The recent revelation that the British Foreign Office’s nickname for President Obama is “Spock” might cause some tense moments in Washington-London relations. But the fact that the reference to an icily logical intellectual is so easily understood is a tribute to the cultural superpower status of Star Trek, which continued this week with the announcement that the American sci-fi franchise will screen, in 2017, its seventh TV incarnation since the programme was first seen in 1966.
Created by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek established many tropes that have become standard in screen sci-fi, including polo-neck sweaters as future couture and the spaceship as a quasi-maritime vessel – complete with bridges and admirals – that sails through space: one of Roddenberry’s acknowledged inspirations was CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The stories of Captain Kirk and Spock and their crewmates also popularised many ideas already floated in sci-fi writing, such as the possibilities of inter-galactic romance and space as a new battleground for international conflicts, or a fictional metaphor for America’s own foreign policy adventures.
In that area, though, Star Trek boldly went beyond the cold war stereotypes of the 1960s in admitting to the USS Enterprise a Russian crew member, named Pavel Chekhov, either deliberately or accidentally combining the surname of the greatest Russian dramatist with a common forename among his characters.
This liberal internationalist feeling was increased by the presence among the crew of a Scottish chief engineer, and, most radically, at a time when American TV was institutionally white and the Civil Rights Act had been passed only two years previously, a significant and sympathetic African-American character, Lt Uhura.
The fact that, in February of this year, the “Spock” in the White House considered it his presidential duty to pay an obituary tribute to Leonard Nimoy, who played the Vulcan spaceman on screen, is a high compliment to the series. Few other TV shows of the 1960s could be praised without qualms by a black Democrat president, but the presence of Uhura and the general tone of political optimism – its agenda was always more Star Peace than Star Wars – meant that it was ideologically ahead of its time, and therefore well positioned to prosper as those views became more widely shared.
The Next Generation even introduced, in Jean-Luc Picard, a French-born lead character, a move that would be considered courageous in British TV, never mind on a US network in the Reagan era. Such cosmopolitanism and optimism are such a major element that, against all prejudices about American broadcasting, they must be assumed to be a reason for the series’s endurance.
And, though living centuries in the future in clothes that paradoxically looked dated, the characters have been recognisable human archetypes: if Obama is a Spock, Bill Clinton was a Kirk: libidinous, ill-disciplined, but with a knack for upbeat appetite.
Longevity is also due to the series being one of the pioneers of a now-modish televisual Darwinism in which a franchise adapts to survive. Later iterations such as Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise used all the tricks – origin myths, rebooting, introducing completely new casts and locations – that are now standard tactics for surviving in the ratings.
Yet, while singular in many ways, the show has significant connections with two other cultural legends, which, like Star Trek, have been sustained by obsessive fandom and the collection of statistics and memorabilia. The first TV series was screened in the US three years after the launch in the UK of Doctor Who and, subsequently, these two adventures in time and space have taken strangely overlapping journeys.
Star Trek and Doctor Who were both considered failures after being cancelled – by NBC in 1969 and the BBC in 1989 respectively – but their flames were kept alive by enthused viewers, some of whom grew up to be producers, writers or actors who revived and modernised the product. The second Star Trek series with human actors (there had been an animated version inbetween) was clearly referring to audience as well as characters when it chose the title, Star Trek: The Next Generation, just as, in 2005, the reboot by former viewer Russell T Davies of the British show might have been called, with reference to the central character’s shapeshifting abilities, Doctor Who: The Next Re-Generation.
Another significance of the original date of Star Trek – 1966 for the viewers, 2260 for the characters – is that America had first put a man into space in 1961 and would place a man on the moon just a month after the transmission of the final episode of the first TV version. In this context, Roddenberry’s initial vision of five-year missions to explore the Milky Way can be seen to have begun by exaggerating the potential for space travel – with an overconfidence that some would see as very American – before being scuppered by the public finding the immediate reality of moon-walks more alluring.
But, if Star Trek was initially killed by space fact, it was resurrected by another space fiction. Through alphabetical primogeniture, Star Trek will always appear in screen reference books just ahead of the Star Wars movies, and there have been many echoes between the two series, such as the United Federation of Planets in the future universe Roddenberry imagined for TV, and the Federal Galactic Republic in the extraterrestrial government system envisaged by George Lucas for his films.
Strikingly, one entertainment empire has tended to flourish while the other was in a black hole: Lucas’s first Star Wars trilogy appeared between 1977-83, in the gap between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation on American television.
Subsequently, Star Trek surely benefited from sharing half the name of the most powerful franchise in its genre, in much the way that anyone who had written an old TV show about space travel called Doctor When would probably have picked up some trickle-down popularity. Certainly, the launching of Star Trek as a movie series, in 1979, just as Star Wars mania took hold, seems a clear case of Captain Kirk’s USS Enterprise hitching a ride on the publicity slipstream of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.
Both fictional explorations have now, for the first time, shared a commander. Film-maker JJ Abrams, who renovated the Star Trek movie series in 2009 – the success of which films is clearly a factor behind the story’s planned return to TV – is now doing the same for the rival, with his Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens due in December. Whatever wars there may have been between the two Star franchises – for critical or audience attention – may now have been settled by Abrams having planted a flag on each territory.
We don’t yet know who the characters will be in the new Star Trek TV series, but the current health of the show, gaining power as it moves through time, suggests that British diplomats should be able to reference it in order to be rude about American presidents for some time to come.
- This article was corrected on 7 November 2015: it described fans as Trekkies, when they prefer the term Trekkers; actors’ positions were clarified in the picture caption; it confused Mr Scott with Dr McCoy; and it incorrectly gave character Spock the title Dr – the real Dr Spock was an influential US paediatrician