“Space… the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. It’s five year mission; to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life, and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Fifty years ago today, NBC broadcast the first episode of a sci-fi show, Star Trek. Entitled “The Man Trap”, it centered around an alien trying to extract the salt from the bodies of the residents of a medical outpost – just one of the adventures of the USS Enterprise in the year 2266.
Who’d have thought, fifty years later, that this little episode would be just the start of a cultural phenomenon that consists of six (soon to be seven) TV shows, thirty seasons of those television shows, and thirteen movies? And that’s not even getting into the books, the fan content, the comics, the filk songs (“And we’re Banned from Argo, everyone!”)?
Dare I say, this show may have changed the future for the better.
The sixties were a decade of unforeseen social turbulence. Not only were the US and the USSR on a knife-edge when it came to the cold war, but the Civil Rights movement was also approaching its peak with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The counterculture was gaining a voice in its attempts to tackle the establishment. Feminism was starting to gain steam. There was a conflict in Southeast Asia which was slowly getting more controversial as the decade went on. And several prominent figures wound up the targets of madmen – most infamously, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
It seemed like the entire world was just one misfire away from the apocalypse.
Star Trek rebutted the pessimists. To imagine a Russian, working aside a Japanese-American, working aside a black woman, amongst an alien? In the sixties? You had a crew that consisted of aliens and humans, of all nationalities, of all skin colors, male or female, working side by side. Sure, it wasn’t perfect (the show’s attitude to women hasn’t aged too well, for starters), but looking at it, what the show had was this idea that humanity would move past the troubles that plagued us, that discussion would remain civilized, that we could learn from one another instead ofcompetinge with one another…
…that we wouldn’t launch nukes at Stalingrad or Washington, London or Havana.
Maybe, humanity could reach the final frontier once thought up by President Kennedy… one he never got to see.
And the ideas it showcased? The balance between the id and the superego really gave Star Trek it’s intellectual drive. It would be a falsehood to say that there was no violence, but to see healthy debate between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – aided by William Shatner*, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley – really helped point to the idea that the future, while radically different from what 60s viewers lived, still strove true to the democratic ideals that America embraced, while only occasionally flexing it’s sense of nationalism. (Yeah, we could’ve done without Kirk banging on the Constitution.)
It is a bit of a sobering irony that the show wasn’t too popular in it’s first run. Weak ratings put the show on the precipice of cancellation after it’s second season. It stayed on (because it sold color TVs – ah, corporate synergy), but the tradeoff was a poor time slot, budget cuts, and a weaker writing staff. (I mean, quite a weaker writing staff.) NBC then drove the axe after the third season.
However, this last batch of episodes was enough to put the show into syndication. There, not only did people see the show, but advertisers saw just who was watching these adventures. Let’s just say, there’s a reasoning the Star Trek fan stereotype is what it is.
In 1979, Paramount capitalized on the syndication success by retooling a planned series into The Motion Picture. It did well in the box office, but the critical reception was lukewarm – padding and an overtly ambitious plot collided to give some fan disillusionment. With a tighter budget, and a staffing change (the removal of Gene Roddenberry, who was a control freak who wanted a plot so stupid, that even one of Red Dwarf‘s weaker episodes almost certainly executed it better than a Roddenberry-controlled Star Trek could), a sequel was greenlit.
It’d be naive to say that the ills that plagued the sixties are completely gone. We still have conflict, we still have concerns regarding race, gender, and religion. Still, to see the ways in which humanity has progressed during that time is remarkable. I really think this show was instrumental in loosening the Cold War tensions in the early 70s. (Thanks, Nixon!) Hell, this loosening may have made it easier for Gorby and Ronnie to cooperate as Cold War really ended in the 80s.
The technologies we have today? Star Trek thought it up. The communicators, the computers, the phasers. Sure, we don’t have transporters yet, but who knows were we’ll be in 50 years?
On a personal level, I doubt I would be as close to a geek as I am today if it wasn’t for Star Trek. While it took me a bit before I got into The Original Series, Star Trek was one of the first sci-fi franchises I really got invested in. The chances of me getting invested into shows like Gravity Falls and Steven Universe might not have been so high had I not been a Trekker.
I look at Star Trek, and I really do think that, in terms of the impact it had on the way we consume media, it is the most influential TV show of all time. At the very least, where would we be without it? Sure, Doctor Who might be on the air. But without Star Trek‘s syndication? There would be likely no Battlestar Galactica, no Farscape. Fandom would evolve differently compared to the way it evolved under Star Trek. Fanfiction might not have evolved the way it did – what with Star Trek producing some of the earliest fanzines.
Red Dwarf and Futurama wouldn’t have been there to satirize the franchise’s tropes, and in turn, create some of my own favorite characters.
Hell, would Steven Universe be exploring the concepts and elements of our everyday life such as consent, gay rights, the brutality of extremism, authoritarianism, the complexities of love, and more – in the same way it does now, targeting the audience it does now? I’m not sure. I’m really not sure.
Even the franchise’s own follow-ups have impacted TV incredibly well – or at least, the first two did. The Next Generation’s cast and crew have become some of the most recognized actors, playing some of the most recognized characters of all time, and introducing a deeper layer to the show’s optimism. Deep Space Nine was one of the first shows to actively use serialization between episodes, and gave it’s own rebuttal to the optimism of The Original Series by showing just what happens if conflict can’t exactly be resolved in a 60-minute time-slot.
And even then, the original show is still a landmark. It still airs on local TV, and the fandom is still thriving even today. Because, even with the show’s cheesier aspects, Star Trek: The Original Series is still one of the most fun, intriguing shows that was ever put to television. With the most iconic characters to ever grace a screen, and the most well-known vehicle in fiction, Star Trek has soared into the echelons of American pop culture.
Even with the franchise’s slip ups (never should any TV character turn into lizards and mate ever again, nor should they steal a brain), even with the doldrums, it is a franchise that will stand the test of time.
Star Trek has gone where no show went before.
And it will do so, fifty years from now.
Thank you, Mr. Roddenberry. You truly were the great bird of the galaxy.
Thank you, Mr. Shatner, Mr. Kelley, Mr. Nimoy, Mrs. Nichols, Mr. Koenig, and Mr. Takei. You helped these characters come to life.
And, finally, thank you, Star Trek.
And the adventure continues…
*Knock Shatner all you want – and yes, he was an over-actor at the time who was also a pompous ass on set – but he made James Kirk the Captain Kirk. Kudos to Chris Pine, though – he more than holds his own.