By Todd Lancaster
Beam me up, Mr. Scott.
Back in the mid-1970s, this phrase was seen on bumper stickers and tee-shirts, and it might be just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Baby Boomers who had grown up with Star Trek in the ‘60s retained this sentiment as an escapist mantra as they moved into the cold, cruel world of post-adolescence and the ever-encroaching 1980s.
When Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek hit the airwaves in the early 60s, America was involved in a space race for real, and the country was ready to look forward to what things might look like 300 years in the future. However, Roddenberry did not see the concept for his show as a vehicle that promoted advanced technology, but as was to frame humanity’s problems at the time and set in the future to make it a little more palatable to the masses.
Had the original Star Trek stayed in the 1960s, it still would probably be remembered as an iconic television show and would still have given birth to cultural touchstones like Vulcans, Klingons, transporters, phasers, deflection shields and warp drives. But there, it also would have stayed on the back of the mental shelf of memories with “I Dream of Jeanie,” “Bonanza” and “The Brady Bunch.”
But a funny thing happened on the road to irrelevance; Star Trek began to be relevant again. People seemed to miss their old friends Mr. Spock, Dr. Bones and Capt. James T. Kirk. And as they were rebooted through Star Trek movies, Roddenberry allowed his characters to get older, expose flaws and become the characters we hoped they would grow into.
And if this weren’t enough to satisfy the nostalgic longings, we were given a whole new group of space travelers in the Star Trek: The Next Generation, a group led by stern Capt. Jean-Luc Picard would have no tolerance for former Capt. Kirk’s space philandering or Bones McCoy’s subtle racism where green blood was concerned (“I’m a doctor, Jim, not a civil rights worker”). Next Generation was a further extension of the concept that humans would continue to improve and evolve humanity, given enough time. But once again, it came down to the fact that people really liked the characters and the stories. That led to even more movies and even won that combined the two casts.
As many people know, continued success has led to The Original Series prequel Enterprise, Discovery, and Deep Space Nine, Voyager, which are on the same timeline as Next Generation and Picard, which takes place late in Capt. Picard’s life. And After nearly 60 years since Roddenberry came up with the concept of space travel as a social experiment, they have restarted the exploits of Capt. Kirk again in the movies on a different timeline, only with the benefit of Industrial Light and Magic special effects to truly create a visual medium worthy of the storytelling.
It’s funny. Warp speed IS a fictional concept but still creates daily debates in gilded palaces of theoretical physics like Cal Tech, MIT and Stanford. No matter what iteration of Star Trek one considers truly canon, crewmen still walk around with devices that look like iPads or answered an old flip phone “Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise.”
So six decades later, why is Star Trek a significant player on the cultural pitch? Two reasons, the first being, we like the characters because there was always someone there that they could relate to. Secondly, there is the reassurance that in 400 years we will still be here and that the world will be a better place because a silly little show on NBC’s 1966 Thursday night line up was able to beat “My Three Sons” in the ratings and become a blueprint for the future.