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A Throwaway Star Trek: The Next Generation Line Inspired 2024's Most Optimistic Meme

You remember the Irish Unification of 2024, right?
  • Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner in "The High Ground" (Screenshot: Star Trek: The Next Generation)
    Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner in "The High Ground" (Screenshot: Star Trek: The Next Generation)

    At a glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to feel optimistic about on the world stage this year. The simmering decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict has exploded into hot war again, with conservatively thousands dead. Afghanistan fell back under control of a repressive theocracy almost immediately after the end of a 20-year occupation ostensibly to prevent such a thing. A devastating civil war has racked Sudan and Haiti, a country that has struggled to catch a break since it gained independence, is in the third year of a crisis that began with the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

    Despite this, pockets of the Internet, particularly the rich intersection of leftists and sci-fi nerds, have found reason for geopolitical hope, however faint, this year, and the source is a 34-year-old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

    Like a lot of Star Trek episodes, the 1990 episode "The High Ground," features a scene in which the characters discuss a real-world issue in the context of the show. In this case, Data the android (Brent Spiner) cites historical examples of the use of violence to successfully achieve political aims. He refers to the very real Mexican independence from Spain and, typically for Star Trek, a fictional example, the "Kenzie Rebellion." But it’s his third example, the "Irish Unification of 2024," that’s really captured the internet’s imagination in that very year.

    At the time, the line made far more waves Stateside — the episode was not aired at the time by either the BBC or RTÉ, the Republic of Ireland’s public service broadcaster. At the time, the island was entering the final years of the Troubles, the colloquial name for about 30 years of sectarian violence between Irish nationalists, the British military, and Protestant loyalists. The episode was aired on satellite provider SkyTV with the line cut two years later, but it wouldn’t be aired on the BBC until 2007. 

    Melinda Snodgrass, the writer of the episode, told Primetimer the line was written knowing the end of the conflict might be in sight. "I was aware of these ongoing peace talks that had been taking place throughout the '80s," she said. "I didn’t want everything to be about some made-up alien planet, I wanted something grounded in current politics. It seemed inevitable to me that this conflict would be resolved and so I picked that."

    "I should have made it 2124, but at the time 2024 seemed a long way away," she added.

    Indeed, real-world politics have moved in the direction of unification as well, even though it’s still a long shot that it could happen this year. The six Protestant-majority counties of Northern Ireland split off from the Republic following the Irish War of Independence and the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and remain part of the United Kingdom. In 2022, however, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein won a majority in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history, and this year Michelle O’Neill became the first member of the party to be named Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

    Another elephant in the room is Brexit, the 2016 referendum in which British voters chose to leave the European Union, where Ireland remains. While the "leave" option won with 52 percent in the UK, 56 percent of Northern Irish voters voted to remain. Unification would require the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call another referendum on the matter, with both parts of the island voting. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended the violence in Northern Ireland, includes a commitment to call such a vote if it appears to have majority support.

    Although a 2022 poll found that a plurality of Northern Irish voters would opt against unification, a separate 2023 survey indicated the majority of the country view unification as inevitable. 

    Like a lot of memes, there’s at least a touch of irony in the deployment of Data’s line about unification. Few if any of the people deploying it likely believe full unification will happen exactly as the show predicted it. But even in that context, the hope offered by the line—and corresponding real-world developments—feels unique in the 2024 news landscape. 

    Snodgrass, a one-time story editor for the show who wrote several of its most acclaimed episodes, said that she had been aware of the BBC ban at the time. However, she said she only recently became aware of the life of its own that the line has taken on.

    "It’s something I did years and years ago, it never occurred to me that it was going to come roaring back," she said. "I had books to write and other TV to do, [but] all of a sudden I started getting emails."

    "Words have power, that’s the thing you have to keep coming back to,” Snodgrass said. "Star Trek has always been a place where we explored difficult and interesting questions. It’s never been just an adventure show"” Indeed, the show has a rich history of taking on hot-button issues, even by the standards of sci-fi, to the point that when Nichelle Nichols considered leaving the original series, no less than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged her to reconsider, telling her the representation her character Lt. Uhura provided was too valuable.

    There’s a conventional wisdom that millennials were made cynical by circumstance, coming of age between a horrific terror attack that ushered in the modern surveillance state and a global financial crisis whose shockwaves arguably never fully receded. But speaking only for myself, there’s a little more to it — there’s also the realization, as we grew older, that we were born into what was supposed to be the most hopeful era in a generation, when the postwar international order was finally bearing fruit. The Berlin Wall and South Africa’s apartheid regime fell and, of course, the Good Friday Agreement, which ended what at one time seemed like one of the world’s unsolvable conflicts. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama suggested in his 1992 book of the same title that we had reached "the end of history," which he defined as “the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

    We knew this was not to be as soon as 9/11, but now, even more so, it feels completely out of reach, as the Gaza and Ukraine conflicts rage with no end in sight, but also the lingering aftereffects of post-9/11 conflicts that have since left the front page, like Syria’s civil war, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, and tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We are not the first generation to grow up amid conflict, and a long view of history would argue we still live in one of the least relatively violent eras ever. But to look back at the promise of the close of a century, it can feel like we lost the promise of tomorrow before we were old enough to claim it. 

    The peaceful, unified future of Star Trek is explicitly not one that was achieved without struggle or pain. According to the show’s timeline, it was preceded by deadly riots (also in 2024) and a third world war that goes nuclear. What has made Star Trek endure is its capacity to maintain that same resolute optimism no matter the era, from the dead of the Cold War when it first premiered to the time of "The High Ground" to the overwhelming era in which the most recent series, Discovery, concluded. It’s a reminder that a belief in the possibility of a better world isn’t something you do when it’s convenient, it’s something you maintain in the light and the darkness. 

    "I think it’s an interesting lesson in how you can never anticipate and you have to expect the unexpected," Snodgrass said. "God knows we’re seeing [that] in this country, with what’s going on," she added, which only goes to show the need to "hang onto the values and the underpinnings of society that are important."

    Zack Budryk is an environmental journalist in the Washington, D.C. area whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Crimereads.