On a desert night, a flaming star falls from the heavens to crash into the sands of Syria. Engines on fire, fuselage ripped away to expose leaking fuel lines, the burning carcass of Pan Am’s Flight 121 is not expected to leave any survivors. Miraculously, twenty two odd souls make it to the morning and beyond.
Among them is their co-pilot – a man then known simply as Eugene Wesley Roddenberry. This is the very man who would later go on to create the most influential sci-fi series of the 20th century. The series, of course, is Star Trek, and the man, Gene Roddenberry.

Many people know this story, but a larger number may not have, had it not been for The Oatmeal’s recently viral comic, which recounts this incident from early in Roddenberry’s life with the characteristic blend of tenderness and depth that cartoonist Matthew Inman is known for.

But first, what’s The Oatmeal?

“Everything on this site was written, drawn, and coded by Matthew Inman.The Oatmeal's real name is Matthew and he lives in Seattle, Washington. He subsists on a steady diet of crickets and whiskey. He enjoys long walks on the beach, gravity, and breathing heavily through his mouth. His dislikes include scurvy, typhoons, and tapeworm medication.”

Speaking of how a stray event from more than half a century ago could move a contemporary audience so powerfully, Inman told The Washington Post of Roddenberry’s “unfettered humanity” and the capacity for hope it conveys. Hope is seemingly what we could all do with a bit more of in our times of ongoing catastrophe. Except that Inman’s (and Roddenberry’s) version of hope has far less to do with with the spiritual dimension, and instead focuses on action and concrete human effort.

In the 1950s, when Roddenberry began his career as a TV writer, science fiction was merely a blip on the radar of network programming. The initial premise of Star Trek went through multiple revisions and producers before it finally found a home at NBC. Merely three seasons later, the blight of low ratings saw it cancelled, leaving the network millions in debt. In those three short series, however, Star Trek had broken new ground and gone where no television show had ever gone before.

With its multiracial cast on the frontline as Starfleet officers, a black, female lead, and the infamous onscreen kiss between Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Kirk (William Shatner) – and that too in an era where desegregation was in its infancyStar Trek was a triumph of humanity.  Despite protracted opposition, Roddenberry refused to bow to popular views of racial hierarchy, and it was his belief in secular humanism that informed not only the casting choices of Star Trek, but also its ethos as a whole.

The humanist

Playing out in a 23rd century galaxy where poverty, violence and want have been abolished from Earth to create a veritable utopia, Star Trek envisions a future devoid entirely of the kind of dystopian pessimism that colours science fiction as a whole. Benevolence, altruism, pacifism and the law of non-interference in foreign cultures (The Prime Directive) are what govern the United Federation of Planets, whose human and alien Starfleet journey through space to broaden the reach of intelligent life and depth of their knowledge.

Roddenberry’s faith in the capacity of humankind for good through conscious, informed action was something that he carried with him until his death. After the cancellation of the original series, Star Trek spawned a far reaching fandom comprising individuals of every race, class, creed, ability, and gender. What united them was the vision of an universe where equality reigned supreme and the constraints of one’s birth mattered not the slightest.

Where it all began

This is the ethos that Inman’s comic references in its haunting conclusion. The tale of a plane crash and a co-pilot’s bravery might have come across as mundane if not for the assertion that we’re all “passengers pitching downward into the night”, that we’re all helpless if we do not raise an arm to help one another.

This passionate call to humanity to shrug off the pall of inaction and make a move for change is not new to The Oatmeal. In his series about beating The Blerch, where Inman documents his struggles with running, the message is clear – there’s something within all of us that resists positive change, and this is what one must overcome to forge ahead towards betterment.

Championing household pets that were considered broken, and a scientific genius as the greatest geek ever,  Inman’s outlook as presented in his work is one of hope but not idly so. If Roddenberry’s humanism found close ties with an earlier Protestant work ethic, Inman holds up work as the agent of human change – the kind of change that might even lead to the utopian civilisation of Star Trek one day.

Count your blessings, The Oatmeal tells us, and make your religion an inspirational force for change, for in the end, we are all just specks in the lifetime of the universe, hurtling inevitably towards nothingness.