I am an anxious person.
I have lost entire days fretting about events that never happen. For years, I was so conflict-averse that I would willingly walk into situations I hated simply to avoid saying no. When bad things inevitably happen, they have the nasty habit of wrecking my day. Before I come across as too pathetic, I should mention that I try to channel this energy into something constructive, like cleaning or writing, but sometimes that’s not what I need.
Sometimes the best cure for my anxiety is hanging out with my friends from the Federation. I’m not alone in using television to soothe my anxiety. In May 2022, Philo ran a poll with 2,000 individuals, and 55% of them admitted to watching TV as a way to self-soothe. Watching your favorite shows can encourage the release of Dopamine, the neurotransmitter that plays a role in reward-motivated behavior. When we watch the TV shows we love, we feel that dopamine rush and are more motivated to continue that behavior. It can be addictive.
There are a lot of shows that do this for me, though Star Trek holds a special place in my heart. Part of a comfort show’s appeal is the tidiness of each episode’s ending. That feeling that our characters will be okay at the end of the episode, even if we’re not. All of the pre-200s Star Treks can easily offer this. You can randomly pick an episode of “The Original Series” or “The Next Generation” and watch a thoughtful story. Or you can watch an episode that completely devastates you and fuses with your soul, like when I first watched “The Cage” and became obsessed with the Greek Tragedy that is Captain Pike and Vina’s romance.
If you’re my friend (or a fan of the show), then you’re probably aware of the original series’s impact on popular culture. For example, perhaps you’re already familiar with the story of Martin Luther King Jr. telling Nichelle Nichols about the importance of her ground-breaking role as Lieutenant Uhura. Or do you know about the epic kiss between Kirk and Uhura with its own Wikipedia article? Or you follow George Takei on twitter and know a little about his experience on the show.
Or maybe you’re like my mom and think Star Trek is a show for “pathetic losers who will die alone.” The show is not for everyone.
If you’re not a fan of the show, please consider the next few sentences my attempt to convince you why I love it and why you may love it as well. The Star Trek universe first takes place in 2266 and envisions a universe in which humankind has outgrown our baser instincts. The people in the show still feel everything we do but understand that our ability to love and cooperate makes humanity so wonderful. It pictures a world in which people care about each other. By the time humanity takes to the stars, it is not with a colonial mindset but rather with the desire to learn from other people.
Star Trek is a show about the human desire to explore, find your purpose, and the importance of the connections you forge along the way. It is relentlessly optimistic.
When I watch this show, I feel like I’m spending time with friends, doing what I love. It’s the kind of show that celebrates its characters’ quirks and interests. After all, on what kind of show could a character write an awesomely-bad poem about his cat, perform it for a crowd, and then have said crowd shower him with kindness and appreciation. Is it cheesy? Of course, Star Trek is cheesy. But cheesy is the risk you take when you’re earnest about something.
It is also worth discussing the humanist element of the show. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was a noted humanist, and the philosophy of humanism is very much present throughout the entirety of “Star Trek.” The philosophy of humanism is that people have the responsibility and capability to address societal problems for the benefit of all of humankind. It’s a beautiful philosophy with commitments including empathy, peace & social justice, and altruism. All of these commitments are present within the show.
Characters actively strive to be the best version of themselves and are acknowledged, if not outright rewarded, for doing the right thing. As much as I can appreciate a morally ambiguous character, of which there are many in the Star Trek universe, I admire that the characters representing the Federation are presented as good people. They are still people and flawed, but we see through their actions that they want to do the right thing. Think of the classic episode “Arena,” in which powerful space aliens force Captain Kirk to fight the Gorn Captain. This episode is remembered for the hilariously awful fight scene between Kirk and the Gorn captain, but I want to look at the actual plot. Kirk manages to best his opponent by assembling a cannon (it makes no sense in the episode, but just go with it) and then must finish him off. However, Kirk refuses to kill the Gorn, even if that means death for himself. This act of mercy and compassion impresses their jailers, who release Kirk and the Gorn captain unharmed.
Yeah, it is cheesy, but it’s also kind of wonderful. I feel as though I’ve been inundated with “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” morality for the past few years, and honestly, it feels great to have characters I can look up to. Sort of. Star Trek never claims that its characters are perfect because it is too aware of the multifaceted nature of humanity. However, it does say that humans can and should continue to try to be good. That it’s a good thing to show mercy to the guy in the Gorn suit who’s trying to bludgeon you (but, you know, wait until he can’t bludgeon you to show that mercy, otherwise you’ll just be merciful and dead).
Star Trek is not a recommended treatment for anxiety in lieu of medication and therapy, unless you have a really cool psychiatrist. There are a bunch of other activities you can engage in that may be more suitable for anxiety management. Meditite. Go outside. Smell a tree. Eat a bagel. Dress up like a clown and see if you can fit into a storm drain. And maybe binge-watch when the situation calls for it.
However, binge-watching is complicated. As I said, it releases Dopamine, which isn’t always good. There has also been extensive research showing that while fun, binge-watching behavior isn’t always healthy. People like myself who struggle with anxiety and depression are prone to binge-watching as a way to manage anxiety, deal with loneliness, and provide a means of escapism. It is something worth considering every time we engage in a rewatch of our comfort shows, whether it takes place in Scranton, Regency England, or an imagined utopic future.
It is extremely tempting for me to escape into the world of Star Trek when real life threatens to become too overwhelming. And let’s be honest – life has been quite overwhelming the past few years. I’m far from the only person who has escaped into the world of television. Though armed with this knowledge, I think I should carefully choose which fictional worlds I immerse myself in. Though when I indulge in a much-needed break from reality, I’ll be happy to return to the Federation.
All of the Star Trek shows and movies are currently streaming on Paramount Plus. If you plan on watching any of the series, go ahead and consider us friends.