NEW YORK — Looking around at this party to celebrate the newest Star Trek film, no one can deny that these fans are hard core.
Some guests are wearing starship uniforms. One guy just went out into the streets of midtown Manhattan in captain’s garb to pick up a pizza. Episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation” are playing in the background. There’s a whole table of paraphernalia — including a snow globe containing a miniature USS Enterprise.
After a year when some of our visions for the future have veered toward the apocalyptic, the sci-fi trivia and costumes are not the only things that set this group of partygoers apart. Facing their own difficult times, the people at the events held by this New York fan group are finding inspiration for the future in Star Trek.
"People are at a very dark time right now,” says one fan, Rebecca Brandt. "We have to get to the Star Trek point. We’re not there yet. ... We need replicators. ... We need to solve world hunger and solve disease.”
Science fiction fans have been taking the long view for a long time. Ask a group of Star Trek followers what they see ahead in the distant future, and many still can make out a path to the tempting vision the show has offered of what could be.
"It gives us something to aim toward,” said 31-year-old Nick Gotch, one of the party guests. "It’s an inspirational idea,”
Optimism has powered the Star Trek universe since the original show premiered in 1966. In the Federation of the 23rd century, viewers saw a future with little poverty and limited despair — one where heavily armed ships were used not for conflict but for exploration. The fictional universe offered a glimpse of a racially integrated society and a united Earth where citizens wanted for so little that money itself was a thing of the past.
Even by the end of the newest movie, when the characters emerge as darker, more damaged versions of themselves, the mission remains one of discovery.
But sitting not too far from the Riker and Worf action figures, Wayne Palesado is a little more cautious when he looks ahead. The 42-year-old Bronx resident has been laid off from his job as a cook in a corporate cafe, and he says his own future — as well as the future of humanity — seems uncertain.
But in Star Trek, he sees a template for a utopian outcome.
"In this future where there is no economics, there is only striving to become who you want to be,” he says, sounding a little wistful for a tomorrow that hasn’t come.
"There’s so many things I’ve wanted to do in life, but I haven’t been able to because of my economic situation,” he says, explaining he always wished he could return to school to get a four-year college degree and study computer science.
In the universe of Star Trek, things would be different. When "there is no money, how far you want to go in life is up to you,” he says.
The idea of every person standing on equal footing despite their differences is at the core of Star Trek and has long drawn people to the series.
You don’t see that kind of unadulterated optimism too often these days. Whether in pop culture or on the political stage, we’ve all been grappling with intimations of doom. At the movies, you can see a polar bear slipping off his dwindling ice cap. Turn on the news and watch the spillover line at the local job fair. Flip to The History Channel: The world may be coming to an end in 2012.
We’ve all gone a little apocalypse-obsessed. It’s the sort of brewing fear that’s often been relegated to science fiction. At this party, there’s a cartoon on display as decoration; in it, one purple alien asks another: "So when do we annihilate Earth?”
The Trekkies here, chatting over soda and reviewing a promotional video for a Star Trek-themed cruise launching in just a few days for Bermuda, are proud of the series’ optimism for the distant future. But they don’t think our present-day woes will simply give way to an easy resolution.
Many fans believe things will have to get worse before they get better. That’s part of the Star Trek lesson, they say, pointing to the devastation suffered on Earth in the series’ imagined Eugenics Wars and World War III — conflicts that in Star Trek’s mythology killed hundreds of millions of people before humanity achieved peace and enlightenment.
"That’s the nature of human beings,” says party organizer Darlene Blander-Chamble. "We have to get slapped down before we can pick ourselves up and say, ’let’s change some things.”’
Like many of the other fans at these gatherings, she remains unbowed by the thought of tougher times ahead. With a view of the eventual possibilities, adversities seem much more manageable. And she has a deep well of positivity to draw on — for decades, her love of Star Trek has been driving her to do her best to change the future herself.
As a child, she would sit with her family to watch the show and marvel at Lt. Uhura — one of the first black women to play a major TV character. At the end of each episode, her parents would ask her to summarize the moral behind the story. One in particular stays with her, in which characters with slightly different black and white markings are consumed with hatred for each other.
Enrolled in a largely integrated middle school, Blander-Chamble, who is black, remembers making a decision: "I would live like Star Trek” — and refuse to treat anyone differently because of their race, she recalls.
Later in life, as she worked as a volunteer with abused women and children and in homeless shelters, she began to focus on the hope she saw in the series’ vision of a society without poverty and without money. The 43-year-old human resources analyst formed a group celebrating the intersection of Christian works and science fiction. She began mentoring kids.
Now, much like her parents did, she watches episodes with those children — discussing with them lessons found in the newer Star Trek series. For her, it’s a small step toward a distant world of hope.