“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 has gone before.”
There is perhaps no piece of science fiction more well-known, more roundly mocked, and more completely loved, than Star Trek, the original series. Today it may often seem quaint, old-fashioned, sometimes even wince-inducing, but in its day it was a groundbreaking and shining example of what television was capable of.
Its influence in popular culture is pervasive and nigh-omnipresent; in these postings, I have often mentioned Star Trek as a benchmark of comparison. Multiple changes in the popular perception of space travel, of alien species, of the way in which such a show might reflect ourselves, can be traced to the original series, which barely lasted three seasons (it very nearly had only two).
But they were seasons of wonder.
I was fortunate enough when I was young to see one – and only one – of the episodes of the original when first broadcast. I was only five years old at the time, and it’s one of my very few memories from that era. The episode was one of the most iconic of the entire series: Arena, based on a story by Frederic Brown, in which highly advanced aliens, annoyed by the intrusion of less-advanced races in their space, take the captains of both ships and put them on a desolate world to settle their differences one on one. The alien captain – the reptilian creature called a Gorn – was a very impressive sight to a five-year-old in 1967, and the other thing that impressed me was that even though Captain Kirk was clearly outclassed by the creature in terms of fighting, he was able to defeat it by out-thinking it and creating a weapon out of what was at hand.
It was several years later, though, before I got to see the series as a whole, when the local station (I can’t remember which one) broadcast it as a rerun. For the first time I heard that opening narration and that uplifting theme (having missed the first few minutes of Arena), and I was hooked.
This was live-action science fiction as I had never seen on TV (and indeed, no one had at that point); it was heroic and positive, yet not so simple as it might seem (for someone at the age of 10-12, anyway), with a central crew whose interactions gave life to the plots they were entangled in. James T. Kirk, man of action, shrewd, tough, and smart; Spock, coldly logical, vastly more intelligent than anyone else in the crew, physically more dangerous, but with a difficult and often painfully obvious handicap from his Vulcan heritage; Dr. Leonard McCoy, empathic, acerbic, a study in contradictions who was also a top-flight surgeon and more than capable of handling himself when need arose; Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, ultra-competent master of machines who sometimes seemed to love the ship more than the people within it; Lieutenant Sulu, swashbuckler at heart, calm and nearly imperturbable in danger.
There was also Lieutenant Uhura, possibly the first woman shown in a command position on a military vessel and certainly the first black woman in such a position (even if the scripts of the time rarely gave her a chance to act other than in opening hailing frequencies), and Ensign Pavel Chekhov, fiercely partisan for his beloved Russia, yet just as competent and loyal as any other member of the crew – this at the height of the Cold War.
With all the adversaries the crew of the Enterprise faced, it was this diversity – emphasized time and again, even through the limitations of the time – that kept me, and many other viewers, believing that this was a vision of the future, a better future. The Enterprise was a vessel in a Federation that only cared whether its crew could do the job, not what color their skin was or even what planet they hailed from.
Star Trek‘s only contemporary rivals were the “creepy” SF shows like Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, and Lost in Space, which unfortunately had quickly dropped any pretense towards real SF, and Star Trek shone out brilliantly in stark contrast to these. I watched, and I cared what happened to these people. I laughed when they did, I was on the edge of my seat when they were in danger, and I could be brought near tears when something terribly emotional happened.
Star Trek had many, many “firsts” to its credit, either in general or in the specific arena of series television. Gene Roddenberry, its creator, fought hard to keep Star Trek pushing boundaries of the allowable, and sometimes had to make very difficult choices. For example, the original pilot episode of Star Trek, “The Cage” (later reworked into the two-part episode “The Menagerie”), featured Captain Pike, not Kirk, and a more emotional (and slightly red-tinged) Mr. Spock, with Pike’s second in command being “Number One”, a nearly emotionless and ruthlessly efficient female officer who was shown to be more than capable of handling the duties of command.
When the executives green-lighted the show, they had two directives: first, there was no way that anyone was going to believe “a woman” in command of a military vessel. Second, “get rid of the guy with the ears”.
Roddenberry felt he had a good chance to save one of those characters – either keep a woman in a command position, or keep an alien character as part of the main crew – but he was going to have to sacrifice one of them; he’d have to compromise, and that would be the way the compromise would have to work. It was apparently a very difficult decision to make, as there were very strong arguments for each character as the one to be saved, but in the end, he decided that it was more important to show that the Federation was not just Earth In Space but a multi-species cooperative, with an alien in the second-highest position on the ship. He took the uber-competent and unemotional traits of “Number One” and made them characteristics of Mr. Spock’s species, the Vulcans.
Even then, the network was reluctant, and early publicity shots of Trek had Spock’s ears airbrushed back to normal human. Roddenberry had the last laugh, however, since Mr. Spock came to be the single most popular character of the show, and one of the most well-known characters in the world.
Roddenberry then managed to get a black woman on the bridge as a strong supporting character, and in response to comments on the first season brought in a Russian character. Later, Star Trek would manage to have the first-ever broadcast interracial kiss (under alien influence, but the censors were no less trigger-happy because of that).
The design of the starship itself was also a unique innovation. Roddenberry didn’t want a rocketship or airplane-like design, or a flying saucer, which were pretty much the only major designs used before. Instead, they went through multiple iterations until the design we know was created – and it was so striking that it redefined what “a spaceship” looked like.
But the strongest part of the series was undoubtedly the diversity of stories, which allowed the crew of the Enterprise to serve in many diverse capacities; they might find themselves in a classic war scenario (“Balance of Terror”), or preventing human trafficking/smuggling (“Mudd’s Women”), confronting ancient alien menaces (“The Doomsday Machine”), exploring new sections of the galaxy (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”), arranging diplomatic missions (“Journey to Babel”, and many others.
This diversity made the Trekverse feel huge, and alive, in a way few fictional universes did. This was aided by a quite startling attention to detail (for a show in the 1960s) that allowed different alien species or starfleets to have their own particular style of dress, ornamentation, and even ship design. The equipment used by the crew of the 23rd-century Federation of Planets was also well designed – “communicators” which anticipated the cell phones of today (and in some ways still outperform them), “tricorders” that served as general purpose sensors and analysis devices, and a diverse set of medical scanners and instruments which were used by Doctor McCoy.
The interior of the Enterprise was also well-laid out (albeit awfully roomy for a spaceship!), with the bridge of the Enterprise being designed based on actual aircraft design and naval experience by Matt Jeffries. As it turned out the actors themselves assisted in achieving the “realistic” feel, often in subtle ways. For example, George Takei has noted that he determined sequences of control activations for specific tasks (e.g., preparing to leave orbit, engaging warp engines or shields, etc.), and always performed those sequences when such commands were given; apparently during the third season a director told him to hit a particular control and Takei corrected him, saying that that control would do something bad, and that the fans of the show would know it was the wrong control.
Star Trek was, of course, far from perfect. It was an episodic show with no overarching continuity or consistency “vetting” except a relatively small “series bible” that just told writers the bare minimum about the show and characters. Clever technological solutions or innovations would be used on one episode, and completely forgotten in all subsequent episodes, even if said solution would be ideal for the new episode’s problems.
And, of course, there was… the Transporter.
Originally, the Transporter was a handwave solution for the problem of getting people to the ground. Roddenberry didn’t want to skip over the transitions, yet spending five minutes getting people into a ship and then having the ship land and people get out wasn’t practical. So he invented the Transporter as a solution.
Had it just been introduced slightly differently as a technology, the Transporter wouldn’t have been quite as much of a headache inducer; but instead of (for instance) saying it used warp technology to momentarily warp space and put the transporter pads effectively at the same location as the surface of the planet, it was explained as converting the target (cargo, human, etc.) into pure energy(!!) and then beaming them down to the planet where they were somehow perfectly reconstituted(!).
While this solved the initial problem, the existence of this technology opened up a huge can of logical worms – essentially 90% of the problems that the Federation encountered could probably have been solved by clever applications of Transporter technology; the introduction of the “replicators” (implied in Original Trek, overt in Next Generation) made the problem worse. Why would the Trekverse people have ANY need to mine anything? Just get a sample of it once, record the matrix, then take an equivalent mass of rock, turn it to energy, and reconstitute it using that matrix! Poof! A billion tons of gold, trititanium, Guinness Beer, or anything else.
And there were other worse implied problems – the fact that the Transporter could, apparently, duplicate PEOPLE under the wrong (or right) circumstances. Trek – in all its incarnations – skirted these issues with a lot of “Treknobabble” and handwaving which was, unfortunately, inconsistent. One set of novels DID tackle this problem (Marshak and Culbreath’s The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix) but were ignored for various reasons.
Despite these flaws, however, the original Star Trek was more than good enough to gather a following, sometimes a fanatical following, of fans. The modern era of fanfiction is generally accepted to have started with Star Trek fanfic in the late 1960s – early 1970s. The network was thinking of cancelling Trek after its second season; the fans wrote in a huge number of letters (some sources say as many as one million pieces, this in an era long before email; so these were physical, handwritten or typed letters!) and Trek got a third season (which was apparently deliberately designed to kill it off – change of person running the show, change of timeslot to late Friday, and reduction of budget). It was subsequently cancelled…
… and it refused to finish dying. The fanbase continued to expand with the series in syndication, and ultimately – ten years after it was cancelled – it was reborn in movie form, created a long-running movie series, and twenty-one years after the original Star Trek debuted, a follow-on series called Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I confess to considering all the follow-on series inferior to the original, with Deep Space 9 being the best of the newer Treks and Voyager the worst. I did very much enjoy the 2009 movie; what the next movie holds for the franchise I can’t guess – the trailers don’t grab me, but I’ve noticed that sometimes the trailers just choose the wrong pieces for my taste.
Trek did end up with one of the few parodies I could enjoy, however, in the magnificently written and acted Galaxy Quest, which managed to both skewer the original (and some parts of the follow-ons) and at the same time show how very much the original was loved, and why, something that most parodies fail miserably to do. This was a parody done by people who very much understood both what was wrong, and what was right, with the original and instead of cruel mockery, were simply making gentle fun of the whole thing.
With respect to my writing, I could not possibly escape being influenced by Star Trek. The general optimism of the future, the multispecies cooperative Federation, the memes spread by Trek (by the truckload), these are things I’ve either had to work with, or work against, in anything space related. In some ways, it’s almost a fight to avoid doing something “like” Trek, but still true to my basic nature. I work more at my world consistency, but then, I’m doing all of it myself, not working to a deadline with a dozen other writers all working independently.
But perhaps its single greatest influence is that opening monologue, which to this day still sends a chill down my spine every time I hear it, or the minor variations (“where no one has gone before”). It encapsulates the essence of space adventure stories in a way nothing before or since has ever managed, and it can revive that spark of awe and uplifting optimism no matter how dark my days become.
Thank you, Gene Roddenberry. Thank you, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and all the rest. For three years you brought wonder into every living room… and then it spread to cover the world.