It may be hard to believe, but Star Trek launched its voyage to strange new worlds 50 years ago today. When the original series was cancelled after three seasons due to middling ratings, few could have predicted that it would ultimately become one of the most beloved and influential TV shows of all time, and then a hugely successful movie and TV franchise with its own popular mythology.
Half a century later, with the latest in a blockbuster trilogy of reboots in cinemas and a new series, Star Trek: Discovery, in production, Star Trek remains an unstoppable force. (A force that has been on full display during SBS 2's Star Trek Week, which wraps up this weekend.)
An account of the franchise’s cultural importance—especially in making science-fiction and geeky fandom safe for the masses—would fill up a starship’s memory banks.
But Star Trek has a more profound aspect to its legacy, too. Series creator, producer and writer Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a future Earth society that is at peace, with humans working together to explore the galaxy and acquire knowledge, was a beacon of hope amidst the turmoil of the late 1960s.
And especially in its Utopian vision of racial and cultural harmony, Star Trek boldly went where no TV show had gone before.
Star Trek was one of the first American series to promote racial diversity and multiculturalism both in its cast and its themes – a stark contrast to the predominantly white television of the era.
The crew of the USS Enterprise was just casually presented as being made up of many different cultures and races, including alien ones. Prominent among the bridge crew were a Russian navigator (a significant statement during the Cold War), a Japanese helmsman (played by George Takei, who was held in an American internment camp as a boy during World War II, and has since become a famous LGBT celebrity and activist) and a female communications officer of African descent.
Those of us who weren’t alive at the time probably can’t grasp how groundbreaking the character of Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was for audiences of the day. She was one of the first black women on TV not portrayed as a servant. Her visibility and her “honour, dignity and intelligence” were cited by none other than civil rights icon and huge Star Trek fan Dr Martin Luther King Jr as crucial to African-Americans. In fact, she was getting ready to quit the show when he met her.
“This is an important role. This is why we are marching. We never thought we'd see this on TV,” Dr King told her, convincing Nichols she should remain.
“I never regretted the decision,” she said.
Nichols played her part in Star Trek’s most famous milestone - what is widely considered the first inter-racial kiss on American television. It wasn’t, in fact – Nancy Sinatra smooched Sammy Davis Jr on TV the year before, to name but one instance – but the moment was so iconic and definitive that it deserves credit.
In the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode of the third series, first aired in November 1968, Uhura and Captain Kirk, played by white Canadian actor William Shatner, are forced by telekinetic aliens to act out a steamy romance. The involuntary nature of the kiss allowed the show’s creators and network some leeway to mollify the anticipated outrage among conservative viewers. To their surprise, the fan mail was largely positive.
The show’s forward-thinking vision also extended to its depiction of how 23rd-century humans interact with alien races, and it was unusual for having an extraterrestrial main character in Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy). His half-Vulcan, half-human makeup allowed the series to continually explore themes of co-operation between cultures and what it means to be human.
Give peace a chance
Star Trek’s conception of a future Earth that had set aside war was bold for the time, and brought the series many fans from the youth counterculture which was just beginning to resist the Vietnam war and the arms race.
In many episodes, the crew of the Enterprise meet warlike or barbaric humanoids, allowing for explicit commentary on the futility of violence. The ongoing references to the apocalyptic wars in Earth’s history within the story’s timeline (and in our near future) were intended as a warning for us to change our ways.
Star Trek was also noteworthy for foregrounding science in its narratives and encouraging a love of science among its viewers – especially thanks to the massive popularity of the flawlessly logical Mr Spock.
The generation that made heroes of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking was weaned on Star Trek. Teachers, scientists and academics were among the fans who wrote in to save the show from cancellation after the second series. NASA named its prototype space shuttle after the Starship Enterprise. The technology depicted in Star Trek even influenced the designers of mobile phones, computer interfaces, Bluetooth technology and Google Earth.
Trouble in paradise
Despite all this innovation, the original Star Trek was a product of its time and reflected some of the era’s problems. It’s been especially criticised for its sexism – Captain Kirk is an incorrigible womaniser, and it’s sometimes shocking how the male crew of the Enterprise ogle their female counterparts, especially the first season’s Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney).
Modern viewers may also note that though the crew was well integrated, women and people of colour were usually stuck in subordinate roles. (The Wayans Brothers mercilessly parodied this aspect of the series in a sketch on ’90s show In Living Color. Uhura to Kirk: “You get off your flat butt and get Starfleet your damn self!” More recently, the ABC's Black Comedy also parodied the racial disparity.)
And it wasn’t all peace and love. The story’s future government represented by the Enterprise, the United Federation of Planets, is quite militaristic and colonialist in galactic terms. Much like the real-life US of the time, the Federation is caught up in a cold war with its enemies (the Romulans and the Klingons) and can’t seem to keep from intervening in local conflicts.
But Roddenberry’s valiant attempts to depict a better future became a template that has served the franchise ever since. Each new iteration of Star Trek is more inclusive and has more nuanced depictions of women, people of colour and sentient aliens.
The recent revelation that Mr Sulu is gay in the rebooted film series – now depicted by John Cho, who's shown at home in this year’s Star Trek Beyond with his husband and child – became a rallying point for the franchise’s progressive fans. And so Star Trek’s mission to seek out, explore and inspire the best of humanity goes on.
SBS 2's Star Trek week continues this weekend with Star Trek: First Contact on Friday, 9 September at 8:30pm (AEST) and Star Trek: Insurrection on Saturday, 10 September at 8:30pm (AEST).
The documentary Building Star Trek airs on Sunday, 11 September at 8:35pm (AEST) on SBS.