Starfleet captains haven’t always managed to keep pandemics from doing massive damage — from the plague that wiped out the adult population of an entire planet in The Original Series’ “Miri” to the Phage in Star Trek: Voyager.
But the Federation may be able to claim at least some part of a disease-fighting victory here in sector 001. More specifically, my home: the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Much of the credit goes to the province’s dedicated, experienced public health officials and courageous frontline workers. But officials and workers in other jurisdictions are just as skilled, brave, and dedicated. Their advice, though, often went unheeded until the virus had already tightened its grip in those communities.
The difference may lie in the fact that the leader of BC’s government, Premier John Horgan, is also arguably the province’s most prominent Star Trek fan.
The Trekkie in the command chair
Horgan was hooked on the show from an early age. “The Pollyanna view that we can all work together to a better outcome — all faiths, all ethnicities — that appealed to me,” he told a columnist after taking the reins of BC’s left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP).
He’s known for leaning out of his office window and playfully heckling fellow politicians, telling one who walked by one day in a red outfit that she was lucky this wasn’t an away mission. One wall of his office bears a framed picture of Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sisko, and Archer along with a plaque reading “Engage: Stardate 2017.07.18” — the date his government was sworn in. And while he has a deep-seated affection for all things Trek, his favorite captain is Janeway.
Carry on, Premier Horgan. Your excellent taste is a clear indicator that you’d enjoy a prosperous career in Starfleet. ????— Kate Mulgrew (@TheKateMulgrew) February 21, 2019
In short, the government of British Columbia is led by someone who spent his formative years — and his adult life — immersed in Federation space. And it turns out that’s pretty good preparation for navigating an unprecedented crisis.
Exploring strange new worlds... before you have to live in them
Today hand-washing, mask-wearing and physical distancing are the norm (or at least, the norm we’re trying to reach). But back in February and March, when governments were making those all-important decisions on their first response to the virus, even respectable media voices were saying “It’ll be like a bad flu year.” Denial was still the order of the day.
Just recognizing the scope of an unprecedented danger can require enormous leaps of imagination. That’s especially true when it’s an invisible threat, and one plenty of voices are calling overblown.
It demands the ability to imagine what the world will be like without drastic changes and the massive devastation that could result. And you have to be equally able to imagine a world where you’ve taken steps that would otherwise be politically unthinkable.
As we’ve learned in the past few months, that skill’s in shorter supply than we might have hoped. Too many political leaders lacked the imagination to act until the crisis was on their doorstep.
But if you’re a Star Trek fan with a few series under your belt, you’re already well trained in exploring strange new worlds. (“Weird is part of the job,” as Janeway once told Harry Kim.) You’ve seen widespread catastrophe: Deneva ravaged by neural parasites , Vulcan crushed by a singularity, and Mars with its surface scorched and its atmosphere still burning.
You’ve even already experienced countless epidemics, including an inhibition-removing contaminant that struck Enterprise crews twice .
So imagining how bad a pandemic could get if left unchecked? Not a big leap.
And for the same reason, you’ve had a series of master classes in unorthodox solutions: not mere ‘Trek’-nobabble (governments don’t have a forward sensor array they can reroute graviton particles through) but creative innovations, interventions, and shifts in perspective, such assessing a creature not as a deadly threat to be killed but as a mother trying to protect her young.
Then there’s the solution Janeway chose when Voyager encountered a huge Mutara-class nebula riddled with deadly subnucleonic radiation. She ordered the entire crew into stasis except for the two who were unaffected by the radiation — Seven of Nine and the Doctor — who then crewed the ship on its month-long journey through the nebula.
Watch that episode, and suddenly the idea of an extended economic shutdown where everyone except essential workers stays home doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Neither does the need to provide additional moral and financial support for those workers as the shutdown wears on.
And neither does providing economic support or a freeze on evictions to ensure we can all still keep food on the table and a roof over our heads — especially if, like Horgan, you’re a social democrat whose worldview aligns with Gene Roddenberry’s egalitarian, post-exploitation vision of the future.
“Set a course... for home.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Janeway being Horgan’s favorite captain takes on a new dimension. Before the outbreak, he attributed that in part to being raised by his mother with the help of his older sister. But you can read a lot of 2020’s zeitgeist into the story of a ship on a lengthy journey through unknown, often dangerous space.
Like Voyager’s crew, we don’t know how long an odyssey we have in front of us, and we’re often improvising on the fly as we learn, adapt and encounter unexpected shortages. (Maybe we’re hoping for coffee in that nebula; maybe it’s more like toilet paper and PPE.) Like them, we’re hitting roadblocks and setbacks; the past few weeks, for instance, have seen BC’s case numbers tick back upward.
And you could forgive Premier Horgan if he was to see something of his own role in a captain trying to get her sometimes-fractious crew safely home. British Columbia’s politics may not be quite as polarized as Federation-Maquis differences, but we do have our moments.
The future right now feels less certain than it has in a long time — and not just because of COVID-19. All we really know is that it won’t be the last of the huge, unexpected challenges we face, whether they come in the form of another pandemic, climate-related disruption or some other threat. And that we’ll need imagination from our leaders and each other — both to recognize those challenges and to embrace the changes they require.
That also means changing what we think of as qualifications for elected office. I’m not saying that policies, platforms and promises are less important than an insightful take on Darmok. But a capacity for imagination is crucial.
“In these unprecedented times” is just another way of saying we’re going where no-one has gone before. And we need to know that our leaders are ready for that journey.
Rob Cottingham (he/him) is a Vancouver-based speechwriter, cartoonist and presentation coach. He works as a communications strategist with the BC Federation of Labour. You can find him on Twitter at @robcottingham.