Star Trek has inspired generations of people to invent, research and work toward human progress. See how the show has inspired our Managing Editor, Janine Pumilia.
“Star Trek” isn’t great literature. It’s not literature at all. It began 50 years ago as an NBC TV show (1966-1969) with cardboard sets and little-known actors. But this small-budget wonder has done more to inspire big-idea thinking in our generation than any modern fiction I know.
The late Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991) first sold his script to NBC as an adventure-to-the-stars concept. In truth, Roddenberry would use it as a platform for social commentary during an especially turbulent moment in U.S. history. By cloaking controversial ideas in a futuristic setting, he eluded network censors. This ploy wasn’t new. Other TV shows had disguised their morality tales in historic time periods, my favorite being “The Big Valley,” set in 1870 California (1965-1969).
What was new was the fantastically optimistic future world presented by Roddenberry, who would be 95 if he were alive today. Like our own Dr. Allen Pang (see p. 108), Roddenberry flew scores of Army Air Force combat missions during World War II. He later worked as a commercial airline pilot and an L.A. policeman before turning to script writing. He understood both adventure and human nature. He believed mankind is capable of rising above the self-destructive paradigms of our time.
To me, this is what “Star Trek” does best. It offers a paradigm shift on all the big issues of civilization. On board the USS Enterprise, we’re free to explore new ideas unfettered by self-imposed filters that drag us down and limit our thinking. Filters like nationalism, U.S. partisan politics, superstitious ideologies and scientific impossibilities.
I began watching “Star Trek” as a tot, climbing from lap to lap on my three older brothers, who were hooked. Like most folks, I didn’t really discover it until it was in its re-run cycle. At some point during adolescence, it dawned on me that the show wasn’t about strangers in a faraway place; it was about us in the not-too-distant future – or could be, if we figure out how to overcome our own stupidity.
In 1975, at age 14, I stood in the ballroom of the Chicago Conrad Hilton Hotel chanting “Bring Back Star Trek” with thousands of other fans who attended the first official Star Trek Convention. The real world had not improved since the show first aired in 1966. In my short lifetime, I had witnessed race riots, three major assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate, major scandals in organized religion, unprecedented environmental destruction and species extinction, an energy shortage, the rise of a drug and crime culture and a general falling apart of family structures.
Many of our fathers were losing their jobs as Rockford companies moved overseas. Money was a constant worry for most every family I knew.
Why wouldn’t we long for a world in which poverty, famine, disease and war had been tamed? Where money no longer drove human ambition? Where the central “government” was a benevolent and trustworthy Federation of Planets dedicated to exploration without imperialism? Who wouldn’t choose calm science over hysterical dogmas? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of the tight circle of friendship Captain Kirk enjoyed with logical half-Vulcan Spock, passionately ethical Dr. McCoy and close multi-cultural friends Lt. Uhura (African-American), Chekov (Russian), Sulu (Japanese) and Scotty (Scottish)? These friends had each others’ backs. Fans saw what loyalty looked like and realized “family” is not only made by genetics.
I enjoy them, but I sometimes shake my head at the high-budget special effects that have replaced big ideas in some of the “Star Trek” spin-offs.
There are six “Star Trek” TV shows, with a 7th ready to premiere in January on CBS All Access. There are 12 “Star Trek” movies. A new one, “Star Trek Beyond,” will open this summer. One thing they nearly all get right is the camaraderie among crew members, which probably traces back to Roddenberry’s years in World War II.
Looking back at original episodes of “Star Trek,” we have to laugh at the cheesy sets and props; the 1960s mascara, miniskirts and beehive hairdos; the monsters made from paper and tin foil; the expendable “red shirt” crew members who always got killed off by aliens so that Kirk could justify violence; and even the many weak scripts produced on the fly.
What we can’t laugh off, however, is the way those 72 episodes inspired generations of people to invent, research and work toward human progress, both technically and ethically. One symbolic gesture that reminds us we have made social progress since 1966 is the “Where no one has gone before” opening monologue in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” replacing Kirk’s “Where no man has gone before.” What makes me feel really old is to realize the “Next Generation” series is nearly 30! It premiered in 1987 and exceeded all my expectations. My husband and I still enjoy the reruns.
Here’s are some important “Star Trek” take-aways for me:
There’s no keeping Captain James T. Kirk (or any Trek captain) down. Kirk rejects the word “impossible” and believes we’re capable of imaginative solutions to any problem. Time and time again, his crew selflessly delivers.
The Power of Reason
When Kirk makes decisions, he seeks input from both Spock and McCoy. Spock is all about science, reason and logic. He gathers facts objectively. If Spock told us there’s such thing as human-induced climate change, we wouldn’t question it. But science alone is not enough. Roddenberry believed a sense of ethics was equally important. McCoy provides moral and humanitarian input to Kirk, who synthesizes many points of view before drawing his own independent conclusion and leading without apology.
The Absolute Thrill of Diversity
People in “Star Trek” aren’t just tolerant of other cultures and life forms. They’re exhuberant about adding to the common body of knowledge that improves life for all beings and expands possibilities. They don’t fear the “other.” They seek it out and glory in it.
Excitement of Discovery
Much has been documented about the “impossible” ideas in “Star Trek” that have already come to pass in real life, such as wireless Skype-like communication, handheld computers and medical scanning devices. It all seemed unlikely, in 1966, 20 years before the first personal computer was sold. Sometimes, picturing the impossible as an everyday fact of life inspires the zeal to make it happen.
The Prime Directive
This Starfleet guiding principal forbids interference in the internal development of other cultures. Hmm. That sounded pretty good to audiences in the wake of Vietnam War escalation, in 1966, and it sounds pretty good to me 50 years later, in the wake of failed wars, quasi-wars, secret wars and mis-represented wars. Did I mention expensive wars?
The Power of Priorities
“Star Trek” takes place in a time period when citizens of Earth have transcended nationalism and joined forces to resolve global problems like poverty, famine and nuclear war. We’re told this happened only after Earth nearly destroyed itself. The future of Earth ultimately is determined by the way resources are used.
The U.S. has spent about $14 million per hour on the military since Sept. 11, 2001, or nearly $2 trillion. We dedicate 20 percent of our annual Federal budget to it. By contrast, we spend 2 percent on Technology and Medical Research, which is something that grows our GDP, makes us stronger and advances humanity.
Are we any safer – or better regarded globally – today for this expenditure of blood and treasure?
What if that $2 trillion, or even a fraction of it, had been directed to research and technology instead? What might have come to pass that didn’t, over the past 15 years? Kirk was by no means a pacifist, and neither am I. But he could distinguish between acting in defense and interfering with other cultures. In fact, his society required it of him.
Maybe it’s silly to relate our 2016 world back to a 1966 TV show, but let’s be honest: Is anything else working any better?
You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t even know if I agree with me. But this show’s best gift is to make us use our brains and think. And really, what’s so bad about a beehive hairdo?
Peace. Live long and …. You know.