Contributor: Rick McGimpsey
There are not many TV shows that shaped and influenced our modern culture the way Star Trek has. Within nearly 50 years (1966-present) we have seen Star Trek span from a short-lived sci-fi show to an immense giant of six TV series, 12 films, and a multitude of books, comics, games, and memorabilia. There is hardly anyone who has not heard of the Vulcan hand-salute, Spock, the Enterprise, and the various other staples of the series that fans hold dear. No one who is honest with himself can deny this Star Trek’s popularity.
Some, however, will deny that such popularity is deserved. Thus, the question I seek to answer in this post is whether or not Star Trek’s influence is a good thing or whether this phenomenon is an overrated exercise in nerd fandom.
I, for one, believe that Star Trek deserves every ounce of its popularity and is even a necessary part of our existence in the 21st century. The world needs Star Trek and I shall do my best to explain why.
Star Trek was conceived by the late Gene Roddenberry in the mid-sixties as a sort of “wagon train to the stars”. Television in the sixties was mostly sitcoms, westerns, and cheesy sci-fi adventures with little variety or imagination.
Star Trek was to be a new imagining of what a science fiction series could be. It was smart, well-written, full of fascinating characters and concepts, and carried many topical messages relevant to its time. It explored a variety of themes 60’s television was afraid to touch such as war, racism, sexism, science vs religion, politics, sexuality, and counterculture. The series was quickly recognised for its bold tackling of such subjects in mature, thought-provoking ways.
When it was cancelled after its third season Star Trek was syndicated on the networks increasing its popularity encouraging studios to greenlight the production of an animated series in the 70’s and later a follow up series called Phase II.
Phase II project was eventually aborted it and reworked into a full-length movie in 1979 followed by 6 sequels and 4 spin-off series (some of which also had movie sequels of their own) over a course nearly 40 years. To this day Star Trek survives in the form of the popular MMO called Star Trek Online and an ongoing series of reboot films.
Many of the films and spin-offs also tackled serious issues relevant to their respective time such as ecology, environmentalism, terrorism, drug addiction, prejudice, ignorance, poverty and economics. There is even an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise that introduces a Vulcan disease that analogises the AIDS virus and the stigma involved.
Star Trek, throughout its history, dared us to rethink our world and seek what changes are needed to make it better. By presenting us with a hypothetical future where greed, ambition, war, and poverty were absent Star Trek gives us hope, encouraging us to strive for improvement.
The series was so influential, in fact, that when Nichelle Nichols considered leaving the original series Martin Luther King Jr. himself encouraged her to remain because she portrayed a positive role model for African-Americans on television in a time when most black people were portrayed as comic relief or idiots.
Star Trek’s innovations did not stop at social/political progress either. Its depiction of futuristic technology has been replicated in real life in several ways since its premiere in 1966. Communicators and tricorders are not unlike technology that exists today. And we see Picard use mobile devices similar to our modern day tablets or kindles.
Although I believe such technology was an inevitability I really think Star Trek helped spark the imagination of many innovators to quicken our society’s development into the computer age. This has even been demonstrated to be true since the Navy has actually (and this story is no joke) employed Herman Zimmerman, long time Star Trek set designer, as a consultant on recreating the Enterprise bridge design since America’s armed forces have admitted that the layout is extremely practical and efficient for real life use. The technology of Star Trek has been crossing into reality for the past 30 years or so.
The influence Star Trek has had on millions over the decades demonstrates how much this show has played a part in progressing our future. And I find in rewatching the episodes and films that many of them still speak of subjects relevant to today’s issues. It is for this reason that I watch at least one episode of Star Trek (any of the six series) per day like a daily devotional or calendar quote of the day. I find myself enriched by the experience.
It is my intention to immerse my children in Star Trek as well. With Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and James Doohan gone I want their legacy to live on as the next generation experiences their adventures.
Live long and prosper.