I have been staying up past eleven o'clock every night to check out the first five minutes of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode on reruns. Last night, despite my fatigue, my all-time favorite episode aired and I had to stay up to watch the whole thing.
"First Contact" remains the episode I most associate with the genius of Star Trek. Commander Riker is part of a first contact team studying a civilization on the verge of breaking out into the galaxy in order to offer them a chance to join the federation. He is injured and at a medical facility -- surprise -- is revealed to be an alien.
The planet's population appears to be split about the rapid technological and social changes they are undergoing. (Sound familiar?) The planetary head of government wants to move forward with space exploration, as does the science minister. The minister of security worries that the people can't handle so much new at once. Riker's injuries and Captain Picard's appearance to the planetary government combine to shake things up too much. The minister of security tries to make it appear that Riker shot him. His supposed martyrdom is intended to maintain the status quo and send the aliens away.
The real importance of this episode for me is the role the science minister plays. She tells part of her backstory:
Mirasta Yale: [visiting the Enterprise] When I was a child, my parents would take me to the planetarium. And we would sit in the dark. And it was as if I was on a spaceship, on my way to another world - to meet people on other planets. Part of me is waiting for the lights to come up, and the program to end.
And at the end of the episode, after learning that her proposed study of warp drive will have to be slowed down, and that the Enterprise will leave, perhaps only to return after many years, she asks to stay on the Enterprise and leave her planet.
Mirasta Yale: Take me with you!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: I have to believe that you cannot be fully prepared for the realities of space travel.
Mirasta Yale: I have been prepared for the realities of space travel since I was nine years old and sitting in a planetarium!
That was Roddenberry's genius -- to articulate the human desire to explore and discover. I thrilled to Mirasta Yale's character's line "Take me with you!" the first time I heard it in 1991. Hearing it again last night was no less soul-stirring. I too want to be part of Star Trek's advanced civilization. And by the year 2367, they surely have discovered a cure for cancer!