One of the most freeing things about ‘soft’ science fiction like Star Trek is that writers are offered a wealth of new ways to explore old questions about who we are and what made us that way.
One way of understanding who we are which goes back to the cultures of the ancient world is to define ourselves against who we are not.
The ancient Romans have often been used as an example of what we (like to think we) are not – decadent, violent, arrogant, depraved.
However, some productions, including the Star Trek episode ‘Bread and Circuses,’ turn that trope on its head by making us question whether perhaps we are more like the Romans than we like to think (see also The Hunger Games and Peter Watkins’ The Gladiators).
Gladiatorial combat seems far removed from anything in our society – brutal, unforgiving, violent. But in ‘Bread and Circuses,’ when we encounter a planet that essentially represents a world where the Roman Empire never fell and the Romans have access to 20th century technology, the audience are shown a brutal televisual landscape in which gladiatorial fights are used to bolster ratings and keep television networks in business.
Watching these fights unfold on our own televisions, knowing the metaphorically cutthroat nature of the business, we are asked to consider the ways in which we resemble the Romans, rather than allowing ourselves to take comfort from our differences.
Exactly what aspects of ourselves Star Trek: Into Darkness will reflect remains to be seen. Stories are, ultimately, about their audience, the good guys representing how we define ourselves and the bad guys defining what we think we are not – but there is usually something of the bad guy in us too, if we look closely enough, and that is the marker of the best stories.