— By Carly Twehous —
I say, “Star Trek”, and what’s your first thought?
Maybe it’s, “Live long and prosper, Mr. Spock”, and the classic, split-finger hand-gesture. Maybe you think of those few reruns you saw in the 70’s-80’s-90’s, and get this odd zing of nostalgia for a time when there will still reruns on television. Or perhaps you’re fresh meat, unintentionally sucked in to the expansive Star Trek universe because of the overwhelmingly charming J.J. Abrams reboots.
Or maybe you roll your eyes, like a surprising number of culturally-depraved people living sad, Trek-less lives, and just think, “Nerd”.
Whether science fiction just isn’t your thing and you tend to stick your nose in the air, claiming to favor more sophisticated things like Jane Austen and herbal tea, or whether you can quote that famous opening monologue that starts with, “Space: the final frontier”, Star Trek has been around long enough to warrant a brief discussion.
Light-years ahead of its day and all other conceptions of science fiction in its time, unbeknownst to most people, Star Trek almost single-handedly shaped the moral character of the most tumultuous decade of the last century.
Of course, the history books tend to forget the important details. Star Trek was revolutionary. The senior staff onboard the Enterprise consisted of a very alien science officer, an Asian at the helm, a Russian, and (insert gasp here) an African American woman as the communications officer. The first interracial kiss broadcast on television was between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, which aired in November 1968, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr., a fan of the show, personally wrote Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, and thanked her for her bravery in staying on the show, despite the criticism she received.
There are the countless episodes in the Original Series that deal with every social issue from slavery, to racial tensions, to the escalation of war, and the introduction of eugenics, each serving as an allegory to all the crazy headlines in the 1960s.
Flash-forward to The Next Generation, with a new captain at the helm of the Enterprise for a new decade of allegorical science fiction. Star Trek: The Next Generation, without the brashness of one James T. Kirk, brought a new flavor of leadership to the mythology in the tactical and diplomatic mind of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. With the introduction of entities like the omniscient Q, the hive-minded Borg, and the constant moral query of whether or not Data the android can really be considered human, TNG captured the spirit of Trek in a serialized form.
Then, in 1993, we got our first African American Captain on board the Cardassian space station commandeered and rechristened, Deep Space Nine. A few seasons in to DS9, in what my younger brother argues is the single greatest arc in television history, the Dominion War comes in and completely revitalizes Star Trek. Although war is constantly hinted at in the mythology and there are no shortages of small-scale skirmishes in both The Original Series and The Next Generation, the loyal Trek audience had never a captain and his crew in the midst of a war that spanned the entire known universe. Fought between the religiously fanatic and conquest-minded Dominion and the (relatively) peaceful Federation, the Dominion War presents a whole new set of moral conundrums: diplomacy vs. what’s necessary for survival, surrender vs. freedom, and the role of a secret organization within the Federation that does the dirty work so everyone else can keep their hands clean. For the first time, we were given characters who were supposed to be black and white carbon copies of the Enterprise crew suddenly defying all expectations, all perquisites of morality, in order to fight a war that forces them to decide whether the ends justify the means.
Voyager comes around a few years later, this time with a female captain at the helm, and strands its crew in the Delta Quadrant, seemingly infinite light-years from Earth and home. In a Lord of the Flies-type arc, Voyager forced its crew to maintain what humanity they could, completely cut off from everything familiar. More important, Voyager took the theme of questioned humanity introduced with Data in TGN and took it to a whole new level with the introduction of the holographic Doctor and the former Borg drone, Seven of Nine.
At the turn of the century, Star Trek: Enterprise, captained by Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula, was the prequel that supposed recapture the original spirit of Star Trek, complete with a Vulcan science officer and a sarcastic engineer with a thick, southern accent. With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, once more, Star Trek took its place in writing our history books with allegory. At the beginning of season three of Enterprise, Earth was attacked by an unknown alien race, the Xindi, and suddenly Captain Archer and his crew are torn from their peaceful mission of exploration and thrown on a war-path that would bring everyone’s character, humanity, and morality into question. Peace was traded in for photon torpedoes and a mission of revenge. That idealism that permeated Trek in the past suddenly took a dark and bitter turn because of the immense tragedy portrayed both on the show and in the CNN headlines of the time. And that amazing theme song, that promised the unabashed wonder that’s been a constant in Star Trek since the beginning, suddenly became a heart-breaking eulogy for better days, before tragedy was the norm.
There is no doubt in my mind—nor in the minds of anyone who’s ever loved this long-running show—that Star Trek shaped the century. More importantly, it shaped the hearts and minds of its audience by showing us a future laced with the unwavering faith to look to the stars.
After the twelve-year hiatus between the end of Enterprise and last night’s premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, it’s nice to know that that ideal hasn’t been forgotten.
There will never come a day when Star Trek isn’t relevant to its audience. There will never come a day when it fades into obscurity.
Most importantly, there will never come a day when Star Trek is just a TV show, just a story.
Star Trek, at its core, is a sometimes frightening, but all the more necessary, mirror image of our lives, down to the worst detail, the hardest question to ask. Star Trek is a reason to hope in this broken and imperfect little world, where humanity is so often forgotten and suffering is the norm, because it’s supposed to get better.
Humanity is destined to reach the stars and Star Trek will always be here to keep that dream alive.