Fifty years after it debuted on network television,considers the legacy of Star Trek–and the idea of a society that meets the needs of the many, not just the few.
ON SEPTEMBER 8, 1966, a new show debuted on American television.
Billed by creator Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train in space,” for its loyal viewers–and legions more to come over the following five decades–the voyage of the starship Enterprise and its 23rd century crew, as it carried out its mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no [one] has gone before,” would permanently alter the landscape of popular culture.
Star Trek‘s cultural staying power came despite its failure to last on television. The “five-year mission” of the Enterprise lasted just three years–until 1969, when the show was canceled by NBC because of low ratings after 79 episodes.
In fact, the show barely made it to the air at all: In 1964, NBC passed on the first attempt at a pilot, declaring it “too cerebral.” A second attempt was filmed in 1965 when comedy legend Lucille Ball, who owned the studio that employed creator Rodenberry as a producer, personally intervened to persuade NBC to give the series another shot.
Despite its cancelation, the series–which was worked on by some of the premiere science fiction writers of the day–became a hit in broadcast syndication, firing the imagination of a wide audience.
Today, the original series continues to inspire legions of Trekkers, one of the most rabidly loyal fandoms in all of popular culture. It has spawned four syndicated spin-offs (with a fifth planned for next year)–and endless debates about the relative merits of each show’s captain in comparison to William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk.
Along with 13 movies (and counting), a complete language, and a rather unique brand of fan fiction, Star Trek stands as a testament to the desire of people for a vision of the future which is both recognizable to them, and better than the present.
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STAR TREK’S vision of the future was, in a word, cool. Geek toys and tech like tricorders, replicators and transporters suggest a future where technology has been harnessed to make life vastly better for the majority of people.
But as Wired.com noted, the reason Star Trek continues to inspire such devotion 50 years after its premiere is because of what it says about people, not technology:
The original show’s most visionary aspects were social, not scientific, and that had everything to do with the times. The country was in turmoil, embroiled in Vietnam and the growing civil rights movement. Roddenberry said later that these events influenced many of the themes, as well as the multicultural makeup of the crew.
For a 1960s audience, the 23rd century world envisioned aboard the Enterprise was immediately notable for the fact that it was multiracial and included women in positions of importance among the crew.
In the original series, despite the roles for women being somewhat limited–with the exception of Lt. Uhura, they are primarily nurses, junior officers and scantily clad alien and human love interests for Kirk–a vision of the future in which women are defined primarily through their work as opposed to their husbands, children or home-making abilities was rare on television.
At the height of the civil rights movement and the Cold War, the fact that a show could assert that a superior, advanced human society was one in which white Americans lived and worked side by side on a mission of peaceful exploration with not only aliens, but Russians (Chekov) and people of Japanese descent (Sulu), as well as African Americans (Uhura), mattered in the larger cultural context.
According to Whoopi Goldberg, who would later play Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the impact of being able to see Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was life-changing. “[W]hen I was 9 years old, Star Trek came on,” Goldberg said. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a Black lady on television, and she ain’t no maid!”
Martin Luther King himself considered Nichols’ Uhura to be “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” When Nichols was thinking of leaving the show for Broadway, it was King who convinced her to stay with Star Trek. As Nichols recounted:
Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I’d first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde-haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.”…I saw that this was bigger than just me.
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ONLY THE willfully ignorant could pretend not to see the message Roddenberry was intent on sending, as he frequently and gleefully pushed buttons. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” an episode broadcast in 1968, Nichols and Shatner shared what is widely cited (though the matter is hotly debated) as the first interracial kiss on U.S. television.
Skittish network executives worried about the audience reaction and tried to squash the kiss, but Shatner hilariously ruined all of the alternative takes with his famous! punctuated! delivery! and even, in one take, crossed his eyes to ruin the shot. Nichols recounted in her autobiography:
Knowing that Gene was determined to air the real kiss, Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his best ham-fisted Kirkian staccato delivery, “I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!”
It was absolutely awful, and we were hysterical and ecstatic. The director was beside himself, and still determined to get the kissless shot…
The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable…I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.
Critics today sometimes declare the scene a “cop out”–since the kiss isn’t a result of genuine desire, but of aliens telepathically forcing Kirk and Uhura to kiss against their will. But that misses the larger context of what it took to even get it on the air at a time when the Supreme Court decision striking down bans on interracial marriage had only just been handed down the year before.
Other episodes, like “Space Seed,” which introduced the character of Khan Noonien Singh–a genetically engineered “ubermensch” who, the show tells us, was part of “Eugenics wars” that broke out on Earth in the late 20th century–raise the specter of racism as a threat to the continued existence of humanity.
(While Kirk fails the “of course you should kill Hitler if you have the chance, you dummy” test, since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan gifted us with one of the best moments of scenery-chewing ever committed to film, however, he can perhaps be forgiven.)
Another episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” famously featured Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on TV’s Batman) in a story about a species divided into two races–and mortal enemies–by skin color. Resembling alien black-and-white cookies, one race has a left side that is white and a right side that is black. The colors are reversed for the other race.
As Roddenberry explained, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”
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BUT IF Star Trek’s vision of an inclusive society, in which various races live and work side by side without the specter of racism, is one of its main strengths, its conception of race overall is, paradoxically, sometimes also a weakness. Often, Star Trek–not only the original series, but spinoff series as well–slips dangerously close to essentialist notions of race.
In the 23rd century, racism no longer exists in the advanced civilization of the United Federation of Planets–yet time and again, species like the Klingons are portrayed as “naturally” warlike and violent; the Ferengi are “naturally” greedy; Romulans are “naturally” calculating and contemptuous of difference.
These species-wide characteristics are then used to set the species up as villains–and, more troubling, the audience is told in several instances that such “differences,” whether culturally ingrained or biological, should be respected.
This is where the contradictions at the heart of the Star Trek universe become most pronounced. (Though in the case of Deep Space Nine series, later seasons did at least examine this when it came to the characterization of the Ferengi and the Klingons.)
If Star Wars movies are essentially about the threat of space fascism and the resistance to it, then Star Trek is, at heart, about the hope for a sort of “space socialism”–a liberal, military-style socialism, but nevertheless one in which society is so technologically advanced that the material needs of the Federation’s inhabitants are met, allowing for the free and full development of individuals.
In the world of Star Trek, the availability of replicator technology generally means that anything you need can be beamed into existence. Yet because of the “Prime Directive”–the guiding principle of the Federation, which prohibits its members from interfering in the development of technologically backward alien societies–the Federation ostensibly ignores oppression, slavery and other horrors in less-developed societies, on the theory that working through these processes is part of a society’s internal development.
Since our heroes would never actually condone such oppressions, episodes often hinge on finding a way to skirt the letter of the Prime Directive–or in some cases, to justify inaction when individuals and even entire races, societies or planets face extinction.
The various Star Trek series broadly offer a critique of war and militarism even as they extol the Federation’s brand of liberal military intervention–a kind of United Nations in space. (In fact, the Charter of the United Federation of Planets actually drew text and inspiration from the UN Charter, as well as other sources.)
Though its internal logic is often convoluted or inconsistent–while replication technology has eliminated the need for money, there still are outposts, like that depicted in Deep Space Nine, which are run on a partially capitalist basis and where small businesses thrive, for example–Star Trek presents a vision of the future that is hopeful in its inclusivity and its suggestion of the possibility of a society free of deprivation and want.
As Captain Picard of The Next Generation series explains to several cryogenically frozen survivors of the 20th century when they are awoken onboard the Enterprise in the 24th century: “A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy…We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
In the Star Trek universe, without capitalist class relations to put the same kinds of strictures on people, individuals are free to develop themselves as they see fit. It’s one reason why the Borg–the most compelling villain from the Picard-era series–are so frightening. The Borg also provides for the material needs of its collective component worker members–but extinguishes all individuality among them. Individuals are assimilated, reduced to their work function as part of the hive–and nothing more.
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We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided. So you see that the formula, the magic ingredient that many people keep seeking and many of them keep missing is really not in Star Trek. It is in the audience. There is an intelligent life form out on the other side of that television, too…
What Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.
But that creates a problem: How to create compelling characters and stories when the foundation of so much drama is precisely the kind of petty conflict that supposedly doesn’t have a place in the Star Trek universe?
As Manu Saadia, author of the recent book Trekonomics, explained to Wired’s “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcast:
[The characters] are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption…You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature–the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to…
I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on [The Next Generation], said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.
That’s similar to what Karl Marx wrote in The German Ideology about the ways in which capitalism constrains human activity by alienating workers from their labor:
For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
In the Star Trek universe, I can be a ship’s captain in the morning, a detective in the afternoon, a winemaker in the evening, and a flute player after dinner (assuming my ship doesn’t get attacked by hostile Romulans that day, that is).
As the eminently logical Mr. Spock might have put it, the Star Trek universe is one in which humanity has determined that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” (percent, that is).
“The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential,” Gene Roddenberry said, “and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.”
It’s up to the audience to go boldly–and make it so.