The meaning of Star Trek

The Thinker by Rodin

The media is agog over today’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Yes, it was fifty years ago tonight that the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” first aired on NBC. Then a product of Desilu Studios this futuristic show of zipping across the cosmos on starships quickly became a cult classic, but not enough to spare it from being canceled after three seasons. In fact it had been canceled earlier, but was saved for a while from petitions from fans.

What Gene Roddenberry hath roth! Roddenberry had no particular aspirations for the series when he produced it. In fact, he was a pretty inept producer of the series. TV series fifty years ago are going to suck by modern standards, and many of these original episodes badly sucked. For the most part this was due to Roddenberry’s inattention, NBC’s unforgiving cost controls and using a lot of hack writers. Roddenberry was never that much into his creation, at least not its management. His contribution to his phenomenon was mainly inspirational.

Star Trek depicted a far future for humanity that was hopeful, although it was originally badly depicted on screen. Roddenberry also threw in a few characters that caught our imagination: Captain James T. Kirk as an American cowboy in outer space but mostly Mr. Spock. Spock was a wholly aspirational character: a glimpse of not how ideal aliens should be, but how humanity could be. All this was wrapped around 49 minute episodes with five commercial segments, cheesy costumes and generally poor acting.

And yet Star Trek took off, in spite of NBC and in spite of Roddenberry’s inattention. Its meme was hopeful and a few of its characters were interesting enough to get into. The original series was never really reprised again. The movies were binary: either good or bad, with only the even ones being any good. It took twenty plus years for Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) to emerge and a year or two for its shakedown cruise before Trekkies got what they really wanted: real Star Trek without the warts and blemishes of the original series. It got a lot better when Roddenberry stepped back, mostly due to his health, and let professionals manage the franchise. With STTNG, better budgets and independent syndication, the franchise really took off spinning off other shows, most not so memorable.

In 2003 I proclaimed the death of Star Trek, but it’s reimagination in the 2009 movie proved me wrong. Star Trek now sails into its next half century with a planned CBS series reboot, Star Trek: Discovery, apparently only available to paid subscribers. Curiously it’s no longer NBC property: CBS has taken over the franchise, as it owned by National Amusements, which own ViaCom, which owns Paramount.

There is a mystery to its longevity, as there is with Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and certain other series that manage to become timeless. The original series was not really that good, and it’s third season truly sucked. The same is true with Doctor Who and many of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Keeping a series feeling fresh is hard.

Star Trek managed it with STTNG by keeping Star Trek’s essence and ejecting its bad parts. The 2009 Star Trek reboot movie succeeded by putting the original series in its own time warp, essentially creating an alternative timeline. Star Trek: DS9 worked by abandoning most of Star Trek’s peaceful premise and going back to Gene Roddenberry’s premise of a western in space. Commander Sisko became the sheriff for his part of the Wild West and tried to keep the peace. It’s clear what didn’t work. Voyager really gave us nothing new except a woman captain; many of its episodes we had seen many times before in other iterations. The short-lived series Enterprise proved even less interesting: its chief character of interest was the captain’s cute dog.

So what is Star Trek’s essence? Why do we find ourselves addicted to it, even when it is often mediocre? For me, I see two prominent memes in the Star Trek experience.

First is that no matter how interesting life is for us humans in the 21st century with its ever-expanding technologies, we crave a quantum leap. Our human potential is boundless, even as our humanity frequently proves that we don’t deserve to trek the stars. Star Trek opened the door to new possibilities: the universe on a grand scale that we could easily zoom around in. There we would find wonders beyond our imagination as well as challenges too. These wonders are its lure, but what really interested us are the challenges it posits. Just like a hacker is never satisfied with his latest cyber break in, we look for ever more challenging puzzles to solve and ultimately master. The universe, at least as depicted in the relativity-free world of Star Trek, offers us this tableau of potential to exploit.

Second, at its core Star Trek is hopeful. It speaks to our potential as an enlightened species, not the depressing reality we’re mired in. We crave utopia, but what we crave more is an enlightened and well-ordered society where we get along well with each other and channel our collective and individual energies in ways that help, not harm, but also enrich us as human beings. In Star Trek we see this reality modeled in a hopeful way. It’s a powerful meme and it — not Star Trek’s warp drive — is what really powers this series and its many spinoffs. There’s a place for all of us in this posited reality. Even conservatives can play in this universe, as evidenced by the many fans out there emulating the Klingon culture.

As I noted before, one of the curious things about Star Trek is how much of it has already been realized in just fifty years. Both the universal translator and the communicator are 21st century realities, albeit in different and less powerful forms than Star Trek depicted. Perhaps because of its warp drive, Star Trek is inspiring engineers to see if a warp drive is feasible. Star Trek’s impulse drive looks like a real possibility, although it is not quite out of the lab. It may get us to the stars, much more slowly than with a warp drive, but enough to be practical. It will leverage the power of solar energy and microwaves, if this research bears fruit.

It turns out there is nothing like a model to stimulate human imagination. Star Trek provided a model, both on a technical and sociological level. Since its appeal is universal, it connects all cultures and provides a common foundation to ponder our place in the universe and how to actually sail these oceans of stars all while inspiring us to live up to our ideals. It’s taking us from imaging a new reality to inspiring us to implement it.

Yes, Star Trek is ultimately just a meme. But it’s a meme for good and a meme that calls us to our potential. It’s often great entertainment but it’s not a waste of our time. Ultimately, Gene Roddenberry’s experiment of a western in outer space may literally help take us to the stars and help mankind reach its most noble purpose. It’s a long shot, but it’s a meme with huge energy behind it. I hope it can sustain our passions for the next half-century.

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