Today is the 50th Anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek Season 1 Episode 1.
It was a ground-breaking show but probably not for the reasons you think.
Star Trek was not the only scifi show on national television.
The fifties laid the groundwork for scifi in the national consciousness. It was the golden age of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Jame Blish, and Theodore Sturgeon, to name a few. Ten years later, this new fangled invention called television gobbled up those stories, mashed them up, and produced shows like My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, The Jetsons, Doctor Who, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and my personal favorite, Thunderbirds. (who does not love scifi puppet animation, right?)
Right in the middle of this era, Gene Roddenberry produced Star Trek, fully intent on starting a revolution.
Television fare was family-oriented and strictly policed by the network censors in those days. The censors also made sure not to piss off the military industrial complex. The US was smack-dab in the middle of the bloodiest conflict to ever play out on the nightly news. Everybody was getting sick of that shit. The Age of Aquarius was dawning and the kids who would overthrow the current paradigm were glued to their TV’s. Roddenberry had his audience and he knew it. He was about to ask the great What If. What if the people running the world were wrong? What if there was a better way of doing things? What if humans didn’t have to settle their conflicts with war?
He hid his subversive themes behind Captain Kirk, a larger than life cartoon character played by an actor who was born for the role. William Shatner strutted about like a peacock, chewing up the scenery. It was a great distraction. That, and a bevy of barely dressed woman whose costumes had to be glued on. The censors had apoplexy. Roddenberry would piss and moan and then concede grudgingly, pasting a little bit more cloth on the women’s costumes while laughing gleefully behind closed doors. No one noticed that while the ship may have been named as if it were part of a navy and that the crew may have been dressed in uniforms like soldiers, it was a ship of peace and its mission was not to fight but to seed civilization among the more primitive peoples of the galaxy, no matter what the cost. Those poor red-shirts died blood-less deaths by the dozens so that Kirk could get the natives to listen to his message of Universal Oneness.
My favorite episodes are the ones that seemed to speak directly to me. The story about the empathic healer who had to overcome her fear. The Trouble with Tribbles, an environmental cautionary tale about introducing foreign organisms into an ecosystem. The Captain Pike story line. The planet run by children (a theme that was borrowed by Stargate SG1 and Farscape).
Roddenberry made us question hatred based on skin-deep differences. He made us question war. He built utopia after utopia and let characters walk about in them to see if they were a good fit for humans. He told us that science cannot exist without a conscience. He told us that we were not the culmination of human evolution and that we had a far way to go to achieve nirvana. He told us that even evolved species have problems, cautioning us not to envy their ascendance. He told us that no matter how big you got, there was always someone bigger.
But more importantly, he tried to explain to a country of confused kids why the world was the way it was and that we didn’t have to accept the insanity. He wanted us to grow up and change things. We did.