whose feelings are so volatile that they require tremendous strength and discipline to keep them in check.
Just about every Aspie can find some character to identify with.
In addition to Spock- the original Vulcan- and Data, there are:
Barclay: An intense, anxious geek whom most people find offputting. His intelligence and resourcefulness eventually pay off. He appeared in both The Next Generation and Voyager.
Odo: Out of all the autistic surrogates, I identify with him the most at this point in my life. Unlike almost all of the others, he isn’t culturally or biologically restricted from feeling things, and so in spite of his need for order he freely admits to being a man of deep feeling. He just doesn’t know how to express that side of himself. He appeared in Deep Space Nine, and was the only autistic surrogate on that series.
The Doctor: A hologram who struggles with the limitations of his programming and ends up surpassing them to become a well-rounded and decidedly human non-human. He appeared in Voyager.
Tuvok: Another Vulcan. Probably the emotionally deadest of all the regular Vulcan characters on Star Trek, and- as a result- he was not especially interesting. He appeared on Voyager.
Seven of Nine: Originally human, then turned into a robot zombie for most of her life, then rescued and deprogrammed. I can’t make this shit up. She was developed to give fanboys something to masturbate to, but then seemingly almost by accident developed into a complicated, well-rounded character. Her struggles to reclaim her humanity and to define what it meant to be a person and a woman were deeply moving and I imagine particularly meaningful for women on the spectrum. She appeared on Voyager.
T’Pol: Another Vulcan. Like Seven of Nine, she was supposed to be wank fodder. She was an unusually emotional Vulcan, sadder and angrier than normal. Not much was done with her character, but she had a lot of potential. She appeared on Enterprise.
Phlox: A cheerful mad scientist from some loopy, little-known civilization. He was the only autistic surrogate who was- throughout the course of the series- married with children, and also the only one who never wanted to be more than he was. This did not make for riveting television, but I found it reassuring to see an Aspie who was completely content.
I suspect the reason why there’s so much accidental autism on Star Trek was because of Spock, the original surrogate. The creator of Star Trek wanted a character who was totally alien, and- in doing so- invented this weird pointy-eared dude who had many autistic traits. Spock was a hit with fans, and almost immediately became an iconic character. Decades later, when Roddenberry was developing The Next Generation, I think he sought to replicate that success and created Data.
It’s ironic that these characters who were supposed to represent the alien and unknowable became the way in which so many people came to know themselves.