"Star Trek" turns 50 today, which means it's time to grade the progress we've made against the franchise's vision of the future.
Ask anyone — from a casual fan to the guy who spent $500,000 turning his basement into the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise NX-01 — to describe "Trek," and you'll likely hear the word "optimistic." Unlike the widely admired TV dramas of today, which love their morally compromised heroes, no-win situations, and characters suffering for doing the right thing, "Star Trek" is full of good people trying their best, often while being chased by giant cats.
These good people have made the 23rd and 24th centuries really, really, great. According to series lore, it's a future that includes medical technology that can repair anything from a scraped knee to heterocyclic declination in a matter of seconds, magic machines that conjure full banquets out of thin air, and whatever "bio-neural gel packs" are.
Which makes it kind of astonishing that when it comes to the kind of social progress that matters to real people, we're actually beating "Star Trek's" vision in some ways.
Yes, despite our many flaws, it turns out our messy, imperfect society has already achieved more equality and justice in some areas than the technologically superior, world-peace-attaining, pan-species utopia of "Star Trek."
Here are five examples — plus one thing we really need to get on ASAP:
1. We put women in the captain's chair centuries before the Federation.
In the episode "Turnabout Intruder" from the third season of the original series, former Starfleet officer Janice Lester, barred from command because of her gender, responds to the systemic sexism infecting the Federation military hierarchy in the only sensible way: by going crazy, trapping Capt. Kirk in an alien personality-switching device, and trying to take over the Enterprise while wearing his body.
Even in the pilot of "Voyager," 102 years later in the franchise's timeline, it's clear that while female officers are no longer forced to body-swap with William Shatner in order to get promoted to command, the fleet is still not totally used to women giving orders:
JANEWAY: Despite Starfleet protocol, I don't like being addressed as sir.
KIM: I'm sorry, ma'am.
JANEWAY: Ma'am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer Captain.
In 2016, sexism in the military — and pretty much everywhere — is still a thing. But we got our first female commanding officer of a Navy vessel over two decades ago, beating the United Federation of Planets by nearly 300 years — and over 10 female admirals are currently serving.
2. We saved the humpback whale. "Star Trek" predicted we wouldn't.
The fourth "Trek" film establishes that humans will have wiped out humpback whales by the 23rd century, forcing Kirk and crew to slingshot around the sun and time-travel back to 1980s San Francisco to retrieve a pair (coining the indelible catchphrase "double dumbass on you!" in the process).
While the whalepocalypse (whaleckoning? whalemageddon?) may have seemed plausible — even probable — to moviegoers 30 years ago, thanks to conservation efforts here on real planet Earth, most populations of humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, and the species has been designated one of "least concern" — making this the perfect time for them to go extinct out of spite (but they haven't done it yet, so hey, notch another one up!).
3. We make people wear seat belts. Strangely, Starfleet doesn't.
How many casualties could have been avoided if the Enterprise had encouraged its officers to buckle up?
4. It's not clear that LGBT crewmen and women can serve openly on the U.S.S. Enterprise, but they can in our military.
Before "Star Trek: Beyond," which takes place in an "alternate" timeline, retconned Sulu's sexuality by giving him a husband and daughter, the franchise hadn't featured a single out lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender crew member — aside from that one episode of "Deep Space Nine" where Dax makes out with a lady who was the wife of the guy whose body Dax's genderless internal slug thing previously inhabited, and a few villains who were — somewhat unfortunately — coded gay.
While it's possible that openly LGBT officers and crew members exist in the primary timeline, we've got absolutely zero evidence they do as late as 2378...
...which is weird, because L, G, and B Americans have been serving openly and without incident in the armed forces since 2011 (and, in other countries, for way longer). Sure, it took us way too long — the Pentagon waited until June 2016 to end the ban on transgender people joining up without having to conceal their identity — but we still managed to do it before freaking Starfleet.
We can be a little bit proud of that.
5. We didn't blow ourselves up in the '90s, like "Trek" assumed we would
Our planet has lot of problems — and, tbh, we're responsible for most of them. Racism. Civil war. Looming environmental catastrophe. And yet, for all our faults, we have yet to start World War III and nuke each other into oblivion.
For all the purported optimism of "Trek," the franchise makes it clear that its shiny, harmonious, need-free future is only available to us after we do that.
The inciting incident leading to humankind's downfall and ultimate rebirth are Khan's eugenics wars, which reach their apex in 1996. Thankfully, we spent that year doing the Macarena and watching Will Smith punch aliens in the face. A far better use of humanity's time.
Despite some legit impressive progress, however, there's one area where we're still lagging behind.
Unfortunately, we can't ignore it forever.
1. We haven't destroyed the Borg Transwarp Hub yet.
Thanks to their peerless technical expertise obtained by assimilating thousands of species, the Borg maintain a vast network of conduits, allowing their cubes to travel seamlessly from one end of the galaxy to the other, wreaking destruction wherever they go.
And we still haven't taken the thing out.
It won't be easy. It took Capt. Janeway until 2378 to devise a plan, which involved stocking up on transphasic torpedoes, engineering a neurolytic pathogen, and the suicide of her future self. The Borg are pretty damn persistent, and if we're serious about protecting everything that we've accomplished, we should get on that ASAP. Now that we know how to do it, how hard can it possibly be?
Call your senator!