The great charm of science fiction is that it has so little to do with the future. At its best, it shows us the present clearly. At its more comforting second-best, it takes us back to a past better than any that have existed. Star Trek may be the best bad science fiction ever to reach a mass market. The opening of a new Star Trek film this week is a celebration of double nostalgia. On a personal level, many of its viewers will find themselves transported back 25 years to their own childhood, the time of the first series. One of the secrets of the show's original success was that it was made so cheaply that it looked like a children's game. The stars made from holes poked in a blanket, and the aliens dressed in aluminium foil all, paradoxically, added to the conviction byrequiring our complicity if they were to work at all. What gave the series its power was not the detail, but the animating idea: that we live in a universe that obeys certain and comprehensible laws. Some of them are obvious: science helps mankind; there is a single human race (Star Trek featured the first inter-racial kiss on networked American television). Some of them were less obvious but more comforting: progress is real; all our important problems have solutions that are ultimately compatible with each other. These were the values of the Enlightenment. You may trace their descent directly from Voltaire to television.
Gene Roddenberry, the series' creator, may have been an alcoholic lecher, and several of the actors pompous prima donnas in their earthbound lives. But they offered, and still offer, us the dream of an ordered universe in which humankind could, by courage and intelligence, find a home. It is hardly surprising that 400,000 people wrote to Nasa urging that the first space shuttle be called Enterprise.
As part of the marketing hoopla around the latest film, the republic of Liberia has issued a set of coins with the two first captains of the starship Enterprise on the back. It is difficult to know which is the more science-fictional concept: the USS Enterprise, or the existence of a functioning government in Liberia, one of the many parts of Africa to have imploded into anarchy and horror. The Enlightenment, it seems, has lost its power to illuminate and inspire; the perennial realities are those of chaos and brutality. If only we could go back to the future that Star Trek promised.