The original series of Star Trek may have only had three seasons, from September 1966 to June 1969, but its influence continues to be felt today. Not only did Star Trek continue on to become a media franchise though television spinoffs, movies, novels, comics, games, and magazines, but Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future had a powerful impact on the way that people came to see the world. Star Trek celebrates its 50-year anniversary this year, allowing us an opportunity to look back at how this beloved series changed the world.
1. An agenda of peace, harmony, and tolerance
Star Trek took world peace a step further by establishing interplanetary peace. The United Federation of Planets, an interstellar federal republic of planetary governments, is based on the principles of universal liberty, rights, and equality. Though military conflict with hostile aliens was sometimes inevitable, the Federation’s goal was to seek out peaceful engagement with other cultures. Though Starfleet is military in nature, their focus is scientific development, space exploration, and defense. As well as exploring the galaxy, the USS Enterprise was often involved in diplomatic and disaster-response missions. Star Trek gave us a way to envision how a government could use a powerful military force to promote learning and share support.
Throughout the different Star Trek series, when an alternative timeline or parallel universe appeared, they were often portrayed as being more militaristic versions of Starfleet. In the episode “Mirror Mirror,” the Enterprise parallel universe counterparts are motivated by violence, greed, and unscrupulous ambition. This contrast helped to promote the superiority of the peaceful Star Trek universe we knew, and further reinforced the values of cooperation, non-violence, and harmony.
The actions of Starfleet are guided by the Prime Directive, an ethical principle mandating noninterference in other cultures and civilizations. At its best the Prime Directive is meant to respect the development and independence of other cultures. At its worst, the Prime Directive can be seen as patronizing and heartless. Starfleet personnel could not interfere with the natural development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned.
“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” —Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “Symbiosis”
The anti-imperialist sentiment of the Prime Directive acknowledges that technologically advanced civilizations may be prone to destroy or exploit indigenous societies out of a sense of superiority or a belief they know what’s best for other cultures. With the Prime Directive, Star Trek showed how a people could explore far and wide while respecting the autonomy and development of other societies.
2. Breaking social boundaries
From the onset, Gene Roddenberry pushed the envelope with the casting of the USS Enterprise crew. Not only were there female crewmembers, but the ship also included officers from varied racial and cultural backgrounds. Television audiences in 1966 weren’t used to seeing such a diverse group of people working together.
The bridge included Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), a black woman, and Senior Officer Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), a man of Japanese heritage. In the second season, Russian-born Navigator Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) joined the bridge, providing as a message of hope for a peaceful future in the midst of the Cold War. The implicit message that people of different backgrounds can work peacefully together was reinforced by having Dr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), a Vulcan, as First Officer. Roddenberry also believed in equality behind the scenes. He hired D.C. Fontana, one of the few female television writers in the 1960s, as a script writer and story editor.
The diversity of Star Trek conveyed a powerful social message. According to Nichelle Nichols, she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when they both attended an event. He wanted to meet her because he was a fan of Star Trek. It was one of the few shows he and his wife Coretta allowed their children to watch. Nichols had been planning to leave the series after the first season, but Dr. King convinced Nichols of the importance of her role. He told her, “Don’t you understand? That for the first time we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.”
Star Trek continued to push the boundaries of American television when Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) engaged in an interracial kiss in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Though the portrayal of women in the Star Trek series was lacking at times, casting choices provided role models for women and minorities. The Star Trek franchise continued to promote racial and gender equality both in storylines and in casting. In 1993, African-American actor Avery Brooks was cast as Commanding Officer Benjamin Sisko in Deep Space Nine. Then in 1995 Kate Mulgrew was chosen to play Captain Kathryn Janeway in the series Trek: Voyager. The writers and creators of Star Trek did more than tell stories about equality and tolerance; they showed us what the world could look like.
3. Technological innovation
There are many promises of the future that remain unfulfilled—flying cars, a Mars colony, world peace, the 15-hour workweek. Yet much of the futuristic technology of Star Trek has come to be part of our daily lives. Many of the devices seen in the original series or later incarnations of Star Trek seemed like far-fetched futuristic designs, but it turns out the future is now. What were once cool props have become gadgets integrated into everyday use.
Watching the crew of the Enterprise made us yearn for the advanced technology of Star Trek. The inventor of the first mobile phone has said that he was inspired after seeing Captain Kirk flip open his communicator. With her communications earpiece, Lieutenant Uhura modeled the bluetooth concept well before it was invented. In the original series, Captain Kirk, Dr. Spock, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and others used a stylus to write directly onto a computer screen. The computer tablets of today have an uncanny resemblance to the props used in The Next Generation. Other Star Trek technologies that have found their way into our lives include video communication, automatic doors, voice activation, and location triangulation.Today’s 3D printers resemble the replicator technology used to generate machine parts, clothes, and other items. We may not have transporter technology today, but who knows what the future will bring.
4. Creating TV fandom as we know it
Star Trek quickly gained a following of dedicated viewers. Star Trek fans even had their own name – Trekkies (or Trekkers). Roddenberry understood the importance of fandom early on, cultivating positive connections with fans through conventions, speaking engagements, and letters. The passion engendered by this science fiction series came to shape the fan movements and conventions that have become so familiar to us today.
As a television series, Star Trek practically invented fan campaigns. Each time the threat of cancellation loomed, fans would begin a letter-writing campaign to save the series. NBC finally canceled the series after a third season, despite another fervent letter-writing campaign. Fan campaigns helped TV executives to see the value of Star Trek, and the series went into syndication, further expanding the fandom. It was a letter-writing campaign by fans that convinced Gerald Ford to name the first NASA space shuttle orbiter after the USS Enterprise in 1976 .
Star Trek fans paved the way for today’s conventions. In 1972 the first convention dedicated to Star Trek took place in New York. Several thousand fans showed up for a program that included an art show, a costume contest, a NASA display, and a dealers’ room, along with screenings of the original pilot, “The Cage,” and a blooper reel. Guests included Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett (Nurse Christine Chapel), Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana, and science fiction author Isaac Asimov. To this day, Star Trek conventions continue to be a huge draw for Trekkies around the world.
5. A love for science and exploration
“Space—the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek our new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.” —Captain James Tiberius Kirk
Star Trek debuted in 1966, at the height of the space race. Within a month of the series finale in 1969, the US launched Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. The late 1960s were a time of change and innovation.
Star Trek inspired a whole generation of scientists and explorers. Recognizing the power of the series, NASA employed actress Nichelle Nichols, better known to fans as Lieutenant Uhura, to recruit women and minorities. Nichols’ work helped to change the face of NASA, with recruits such as Dr. Sally Ride, Dr. Judith Resnik, and Dr. Ronald McNair (the first African-American astronaut).
Astrophysicist Candy Torres came of age in the era of Star Trek, and it inspired her to pursue her dream to work for NASA. In an interview with CNN, Torres talked about how Star Trek helped her to envision what she could achieve:
“As a Puerto Rican, I really connected with the diversity of the Enterprise’s crew, that vision of a utopian, multi-ethnic future. It was easy to aspire to a future like that where people got along regardless of race or religion, just because they were human. Being a lifelong Star Trek fan made me see the space program not just as sci-fi, but as a positive vision of the future, at a time when we desperately needed those positive visions.“
Being able to imagine a world where women and people of color could become anything they wanted to be helped Torres to overcome social and institutional barriers to becoming an astrophysicist. She accomplished her dream of joining NASA in 1983.
Reimagining the future through Star Trek
“I saw Star Trek: The Original Series as a little girl and for me it was really great because it talked about and it dealt with situations that were going on at the time, but you saw it with a lens of another place, another time, another world, another group of people. … I think the other thing that Star Trek did was it basically said that humanity would make it through all of the conflicts and catastrophes that we were facing.”
Star Trek gave men and women from all different backgrounds an opportunity to see the possibilities of the future. Understanding what mankind could become motivated many to make a difference in their own way. The hopeful future imagined by Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek continues to shape the world today.