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Star Trek After 50 Years: Still Fascinating

Star Trek Logo, Stock Photo

Star Trek Logo, Stock Photo

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.

Star Trek Insignia, Stock Photo

Star Trek Insignia, Stock Photo

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.

Kirk & Spock, from The Star Trek Compendium Cover

Kirk & Spock, from The Star Trek Compendium Cover

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.

Kirk & Uhura Kiss, Stock Photo

Kirk & Uhura Kiss, Stock Photo

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.

The Original Crew, The Star Trek Compendium Cover

The Original Crew, The Star Trek Compendium Cover

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.

Spock's Vulcan Hand Gesture, Stock Photo

Spock’s Vulcan Hand Gesture, Stock Photo

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 Communicator, from The Star Trek Encyclopedia

The Communicator, from The Star Trek Encyclopedia

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.

The Enterprise over the Years, from The Star Trek Encyclopedia

The Enterprise over the Years, from The Star Trek Encyclopedia

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.

Original Crew & Ship, from Original Movies CD Set Packaging

Original Crew & Ship, from Original Movies CD Set Packaging

The Star Trek Encyclopedia

The Star Trek Encyclopedia

The Star Trek Compendium

The Star Trek Compendium

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.   

The Animated Crew from The Star Trek Compendium: Scott, Kirk, Spock & McCoy

The Animated Crew from The Star Trek Compendium: Scott, Kirk, Spock & McCoy

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.

Crew & Ship from Next Generations Movie CD Set Packaging

Crew & Ship from Next Generations Movie CD Set Packaging

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. 

Animated Series CD Packaging

Animated Series CD Packaging


Star Trek, the original series, 1966-1969

The Animated Series, 1973-1974

The Next Generation, 1987-1994

Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999

Voyager, 1995-2001

Enterprise, 2001-2005

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

Generations, 1994

First Contact, 1996

Insurrection, 1998

Nemesis, 2002

New Star Trek Movie with the Altered Timeline

New Star Trek Movie with the Altered Timeline

Star Trek, 2009

Into Darkness, 2013

Beyond, 2016

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.

Leonard Nimoy: Live Long & Prosper Forever in Our Hearts

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

I cannot believe that Leonard Nimoy died today from complications of COPD.  He was 83.  His final tweet offers a good reminder that we will always have his memory to cheer us:  “A life if like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.  LLAP.”

Wikipedia Photo

Wikipedia Photo

Throughout his life, Nimoy worked as an actor, author, director, musician, and photographer.  He is, of course, best known for his portrayal of Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek television show that ran from 1966 to 1969 as well as in the following movies and cartoons based on Star Trek.   He even directed two of the best films based on the original series and played the older Spock in the new movies.  I was reminded a few weeks ago that he had acted in so many other shows and films before and after Star Trek when I saw him in reruns of Perry Mason, Rawhide and Columbo.  He looked so young!  And he was a bad guy in several of those old shows.  Not very Spock-like!  I also remember being impressed by his one-man show Vincent back in 1981, when he told the story of Vincent Van Gogh as Theo, Vincent’s brother.

Internet Photo

Internet Photo

Even though he has done so much other than play a logical Vulcan, it is hard to think of Nimoy as any character other than Mr. Spock.  I was eleven when Star Trek started, and he was always my favorite.  He was a wise and logical Vulcan, but he was always conflicted by the human emotions he struggled to control. In the process he was the most humane of all the characters.  Of course, the best scenes in either the television show or movies were when he was surprised or otherwise let some emotions sneak out.  It is hard for me to imagine a world—and Star Trek‘s promise of a better world tomorrow—without Mr. Spock.  As Spock, he valued friendship and was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the many.  If only he could be come back to life as he did in Star Trek III: The Voyage Home.

At least he will live on in our memories and our hearts.

mircale quote

I know I am planning to re-watch all the Star Trek movies one more time—and yes, I do have them all!  I agree with the reaction to his death shared by George Takei (Star Trek’s Sulu): “The word extraordinary is often overused, but I think it’s really appropriate for Leonard. He was an extraordinarily talented man, but was also a very decent human being. . . . He was a very sensitive man. And we will feel his passing very much.”

Nimoy himself felt his connection to Mr. Spock.  He wrote two autobiographical books.  The first was I Am Not Spock (1975), but the latter was I Am Spock (1995).  In the second he seemed to come to terms with being the foil of Spock throughout his life—striving to embrace what is best of humanity while realizing how difficult that challenge is.  Still, as Mr. Spock, Nimoy helps  make it seem possible that the future will be better.

If you look on You Tube, there are many videos that will show Nimoy in action.  One of my favorites is the following one that is actually a commercial.  But I like it because it shows Nimoy playing at being Spock with his younger counterpart from the newer movies Zachary Quinto—and having a good time in the process.  I choose to remember him this way!

These final two videos are fun as well.  The first shows the two Spocks (Nimoy & Quinto) talking about playing that character, and the second is Nimoy’s cameo on The Big Bang Theory.  Nimoy’s Mr. Spock is really a science fiction icon!



TOPIC I: Invasion from Space: Reality, Movies & Hope


REALITY:  The Promising Prospect of Life in Space

“I want to believe!”  I uttered these words—if only to myself—long before they became famous by Mulder in the X-Files (1993-2002).  I grew up in the 1960s when space exploration was the hope and promise for the country.  I was three years old when NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) became operational in 1958.  Of course, I knew nothing about that at the time.  I do vividly remember watching with my dad as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969.

Star Trek Pilot Episode "The Cage"Before that historic event, I had been willingly accepting the possibility of life in space through my own “willing suspension of disbelief” as Coleridge labeled our ability to accept the premise of any work of fiction, no matter how fantastic the story.  For years I had been watching My Favorite Martian (1963-1966), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Star Trek (1966-1969).  And I loved the possibilities inherent in those shows.

Voyager Golden RecordInvasion from space as well as our invasion into space was a possibility I certainly wanted to be a reality.  Still do, in fact.    The United States Space Program was showing us we could go into space.  Voyager 1 in 1977 even carried with it a message on a golden record to whatever life forms might eventually find it out there in space.  It basically said “Greetings from Earth” and gave snippets of music and languages from around the globe.  It included this explanation from President Jimmy Carter:  “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” Perhaps this was a futile gesture, but it is also a hopeful one.

Roswell NM UFO HeadlineThis hope, this possibility of life in space is what intrigues me.  And I am not alone.  Our culture has been fascinated—some would say obsessed—with the thought of invasions from space.  The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 had people—for a short time anyway—really believing that we had been invaded by Martians. Then the UFO Story from Roswell, NM, was reported in 1947—and has many still believing there is a cover-up underway over this failed invasion.  Add to these stories reports about crop circles, alien abductions, sightings of UFOs, and Area 51, and it is easy to witness the growth of a cultural curiosity about invasions from space.

Milky Way Hubble Telescope

Milky Way
Hubble Telescope

In 1980, with the broadcast of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Carl Sagan joined the conversation, noting that the possibility of Earth being the only planet capable of supporting life was unlikely given the vastness of space. Many remember some variation of his words, often in a distorted exaltation about the “billions and billions of stars out there.”  But he did champion the possibility of there being life in the universe other than on Earth. As a character in Sagan’s novel Contact says, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” In 2008, NBC News reported that findings from space about the presence of water confirms the idea that life of some sort is possible out there, maybe even in our galaxy.  But such a report is far from saying little green men will be visiting any time soon.

On a Nova episode in 1996, Sagan reminded folks about this distinction:  just because life is possible out there does not mean that visitors from space will actually be dropping by. He goes further and cautions that any report of such an event—such as abductions and crop circles—needed to be held to the highest level of scrutiny and skepticism. As Sagan explained, “I’m frequently written to [to] say how could I search for extraterrestrial intelligence and disbelieve that we’re being visited. I don’t see any contradiction at all. It’s a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence.”

Obviously, such healthy skepticism must be the stance of scientists and leaders of the world. But the skepticism does not undermine all hope; as Sagan says the possibility of life out there is “a wonderful prospect.” The existence of S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is a hopeful sign; this organization looks for some tangible evidence out there in space that we have neighbors. SETI projects are run by such places as Harvard, UC Berkley, and the SETI Institute, and the projects use scientific methods to search for signs in the universe. The government funded SETI until 1995, and then private funds have been used to continue the work.  No verifiable evidence has been found yet; however, in 1977 a signal was recorded that has not yet been explained or re-found.  It is almost as if a distant radio were turned off.

Sagan supported SETI and used it as part of the story line in the book/film Contact (1997) that he wrote with his wife. The scenes in that movie of the giant telescopes that are poised to listen to the universe are magnificent. As the plot unfolds, a message is received that seems to be from a distant world giving instructions on how to build a ship to reach that world. By the end of the movie, there is confusion over whether the message received was real or a hoax. The role of faith and belief in God as well as the possibility of life out there in the universe is explored.  It is not a typical science fiction movie. It does seem to be a dramatic example of one of Sagan’s lines from his Cosmos series:  “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” The movie’s characters and basic plot offer viewers a lot of hope.

TV SHOWS & MOVIES:  Cultural Focus on the Nature of the Invaders

In my view, however, the possibility of some sort of life in the universe vs. actual sentient beings visiting Earth for a variety of reasons is not what fuels our cultural fascination with Invasions from Space.  No, this fascination, especially as exhibited in American TV shows and movies, assumes actual living beings are out there; the question is the nature of the invader.  Will these invaders be good guys or bad guys?  And we seem to want the answer to be bad guys.

This simplistic either-or distinction is clearly expressed in the movie Signs (2002). When his town seems to be being invaded, a little boy buys a book to be informed about aliens and their visits to earth. Although his dad—the main character—is dubious about the book’s credibility, the boy explains that aliens will visit for one of two reasons:  to visit and study us or to attack and take over the world.  One or the other.  Case closed. That either-or mentality seems a part of the cultural fascination with invasions from space.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951Most of the early science fiction movies portrayed the aliens as invaders, not visitors.  War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) both had invaders intent to take over the world, and their actions were only thwarted by a small group of humans who saw the truth. An earlier film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) showed an alien who was himself peaceful, but his world’s concern about Earthlings’ stupidity and potential to destroy our world and hurt the universe meant he needed to destroy us.  The “humanity” of the few individuals he encountered helped give Earth a reprieve, so we could learn to be better stewards of our own world.

This need to be afraid of aliens is one of the main messages of most science fiction shows and films.  The 1962 Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” captures this message.  The alien visitors who seem so helpful and benign are really taking Earthlings away as food.  By the end of the episode, one character finally realizes that their book “To Serve Man” is a cookbook.  Oh no!  We better be wary of all aliens, perhaps even all foreigners.  The TV series V (1983-1985) expands this basic premise with much more advanced technology and offers Earthling heroes who recognize the truth and are fighting against the aliens who can disguise themselves to look like humans.  Block busters in the late 1980s include Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987).  Apparently, the only good alien is a dead alien.

Of course, not all presentations of aliens in entertainment media are negative.  Following in the spirit of My Favorite Martian, there were several TV comedies that presented aliens as friendly visitors who were confused by Earthlings.  I loved Mork & Mindy (1978-1982) much more than ALF (1986-1990), but both showed friendly aliens.  Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) was a funny, loud sarcastic show that offered societal commentary on humanity as much as it showed the personality of the alien visitors.  The Coneheads (1977-1979) from Saturday Night Live were so fun and bizarre, it was hard to imagine anyone would not recognize them as strange or at least different. I have not yet watched The Neighbors (2012) in which a human family lives in a community populated with aliens posing as humans.  [At least I think I got the premise right.]   We seem to like aliens who look like us but need help assimilating—it helps if they are funny.

Search for SpockFirst ContactThe Battlestar Galactica series (1978, 2003, 2004-2009) was reminiscent of Star TrekHuman voyagers were out in space encountering other beings, some were evil and some were not. The focus was on humanity and how we/they acted and reacted when faced with new situations, new beings, and new worlds.  In the Star Trek TV shows in all its iterations—Original (1966-1969), Next Generation (1987-1994), Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Voyager (1995-2001), and Enterprise (2001-2005)—humans are out to explore the universe, not conquer it.  And these human explorers treat all with dignity and respect.  There were bad guys, and humans would fight if they had to to protect themselves and to help others, but they were guided by the Federation’s Prime Directive to not interfere.  This same premise is evident in all the Star Trek movies.

Star WarsThe Star Wars trilogies also follow the same basic premise but with a much greater emphasis on the heroes in space fighting for survival against the evil Empire. We learn to trust “The Force” and its positive impact on life.  These shows and movies offered an optimistic view of space and the species that inhabit it.  The human qualities of courage, integrity, and selflessness will still be around in the future, and good will win over evil, even if there needs to be a struggle.  However, these shows are more about the future of humanity than they are about space invaders.  Of course, even if some aliens are allies, the bad guys are always aliens. 

Typically, as portrayed in films, most aliens are hostile and dangerous.

Flash Gordon 1950s TVIf humans meet them in space, an extreme battle for survival ensues.  Flash Gordon saved the world in movies in the 1930s and in TV shows in the 1950s. His job was to “keep the galaxy safe.” Kirk and Picard as well as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker had help, but they basically had the same job as Flash:  protecting the world/galaxy/universe from annihilation as needed. Think Khan, the Borg, Darth Vader, even irritating aliens like Q. We see this same message in the Alien movies, the best of which is Aliens (1986), when Ripley saves the day!  Even in comedies like Galaxy Quest (1999) with the nice aliens needing help, there are still evil bad guys out there that need to be destroyed.  Of course, there is also Avatar (2009), where the evil invaders tend to be us wanting to exploit another world.

Adventures of Buckaroo BanzaiWhen aliens actually come to Earth, they are rarely like Mork or ALF.  Some are friendly, but there are always some who are out to get us, ala the classics from the 1950s.  In fact, those classics were actually remade: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), War of the Worlds (2005), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).  The Men in Black series (1997, 2002, 2012) shows us secret government agents protecting the world as needed, although not all the aliens among us in those films are evil and sinister. Mars Attacks! (1996) is another comedy that lets us laugh as the aliens attack—and (spoiler alert!), mankind wins.  One of my favorites is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension! (1984). The annihilation of the universe is at stake, but Buckaroo—with the help of some good aliens and the Boy Scouts—saves the day from the bad aliens bent on destroying the world. These films confirm that aliens are dangerous and must be fought at all costs.  

In Signs (2002), the aliens are not on screen much, and fortunately people of the world find a way to fight them off, but they are still dangerous and offer a genuine threat worldwide.  Even the now classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) presents an alien invasion of sorts, confirming that people have been abducted over the years by creatures in space.  In this film, the aliens seem friendly, but they have been abducting humans over the years—who they are now  returning—but they are also taking more humans with them as volunteer visitors on their spaceship. The realistic nature of this science fiction film gives credence to alien abduction stories just as Signs offers an alien explanation for crop circles. The aliens are not always as scary as those fought by Ripley, Buckaroo, and Agents K & J, but they are different and suspicious. 

Independence Day Movie PosterA popular invasion movie is Independence Day (1996). From my view, the main reason this movie is so popular is that it combines so many of the cultural intrigues society holds about the possibility of invading space aliens.  The invasion is sudden and unexpected by dastardly beings out to take over the earth; these beings do not look like humans in anyway and have no redeeming characteristics. The entire world is threatened, and relative commoners take the lead in finding a way to beat the bad guys.  The heroic American President gives the orders and the whole world works together to save the day.

The back stories in Independence Day confirm that aliens have visited Earth in the past and that secret work is underway at Area 51. The budget for this secret research is even suggested with a line something like, “You don’t think they really spend $1000 on toilet seats, do you?”  Of course, what saves the day is human ingenuity and some useful technology rather than massive weapons.  The jerks in government are fired, faith is seen as a way to survive the trauma, heroes give their all, and two couples are together at the end.  Oh yeah, the aliens are also destroyed.  I love this movie!

These movies present aliens as real but not in the spirit of scientific reality ala Carl Sagan. No, these aliens are—for the most part—mean, dangerous, suspicious outsiders who are out to get us.  Even some of those who seem benign have a darker side. The approved reaction is to kill them or study them by capturing them or dissecting them.  These are not the aliens I am hoping for.  These are not Vulcans or trusted robots or Jedi Masters; they are not typically lost or misunderstood.  The bulk of these aliens either abduct us or try to kill us to take over our planet, or they are in disguise and cheat us in some way if we reach out to them in friendship.

The little girl in Aliens asks Ripley, “Why do parents tell little kids there are no monsters?”  Our cultural obsession with invaders from space is that they are the monsters, We take comfort, somehow, in being able to protect ourselves from them.  But for me, this is not the promise of space exploration or the hope of some sort of life out there.


But I still want to believe.  Not in the danger or the threat.  Not even in our ability to defend ourselves from scary alien beings.  I believe that it is a noble idea to explore our world, our galaxy, our universe.  I believe there is much out there to produce wonder and awe. I like the idea of sending a greeting out into the universe, hoping that maybe someone will hear our message and come by to say hello.   I hope that if we ever experience first contact that it will be a meeting of mutual respect and curiosity, a friendly gesture between two beings, two cultures regardless of appearances. Fortunately, a couple science fiction movies present encounters closer to what I hope might really happen someday:  E.T. (1982), Starman (1984), and Enemy Mine (1985).

These three films offer some of the cultural intrigue about space invasion, but they also showcase positive relationships between species, and they champion the qualities of friendship, curiosity, cooperation, and love of life over senseless violence and protection of self at all costs.  The hope in these films comes from the relationships.  In Enemy Mine, Humans and the Dracs are at war. But an individual from each side is left stranded in the wilderness on an inhospitable alien planet. Not surprisingly, they need to work together to survive—and they do.  Ultimately the Human cares for a Drac child as his own, and a new family connection is born.

ET the Extra TerrestrialE.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is probably the best known of these three films because it caught the heart of many when it was first released.  An alien who looks more like Yoda than like Luke Skywalker is stranded accidentally on Earth and needs to hide from those who come searching the site where the aircraft had landed.  The little guy seeks shelter in a shed and eventually meets Eliot, a 10-year old who entices E.T. into the house with Reeses Pieces. The two beings form an emotional bond and learn to communicate through friendship, trust and respect.  E.T. simply wants to be safe and to go home.

The government officials have been searching for the intruder and have invaded the home where E.T. is hiding at about the time he seems to be dying.  In their medical garb and insulated chambers the officials work to save E.T., but only so they can study him. The scientist leading the recovery efforts tells Eliot, “I’ve been waiting for him since I was 10 years old. . . .[but] I’m glad he met you first.” When the kids help E.T. escape and his ship arrives to take him home, there is hardly a dry eye in the audience.

StarmanStarman has the same theme, although the alien uses advanced cloning technology to take on the appearance of a specific human, so the woman he is asking for help will “not feel a little bit jumpy.”   As the woman gets over her fear of the alien, he expands his use of language and experiences life on earth through human senses. The government uses the military and the police to search for him and eventually to try to shoot him down and capture him before he gets back to a huge space ship that has arrived to take him home.

Throughout the film, it is discovered that the Starman is a mapmaker on his world, who came to visit because he found the golden record sent into space on Voyager I, a record that basically said “Greetings, come and visit sometime.”  He had to crash land when his ship was shot down. One government worker—a scientist from SETI—voices the irony of him being an invited visitor here and being tracked down like a criminal. This scientist breaks the rules—and probably loses his job—to help the Starman escape and return home.  At the end, the audience is relieved when he makes it aboard the ship that came to rescue him and is heading home. There is also sadness and hope (and a follow-up TV series), because the woman who helped him is now pregnant.

These three films—as well as some of the others—let me stay hopeful. The aliens are friendly caring individuals who are not out to kill us. They reach out in friendship and find some human to make a connection with.  They may be visiting in response to our greetings to the universe or have stopped by accidentally, but—once here—they are willing to be friendly and trusting. In these films, the stereotypical reaction of the government and military to shoot first and ask questions later is thwarted by individual humans who see the humanity in the alien and decide to make friends.  It is those actions collectively that give me hope in the possibilities inherent in our universe.

I do so still want to believe as I did when I was 12 years old watching Star Trek. Not in alien abductions and conspiracy theories about past invasions. Not in crop circles as landing strips and attacks from space to overtake our world. Oh, I am curious about those reports, and I like all the movies that build on those fears.  What I want to believe in is the possibility that the universe will awe and inspire me, that the golden record on Voyager I will be found by someone somewhere, and that first contact might be made by a Vulcan, E.T. or a Starman mapmaker.  As Sagan said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

I remain hopeful.

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I am also curious:  Do you want to believe?  Do you worry about space invaders? Do you like science fiction movies?  What are your favorites and why?   Even, have you ever been abducted?


Spock "LIve Long & Prosper"

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