Ever since I was little, I’ve thought about how interesting it would be to have to acclimate someone from the past to the realities of the present. I remember being a kid thinking if one of the great minds of the past came back to life and had to learn how to exist in present day, I’d love to be the one to show them around. It would be a thrill that would force everyone to realize just how much things do evolve, despite the seemingly static nature of our day-to-day lives. It would be fascinating to find out how an intelligent person from a different era handles the things we consider commonplace in our “futuristic” lives.
Last night I re-watched the season one finale of Star Trek: TNG titled “The Neutral Zone.” In the episode, the crew happens across a derelict vessel from Earth that has been floating in space for hundreds of years. Data’s curiosity leads him to beam on board, and he discovers three humans cryogenically frozen in capsules on the ship. With its destruction a certainty after centuries of decay, he has them beamed to the Enterprise and awoken. Each person had been frozen when they died, the intent being that they could be revived sometime in the future when medical science had figured out how to heal them. This works out great for them, and each ends up in perfect health.
The rest of the episode focuses on these three, and how they handle suddenly living 350 years from the life they knew.
There’s another plotline where the ship is encountering the Romulans for the first time in 50+ years. This forces the ship into a very tumultuous and potentially fatal situation, and it’s really quite a big deal, and it parallels the story of the humans from the 21st century that suddenly woke up in the 24th. This is the plotline the episode is named after, but is more of a device than the focus of the story. The reason the humans fear the Romulans so greatly is due to a lack of information about them. A lack of information is the basis of the same tension between the Enterprise crew and the humans it accepted on board.
The episode reminded me of those days when I thought how fun it would be to teach a person from the past about the present, and forced me to wonder whether or not that would actually be a fun task.
The individuals awoken consist of a woman who finds herself very depressed knowing that everyone she ever loved is dead, a rich financier who can’t handle the fact that in Roddenberry’s future, people aren’t measured by money, possessions and the “power” that comes from a sense of status, and a formerly drug-addled southern musician who actually gets along quite nicely in the future. The episode shows each person trying to overcome their own problems, while adapting to their new environment.
Consider this: Abraham Lincoln was wise as hell. He’s one of the greatest minds in American history. He reformed the country’s entire existence and way of life. Before him, all the forefathers that we still hold in such high regard when quoting issues of rights, were brilliant thinkers in 1776. They’d all be practically idiots now. Sure, they would still possess the cognition and logical thought that would serve them well in conversation and understanding. But for real, they don’t even know what a lamp is.
In the episode, we watch the characters deal with concepts like “America” not being a thing, but Earth being a unified planet. They interact with other races, and with Data, and the one “with the head.” They don’t know what to do with their spare time in a world without television, booze or money. They think the Braves are still playing, and that law firms from the past will still be in business, or even necessary. They can’t come to terms with the lack of banks, phones, and have to understand people no longer work to acquire things and dollars, but to better themselves and the society they’re living in. They have to learn to understand that people haven’t just evolved in science and technology, but as a race as a whole. Control and power aren’t what they used to be. An understanding of purpose has a whole new meaning. Gender roles are gone, morality is up, and humans don’t operate as they once did. The characters work to wrap their minds around all this, and they do it all in gender-neutral navy blue scrubs with waist ties and black turtlenecks.
I recall sitting on the floor in my 3rd grade classroom, listening to a story read by the teacher. Mrs. Rogers was my her name (she was reasonably old in 1993 and is likely not alive now) and she thought I was awesome because I was the only 8 year-old who could correctly spell Jaromir Jagr. It was on that floor where my mind first wandered to these thoughts about teaching a person from the past about the present.
As an 8 year-old, I couldn’t fathom how complex this really would be. I didn’t understand what the world really held. I thought it would be fun and exciting. I thought it would make me seem like a god among men, my wisdom overflowing into this “great” mind to teach them what a damn lamp is. I didn’t realize how big the world is, or think about the emotional effect it would have on someone. Or the fear. The incredible, unavoidable fear of waking up in a world where you literally know nothing.
There’s a lot of really bad episodes in Season 1 of Star Trek TNG, and this episode technically isn’t much different. But it’s a personal favorite of mine. The idea of somehow preserving our bodies so we could live hundreds of years from now is something that everyone has considered. Nobody wants to go, and we all want to stick around as long as we can. But if I somehow manage to be alive 350 years from now, I hope I do so in a linear fashion. Jumping a few centuries and waking up staring at Gates McFadden, (as awesome as that might be assuming people in the 24th century still get boners in their space unitards), would be terrifying.
And I think the child inside me who always wanted to teach George Washington about lamps, microwaves and drive-through cheeseburgers might have underestimated exactly what that task would entail.