Boldly going… Fifty years of Star Trek

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 … where no-one … has gone before.”

Two of the most enduring television series of all time were born out of that remarkable era of social, artistic and scientific revolution and evolution, the 1960s, series which didn’t just capture the attention and love of the science fiction fans but of a wider audience, appealing to men and women, to different ethnic groups, children, adults, which would become so successful they would become embedded into the popular culture to the level where event those who aren’t fans are still aware of the icons of those series. They are also two of my personal life-long favourites, and I use “life-long” literally – as I’ve grown up with these series and their later evolutions. They have always been in my life; they excited me, thrilled me as a child and engaged my imagination with adventure and wonder, but also set my young mind to thinking, inspiring me to seek out books on related subjects the stories would touch on. How many of us have shared that experience, that inspiration?

One of those shows has already celebrated its fiftieth anniversary year, our beloved Doctor Who. The other one which has gone through my whole life with me marks fifty years today: Star Trek.


As with Doctor Who, although there may have been a few who thought there was something special about the work in the beginning, no-one could really have foreseen the cultural impact the show would make across half a century (and let us hope, with new films and a new series to come, much longer). Like many of the best tales this is a story of triumph against the odds – famously the pilot episode, the trial show shot just for the suits at the network, was rejected. Trek creator Rodenberry, as I recall even as a kid listening to him on my Inside Star Trek LP (yes, I still have it) back in the 70s, promised the channel a “Wagon Train to the stars”, following the hugely popular Westerns of the period but set in space but brought them something more cerebral. But then in an unprecedented move the network let Rodenberry fashion a second pilot episode, and from that the series sprang forth.

And while Star Trek delivered more than its fair share of action, fist-fights (with ripped shirts, naturally) and more, as the network wanted, it also offered up something more cerebral, many of the stories adding a more thought-provoking layer. It addressed racism (this in a 1960s America in which city streets were sometimes burning during the fight for Civil Rights), equality among all regardless of race, colour, gender, of overcoming our own flaws to become the better versions of ourselves, and by doing so create a finer world, the nature of power and the responsibility to use it wisely. The wonderful Nichelle Nichols, our First Lady of Geekdom, was told by Doctor Martin Luther King himself that her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise was important – a woman, and a woman of colour, on a prime-time TV show, occupying a position of authority as a senior officer, it sent a signal to others who weren’t seeing many other people of colour on their screens back then. Nichelle would later work with NASA to use her Trek fame to encourage more women and more minorities in the space programme and sciences, just another in the many ways the show inspired others.

star trek original series cast

Poverty was eliminated on Earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it – hopelessness, despair, cruelty…,” Counsellor Deanna Troi, USS Enterprise, talking to a time-travelling Mark Twain.

As you may have guessed I am not going to reiterate the history of Star Trek here – plenty of others will be doing that for the anniversary (pleasingly among the mainstream press too, not just among our geek community – Trek has reached out everywhere) and besides, most of you are more than familiar with it anyway. No, this is more of a personal piece, a few thoughts on what Star Trek has meant to me over the years, and I’m pretty sure it has had a similar effect on many of you. I’ve read and watched a huge amount of science fiction since I was a wee boy, and I still do, and I have loved so much of it. But what marks Trek out as extra special to me is quite simple: the quality of hope. Hope for the future, hope that we can overcome our own failings, that we can rise above pettiness, greed, selfishness, be better people, and by extension make the world a better place.


Just recently I was talking to Mary and Bryan Talbot at the Edinburgh Book Festival about their Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, a historical and biographical graphic work about a nineteenth century revolutionary, activist and dreamer, but one which also touched on the Utopian elements of some of the science fiction of the day, imagining overcoming poverty, disease, the grotesque inequalities in society so that everyone had their fair chance. The book was dedicated to their friend, the late Iain M Banks, as an author of future utopias himself with the Culture. And at one point we noted how the Utopian theme has dropped more and more, in recent years, that the dystopian future seems more common in science fiction, not just because it offers drama and spectacle but, it seems, because so many of us look around this world and wonder where that optimism of the mid 60s went to? That we would overcome, that we would evolve morally and use our knowledge and technology for the betterment of all?

And it isn’t hard to see why, in a world where zealots slaughter innocents and equally vile bigots then blame entire sections of society for their actions, increasing division, difference, hatred, while the 1% claws ever more wealth, resources and influence and the rest despair and give up thinking what can you do, what difference can any of us make… To my mind though that makes the hopeful message of the Star Trek future more important than ever. A future where we can build something as vast and powerful as the Enterprise (the ship, I would argue, is almost a character in her own right), but we do so not for some imperial colonisation or warfare or conquest, but for exploration, for advancing knowledge, learning from other cultures, just because we can and because it makes us better, stronger as a species.


Utopias rarely come to actual reality, and if they did they often would by a dystopia to some because we all have different ideas of what they should be, these things are rarely a one size fits all match. But we’ve dreamed of them forever, and the dream that we can make it better because, because we simply have to, it has to get better than this or what is the point? That dream is an important spur – we may never have a Federation-like ideal society (I suspect Babylon 5’s visions of a more divided future is more realistic, given human nature and history), but if it inspires more to fight for equality, to have rights enshrined into law to protect everyone, to expand educational opportunities and awareness of other problems, practical and moral, that we need to address, then that dream is serving a good purpose.

The greatest danger facing us is irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily not understood,” Captain James T Kirk.

Of course there are many other qualities to Trek – the deep bonds of friendship between the characters are emotionally satisfying, to the extent that many of us feel as if these fictional characters are almost people we know (and we feel the same about the real actors behind those characters, and it causes us genuine grief when we lose one of them). I think that and the dream of a better possible future are some of the reasons why Trek, early on, spawned an entire fan community and early conventions; it brought a lot of people from all over the planet together. It still does; in many ways those early Trek conventions and gatherings and cosplaying (before that term was used widely) set a bit of a template for the SF and comics and gaming conventions that are so common now.


And there are so many of the stories across the various series and films – I’m sure each of us could fill a whole post with our favourite episodes and why we love them so much. City on the Edge of Forever, with Harlan Ellison’s compelling time-travelling romance and the horrendous personal cost in protecting the integrity of history. Patrick Stewart’s measured but beautifully emotional role in The Inner Light, living a lifetime in a few hours with a people long, long gone. Avery Brooks’ Sisko wrestling with his conscience over methods he would never normally use but is forced into for the greater good, but at enormous personal guilt: “I can live with it. I can live with it…”

Or the fantasy of Deep Space Nine as a 1950s pulp sci-fi series in a magazine which couldn’t admit the writer was black, and the blurring of which was real and which was truly the fiction. Majel Barrett-Rodenberry and M*A*S*H* star David Ogden Stiers facing love late in life and death in a culture with very strict rules on age. Data creating a daughter, who lives only a short time but is so grateful for the gift of that life. Patrick Stewart and Paul Winfield playing members of two very different species, desperate to bridge the communication gap, using storytelling and myth, in Darmok.


And then there are the ones which just flat out made us laugh with our cast of friends – the Trouble with the Tribbles (and the wonderful DS9 tribute decades later), the Little Green Men where the Ferengi find themselves back in time at Roswell (and dealing with rather rougher humans than the evolved Federation types they are used to). And… Well, again I think you all could be coming up with similar lists and also thinking the more you come up with the more others pop into your head – oh, what about? And then that episode where…?

But for all that again I come back to that simple but incredibly precious quality that Star Trek has delivered again and again across half a century: hope, that optimism that whispers to us that we can make the real future a better place. Live long and prosper.

(this piece was originally written for the Forbidden Planet Blog)

Cosmos, the next generation…

Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.

Carl Sagan – Cosmos (Trailer) (1980) from Xhulian Traja on Vimeo.

I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t  realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…

carl sagan with viking lander

The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…

Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.

cosmos neil degrasse tyson

And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.

Cosmos Trailer from Nat Geo Channels Intl Creative on Vimeo.

And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming.  And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.

You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.

The Doctor is in…

Brian Rimmer presents a time-travelling musical slide through more than forty years of theme music and opening sequences to the world’s longest running science fiction show, Doctor Who. I confess my favourite remains the Tom Baker era ‘time tunnel opening (the main Who era for me growing up), with the same ‘slit-scan’ technique used in the stargate sequence for 2001, but it’s fun to see them all back to back like this, from the early Hartnell era of 1963 (and the logo that looks like ‘Doctor Oho’ for a second before becoming ‘Who’) through to 2010’s revamped opening and music for Matt Smith’s Doctor. And through it all that immortal, iconic bass line, duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh, that’s been reworked endlessly across the decades by various arrangers for the show and by other musicians like Orbital and Pink Floyd; those bass lines were the signal to generations of kids that it was Saturday, tea-time and that meant marvellous adventures and scary monsters (and jelly babies). How lovely that it still means exactly that to a new generation of kids watching the new show and still loving it. (via BoingBoing)

Doctor Who – the End of Time figures

Just announced new Doctor Who action figures based on the final two part tale that saw the end of David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor, there’s a set of End of Time figures coming soon, with the injured Tennant Doctor, the blonde Master, Timothy Dalton’s impessive, be-robed Time Lord and – wait for it! – the first Matt Smith Doctor Who action figure, with him right after the regeneration, still in the previous incarnation’s clothes.

And on the fun side there’s also a new Time Squad set of Doctor Who figures coming, with the collection coming together to assemble a Master figure. Funky!

Star Trek meets Mythbusters

Great, two of my favourite geek things in the world, Star Trek and Mythbusters, are coming together – the Mythbusters team are going to test out a classic scene from the original 60s Star Trek, where Captain Kirk is kidnapped and placed on a desert planet to battle the captain of the Gorn ship and told there are materials scattered around that can be fashioned into weapons. Finding some sulphur and other material he takes a large bamboo like hollow cane and imrpovises a primitive cannon, with some diamonds shoved in the barrel as ammunition. Its a now classic Trek scene (with the rocky desert setting now a cliche for the show, endlessly lampooned). But if you improvised such a device in real life would it work or just blow up in your face? That’s what the Mythbusters are going to test – sounds like a Trek themed follow up of sorts to the medieval wood cannon they did a couple of years back.


I was thinking this morning how as a nation we generally only pause and come together to mark sad occasions like Armistice Day. So to mark the 40th anniversary of the first Monty Python screening I thought what about a moment of National Silliness instead? I encouraged some folks to mass-tweet “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” at 11am on Twitter (it even got mentioned on radio BBC6) and a bunch joined in for some delightfully pointless silliness. Which is good for us, I’m convinced.

Doctor Poo

Viz offers up a scatalogical take on our favourite Time Lord with Doctor Poo, traversing time and space desperately trying to find a quiet loo to take a dump, thwarted at every turn by Cybermen, Sea Devils and Daleks. I especially like the ‘handicapped’ symbol on Davros’ personal loo. Vulgar and crude (it begins with a farting version of the classic Baker-era Doctor Who theme) but funny (via SF Crowsnest):

Chief Scout

Bear Grylls has become the new Chief Scout for the UK. Presumably he will be able to instruct kids on how to fake television shows and pretend you’re sleeping the night in that desert you’ve been crossing with only a rattlesnake for a pillow while actually you and the crew are straight off to an air conditioned motel as soon as the camera’s off. And is a man who kills animals just for the sake of making a TV programme really a good role model for kids? Seriously, the fact that he kills animals as part of this show disgusts me. You want to show survival skills, stop biting the heads off live frogs, you bastard, drop your white ass down into Compton and live on the street there for a week without being shot or knived. Oh well, the kids can at least enjoy making fun of his name, I suppose. Distract them from how silly their uniform looks.

Oliver Postgate

Very sad to hear about the passing of Oliver Postgate; Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers, Bagpuss, all wonderful pieces of hand-made animation put together in an old cowshed in the finest tradition of the great British eccentric. And all lovely parts of that half imagined, half remembered childhood memory, part of the good childhood memories along with other rose tinted nostalgic memories which tell you that when you were young summers were always long and sunny, winters always came with deep snow to sledge on. Basic animation to be sure, but in the long ago time before multi channeled TV, the web or digital animation these were as essential to generations of British kids as their copy of the Beano. Another little piece of my childhood tumbles away…

Cool Doctor Who figures

I’m seriously liking the latest Doctor Who action figures range. You have no idea how hard it is to resist the urge to buy more of them when I see them at work! I couldn’t resist adding a Tom Baker figure (complete with his manic grin) from the Classic Who range to stand next to my David Tennant figure on my desk though. Yes, I know, I’m a big kid, so what? One of the best things about being grown up is being able to buy yourself some fun toys from time to time. And I know my friend’s wee boys will go mad for these too, think I know what to buy for at least two of my Christmas presents this year…