To Boldly Go Where No Car Has Gone Before

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Star Trek debuted on TV fifty years ago this month, and BBC America aired uncut episodes of the original series all weekend. Naturally, I watched until my eyes bled.

As a kid interested in anything to do with space, I discovered the show on my parents’ black and white TV, the same TV on which we watched the real-life moon landing. But it wasn’t until the show was canceled and went into syndication that I saw it in color and became intimately familiar with the characters.

It’s the greatest show in the history of television. Future incarnations like The Next Generation were slicker and more consistent, but the makers of the original show had no budget, no computer-generated special effects, no network support, and no established cultural universe to fall back on. They made it up as they went along, and half a century later, we’re still talking about it.

Even the stupid episodes were good. A personal favorite is “A Piece of the Action,” in which the Enterprise visits a planet in the beginnings of industrialization whose inhabitants, based on a book left behind by a previous starship, have patterned their whole society on the gangs of old Chicago.

In the best scene, Kirk tries to drive a car. As a man of the future, he is unfamiliar with the clutch and gears. The normally unflappable Spock is unnerved. “Captain,” he says, “you are an excellent starship commander. But as a taxi driver, you leave much to be desired.”

This scene is shamelessly betrayed in the first “reboot” Star Trek film, when a young Kirk leads an airborne cop on a chase in what is supposedly his stepfather’s prized antique automobile. Wait a minute, I thought – Kirk can’t drive.

While I’ve enjoyed many of the subsequent movies and series, none of them live up to the inventive brilliance of the original show (though The Wrath of Khan comes close). The minute the focus shifted from thoughtful storytelling to the creation of an ongoing “franchise,” Star Trek began to lose much of its magic.

The BBC marathon was interrupted by commercials, and a disturbing number of them seemed to be car commercials. The juxtaposition of yesterday’s science fiction with ads for today’s high-tech cars got me thinking. What does science fiction have to say about the future of the car culture?

In his novel Imperial Earth, published in 1976 but set in 2276, Arthur C. Clarke’s main character arrives on Earth from Saturn’s moon Titan as a delegate to America’s 500th birthday celebration. Clarke, who in the 1940s predicted the invention of the communications satellite, is known for “hard” science fiction that, as much as possible, relies on the known laws of physics.

He sets his spaceport 50 miles outside Washington DC, and populates the highways of the future with automated electric cars. It’s against the law to drive manually. This is, in fact, another prediction in the process of coming true. Several companies are currently working on driverless cars, and a few have been road-tested, with mixed results.

Even casual Star Trek fans are familiar with the characters’ preferred mode of travel: the transporter. It’s easy to see that the ability to beam from place to place would quickly make cars obsolete. The concept is a bit farfetched, but not quite as impossible as the faster-than-light warp drive that powers the ship.

Incidentally, the invention of the transporter was driven not by some visionary idea of future travel, but by the need to produce an hour-long TV show on a budget. As producer Gene Roddenberry explained in The Making of Star Trek (1968): “The fact that we didn’t have the budget [to land the ship] forced us into conceiving the transporter device – ‘beam’ them down to the planet – which allowed us to be well into the story by script page two.”

In his 1970 novel Ringworld, Larry Niven gives us something similar, with “transfer booths,” which allow people to travel instantaneously all over the Earth. The effect of this is to homogenize the planet, so that one city eventually looks like another. A depressing thought, but, again, there would be no need for cars in such a future.

It’s hard to find a work of science fiction in which humans use cars the way we do now. The implication seems clear: our future dreams and aspirations don’t include cars. On some subconscious level, we don’t want our descendants to be driving when they are living in yesterday’s science fiction.

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