The Hero’s Journey
Star Trek is about growth – individual and cultural growth. Even more, it’s about human growth. Gene Roddenberry believed that humanity could fulfill its potential if we focused on education, discovery and the very best human attributes. We could eliminate greed and war and discrimination; we could create utopia.
The Journey and the Future
Star Trek is his vision of that future. The characters in Star Trek face challenges, dangers and gut-wrenching life or death decisions. They reason, they struggle, and sometimes they grieve, but they make decisions and act based on values grounded in a higher good. In the process, they show us how to grow into the people Gene Roddenberry believed we could be. They demonstrate the Hero’s Journey.
It is that journey and the characters to make it that have drawn viewers to Star Trek for more than five decades. In this blog series, we’re going to look at Star Trek from the Hero’s Journey perspective and see how Star Trek has shown us who we are and who we can become.
“To boldly go…” invites us to unknown challenges, trials, pain and even sacrifice. Maturity doesn’t happen in an instant. Growth is a journey and character is the destination. It’s not a new theme. For millennia, in every culture around the world, stories have told us about heroes willing to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” Those mythic heroes showed us how to live, who we could be. Their stories teach the values and ideals of the society, and by doing so make it strong, stable and able to survive.
Star Trek Is Modern Myth
The purpose of myth is to encourage a society to be the best it can be. Roddenberry designed Star Trek for just such a mythic purpose. Its message is simple: we can do better. We can be better. The characters in Trek series show us how to do that as they find themselves in circumstances demanding difficult, even heartrending choices. They must think, evaluate, solve problems, and choose the better way, no matter what the sacrifice. It is the struggle, the choosing and the sacrifice that makes them truly heroic. In the coming posts, we’ll look at Star Trek characters and the journeys they take in specific episodes and in longer story arcs.
The Path of the Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell spent his academic career studying and writing about the nature and role of myth. He traveled the world conducting research and found mythic stories all focus on the journey of a hero. Campbell discovered the journey has specific stages which shape the structure of any mythic story.
We see that structure clearly in Star Trek:
- The story begins in a ordinary world, such as the bridge of the Enterprise.
- Something happens to upset the ordinary and call the crew to adventure.
- They see the risk and may not want to go. They think about refusing the call.
- At this point a mentor offers wisdom, tools, or explains what is happening. The mentor is often Spock, Scotty or even McCoy, but sometimes it’s an alien entity.
- Now that the task is clear, the hero will cross the threshold or — in Star Trek — beam to the special world. That may be a planet, another starship or an altered state of some kind.
- In this special world, the hero finds allies, enemies and trials. As that happens, the story builds, and the risk becomes more serious.
- Now the hero must face the ordeal. Because the hero bears responsibility for the higher good, he or she must decide even though failure could mean loss of something valuable — life, the ship, the future…
- Risk brings reward, the goal is accomplished.
- What was lost is resurrected. That might be a relationship, a characters’ identity, the future of a planet or the timeline itself.
- The road back to the ordinary world is the last step in the journey. All is well as we see the crew back on the bridge where there is “…no Tribble at all.”
Why We Care
The Hero’s Journey can be heartbreaking. There weren’t many dry eyes when Spock chose to sacrifice himself in The Wrath of Khan. Sometimes the journeys are humorous, as in “The Trouble With Tribbles” or “A Piece of the Action.” Journeys can be contained in a single episode, as they were in TOS, a series of episodes (TNG, DS9), a single season (Discovery), or over the history of the franchise.
If we care about the characters, we share their experiences. We learn along with them, and we share their growth. That is the role of the Hero’s Journey in myth. That was Roddenberry’s goal for Star Trek. It is, as I noted up top, what has attracted fans to Trek for more than five decades, six series, and multiple films, books, games and media experiences.
In future posts we’re going to look at the hero’s journeys Star Trek characters have taken and what those journeys tell us about our choices, our values and our place in this world.
We’ll start first with James Kirk’s journey in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” I use this episode in my classes at The University of North Alabama because it offers a very clear example of the Hero’s Journey.
I hope you will join me over the next few months as we’ ll look at some of our favorite characters, episodes and films. I’m looking forward to sharing with you and seeing your comments as we take our own journey through Star Trek.
For More Information, see the following resources:
• The Joseph Campbell Foundation
• Joseph Campbell (2008).The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New World Library.
• Voegler, Chris ( 2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd ed. Michael Wiese Productions.
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