Although not popular during its original run in the late 1960s—it was cancelled after three low-rated seasons—the television program Star Trek developed a cult following that is still vibrant forty years later. Over the years, fans have appreciated the Star Trek saga’s compelling stories and characters, idealistic and progressive view of the future, and confrontation with relevant political and cultural issues.
Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, and the NBC network launched it in September 1966. The show centered on the twenty-third-century pangalactic travels of the USS Enterprise, the flagship of Starfleet—the military sector of the United Federation of Planets. The composition of the Enterprise crew itself was a social commentary on the advancements in civil rights and the nascent, albeit modest, recognition of gender equality. The ship was commanded by a white male, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), but his supporting crew was considerably more diverse than the casts of other contemporary television shows. Using the fictional Star Trek universe, the show’s episodes addressed the controversial issues of the late 1960s, including the Vietnam War, the cold war, and race relations. The show also broke new ground, most notably in featuring the first televised interracial kiss. Despite Star Trek ’s critical success, NBC cancelled it in 1969 because of low ratings.
Cancellation after only three seasons would be the death knell for most television programs, but Star Trek ’s cancellation marked only the beginning of one of the most successful science fiction ventures ever. Almost immediately, Star Trek reruns aired in syndication, earning high ratings and drawing new fans, known as “Trekkies” or “Trekkers.” This fan base grew larger and more organized, and in 1972 Trekkies began holding Star Trek conventions. The show’s actors, writers, and producers, along with thousands of fans, attend these conventions to discuss Star Trek, to trade memorabilia, and to socialize. With this demonstrable level of support, in 1979 Paramount Studios released a movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was produced by Roddenberry. The movie reunited the original cast, and it allowed the Star Trek legacy to continue. Throughout the 1980s subsequent Star Trek movies tackled social issues; for example, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) was a parable on environmentalism and species protection.
Star Trek ’s increasing popularity gave Roddenberry the opportunity to create a new television program, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in September 1987. The Next Generation featured the twenty-fourth-century crew of the Enterprise, commanded by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). As with the original Star Trek series, The Next Generation addressed important political, cultural, and social issues of its time. Anticipating the end of the cold war, the United Federation of Planets made a lasting, albeit tenuous, peace with its former archrivals the Klingons. In addition, The Next Generation reflected advancements in gender equality that had been achieved since the 1960s; whereas the original series relegated women to supporting roles, women in The Next Generation served as ships’ doctors, security chiefs, and even admirals. The Next Generation episodes also addressed sexual orientation, the struggles of subjugated peoples, and ethical issues concerning animal experimentation. Unlike the original series, The Next Generation was well funded and highly rated, and it aired for seven seasons. Gene Roddenberry died in 1991 and did not see the full run of The Next Generation, but others ensured that the Star Trek legacy would continue.
The Next Generation ’s success led to more movies during the 1990s featuring the cast of The Next Generation. By 2006 there had been ten Star Trek movies. Additionally, The Next Generation ’s success spawned two more television series: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001). Neither show took place on the Enterprise, but each continued with the basic Star Trek themes; for example, at a time when few television programs featured women in charge, a woman commanded the Voyager ship. In 2001 yet another Star Trek series, Star Trek: Enterprise (2001–2005), was launched. This show took place in the twenty-second century, during the early years of the Enterprise and Earth’s entry into the United Federation of Planets. Low ratings and less popularity among fans brought the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005. Although to date there are no more television programs planned, Star Trek remains part of the American cultural lexicon, with academics using the show as a vehicle for their social criticism (e.g., Johnston 2002; Roberts 1999). Reruns of the television programs and movies remain popular, and Star Trek conventions are still held worldwide.
SEE ALSO Science Fiction; Television
Johnston, Steven. 2002. The Architecture of Democratic Monuments. Strategies 15: 197–218.
Roberts, Robin. 1999. Sexual Generations: Star Trek The Next Generation and Gender. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Star Trek Web site. http://www.startrek.com.
"Star Trek." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/star-trek
"Star Trek." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/star-trek
In the daunting arena of space exploration, there is a tendency to wonder where the path that humankind is taking will lead us. Does the future hold the promise of fantastic new technologies that will be used peacefully for the benefit of humankind? Or will those technologies end up in the hands of a society that is not mature enough to wield power responsibly? The Star Trek television series and movies conceived by Gene Roddenberry participate in this debate by providing an optimistic view of humans in the future. In Star Trek 's version of history, humankind achieved an end to war, poverty, and disease on Earth shortly after the invention of warp technology, the principle that made it possible to travel faster than light.
Throughout history, people have built bigger and better telescopes and seen farther into the universe, but despite all of these exploration attempts, humankind has not made contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. People look into the night sky and wonder whether there are other civilizations out there. If there are, the vast distances between worlds make it seem unlikely that it will ever be possible to interact with those civilizations. Since Albert Einstein's theories suggest that it is impossible for a person to accelerate to the speed of light, it would take hundreds to thousands of years for people on a spacecraft to reach a planet in another star system by conventional means.
The warp technology of Star Trek, however, allows a spacecraft and its inhabitants to travel many times faster than light by moving through subspace, a theoretical parallel universe in which Einstein's theories do not apply. In a matter of hours or days it is possible to travel from one star system to another by creating a warp field that allows a spacecraft to slip into subspace. With the immense distances between civilizations no longer an issue, humans on Star Trek interact within a universe populated by an array of alien species.
The success of the Star Trek series and movies reflects genuine public interest in humankind's future in space. The writers added realism by weaving plausible scientific theories into the fabric of the Star Trek universe. The technologies behind the warp engine-powered starship, wormholes (theoretical bridges between two points in space), and transporters (devices that can convert matter to energy and vice versa) are all based on scientific theories. For this reason, it is natural for the audience to view these things as believable future manifestations of today's science.
Another key to Star Trek 's appeal is that it presents such an optimistic view of human society's future. It shows a world in which humans are no longer at war with each other. Food, resources, and transportation are available at the touch of a keypad. This hopeful portrayal shows a human civilization that has survived its technological adolescence, matured, and been enriched by alien cultures, one that thrives in a well-populated intergalactic neighborhood.
see also Antimatter Propulsion (volume 4); Communications, Future Needs (volume 4); Faster-Than-Light Travel (volume 4); First Contact (volume 4); Interstellar Travel (volume 4); Lasers in Space (volume 4); Movies (volume 4); Roddenberry, Gene (volume 1); Science Fiction (volume 4); Teleportation (volume 4); Wormholes (volume 4).
Berman, Rick. Star Trek: First Contact. Paramount Pictures, 1996.
Okuda, Michael, and Denise Okuda. The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.
"Star Trek." Space Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/star-trek
"Star Trek." Space Sciences. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/star-trek