The Next Generation

‘That is how humanity should be, I think,’ said Dad.

‘Like a computer?’

‘Yes, Jonathan. It is much less bother. There’s none of the usual nonsense.’

This could have been anytime in the early 1990s and we would have been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Our attention would have been fastened upon Data, the android whose attempts to emulate the emotional complexity of his mostly human comrades were meant to echo Pinocchio’s wish to become a real boy. The conceit, of course, was that in seeking for this apparently elusive human factor, Data somehow embodied humanity’s best and most generous instincts. But this is the kind of thing that Star Trek has always done well. Among the assorted Klingons, Vulcans and Romulans, it shows us our customs, habits, and traits as they might strike an alien anthropologist.

Which doesn’t quite explain why my father was so willing to divest himself of emotion, history, or the difficult burden of a sense of humour. I don’t just blame Data. There was also Spock, the dispassionate half-Vulcan science officer from the original Enterprise. For Dad, a man whose cold command of numbers had steered his professional life, these characters represented an apposite kind of role model.

If I went for different attributes in my fictional heroes, I still found much to admire in the Star Trek universe, and its influence persists. Last year, after a summer of serious illness, Dad asked me to devise him an extensive convalescence program to accompany his physical rehabilitation. In hospital, I took him DVD sets of The Wire, as well as novels by George Orwell and Graham Greene that he had grudgingly conceded to investigate when I started my university education over a decade ago. He was too tired to focus on the novels, and he didn’t get along with The Wire. I might have known. Happily, on his return home, we discovered a satellite channel was looping repeats of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and promised a run of TNG. Pretty soon, a post-prandial weeknight ritual was established, as we brought our different expectations, agendas and dietary requirements to bear on a very unfashionable bit of fluff.

Dad was part of the show’s original audience, though few Trekkers of that vintage will have encountered the show as ‘Pishtarzan-e Fazar’, which means something like ‘Pioneers of the Stars’. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was working in the North Iranian city of Qazvin, as a ceramic scientist. On his trips south to his home in Shiraz, he became acquainted with the family’s television set, which had been recently acquired and was introducing his youngest siblings to a number of dubbed American shows. Among them, it was Star Trek that most appealed to his enthusiasm for Westerns, and its rendering in Farsi hints at the myth of the frontier that structures Gene Rodenberry’s world. Roddenberry, a former L.A. cop and World War II veteran, tweaked this archetype for the wilful innocence of his vision of exploration without conquest, of discovery founded upon dialogue.

Twenty years later, and both my Dad and Gene Roddenberry had moved on to the next generation. Rodenberry went on to produce several movies with the original cast of Star Trek, before introducing their small-screen successors. Dad, meanwhile, had moved to Britain to pursue graduate study, only to meet my mother and settle here. My younger brother and I were raised with an unofficial syllabus of film and television which was designed to inculcate a strong sense of good manners and moral discipline. At different times, Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger and James Garner all portrayed men we were supposed to emulate in now forgotten films. We would admire them for their purpose, their obduracy, their true grit, and so on. On another occasion, I remember how The Karate Kid furnished Dad with a conveniently heroic parable for the educative potential of domestic chores. We too could show the neighbourhood bullies a thing or too, but only after we’d washed the car, painted the fence, and waxed on and off. That we would have had to enter a local martial arts tournament to make any of the above worthwhile was entirely lost on him.

Star Trek was the most indelible presence of all. This was the future, and it was Dad’s hope that we would contribute to it by applying ourselves to our schoolwork, and especially to maths and science. I remember him once telling me of the famous meeting between the great Aristotelian mathematician Avicenna and the Islamic mystic, Abu Said Abu Khayr. Of the mathematician, the mystic said, ‘what I see, he knows.’ The mathematician returned the compliment. ‘What I know, he sees.’ For Dad, this meant a vindication of the role that religious belief played in his life, but I always took it to suggest the inevitable and often unlikely triumph of the imagination. Dad’s enthusiasm for Star Trek was sufficient proof of that.

When it came to Iran, imagination was all that I had. I was never raised to speak or understand Farsi, which meant that on the rare occasions that I have met members of my extended family, we haven’t been able to communicate much to each other beyond our wellbeing. Whenever Iran was mentioned at home, usually on the television news, Dad would conversationally switch channels. It was none of my business. I didn’t need to worry about it. Britain was my home.

He left Iran before its Revolution in 1979, and has spent much of his life looking for a quiet egress from history, while I have spent an increasingly large portion of mine making sure he doesn’t quite get away with it. As a teenager, I became uncomfortably aware of how little I knew about him, and my background. Should I be mourning a lost possibility? Should I be learning Farsi, or embracing Islam? Should I not bother, and feel bad about all of this in a casual way? Books could help with a lot of things, offering at first a kind of escape, and then unexpected nuggets of wisdom, like the surprise toys that came with Kinder eggs. They couldn’t help with this.

So naturally, I looked to Star Trek. The spin-off Deep Space Nine was both the first chapter in the chronicle to appear since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the first to premiere after Roddenberry’s death in 1993. A Federation mission is dispatched to the eponymous space-station, formerly known as Terok Nor, to supervise the recovery of the planet Bajor from a brutal Cardassian occupation. The world of DS9 was embroidered with more detail than previous instalments, and more frequently presented from the perspective of its imagined species. This was a boon to fantasy fans, assuring them that here was a universe they could inhabit and plot and chart, but the series seemed to echo actual anxieties in the world beyond Star Trek. My own consciousness of global politics was established from precisely this galactic perspective. For the first time, the Federation was shown to be engaged in full-scale efforts at humanitarian aid, subterfuge and regime change. No longer were alien cultures to be approached with James T. Kirk’s swashbuckling brio, or Jean-Luc Picard’s respectfully cool detachment. Religious belief was taken seriously, to the point of indulgence, and, while the lines between good and evil were more emphatically drawn than before, Starfleet officers were refreshingly presented as humanly compromised.

What appealed to me even more was the variety of displacement the show essayed. DS9 was about home, about watching it disappear, or finding it in the least likely of places. The show’s executive producer, Rick Berman, drew ambitious parallels between the Bajorans’ situation and that of European Jews in the 1930s, of the Palestinians, of Haitian migrants from the 1970s and 1980s, as if displacement were universal, as if each mass migration could be understood in terms of another. DS9 featured many uprooted drifters, none of them searching for the final frontier, but pining for somewhere they might never have known. A scene from one of the last episodes I remember watching sticks in my mind. The Klingons have declared war on the Cardassians, who are then attempting to transition from a military to a civilian government. Garak, a mysteriously exiled Cardassian tailor, visits the bar run by Quark, a garrulous Ferengi (from the Farsi farang, for European), and orders a glass of his native tipple. Quark, ‘in an uncharacteristic mood’, offers him the drink on the house, implying that the imminent conquest of Cardassia will render his stock of that drink worthless. They talk with tart candour about living among humans, the security it offers, and the tedium. Then there’s a little stroke of genius. Quark offers Garak a glass of root beer, ‘a human drink’. Garak seems unnerved, but he warily obliges his host. The drink repulses him, it cloys on his palate. Quark agrees. But he remarks that if you drink enough of it, you begin to like it, or, at least, not to notice that you don’t. It’s insidious, Garak adds. Just like the Federation, they agree. The bitterness of exile is a familiar enough sentiment, but wouldn’t it be terrible if it tasted of nothing? Except that Quark, unlike Garak, is no exile at all. His nature, his sociable, clubbable character has won out over his otherwise pious commitment to Ferengi values. He lives abroad not because he needs to, but because his wants are compulsive and defining.

Dad never liked DS9 and still doesn’t. The sense of community, the slippery, soapy continuity between episodes, always bothered him. Like Cheers flung across the galaxy, DS9 was a place where everyone knows your name, and Dad hated that. To him, the show continues to feel anathema to the very spirit of sci-fi, to the quotient of fiction that science seems to need, and even to Roddenberry’s legacy. He professes to relish the exploration, the possibility, the not-sitting-still. This is understandable. It helps explain the one-way journey he has taken over the course of his life, but it seems uncharacteristic to me, given his reluctance to talk about our shared past. Out there was to be feared and mistrusted.

But watching DS9 again, I found myself asking a new set of questions. Data might call this exercise in nostalgia a temporal rift, where past and parallel selves emerge from between the cracks of a precarious present. I wondered how things might have been different had I visited Iran, or been able to communicate with my family there. I wondered how I might have turned out if I had been raised in Shiraz or Teheran with a British mother, and whether I would have been as passionately attached to another language’s literature as I am to my own.

The answer is surely yes. I too am a kind of spin-off. More recently, I have discovered the rich traditions of Iranian storytelling in film, poetry and fiction, and even made faltering, largely untutored attempts to study the language. Yet nothing since I first saw DS9 has more effectively impressed upon me a sense of those differences buried within us by a harsh and dangerous reality. T.S. Eliot was right to observe that humankind can bear very little of the stuff. Little wonder, then, that two generations of my family have taken whatever fantasy is on offer. But really, it’s all root beer to me. And Garak, you were, or are, or will be right. It is insidious.