Star Trek After 50 Years: Still Fascinating
I was eleven years old when the first episode of Star Trek was aired in September 1966. In a review of the first show, Bill Ornstein concluded with the line, “Should be a winner.” For me, he was right—the show was an immediate favorite. I especially liked Spock! At the time, I would not have been able to offer any sort of critique about the quality of the show. I was eleven—I just liked it. I also liked The Monkees, which first aired three days later, and Super Chicken, a cartoon which started airing the next year.
Now, Star Trek is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and I am a senior citizen. I still love the show, realizing that some of my enjoyment stems from the kid who is still inside me watching for the first time so long ago. But with hindsight, I can also better articulate why the show has stayed so popular for so long and through so many iterations.
First, Star Trek offers a hopeful view of the future. Gene Roddenberry created the show and set it in the future, about the year 2260. By then, the countries of Earth had stopped warring and had actually banded together with other worlds to form the United Federation of Planets. The Enterprise was on a mission of adventure and exploration. As the show’s opening noted: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 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.” In addition, it became clear, that the crew were bound by the Prime Directive, an insistence to not interfere with the internal workings of the worlds the crew encountered. In some episodes, it was harder to follow the Prime Directive than in others.
Oh, to be sure, it was not a perfect world out there among the stars. The world of Star Trek was still very white-and male-dominated, even heading to places where “no man” had gone before. [The opening couldn’t say “no one”?] And it seemed to be that in many episodes, Captain Kirk was always flirting with or falling for some woman or another. Still, the crew itself was pretty diverse: human and alien, male and female, and a range of hues (black, white, yellow, even a green alien in one episode). There was even a Russian, which admittedly was a bigger deal in the 1960s than today. The women were there, but tended to serve in secondary roles (nurse, yeoman) and were stuck wearing short, short skirts rather than the pants that the guys got to wear. But Lieutenant Uhura served as the communications officer, and even though her role could be dismissed as basically a secretary, without Uhura things would just not get done!
Second, Star Trek takes its viewers on a wondrous adventure each week that emphasized a clear moral message. This level of storytelling was reminiscent of the good old westerns that were part of Roddenberry’s writing background. The captain is not really the sheriff, but he does lead his posse into adventures each week, helping the underdog and righting the wrongs that surface along the way. For viewers, it was always heartening to see not just that the good guys won, but that the moral, ethical option was what was followed. From Roddenberry’s view, he was writing morality plays set in the stars.
Thus, doing the right thing became a cornerstone of many episodes, demanding some social commentary to surface through the plot twists. It was often easier to accept the social criticism being offered because the behaviors—although familiar and very human—were exhibited on alien worlds. Whatever the conflict, the nature of the main characters allowed issues to be explored through both an emotional as well as a logical lens. Spock—of course—brought the persistent logical take on any situation, but that was tempered by Kirk’s impulsive need for action and McCoy’s emotional but more reasoned humane take on things. It was worried that network executives would eliminate these moral lessons, but somehow they did not seem to notice them; some speculation is that they just did not expect them since they thought the show was basically for kids.
Tackling these contemporary moral problems is a good part of what helped Star Trek rise above some of the other sci-fi fare at the time, like Lost in Space. That the issues would never really be resolved also led to the show’s ongoing popularity through syndication and new shows. Some of the topics addressed in the original series include global war, both its futility, nuclear proliferation and war protesters, as well as slavery, prejudice and the environment. Other shows explored more general historic, spiritual, literary and patriotic themes. In one episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” a brief interracial kiss was almost eliminated from the footage by the show’s censors. But some behind the scenes maneuvering kept it in place; because of that kiss, many stations and markets refused to broadcast the episode. These moral and ethical issues attracted part of what network research eventually called its “quality audience” because they represented “upper-class” and “well-educated” viewers. It was not just eleven year olds watching the show—then as well as now.
Third, one of the best things about Star Trek was the characters. The main characters—although adjusted a bit from the first episodes—were set by the second season: Captain James T. Kirk, the half Vulcan/half Human Mr. Spock, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Montgomery Scott were the main officers. Then, the secondary characters were Nyota Uhura, Hikaru Sulu, Pavel Chekov, and Christine Chapel. All the characters worked together to solve whatever problems surfaced and often added humor to their exchanges. Also, every week one could count on the good-natured jabs between Bones and Spock as well as Kirk and McCoy’s frequent comments on Spock’s ever present logic. Of course, whenever some unnamed new character showed up—often in a red shirt—he quickly became the crew member who was killed off before the end of the hour. Such mishaps were part of the danger of traveling in space, after all.
Overall, Star Trek’s main and secondary characters were likeable and worked well together—and that chemistry helped make the show work week after week. The crew members were obviously friends, exhibiting the loyalty and concern one would expect from such relationships. And viewers got to know them pretty well too. Each season, episodes would focus a bit more on the characters, letting their individuality shine through a bit. It was fun to see Sulu’s expertise with a sword, to note Nurse Chapel’s crush on Spock, to hear Chekov brag about Russian accomplishments, to enjoy Uhura’s singing especially when she brought Tribbles on board, and to worry about Scotty being convicted of a murder the viewers just knew he did not commit.
My favorite character was Spock. Like Nurse Chapel—and many other viewers—I had a crush on him. I loved the episodes that focused on his past, introducing his parents and fiancé, for example. These plots often provoked him to emotional outbursts that he so worked against. As his character often said, “Fascinating.” It was in “Amok Time” that viewers first saw the Vulcan hand gesture that became an iconic greeting for the show along with the oft-repeated phrase, “Live long and prosper.”
Finally, in a review of Star Trek, its gadgets and special effects must be addressed. Were the special effects spectacular? No, not by any means. But they did their job and created other worlds and a range of aliens who populated those worlds. The viewers were able to travel into the stars and believe they were no longer on Earth each week. Part of that believability came from the various aliens that appeared, often in non-human form. One alien was simply a cloud of lights (“The Metamorphosis”) while another looked like a big rock (“Devil in the Dark”). That the rock could eat through walls and kill off miners made it very threatening, no matter what it looked like. Other aliens were not seen, but their weapons proved formidable, such as a planet eater (“The Doomsday Machine”) or a destructive energy web (“The Tholian Web”). Time travel was also a possibility in the future as seen in such episodes as “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Assignment: Earth,” and “All Our Yesterdays.”
The everyday world of life on the Starship Enterprise also helped place the series firmly in the future. For one thing, Spock was an alien in more ways than his pointy ears, green blood, and penchant for logic. His best two abilities were the Vulcan Mind Meld that lets him read the minds of those he connects with and the Vulcan Nerve Pinch that lets him knock out just about any adversary with a simple touch. I would guess that those abilities were generated as plot devices that helped move the action along, but they were fun and unique anyway.
The transporter was also a fun but practical mode of travel that made the action work—and viewers were willing to accept its abilities. But it also could malfunction, creating problems for the crew. In “The Enemy Within,” Kirk is split in half, becoming a good but weak Kirk and a bad but strong Kirk as well. One of my favorite episodes is “Mirror, Mirror,” where a transporter malfunction replaces members of the away team with their evil counter-parts from another Enterprise in another dimension. No matter how far fetched the stories sound, they were fully believable in the Star Trek world. In 1966, talking to computers and having them talk back was very futuristic. It was also not realistic to talk via a communicator, a small device that could be flipped open to talk to others far, far away. At the time, these unusual details helped sell the world as the future. The ship itself was impressive, growing in size and technical capability through each new television series.
Even amidst this praise for the original Star Trek series, its initial history is not that unusual or impressive. Its numbers were not that great, so it was in jeopardy of being cancelled by the end of the second season. Fans wrote in and saved the show! But the third season was still rocky as its time slot was moved to Friday night and its weekly budget was drastically cut, undermining special effects and plot development. By the end of season three, the series was over, even though fans once again tried to save it through a letter-writing campaign. It is through syndication that Star Trek became the icon it is today. It started in syndication during its first season, an unusual occurrence fostered by some executive’s notion that it would be good counter programming to other shows on other networks. Thus when the series was over, all three seasons (79 episodes) went into syndication, even though the norm was to not syndicate anything that had fewer than four seasons’ worth of shows to offer.
More and more fans found the show via syndication in the early 1970s, and it is that popularity that has kept Star Trek going for the past 50 years. It has generated films, spin-off television shows, and some fun parodies. There is even an animated series narrated by most of the original cast members. Many books have also been written to continue the stories as well as to document the various iterations of this terrific series. As a fan, I must admit that I own all the movies, the animated series, and a couple books about the franchise. There is even a Tribble living in my back bedroom! Being a member of Amazon Prime, I can watch any of the television show episodes whenever I want—and I do! “Trouble with Tribbles” is still one of my favorites, as well as its counterpart “Tribble Infestation” in the animated series and “Trials and Tribble-ations” in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
As the movies and new series of Star Trek were developed, they maintained the core ingredients that made the show popular. The characters were strong, and the ensemble casts worked well together. The viewers liked the characters and their unique quirks. With each iteration, there were also new aliens who populated the show, including more in depth treatments of Klingons, Vulcans, Ferengi, and even the Borg. Of course, in every species, there seemed to be a core of humanity that the viewers could relate to, even the Borg’s 7 of 9 and Hugh as well as the android Data, who wanted nothing more than to master being human.
No matter which series or film, the focus was on adventure and exploration, on the wonder of the future. Of course, each series addressed a little different focus as it developed its niche within the franchise. The Next Generation was the most like the original series with a strong captain and weekly adventures. The android Data became the new Mr. Spock, offering vast knowledge and insistent logic whenever needed. Deep Space Nine was the most military of the shows, as it basically protected a fort in space. Voyager had the distinction of having a female captain and for really exploring new places, since the ship was lost far from home. Enterprise explored the first flights of the crew, allowing the viewers to be hesitant about using the first transporter and figuring out how to interact with alien species. The newest movies retell the early adventures of the original crew, but they are set in a different timeline, so the stories follow different paths, even while maintaining some core details.
The moral lessons were also retained as the new shows and movies kept the focus on doing the right thing. Some of the issues that continued to be explored included war in various iterations, including treatment of veterans on their return from battle, the impact of technology on the environment, the displacement of native peoples, profits off of drug addiction, homosexuality, euthanasia, the treatment of the elderly, slavery and rights of the individual, even artificial intelligence. Through all the versions, the core stayed the same, and the fans stayed engaged.
Here is a list of the television series and the full length films that are the ongoing legacy of Star Trek.
THE TELEVISION SERIES
Star Trek, the original series, 1966-1969
The Animated Series, 1973-1974
The Next Generation, 1987-1994
Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999
Discovery, starting in 2017
The Motion Picture, 1979
The Wrath of Khan, 1982
The Search for Spock, 1984
The Voyage Home, 1986
The Final Frontier, 1989
The Undiscovered Country, 1991
First Contact, 1996
Star Trek, 2009
Into Darkness, 2013
If you have never watched any of the Star Trek shows, I would suggest that you pick one or two to watch as part the Star Trek 50th Anniversary Celebration. Any episode from the original television series would be good starting point. You could start with the first episode that was aired called “The Man Trap.” My favorite is still “Trouble with Tribbles.” It is really fun! Although it is not one of my favorites, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the most popular episodes of the original series. I would suggest you avoid the first and the fifth movies—they really are not the best options! Of the movies developed from the second series (numbers 7 through 10), I would suggest First Contact. You could watch “The Metamorphosis” from the original series as a primer for the movie since both have the character Zefram Cochrane, the first human to reach warp speed.
If you have time for a double-feature, you could watch the episode “Space Seed” that was the foundation for the second movie, The Wrath of Khan; these are good examples of the franchise’s hallmark of strong characters and social commentary. The story rests on the idea of eugenics—creating a master race to rule the world. Or you could just randomly pick any of the original episodes to watch to get a flavor of the characters and then watch the great parody Galaxy Quest. Movies 2, 3 and 4 star the original crew and work together as a trilogy bringing a long story line to completion. I also like the episodes in the later television series that include characters from the original series. “Relics” is from Star Trek: The Next Generation; it features Scotty and his great engineering abilities. Spock is central to the two-part episode of The Next Generation called “Unification.”
Even if you have never watched the shows, I would bet that you know some of the names from the series like the Enterprise, Captain Kirk, Vulcans, and Mr. Spock. I even expect you have heard—or maybe said—“Beam me up, Scotty” and “Live long and prosper” from the original series or “Resistance is futile” from The Next Generation. For me, the idea of a transporter is something I wish were a reality that I could make easy use of when moving or traveling. I also would love to own a holodeck, the extreme virtual reality chamber introduced in The Next Generation. These bits and pieces of the Star Trek shows as well as the characters themselves are becoming part of society’s cultural memory.
Once you become a fan, you can get in on the really important controversies associated with the franchise. Here are a few of the “issues” about which you would be expected to have an opinion:
Are you a Trekker or a Trekkie?
Is Star Trek better than Star Wars?
Who is the best captain: Kirk or Picard?
Why are none of the captains ever a bigger part of this question?
Which television series is the best?
Which movies are the best, and which are to be avoided as an embarrassment?
What parts of science are validated or violated by the series and the movies, like time travel?
Do the newer movies with the new time line contribute to or undermine the original series?
Whether you are a fan of the series or not and whether you take it seriously or just enjoy the fun of the adventures, you have to admit that after all these years, Star Trek has become a cultural phenomenon. Of sure, it is also still a fun little western in the stars that offers adventure and a moral lesson while giving hope of a better future for humanity. The show has been popular for 50 years and will undoubtedly continue to entertain and fascinate fans in the years to come. After all, the most recent film was released this year and a new television series is in the works for release in 2017. To learn more about the franchise to date, you might enjoy Star Trek 50 Great Years: A Documentary.
Live Long and Prosper!
A PARTING GIFT: This is my favorite parody of Star Trek. It aired on The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978), another of my favorite shows from when I was a kid. Enjoy.