In the mid-1970s, I’d walk home from school, toss my books, grab some Keeblers, a glass of milk, head into my parents’ bedroom and close the door. I’d turn on their 10″ black-and-white, extend the silver antennae and move the cart around the room until a fragile UHF signal was rendered with as little static possible – I usually had to keep a foot touching the metal frame of the cart. Then: “Space, the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise…”
Monday through Friday, every week, I watched the original 79 episodes over and over. A decade later, when I was a projectionist, I watched the same episodes at midnight after work – I’d seen them all five times each before I knew they’d been filmed in color. September 8, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode televised in the US (it aired two days earlier in Canada.) Star Trek touched, and helped create, Who I Was. Not only that, but who I remain. Optimistic, arguably utopian; accepting diversity as given and essential; craving adventure.
Kirk, the idiot white hero necessary to sell a network series in the 1960s, was easily parodied. I related to Spock, Leonard Nimoy’s logic-driven, emotionally repressed sidekick (I thought he was Chinese.) Consider the rest of the supporting cast: a black woman (Star Trek provided network television’s first interracial kiss, and was one of the few programs Martin Luther King, Jr. allowed his children to watch), as well as Russian, Japanese, and Scottish, to name just the most immediate. Diversity was a fact, simply not debated (similar to Lockheed Martin, the aerospace company I’ve worked at the past ten years.)
Creator Gene Roddenberry summarized his idea as “Wagon Train to the Stars.” He imagined an Earth that had overcome hunger and poverty for all citizens, now traveling to other worlds to help others. Sure, some of the episodes play as heavy-handed now – one typical installment featured humanoids who were literally half-black and half-white, except some were white on the left and some on the right. (“Duh,” says the American child who grew up on Star Trek and Sesame Street in the 70s, while also dumbfounded that Donald Trump might win the Presidency in 2016.) The inclusive earnestness of Star Trek was balanced by humor and the depiction of interspecies friendship at its core.
Star Trek imagined technology that has since come to pass: handheld wireless communication devices and portable computers (today’s smartphones leave Star Trek’s communicators and tricorders in the dust), computers that accept voice commands, doors that open automatically. Reusable space shuttles, for God’s sake – the first of which, in 1976, was called the Enterprise. I’m still waiting for transporters and those machines that produce whatever food you order (the minimalist push-button interface still mystifies.)
Subsequent movies and TV series didn’t add much, for those who fell in love with the original. We watched everything, of course. We admitted Star Trek: The Next Generation was closer to Roddenberry’s Original Vision; we cried when Spock died in the second feature film; we admired Deep Space Nine from a distance and appreciated that it provided Ronald D. Moore with gainful employment until he could re-imagine Battlestar Galactica; we agreed unanimously that J.J. Abrams’ lens flares and frantic fisticuffs were a better fit for Star Wars. The hearts of the Sesame/Trek generation beat with those 79 original episodes.
And so. Happy Birthday, Captain Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov. Rest in peace, Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and all of the red-shirted fools. Thank you, and here’s to the next fifty, five hundred years. Live long, and prosper.