We all make thousands of choices a day. Mostly these are inconsequential, simply determining what clothes we wear, what route we take to work, or what we watch in the evening to wind down. But sometimes, choices impact our lives in more fundamental ways. These choices are often made by balancing our rational and emotional judgements but, when the right decision is imperceptible, where do we look to for guidance?
In the British university system most people choose to study only one subject. That choice can impact the rest of your life, and can take some people years to make. However, leaving high school, I chose to study law at university without much difficulty.
It was a subject that I long been interested in, and the idea of standing up to make a compelling argument about what was right and what was wrong, in the pursuit of justice, appealed to me as a young optimist with a fast mouth.
However, not everything went to plan. I ended up dropping out of my course, without any alternative arrangements for my immediate or long term future. Confronted by a seemingly impossible choice, I eventually found the inspiration for a much needed course-correction by following the example of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
My first year at university was hard. The academic side of the law course was manageable, and I had a useful talent for late night study sessions fueled by black coffee so strong it would’ve made Captain Janeway wince. This initially helped me to stay on top of my assessments, exams, and other projects. I got good grades, and found the majority of the course’s content compelling.
Instead, what I struggled with was the non-academic side of university, which turned out to be equally important. I was privileged to have an endless pool of support from my family, but that support could only go so far. Thrust into the British university system, as someone who wasn’t naturally outgoing or sociable, I found myself struggling to connect with new people. I felt like I’d forgotten how to make and maintain friendships, and I was living with people who I couldn’t build relationships with – as hard as I tried.
Seeking respite, I spent much of that year rewatching Star Trek, The Next Generation in particular. More so than any fictional time or place, the 24th century’s Enterprise-D felt like a home away from home. Just as some people find comfort from the sound of rain against a window, I found comfort in the hum of the ship’s warp drive, and the background noises of the bridge. When I watched TNG, I felt that I was in the presence of people who were confident, professional, and always in search of what was right – not what was expedient. The example set by the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise kept me grounded.
Nevertheless, without close personal relationships at university, my motivation to complete my law degree faltered. I felt increasingly directionless, and began to question whether or not law was the right course for me. With growing uncertainty, and without the personal ties to anchor me to the course, I started to miss lectures and seminars. Naturally, I fell behind on my study, and it was my grades that suffered the consequences.
As the issue worsened, I withdrew from my study of law more and more. I knew I couldn’t continue with my course; for many reasons it just wasn’t working. But I also knew I wanted to stay in university. Everything else aside, I loved studying, and engaging deeply with a complex subject.
So, I had to choose a new course, a whole new direction to mark a fresh start. To stop studying law, and start something new was the single biggest choice I’d ever had to make; it could end up impacting my whole life, and would certainly determine how I spent the next three years at least. The only problem was, I had absolutely no idea where to begin.
Every time I thumbed through the prospectus, I’d hope that some kind of epiphany would strike me; some sort of “The Nth Degree”-style boost to my cognition that would grant me clarity of thought. However, no matter how many times I looked, no matter how many times I sought the advice of others about my conundrum, I couldn’t choose a new subject.
The problem wasn’t that there weren’t any subjects I was interested in. The problem was that there were too many: language and linguistics; art history; ecology; international relations; human geography; history and philosophy; astrophysics, and so much more.
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t quite qualified to study astrophysics, but the rest of the subjects were open to me. I only had to figure out how to choose one.
On a rain-soaked afternoon, a common occurrence in the north of England, I was re-watching “The Chase”. This time, the episode spoke to me in new ways. As a student, I was gripped by the references to Captain Picard’s own time in education. A young Jean-Luc Picard studied archaeology under the tutelage of the mercurial Professor Galen at Starfleet Academy, beginning his love for the subject.
In fact, more than one of TNG’s episodes center around Captain Picard’s passion for archaeology, and his adventures as he pursued various artifacts, or sought to solve a mysterious galaxy-spanning archaeological puzzle. Sometimes the extent of that passion would be a source of conflict. After all, in “Family” he considered resigning his command of the U.S.S. Enterprise to helm the semi-archaeological Atlantis Project back on Earth instead.
Rational, thoughtful, cultured, and measured: I saw in Captain Picard a model of who I wanted to become. The captain of Starfleet’s flagship was renowned for his sound judgment; his entire crew relied upon it every day for their security. I needed to choose a subject to study; so I checked back in the prospectus, now looking for archaeology while not even knowing if the subject was an option.
It was, and the more I read about the study of archaeology, the more interested I became. If archaeology was good enough for Captain Picard, it was sure that it would be good enough for me. So, in the absence of a clear next step, I relied on the captain’s judgment and applied to study archaeology with a surprising sense of conviction.
I was accepted onto the new course, which I completed over the following three years. As it turns out, the archaeology depicted in the 24th century isn’t exactly like the archaeology of today. Much less time is spent chasing alien artifacts to uncover the origin of intergalactic life, and much more time is spent dusting bits of broken pot and bone. I loved it nonetheless. The core values of archaeology that resonated with Captain Picard resonated with me too. Star Trek provides a vision of the future, and through archaeology we can construct a vision of the past.
Like Captain Picard, my career has taken a different direction, and my time in archaeology ended when I graduated. But, now, I look back on my time as an archaeology student with nothing but satisfaction and gratitude. My degree in archaeology stands as a testament to the enduring international legacy of a TV series that ended almost three decades ago – without Star Trek I wouldn’t have it.
It isn’t uncommon to be inspired by a fictional character, but, every so often, that inspiration has a tangible impact on your life. Those characters can’t make our decisions for us, no matter how much we wish they could. But their example can act as a guide.
When I struggled to make my biggest decision I looked to Star Trek and Captain Picard.
James Osborne (he/him) is a freelance writer from the UK. As a lifelong science fiction enthusiast, he covers film and tv news for a number of publications as well as writing feature pieces and reviews. You can find him on Twitter at @Writing_Bits.