Star Trek’s 50-year mission: to shine a light on the best of humankind

The visionary sci-fi series first aired in September 1966 – and its utopian, confident blueprint for society still resonates in the age of Trump

There is no grand political statement in the first episode of Star Trek, 50 years ago. The Man Trap is a languid little thriller about a monster that eats salt and has a curious habit of shape-shifting into the image of your ex-girlfriend.

If you happened to tune in on 8 September 1966, you would have had no concept of the utopian idealism favoured by Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, no inkling of the socialist concepts of the sharing of resources that would pop up in later incarnations of the franchise. It was high adventure set in space, nothing more.

But there’s no question that what defines Star Trek today is an egalitarian, pluralistic, moral future society that has rejected greed and hate for the far more noble purpose of learning all that is learnable and spreading freedom throughout the galaxy.

That doesn’t exactly chime with the world we live in: one that is increasingly polarised, violent, and arguably teeming with existential despair. Star Trek was born out of the era of John F Kennedy, the space race, a well-educated middle class and a sense in America that anything was possible.

Of course, underneath that attitude was the threat of the atomic bomb, the simmering tensions of the civil rights conflict, gender inequality and growing anger at the Vietnam war. Star Trek’s creative brains trust – Roddenberry, Gene Coon, DC Fontana, John DF Black and a who’s who of science fiction luminaries – was marvellously adept at grappling with these issues and, through the course of 44 minutes plus commercials, convincing the audience that intelligent, progressive minds could work together to solve any problem.

Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy often thought their way out of a situation, rather than simply blasting everything in sight. That’s an inherently liberal position to take: but there are still conservatives among us who project their own ideas on to the series.

Barack Obama is a well-known Star Trek fan, but so is Texas senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who told the New York Times Magazine last year: “It is quite likely Kirk is a Republican.” He also compared William Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk to that of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, as played by Sir Patrick Stewart. “Kirk is working class; Picard is an aristocrat. Kirk is a passionate fighter for justice; Picard is a cerebral philosopher.” One could be forgiven for thinking he had substituted Kirk for himself and Picard for Obama. Such is the stereotype of Republicans (rugged adventurers) and Democrats (stuffy twits) in the US.

In that same interview, Cruz said: “The original Star Trek pressed for racial equality, which was one of its best characteristics, but it did so without sermonising.” That’s a peculiar way to look at the show, considering Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on American TV and numerous episodes were allegories about the evils of racism – specifically the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, an unsubtle instalment from the third and final season in which aliens with half-white and half-black faces squabble over their skin-colour differences.

Mark A Altman, a screenwriter, producer and lifelong Star Trek fan who recently wrote The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete Uncensored & Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, notes the strong connection between Star Trek’s vision and the liberal ideals of JFK. “Star Trek was born in the crucible of the 60s, when society was questioning many of the tried-and-true conservative 50s values they once took for granted,” he says.

“It’s not an accident that James T Kirk was an analogue of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, nor that the final frontier was indeed a thinly veiled extension of Kennedy’s New Frontier,” he says, referring to the slogan popularised by JFK during the 1960 presidential campaign. “During a time in which mankind was questioning the very fact as to whether there would be a future in the wake of the hydrogen bomb and nuclear proliferation, and the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Star Trek definitively said not only would there be a future, but mankind would endure and flourish.”

Star Trek gave an already optimistic nation hope that it could get even better. The era of its original broadcast run was one in which unity seemed achievable, regardless of the obstacles before us. In 2016, science fiction rarely approaches social strife that way. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is just one example of a sci-fi series that posits a future far more ominous than what Star Trek offered in 1966.

Altman, who is currently participating in the Star Trek: Mission New York fan convention, doubts whether Roddenberry’s vision still appeals today. “For a genre in which dystopian futures and space pulp dominate, one has to wonder whether the thoughtful, cerebral, kinder, gentle Star Trekkian ethos still has a chance to engage and excite new viewers – particularly in light of the tepid box-office reception to the most recent Star Trek [film].”

That instalment, the feature film Star Trek Beyond, saw a significant cut in audiences compared with the two films that preceded it, even during this 50th anniversary year. Looking at its lukewarm financial results, it stands to reason that Trek does not fire the imagination in the way it once did. And this puts a questionmark over how will the new TV series, Star Trek: Discovery, fare when it hits our screens in January 2017.

Altman says: “In the age of political polarisation – in which the echo chamber of social media reinforces one’s own stringent (and often strident) beliefs, in which social discourse has given way to online screaming matches, in which no one bothers to even try and accept the reasoned opinions of others – it’s even harder to believe that the Star Trek future, in which the family of man has transcended its petty differences, is viable.”

Apart from the gadgets – Apple owes quite a debt to the creators of Star Trek for visualising tools such as the iPhone and iPad decades ago – it doesn’t feel as if we’re any closer to that future. It’s a sign of Trek’s progressive bona fides that it struggles in a society that is increasingly individualistic. But hope persists, because darkness was also baked into its backstory: the series always envisaged that the Federation would be born out of a post-apocalyptic society.

“The thing you have to remember about the original Star Trek is that, even in the 60s, they thought things had to get worse before they would get better,” says Devin Faraci, editor in chief of the pop-culture website “World War III lay in the future for the 60s audience – some final hurdles humanity had to overcome to get to the utopia promised by the Federation. Perhaps we made it through the 90s without genetically engineered strongman Khan Noonien Singh being a problem, but we do have Donald Trump.”

In a way, Trump resembles a Star Trek villain: arrogant, anti-intellectual and highly xenophobic. He would not be at home in a society in which money had been abolished, though he’d have no trouble fitting in with the avaricious, big-eared Ferengi – aliens who pursued naked capitalism.

Star Trek has always shone a light on mankind’s noblest qualities, but it also reflects our greatest faults. If it takes another 50 years, or 500, let us all hope we start to learn some of those lessons.


Dave Schilling

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Star Trek Beyond review – a watchable adventure still heavy on the bromance
Zachary Quinto’s Spock remains the real star of the latest instalment, even if Idris Elba’s Krall could have been given more to do

Peter Bradshaw

15, Jul, 2016 @7:00 PM

Article image
Why axing Chris Pine would be a very bad idea for the Star Trek films
Risking the cast’s chemistry by hiring a new Captain Kirk may be boldly going way too far

Ben Child

15, Aug, 2018 @4:38 PM

Article image
Star Trek’s George Takei: ‘I’d take a female friend to premieres. Then go out to a gay bar’
The one-time Mr Sulu is unique among the Star Trek fraternity for having become more famous and adored since he left the Starship Enterprise. So, what’s his problem with JJ Abrams’ blockbuster reboot?

Ryan Gilbey

06, Oct, 2016 @9:59 AM

Article image
My favourite film: Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan
As part of our writers’ favourite films series, Chris Michael salutes a space-exploring sequel starring Admiral James T Kirk on imperious form

Chris Michael

09, Dec, 2011 @4:40 PM

Article image
Star Trek’s next big-screen adventure should downsize, not reboot
If industry reports are to be believed, the next instalment may boldly go small-scale and intimate – but then lower budgets and bigger ideas are what the fans want

Ben Child

16, Jul, 2021 @8:29 AM

Article image
Star Trek 3 to veer closer to spirit of original TV show, says Simon Pegg
Shaun of the Dead star, who is co-writing the sci-fi sequel, suggests the film will go back to basics

Ben Child

27, Mar, 2015 @9:11 AM

Article image
The stop-start year that kept TV drama on a cliffhanger
It took months to find ways to shoot productions safely. The plot twist? There will be a shortage of new shows – then a glut

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

03, Jan, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
Rihanna returns with Star Trek Beyond theme Sledgehammer
The self-professed Star Trek fan falls short in her single for the third entry in the revamped film franchise, with a generic-sounding ballad co-written by Sia

Nigel M Smith

27, Jun, 2016 @8:14 PM

Article image
George Takei calls for Star Wars and Star Trek fans to unite - against Twilight

Sulu actor said: 'gone is any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle. In its place, we have vampires that go to high school'

Ben Quinn

13, Dec, 2011 @11:13 PM

Star Trek Into Darkness – review

JJ Abrams' new Trek instalment is as glitzy as his first, but it's the arrival of Benedict Cumberbatch as a mysterious new foe that fuels this outing for the Enterprise, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

09, May, 2013 @2:35 PM