Star Trek recently celebrated its 51st birthday and this week with the launch of Star Trek Discovery the mission to entertain and inspire continues with renewed vigor.
The scientific inventions that we use on a daily basis inspired by WW2 generation writers inspired by visions of the 23rd century are well documented and growing. Communicators to mobile phones, holodecks to virtual reality, Lcars to Ipads, replicators to 3d printers.
What is less often appreciated is in some ways even more important and that is how the ideals of Star Trek have become the ideals of us or at least more and more of us.
The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was an all-American boy. Born in Texas in 1921, he worked in war and peacetime as a pilot before moving to Los Angeles to write TV scripts. In 1964, he took a draft of Star Trek to Desilu Productions. They commissioned a first pilot with NBC, rejected because it was “too cerebral”, then a second pilot with the network that introduced William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock the Vulcan.
Television sci-fi in the past had either been camp nonsense or narrowly obsessed with hard science and as entertaining as watching paint dry. Star Trek was different however and preferred to explore moral questions in a futuristic setting. It was less about giant Amazon women, irradiated giant Ants or flying alien brains and more about matters of social justice and consequence. In short it was ahead of its time not just for science fiction but for television as a whole and this no doubt explains its initial problems gaining popularity.
Critics were divided over its September 8, 1966 debut. The New York Times called it an “astronautical soap opera that suffers from interminable flight drag.” Ratings for the first couple of seasons were middling; NBC considered cancellation. The show was saved with help from a grassroots effort – including student protests and interventions by high profile fans like Isaac Asimov. It came back for a third season, but Kirk and Spock were relegated to the Friday night scheduling dead zone. NBC had shot the golden goose with a phaser set ti kill and the show closed in 1969.
Ironically, weeks after the show was cancelled a new and improved ratings system placed Star Trek not at the very bottom of the popularity league but instead right at the very top and doubly so amongst the import youthful demographics but tragically the expensive sets had already been taken down and many destroyed.
As such it was really the re-runs in the 1970s and movies in the 1980s that elevated it to the status of a popular classic. Even today on a daily basis Star Trek is on television decades after much later shows have vanished from our memories.
Television often is the product of its time and in the mid to late 1960’s that time was of President John F Kennedy. As so many of our shows today are overshadowed by terror, and fear then Star Trek was influenced by the liberal ideals of President Kennedy. Captain Kirk himself didn’t look too unlike Kennedy, The United Federation of Planets was the United States. The clever, noble but uptight Vulcans were British, indeed Leonard Nimoy was for a long period due to speak with an English accent as it would surely be logical for Vulcans to speak English in the most proper fashion. On the other side of the coin were the Klingons whose empire was as vast and fearful as the Soviet Union and whose idealism was precisely the opposite of our own and that of our heroes.
Whilst there were times that Star Trek strayed into an American nationalist cliche and I love ‘Eed plebniste’ as much as the next man, the bridge of the USS Enterprise was supposed to reflect the idealism of the Sixties that was far in advance of the realities of the time and in many places it still is ahead of the realities of today, though happily not where I have ever lived. It contained a Japanese American – played by a gay actor, George Takei, whose parents had been interred during the Second World War and a Russian character who was envisioned as someone for teenage girls to swoon over. Mr Spock’s mixed-species parentage alarmed a few racists but what really put the cat amongst the pigeons was having a black woman in charge of communications: Lieutenant Uhura, portrayed by Nichelle Nichols.
Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, put her desire to become an astronaut down to Nichols’ revolutionary performance. And when Nichols considered quitting the show to pursue a career on Broadway, she found herself persuaded to stay put by the country’s greatest living civil rights activist. Martin Luther King Jnr introduced himself to Nichols at a fundraiser and described himself as a Trekkie. He said: “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.” So she did.
There were limits to how many frontiers Star Trek could cross. Lieutenant Uhura might have a fancy title but she was essentially a telephonist in a short skirt. Nevertheless it worked for decades before actress Whoopie Goldberg herself became part of Star Trek lore, she sore a young back female officer on the Enterprise and shouted through excited to her mother to see for herself “Momma, Momma. There’s a black woman on television and she aint no maid”.
Whilst not perfect in its profile of women this was largely due to the conservative outlook of the television networks and in the USA more importantly, their advertisers. Most of the women in the show were eye candy. Dr McCoy’s constant ribbing of Mr Spock sometimes verged on racism but operating within these parameters, Star Trek was still prepared to challenge the viewers assumptions and as a result, some NBC outlets in the South refused even to air it.
In the episode Plato’s Stepchildren, Kirk and Uhura were forced by an alien power beyond their control to share a kiss – a scene that was shot twice, one with a smooch and the other without lest the network lost its nerve. Shatner and Nichols hammed it up in the second recording to ensure that it would never be used. Interestingly whilst this shocked the USA, we in the UK had already had our inter-racial kiss and though the episode was not shown in parts of the USA and UK, in the USA it was down to issues over race whilst in the UK it was down to the disturbing treatment of the poor dwarf, Alexander and the abuse of the telekenetic powers on him, Kirk and Spock.
How the kiss got through American censors is unknown, Gene Roddenberry said that they figured that no-one was even watching the show so who cares!
In the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, a good example of Star Trek’s liberal didacticism, the crew picked up two monochrome aliens determined to kill each other to fulfil a blood feud. Their only difference? One alien was black down the left-hand side of his body and white down the right, the other was black down the right and white down the left. Hence racism is not only destructive but, the show concluded, fundamentally absurd.
In Whom Gods Destroy, you have Captain Kirk telling his crazed captors that he considers the Vulcan Mr Spock as his brother.
Capt. Kirk: They were humanitarians and statesmen, and they had a dream, a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars, a dream that made Mr. Spock and me brothers.
Garth: Mr. Spock, do you consider Capt. Kirk and yourself brothers?
Mr. Spock: Capt. Kirk speaks somewhat figuratively and with undue emotion; however, what he says is logical, and I do, in fact, agree with it.
Star Trek also stood out due to its willingness to reflect the things already happening outside on the streets, where youth and cops clashed over Vietnam and civil rights. The show also offered comment and archetypes for people navigating a complex decade to identify with. Kirk was an old school liberal – a rugged individualist. People often refer to the Star Trek universe as socialist: egalitarian, ordered like a military unit. Anyone who ever watched the show will realise this isn’t strictly trye. Kirk cut rather a Byronic figure, romantic in more ways than one, cynical yet inspiring and with the knack of disobeying his superiors.
Incredibly it was Spock who most represented the future of humanity and the liberal ideal.
It’s also impressive just what a big impact the original actors have made long after their initial 3 year run. Leonard Nimoy became an artist, poet and peace campaigner let alone the director of one of the biggest Hollywood movies of the 80’s. William Shatner is still pretty much the top of the American pop culture tree and almost as recognisable today as he was in his heyday as the second most recognised figure after Jesus and the top brand after Coca Cola and who even has a cultist church with ardent fanatics.
George Takei, worked on public transportation in California before becoming an iconic figure within the gay rights movement.
One last way that Star Trek should be remembered is because of how it changed television itself. Before Kirk went into space, shows were loved but disposable. In science fiction and fantasy it retains a level of quality and faithfulness that were never seen again until only the most recent and expensive shows such as Game of Thrones. In Star Trek the audiences were treated as thoughtful individuals and everyone from the writers to the set designers and through to the actors stood up for the integrity of the show. The Enterprise itself adheres to engineering principles, even if some of those principles are beyond current science, it is consistent with itself and not just a rocket ship or a flying saucer. Gene Roddenberry was even visited by the military as they thought he had access to top secret information as his futuristic sickbay with those famous life monitor machines were too close to comfort for the military of the time.
George Takei for instance came terribly close to a big fall out with the director of one weeks show when the director wanted Sulu to press a certain button as he envisoned it would be better dramatically. At some risk to his position, the actor refused stating that for nearly 3 years the audience knows which buttons Sulu presses when performing this function. It sounds stupid but until then and indeed in some shows, after then, people just didn’t care. However if you think about it as driving a car, everyone knows what a gear stick does and what a windscreen wiper lever does. It would kill all the drama if in a regular show the director insisted that it was more dynamic if the actor used the gear stick to put the wipers on.
In the 1970s, television networks discovered the value of repeats and of fan loyalty – people who would religiously watch every episode and collect memorabilia.
The list of Star Trek fans is endless. The King of Jordan famously brings his collection of shows when out on manouvres in the desert and even appeared in an episode of Voyager. Interestingly you can have people whose actions and beliefs don’t always follow the spirit of Star Trek. Stephen Hawking is a fan as is Scottish Separatist Alex Salmond, Bill Gates and James Bond star Daniel Craig.
Visiting the set of a Star Trek movie in 1991, Ronald Reagan said: “I like them [the Klingons]. They remind me of Congress” Whilst on the opposite of the political divide you have Barack Obama who said upon the death of Leonard Nimoy.
“I loved Spock, long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy.”
Star Trek has always been my favourite show and as the book says, All I Really Need To Know, I learned from watching Star Trek. What I really appreciate though beyond everything else above, as marvellous as it is, is that the main characters are undeniably better or at least equal to me. These days every film and television show has stupid characters who are almost in every way and I don’t want to watch people less noble than myself… who really does? I feel I could easily sit in a room with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and the others and be in a room of equals albeit it with myself being far less equal than the others!!! I could be at home there whereas with almost every other showI can’t help but think that they are all idiots one way or the other.
In Star Trek TNG, it was recorded that television fell out of popularity by 2040 and as with so many Star Trek prophesies that end up self-fulfilling, the new Star Trek Discovery begins airing this week not on regular television but on CBS Access and internationally on Netflix.