With the commencement of filming on the twelfth Star Trek movie this past month, I am reminded of the amazing impact of this franchise despite the tepid success of the 1960s original Star Trek television show. From The Twilight Zone of the 1960s and All in the Family in the 70s to more recent series like Mad Men and The Simpsons, social commentators, scholars, and everyday viewers have heralded certain television shows as important and groundbreaking.
While the several Star Trek series may not have garnered many acting and production awards, it has been arguably more socially and culturally influential than any single television show. For one, the Star Trek franchise spans nearly five decades, something that no other show, including the long-running series The Simpsons or the Law and Order franchise, can claim. Another way to think about this is a child who watched with wonder Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) in the mid-1960s can now take his or her grandchild to next year’s Star Trek movie premiere. Longevity, Martin Luther King once said, may have its place, but Star Trek’s impact goes well beyond this.
Star Trek is more than simply just an interesting television series; it is deeply embedded in American culture. Aside from its five television series TOS, The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), Voyager (VOY), and Enterprise (ENT), which together produced more than 700 hour-long episodes, it inspired a short-lived early 1970s Saturday morning cartoon and is presently filming its twelfth feature film. Even those who have never watched a minute of the show know who Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are, or have heard the phrase “Beam me up Scotty.” Beyond the sheer scale and lasting power of the shows and movies, Star Trek has produced more than a thousand novels and comic books that continue to take readers to where no one has gone before. Moreover, what show can also claim its own language, Klingon, complete with its own dictionary? The show has also spawned numerous fanzines and even fan-produced hour long web episodes like those from Star Trek Phase II.
Star Trek has been the subject of numerous parodies in Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, In Living Color, The Wonder Years, Family Guy, and The West Wing, and it is a significant part of the humor in television comedy The Big Bang Theory.
Moreover, the passion of its fans is legendary. Since the early 1970s, Star Trek conventions have attracted millions of Trekkies or Trekkers to hotel ballrooms and convention centers throughout the United States and even to locales as far away as Europe, Latin America, and Asia. There Trekkies can come dressed as a Klingon, Andorian, and even a red-shirted crew member and mingle with actors—famous and obscure—from all five series, secure autographs, purchase memorabilia, and swap stories with other fans. In 2008, thousands flocked to New York or watched the History Channel’s live streaming of a special Christie’s auction of Star Trek memorabilia that brought in millions of dollars, including a $500,000 bid for a model of the starship USS Enterprise. For more than a decade the Las Vegas Hilton hosted the “Star Trek: The Experience” where visitors could take Star Trek-inspired simulated rides and dine on Flaming Ribs of Targ at a wonderful re-creation of Quark’s Bar from the DS9 series. Currently, Star Trek: The Exhibition is touring the nation allowing attendees to sit in Captain Kirk’s chair on a full mock-up of the Enterprise NCC-1701 bridge.
Star Trek’s commercial influence—disappearing transporter coffee mugs, replica ships models, action figures, t-shirts, and even the Klingon bat’leth I have hanging on my office wall—would be impressive enough. Yet, even academics ranging from sociologists and physicists to religious studies scholars have produced numerous articles, books, and dissertations scrutinizing the meaning and impact of Star Trek. College students can take anthropology, sociology, information studies, and even history courses like mine that use Star Trek to explore American culture and society. Science fiction shows like Star Trek offer a unique avenue to investigate important issues or ideas because the genre has traditionally attracted authors and artists who wish to offer social and political commentary. Star Trek creator Eugene Roddenberry, for example, consciously developed his series to address important issues like war, race, sex, technology, and the human condition that 1960s television largely ignored.
Although today critics often ridicule the original Star Trek for its plywood and styrofoam sets and campy acting, they often fail to recognize that at the time the show was groundbreaking television. TOS was the first television series aimed at adults to tell sophisticated morality tales and to depict a paramilitary crew on a peaceful mission to explore the galaxy. Its stories were often written by highly regarded science fiction authors, and by the standards of the day, Star Trek was quite advanced and it effectively raised the bar. Science fiction television shows and movies that followed it had to meet its standards of quality and maturity in order to be taken seriously. Star Trek featured the first multi-racial kiss on television, when Captain Kirk kissed his communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura. The multi-ethnic nature of the bridge crew as well as its positive message that humanity would overcome the social strife, racism, and war that plagued the 60s helps explain the show’s broad and lasting appeal.
TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT continued this larger message, though they portrayed a more complex, complicated, and many would argue, realistic universe. In 1987, TNG introduced a new generation to Roddenberry’s positive perspective as well as tackled new social issues like terrorism and torture. Star Trek’s ultimate achievement is that it places these controversial issues and events in a different time and space allowing viewers to explore them in an indirect, less threatening manner. It forces us to confront our own stereotypes and personal biases and imagine a better world. In short, it tells stories that have something important or insightful to say. TOS’s “A Private Little War,” for example, urged viewers to consider American policy in Vietnam, while TNG’s “The High Ground” offered a more complex view of terrorism and ENT’s “Stigma” encouraged a more sympathetic view of the AIDS crisis.
In some ways little has changed since TOS premiered in 1966, through reruns, novels, and fan-produced episodes Star Trek continues to encourage us to examine ourselves and humanity through the lives of Starfleet, androids, and aliens. So next time you run across an episode of TNG on the Syfy channel or hear Sheldon and Leonard play Klingon boggle on The Big Bang Theory or see the latest Star Trek ornament at your local Hallmark store , take a moment to think about the social and cultural significance of a not so simple sci-fi show called Star Trek.