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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)