Over the past few months, I’ve been revisiting my youth through the 79 episodes of the one 1960s television show that I never missed— Star Trek.
I was hardly alone in my fascination with the crew of the Enterprise. While the original series only lasted three seasons during its run from 1966-1969, the show lived on in syndication for decades, during which time it became arguably the most beloved and influential television series of all time. While some elements of the show, such as Captain Kirk’s smarmy womanizing and sexism, appear comically outdated in the #MeToo era, the show’s overarching themes are as relevant today, if perhaps somewhat less revolutionary, as they were back in the 1960s.
As a kid, some of the show’s cultural influences obviously went over my head, but over the years of watching countless reruns, they clearly took root and have guided my view of humanity and its potential ever since. Growing up in the 60s and learning to “duck and cover” at elementary school, it was easy to assume that mankind was headed for self-destruction. But every weeknight at 5 p.m. on the TV was a vision of the future where humans had put aside their differences, found a way to live in peace and, together, reached out to the stars.
It was an enormously hopeful vision, yet it generated plenty of controversy and the show suffered low ratings during its initial run. Many cultural conservatives objected as the show took on such issues as race relations, cultural and economic inequality, authoritarianism, and the futility of militarism, all within the progressive political framework espoused by Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator.
NBC, which aired the show for its first three seasons, received plenty of hate mail from those who objected to the cast, which was revolutionary for the time for its multiracial, and even multispecies, diversity. Lt. Uhura, a beautiful and highly-intelligent African woman, sparked the most complaints to NBC from white viewers, according to published accounts of the public reaction to the show. Prior to Star Trek, black women rarely had appeared on American television and then only as servants, so the portrayal of Uhura as a highly-accomplished Star Fleet officer was more than some white Americans could stand.
For black Americans, by contrast, Uhura’s character, played by Nichelle Nichols, was a cultural milestone on par with Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers. Later in the series, when Nichols was contemplating leaving the show, Martin Luther King Jr., who was a huge fan of Star Trek, prevailed upon her to continue to play Uhura, which he believed provided a critically important role model for black children.
Star Trek’s progressive and hopeful vision of the future was no accident, and it has been a central theme of the show throughout its many iterations since the original series. While not widely known at the time, Roddenberry was a humanist, which means he believed that humans were capable of continuous advancement through reason and cooperative effort, and Star Trek was the first, and ultimately one of very few, American television series that presented a future for humanity where religion played little, if any, role.
If Star Trek had a “religion,” it was the belief in science, the value of cooperation, and in the Prime Directive, which was supposed to bar anyone from the United Federation of Planets from interfering in the cultural development of the more primitive societies that the crew encountered on their journey through the galaxy.
While the series marked a cultural watershed, it also marked a major milestone in science fiction, largely because it explored real scientific concepts and ideas, such as warp drive, that were cutting edge at the time. While the special effects certainly seem dated today, for the 1960s the show’s portrayal of other worlds seemed remarkably vivid and realistic at the time.
And the portrayal of technology on Star Trek was astonishingly prescient, and without a doubt had an influence on the later designs of personal computers, digital tablets, and cell phones. I always liked my old “flip” phone because it looked just like a Star Trek communicator. Even the female voice on the Enterprise’s computers predicted the rise of Siri.
In part because of its cultural significance, Star Trek has been the subject of considerable satire over the years. Viewed by the attitudes of today, the original series was campy and retained far too many inconsistencies to be overlooked. Kirk, for example, a swashbuckler if there ever was one, routinely violated the Prime Directive. And there were episodes, like “Arena,” which first aired in 1967, in which Captain Kirk fights the lizard-like Gorn, where the special effects were comically bad. But at least the episode helped spawn one of the best movie parodies of all time— Galaxy Quest, in which a crew of washed up actors from a Star Trek-like series encounter real aliens who have been watching the show from afar. The aliens face annihilation from a rival, militaristic race, and not realizing that the Galaxy Quest crew members were merely actors, come to Earth seeking their help. If you’re a Star Trek fan and haven’t seen Galaxy Quest, rent it. Now. It’s incredibly fun.
While re-watching the original series brought back vivid memories of my childhood, it also revealed how my optimism about the future of humanity has waned. While it presented a vision of the future, Star Trek was certainly a product of its time. We had our problems in the 1960s— pollution, famine, and the threat of nuclear war, but many of us at the time shared a sense that, despite all that, humanity‘s future would be brighter than its past. The enlightened and egalitarian society envisioned in Star Trek seemed futuristic, but also achievable.
Half a century later, with twice as many humans on Earth as when Star Trek first aired, we live in a very different world, where we’re literally killing the oceans, heating the planet, and seeing the political ramifications of what is certain to be an ever-escalating flow of increasingly desperate refugees around the world. Today, as I think about the future, it’s a lot easier to envision a scene from Mad Max than the hopeful images portrayed in Star Trek.
Then again, in the world according to Star Trek, it was just such extraordinary challenges that ultimately forced humanity to work together to solve such crises. Will we rise to the challenge and eventually make it to that world envisioned by Gene Roddenberry? Will humanity live long and prosper, or ultimately destroy ourselves? In the end, it’s up to us to decide.