It is extremely difficult to comment upon the enormity of the Star Trek franchise in one article, but today warrants it more than most. On this day 50 years ago – September 8, 1966 – Star Trek debuted in the United States. Back then, there was no franchise, no fan base, no Vulcan salute. There was Gene Roddenberry and he had a vision of the future. Much like today, the 1960s were marked by extreme social upheaval and wars being fought on several fronts. Roddenberry decided to show a team of diverse officers working together on a spaceship as they traveled across galaxies in search of knowledge. The USS Enterprise was not on a mission to conquer, convert or sell goods – it was simply to find out about other species. Explore strange new worlds and new civilizations, and to do so boldly, without fear or prejudice. If you really sit down and think about it, isn’t that pretty amazing?
The best part of the Enterprise was her crew. Scientists, communications specialists, engineers, and of course, the captain. Captain James T. Kirk gave us a 1960s action hero, but it was his crew that made him stronger and better, and that crew dared to have a half-human/half-alien, a Japanese man, a black woman, a Russian man, a folksy but brilliant doctor, and a Scot who kept that ship flying. This combination was highly unusual for 1966, especially in light of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. Much has been said about the importance of seeing oneself represented on television in a time when programming was largely white and male – African American women looked up to Uhura and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr understood that she was making history. For anyone that simply felt like an outsider, a nerd, or a misfit, they had to look no further than Mr. Spock, a man between cultures whose half-human side made him an outcast on his father’s home planet of Vulcan and whose alien logic set him apart on his mother’s planet of Earth. Even more than Captain Kirk’s bravery and swagger, fans saw themselves in Spock.
Thanks to so many people, from the women who threw the first conventions in New York City to the letter writing campaign that brought Star Trek back for a third season when it had been cancelled (also started by a women, shoutout to Bjo Trimble!), giving it that magical number of episodes for syndication, to the dedicated crew that worked hard to bring the Enterprise and its away missions to life every week, Star Trek became a franchise when Roddenberry decided to write a new series for a new crew – Star Trek: The Next Generation. While it took a few years to gather its fan base, TNG became wildly popular and went on for seven seasons – as did the following two series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager; the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise followed with a four-season showing. That world of Starfleet, the Federation, and their adversaries is really enormous – Roddenberry’s vision surpassed the wildest of expectations.
The captains and crews are all rich and varied, with distinct hallmarks, giving fans so much material for debate and many wonderful characters that passed through on a weekly basis. Again, consider the ability to sustain a concept and build a universe over 28 seasons of television – and full 20-plus episode seasons at that, none of this 12-eps-and-done model we see today – and 10 films is incredible. No other franchise or series has produced quite so much material, let alone so much high-quality storytelling and inspired such an involved fan base. No one argues about the best captain or the top episode quite like a Trekkie.
Just because Star Trek turns 50 today doesn’t mean we’ll forget all the silly episodes that aren’t exactly winners or the sexist commentary that occurred from time to time. Good-natured ribbing is a birthday tradition! However, I find these flaws to be part of the beauty of Star Trek. Like us all, it made mistakes but kept on going, picked itself up to go boldly another day. The franchise, much like the fan base, it ever growing and changing. Not to mention that when a fan goes 12 years without seeing Star Trek on their television, even those ridiculous episodes are awesome because at least its Star Trek. That will all change in a few short months, when the brand-new Star Trek: Discovery debuts in January 2017. I can’t wait to see what they’re putting together for this next-next generation of fans. Kids who have never had an active TV series of Star Trek in their lifetime will get to claim ownership of this new crew and see themselves reflected in Discovery’s weekly adventures. No pressure for team Discovery, right?
I am thrilled that in our social-media-driven world, we’re all taking time out this week (and really, this whole year) to celebrate what Star Trek means and declare our love for this super-geeky science fiction show whose fans refused to let it die. I put a Trek filter over my Facebook photo, there is a live long and prosper emoji, the United States Post Office just issued exclusive Star Trek stamps, and I personally just attended three Star Trek conventions in the past month. Culture has shifted and, suddenly, it is cool to declare your love of all things nerd. Who knew? Certainly not I, who spent my middle school years being bullied endlessly for loving Captain Picard and Captain Janeway, for drawing little Borg cubes fighting little starships in my notebooks. Now, I have MAC cosmetics marketing an entire line of Star Trek inspired makeup to me! What parallel universe is this? There are Star Trek t-shirts in Target – in both men’s and women’s cuts (this is a big deal). As a teen I had one Starfleet Academy t-shirt, found at a local Blockbuster video store (remember those?), in a men’s large because that is all they carried. I feel like I should buy Star Trek a birthday card, one of those cheesy ones that say “you’ve come a long way, baby” – but they really have come quite a long way. The most-watched show on network TV, The Big Bang Theory, is about a group of nerdy scientists who all love – you guessed it – Star Trek. Sorry to my geek brethren, but it is time to admit the truth – we’re cool now.
I would remiss if I didn’t briefly mention the impact Star Trek has had on the scientific and tech communities – after all, Trek predicted that we’d carry around tiny computers in our pockets, use laptops and screens for everything, and inspired several generations of astronauts, physicists, pilots, doctors and engineers. Star Trek also inspired fans to become diplomats and social workers, improving life here on Earth. What is routinely amazing to me, and is a sentiment I hear echoed frequently by the actors who meet fans weekly at conventions around the globe, is the collective intelligence and drive of Star Trek fans to work toward that future Gene Roddenberry envisioned. Whether through simple acceptance or scientific innovation, the contribution remains staggering.
As for this day, I personally will celebrate by fondly thinking of all my favorite parts of Star Trek, from Spock’s pointy ears to Janeway’s favorite coffee cup. I’ll read all the tributes online, remember the legacy of Leonard Nimoy (he was, perhaps, the most Star Trek of us all), and message all the wonderful humans I’ve met through this enduring franchise. Star Trek has lifted me up when I’m down, bonded me with my fellows, and been a source of strength since I was a child. Growing up, when hearing often-depressing news from around the world, I used to say that I wished all the world leaders would sit down and watch some Star Trek and think about their actions. Maybe today, they’ll do just that.
May Star Trek continue to live long, and prosper.