Givin’ it all they’ve got, Cap’n – The endurance of Star Trek

Everyone’s heard of Star Trek.

For years, the franchise has been synonymous in the popular consciousness with science-fiction and geek culture. To many of those who have never seen an episode its mention conjures up images of Leonard Nimoy with pointed ears, outdated special effects, bug-eyed monsters and alien planets which look curiously similar to our own. To these people, the idea that you could find something like that entertaining is incomprehensible – as is the passion with which the Trekkies extol the virtues of the show. So why do people love it so?

On the 22nd September 1966, the first episode, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’, was aired, showing the world for the first time the U.S.S. Enterprise, as well as characters that would soon become icons of popular culture: Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Lieutenant Uhura and Mr Sulu, later to be joined in the second season by Chekov.

Set aboard a 23rd-century starship, Star Trek (The Original Series, as it was later known) showed the adventures of a crew, whose mission was to explore the galaxy, broadening mankind’s knowledge of the “final frontier”, in a time where Earth was part of the peaceful United Federation of Planets.

Unfortunately, ratings fell in the second season, and series was cancelled during the third. However, over the next decade there were attempts to revive the series, thanks to increased popularity from syndication: the short-lived Star Trek: The Animated Series in 1973-74, and the aborted series Star Trek: Phase II in 1977, which then formed the basis of the first feature-length film in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This led to three more films during the following seven years, before the launch of a new series in 1987 called Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In The Next Generation, the clock was rolled forward by nearly a century to the 2360s, with a new crew and new adventures to be had. Captaining this newer Enterprise was Jean-Luc Picard, played by Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Patrick Stewart. The apparent aim that show runners had with The Next Generation was to create new stories and new situations with new people.

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Such was the popularity of The Next Generation that another series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was launched in 1993 and ran until 1999. Set on a space station of the same name, it was headed by Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks.

The fourth series, Star Trek: Voyager, was launched in 1995, six months after the end of The Next Generation, and ran until 2001. In two major differences from its predecessors, it was set on a Starfleet ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy, headed up by a female commanding officer – Captain Kathryn Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew (Orange Is The New Black fans, she plays Red).

The most recent series, is Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel set in the pre-Federation era of the 2150s. Running from 2001 until its cancellation in 2004, Enterprise followed the first long-term voyage of the United Earth Starfleet ship Enterprise, captained by Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap fame).

So why is Trek still so popular, 47 years, five series and twelve films later? To answer that, we need only to look at the impact of the franchise on society – which in my opinion cannot be overestimated.

One of the key ways it achieved this is through its exploration of contemporary issues, starting with the characters of The Original Series.

Black actress Nichelle Nichols was cast as communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, which was groundbreaking, as Uhura was one of the first black characters on American television not to be shown working in a menial role. Indeed, a young Whoopi Goldberg was watching Star Trek, and upon seeing Nichols onscreen, reportedly exclaimed:

Momma! There’s a black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid!

This helped inspire Goldberg to become an actor, and her love of Trek would later compel her to request (and get) a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation – a request which the producers initially assumed was meant as a joke, given that by that point she was a successful film actress.

In addition to Uhura, the show-runners put on the bridge of the Enterprise a Japanese helmsman (Mr Sulu played by George Takei) barely twenty years after the end of World War II, and a Russian navigator (Mr Chekov, played by Walter Koenig) at the height of the Cold War. Both were shown as integrated members of the crew, without prejudice from shipmates based on their background, emphasising the utopic vision of the future.

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As a way of highlighting all of the issues presented, and as a foil to the rest of the characters’ humanity, Leonard Nimoy was cast as Commander Spock, a member of the Vulcan species, whose ideology mandates them to repress their emotions and embrace logic. He was therefore able to act as a sounding board for the moral issues posed by the humans with whom he served.

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Furthermore, Star Trek has had a massive impact on the way that modern technology has evolved. The extent to which the technology in the series – transporters, scanners, forcefields, faster-than-light travel – has been devised has given rise to the pursuit of such technology in current life. Even the PADDs – the handheld devices with which the characters stored reports, messages, literature or just notes – gave rise to the first personal digital assistants (PDAs) and technology of the like.
Try it for yourselves – watch an episode of The Next Generation and see how much technology you can spot that resembles modern technology – iPads, voice interfaces, video messaging and so on, it’s all there.

Even renowned scientist Dr. Stephen Hawking appeared in a cameo role in 1993, playing a holographic version of himself. Whilst there, he took a tour of the Next Generation set, and upon being shown the warp core (ship’s engine), reportedly commented “I’m working on that.

For me however, the biggest appeal of Trek is the variety of the characters and the mutability of the franchise as a whole.

The changing of the time setting for The Next Generation meant that the writers had a framework within which they could work, but were able to bring in new elements to convey the changes in society in the intervening 100 years. The fearsome Klingons were no longer the main enemy in the series, as they had been in The Original Series. New species were introduced, new concepts for futuristic technology were devised and portrayed, and new real-life societal issues and stigmas were explored: addiction, materialism, gender roles, honour, family – even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion to same-sex relationships. These issues were often most bluntly and starkly highlighted by the android character Lieutenant Commander Data, who did not possess emotions,  acting as a surrogate Spock-the voice of logic and reason, untempered by societal influence.

Whereas its predecessors had both been based on starships exclusively occupied by officers of Starfleet (the exploratory/military organisation within the Federation), Deep Space Nine was set on a space station manned by Starfleet personnel alongside as the militia of the newly-liberated Bajorans, as well as many civilian shopkeepers, religious figures, schoolteachers and bar owners. As such this allowed a bigger picture of the Federation to be painted, and an exploration of the diverse peoples of the galaxy unprecedented in Star Trek. The focus on interpersonal relations gave Deep Space Nine a completely different atmosphere to its ascendants, whilst still remaining inherently Trek.

It was also the first Trek series to actively show a same-sex romantic story arc, (which-admittedly-only lasted one episode). It was also the first series to have a black character in command (although non-white actors were already being cast in guest roles as Captains and Admirals since the third film in 1984).

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Another change was the increased usage of multi-episode story arcs, which also contributed towards the atmosphere, and enabled the writers to write long arcs which ultimately resulted in the Federation and neighbouring powers being plunged into war with a common foe. Due to this radical change from other series’ relative peace, Deep Space Nine is rather polarising amongst the fans, as the wartime episodes have a much darker feel to them.

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Voyager meanwhile, was the first series not to be set within the boundaries of the Federation. In the pilot, Voyager is transported to the other side of the galaxy and spends the next seven years trying to get home. This allowed the writers to play with the idea of a ship that is suddenly separated from the protection of its fleet, its society and the comfort of their loved ones. The sense of family and community was stronger, and there was a balance struck between maintaining the professionalism befitting a Starfleet ship, and showing camaraderie and interpersonal relationships among a group of people sharing the same experience.

Lastly, Enterprise, as a prequel, gave the writers and producers the opportunity to let the characters be a lot less – well, ‘perfect’ is the best word. This wasn’t the fully enlightened civilisation shown in previous series, instead giving the proceeds a decidedly more militaristic feel.

This ability to change and adapt the canon is why so many people keep coming back to Trek – whether by writing non-canon books (I would recommend the Stargazer and Titan series, personally), playing online games (Star Trek: Online ), or by going to the many, many conventions which to this day are packed full of new generations (no pun intended) of Trek fans, each inspired by television programmes which, for more and more, were broadcast before they were born.

This adaptability is also something which the latest two Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams do not have enough of in my opinion – they have tried to do it by setting it in an alternate timeline, but it is grossly overshadowed by the elaborate action elements, and pandering to previous Trek lore. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the films, but for different reasons than why I love the rest of Trek.

However, in true Trek form, I hold out hope for a better tomorrow, and for better Trek films, because it’s nearly 50 years since the voyage began. It is an institution-timeless and venerated-and I’m confident that with so much love felt for it worldwide it will always live long and prosper.