In the spring of 1958, the US president’s science advisory committee published an “explanatory statement” on the possible future of space travel. The white paper was entitled “Introduction to Outer Space”, and amid its sobering speculations on the technological challenges ahead, there was a shot of pure idealism. Among the reasons for a national space programme, it argued, the most important was “the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before”.
We know those words today, because of Star Trek. When the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry took his pilot script of the science-fiction series to the US TV networks, he lifted the white paper’s improbably romantic passage almost verbatim to supply the voiceover introduction to each episode. Roddenberry’s vision was to make a “Wagon Train to the stars”. But the show, which premiered 50 years ago next month, quickly transcended that glib brief. It became, for its band of followers, the headiest of introductions to outer space.
Star Trek was a show that hurtled its principals far into the future, into the 23rd century, yet there was no popular culture phenomenon that spoke so clearly of its own time, the late 1960s. Roddenberry, a former air force pilot and LAPD policeman, injected his stories and characters with liberal values, championing toleration, religious scepticism and peace among diverse peoples. If the hippies of San Francisco had been regular viewers, they would surely have made USS Enterprise Captain James Tiberius Kirk their only short-haired poster boy.
Roddenberry used Star Trek, he said, to talk in allegorical terms about the pressing social problems of the 1960s. He insisted on the multiracial composition of the Enterprise crew, not without network resistance. He loved happy endings, but the resolutions of his delicate fables were acquired through strife, debate and meticulous moral reasoning. The shows were wordy and earnest. An international relations tutor I had at university in the 1970s told me that the course of cold war relations between the US and the Soviet Union bore a striking resemblance to those between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon empire.
Star Trek was not an immediate success. It limped its way through three seasons with the help of frantic letter-writing campaigns (Roddenberry prompted Isaac Asimov to join one of them). But it is now an unstoppable multi-platform franchise: 13 movies, a range of weird merchandise, six TV series with another to join them next January. All those spin-offs and reboots have moved with the times, and have become steadily less interesting. The latest film, Star Trek: Beyond, is yet another disappointment: low on moral seriousness and high on, well, explosions.
Is there any reason, other than nostalgia, to celebrate the founding of the original Star Trek half a century ago? Many would think not. Somewhere along the line, Star Trek became a joke, its fans derided as joyless “Trekkies”, its absurd technology satirised for its clunky implausibility. Its makers — some of them, at least — took it in good heart. In a famous Saturday Night Live sketch in the 1980s, William Shatner becomes exasperated with nerdy fans asking obtuse questions of his playing of Captain Kirk at a Star Trek convention. “Get a life!” he admonishes, devising a catch-phrase that would become the ultimate put-down of all those who took cultish devotion too far.
Yet it was Shatner, now 85, together with Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley as fellow officers Spock and McCoy, who gave those early episodes their dramatic pulse. Roddenberry had studied the archetypes of classical Greek drama and turned virtually every show, via its three principals, into a philosophical inquiry into the limits of rationality, the dangers of hyper-emotionalism and the importance of achieving a moderating synthesis between the two.
It is ironic to recall, as various versions of Star Trek became more and more captivated by the special effects at their makers’ command, that one of the show’s prime imperatives at the very beginning was that it was not to be based on gadgetry, said a production booklet, but on “the human drama resulting from the concentrated excitement man will experience in space”.
In the decade following the original 1960s TV series, two complementary forces worked against Roddenberry’s vision: first was the technical sophistication displayed by rival franchise Star Wars, which tempted film-makers to strive for bigger and louder, rather than all too human.
At the same time and on a broader scale, America, and most of the world with it, simply lost faith in many of the optimistic ideals of the 1960s. The passionate inter-racial kiss between Kirk and his lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols in the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” (not, as commonly thought, the first in American television history, but bold enough), may have been the most life-affirming of exhortations for mankind to embrace racial equality, but the issue was already changing into something altogether uglier.
The episode was aired in November, a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, who had strongly encouraged Nichols never to quit the show, testament to the importance of her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise. The kiss itself nearly didn’t make it on to the screen: the studio demanded an alternate version of the scene, in which the embrace does not take place, which was sabotaged by a deliberately wildly overacting Shatner.
The moral discussions in today’s versions of Star Trek have lost that sense of urgency, often appearing as trite bolt-ons. The emergence of Lieutenant Sulu as gay in this year’s Star Trek: Beyond, for example, angered the actor who played the original Sulu. That was George Takei, who is gay in real life, and thought it strange that Sulu should suddenly come out of the closet after all this time (an observation made still more complicated by the fact that the film is meant to be a prequel to the Kirk years, which meant that Sulu would effectively be going into the closet).
Each society gets the popular culture it deserves. The significance of Star Trek was not in its becoming a cultish science-fiction show that turned into a commercial behemoth, but in the slow erasure of that slightly barmy idealism that made it such a joy to watch. There would be other cultish science-fiction series in the years to come, but look at their disturbing meta-narratives: in the 1990s’ The X-Files, Star Trek’s clear-minded, open-hearted search for other life forms was replaced by a dingy, paranoid hunt for a tiny microchip that contains alarming truths about our very own species.
In today’s Game of Thrones, competing bloodlines compete bloodily for nothing more noble than power, amid scenes of rape and mass slaughter. Gone are the frightening but ultimately rational ways of bipolar realpolitik, to be replaced by murderous factions wallowing in pre-Enlightenment barbarity. It is all, depressingly, very 2016.
I watched my own favourite episode of Star Trek again last week. In “Metamorphosis”, Kirk, his crew and a dying female Federation commissioner land on a planet where they discover a long-lost scientist who should be dead, but who has been kept alive by an ethereal cloud-like entity known as The Companion. The two, it becomes apparent, are in love. Following several discourses on the nature of romantic love with the crew, The Companion decides to meld with the dying commissioner, to become a corporeal companion to the scientist.
That means, of course, that both will die. They have swapped immortality for the evanescent rewards of human love. It is important, one might want to remind the makers of Star Trek, for things to end. There are plenty of worse messages to give to the world.
Photographs: Allstar Picture Library; Getty; Paramount
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