Star Trek- The Voyages of Hope
"Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow. It's not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb. That the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts didn't build the pyramids- human beings built them, and because they're clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things."
“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. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek creator.
I discovered Star Trek when it first came on television in 1966. It was bold, overly dramatic, and the plots ranged from the silly to the sublime. But the characters were fascinating and the ideas that the show represented were wonderful. Star Trek was bounced around by NBC for three years and finally cancelled, but it soon became the show that wouldn't die. Over the years, fans kept the franchise alive with conventions and fan fiction, and here we are 45 years later with not one but three live-action series in production, plus a popular animated version.
How did this happen and why? What was it about creator Gene Roddenberry's vision that spoke to so many fans. Science fiction tv shows had been around for a while, the cheesiest of which, Lost in Space, paved the way for the innovative Star Trek series. But there was something very important here that people of the 1960's, and subsequent generations, needed to hear. The main messages of the show, as detailed by the two quotes above from its creator, was that diversity is good for us, and there is hope for the future for humanity.
For decades now, we've been hearing exactly the opposite. Increasing diversity has brought about a huge backlash, and a more polarized world spends more and more of its energy trying to figure out how to keep out the "other" than to understand them. This primal fear is preventing us from getting together as a civilization and tackle the challenges of our day- climate change, terrorism, a globalized economy, drugs, and dozens more. Our fear of the "other" is keeping us from getting together and creating a better way of doing things. Star Trek says that mankind will eventually outgrow that parochialism and reach for the stars in a spirit of peace and adventure. After a third world war, so the story goes, we finally get our act together enough that the Vulcans decide to contact us. Young people today are holding off on having children and losing hope, and a big cause of that is the dysfunction that they see and the looming threat of climate change that never gets addressed.
This year, I finally got around to watching the last of the 770 Star Trek episodes that span 7 unique series and 45 years. Star Trek- Enterprise, starring Scott Bakula, aired on an obscure cable channel in the early 2000s and I had never viewed any of its 4 seasons. Now I am briefly up to date before three new seasons of other Star Trek shows premier in the next year. Enterprise, showcasing the very beginning of Earth's adventures in space, fits right into the Star Trek canon, showing complex aliens who were both good and bad, and a cast of humans who knew enough to appreciate the diversity out there between Vulcans, Klingons, and Andorians. In the final season, we get to see how the Federation, a collaborative group of like-minded planets gets together and realistically faces enemies both without and within who don't want to see the union happen.
Few people know that Star Trek almost never got off the ground. A pilot episode for Star Trek was shot and rejected by NBC, and normally that's the end for most shows. But thanks to Lucille Ball of all people, NBC gave them another chance. Ball's production studio, Desilu, believed in the show, and recast most of the main parts, leaving only Leonard Nimoy as the Vulcan Spock from the original pilot. Spock would end up becoming the most intriguing character of the Original Series, as it's now called, and his pronounced differences from humans were what made the show memorable. Due to Spock's popularity, Star Trek always tried to have at least one weird "outcast" type in every show, from the android Data on The Next Generation to the Kelpian Saru on Discovery. It is these outliers and their unique differences from humans that make Star Trek a show about diversity and acceptance.
At a time when Russians were the enemy and Civil Rights protests were happening, the cast included both a Russian, Checkov, and a black woman, Uhura, who gave America its first multi-racial kiss. With Vietnam headlining the news, Star Trek dared to question the usefulness of war, putting both Captain Kirk and the warlike Klingons in their place. And with the cold war threatening to annihilate all of humanity with a nuclear war, Star Trek held out hope that somehow, we can all get past this and move onto bigger and better things.
Star Trek almost died again, in 1979, when it's first full-length motion picture debuted. It was panned by many critics and had disappointing box office receipts considering its large budget. (Recall that Star Wars debuted in 1977 and proved a huge market for science fiction movies.) The results were just good enough to justify a sequel, 1982's Wrath of Khan, that was a much bigger hit and set the franchise on the comeback path. By 1987 an entire new series, The Next Generation would debut, and Star Trek was on its way to immortality.
As of today there have been 7 main series of Star Trek episodes, plus 13 major Hollywood motion pictures, yet Star Trek still takes a back seat to it's more popular cousin, Star Wars. In box office receipts, Star Wars movies have out-grossed Trek movies by nearly 6 times. Disney has created an entire Star Wars experience at its theme parks, while the only place you will encounter Trek characters is at fan conventions. It's not fair to try to compare the two franchises, but for reasons I have said above, Trek is clearly the superior one to me. Star Wars relies on mythology, violence, and robots to justify its plots, while Star Trek treats its humans and aliens as 3-dimensional characters and relies on strategy and understanding to resolve its plots. (And mind you, I'm also a big Star Wars fan).
Ideas and people evolve on Star Trek. The Klingons, who were the warlike bad guys, end up joining the Federation. Spock, who is half human, half Vulcan, learns to deal with his two sides. Data, the android, shows the evolution of artificial intelligence well before the term AI came into being, and shows human-like qualities near the end.
Science fiction differs from regular fiction in that it looks at ideas and technology and how humans interact with them. It looks at wormholes, parallel universes, time travel, and advanced technologies of all sorts. (Many of the props used in the 1966 series are working for us today, like cell phones and Bluetooth.) It introduces all types of aliens that you'd never even think of as worthy of contacting. It also looks at war, prejudice, religion, sexism, and many current problems, but in a new context that makes you think. Star Trek does this and much more. The Original Series had many good episodes, but the writing and special effects just kept getting better and better as the franchise moved along. I wish the Trek universe were as popular as that of Luke Skywalker and his Jedi, but each has a place I guess.
I highly recommend checking out any or all of the Trek episodes, now available on Paramount +. It will expand your horizons and give you hope, and boy can we use both right now.