Wednesday, September 8, 2021

To Boldly Go…

There are a few completely modern movie and TV phrases which have become a permanent part of our culture; phrases which one can say which anyone in the US would immediately recognize.   “I’ll be back,” “Make my day,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and “we’re not in Kansas anymore” are a few.  

But there is a phrase, or verse, that is known not just in the United States, or the English speaking world, but globally, that a very large percentage would know; and it was heard for the first time some 55 years ago today. 
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”

Star Trek first premiered on September 8, 1966 on NBC.  The show was canceled after only three seasons and seventy-nine aired episodes.  

The show would not disappear from the airwaves, as many others would.  It would eventually give birth to 13 major motion pictures, 7 television and streaming series of 755 episodes and counting, 3 animated series, and well over 1000 authorized books.

But, the importance of Star Trek is not its television, streaming, theater, and literary success.  The importance of Star Trek is how it has changed, and continues to change, the world we live in.   

There is no doubt that other works have made major impacts on the world.   Jules Verne's Captain Nemo and the Nautilus inspired generations of submarine designers, oceanographers and explorers.  Upon Sinclair's "The Jungle" has been credited with the drive for food safety regulations in the US.  Admittedly, not all of these changes have been positive; the 1915 film "Birth of a Nation" was the inspiration for the birth of the modern KKK.

Yet it can be argued that no other modern dramatic work, no other work of science fiction, no other television show, has changed the world as much as Star Trek.  

All it takes to see Star Trek's impact is for one to look at their mobile phone.   Or perhaps take a look at a tablet computer. Kirk and Spock had and used both.  Touch screens, 3-D Printers, Smart Watches, have proliferated across the planet; all were seen, years- decades even- before their time, being used by the crew of the Enterprise.  Lt. Uhura and Cdr. Spock's single-ear, wireless earphones are certainly not much different than the Bluetooth headsets millions use. According to Jeff Bezos, the voice of Alexa was inspired by the voice of the computer on the Enterprise 1701-D (voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry).   Private space transport is here, and there is a $10 million X-Prize for the development of the "Medical Tricorder."  The Autonomous Vehicles used to explore everywhere from under the oceans to space are not much different than the probes launched from Enterprise.  Even tractor-beams and transporter technology have moved from the theoretical and are currently under development.

Beyond the inspiration for new technology, Star Trek as certainly been an inspiration for exploring "strange new worlds" and seeking out "new life and new civilizations."   NASA and the ESA are filled with scientist, engineers and technicians who freely state that watching Star Trek inspired them to join NASA or the ESA.   And for those that may not be old enough to remember, the test vehicle of the Space Shuttle Program- an actual space shuttle, without rocket engines aboard- in which manned test flights were flown, was named Enterprise; a name demanded by a letter writing campaign of Trekker's in the 1970's to then US President Gerald Ford.  Enterprise (OV-101) was supposed to be refitted after the drop tests to fly in space, but structural changes during construction of Columbia (OV-102) made it cheaper to build Challenger (OV-099) from scratch.  A refit of Enterprise was considered once more, after the 1986 Challenger disaster, but again, the cost of refit made building Endeavour (OV-105) the better option.

Perhaps the both the greatest impact, and the least easy to measure, is the incredible social impact Star Trek has made.  In 1966, the racial diversity of the lead actors in the show was unheard of in American Television.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek was one of the only shows he would allow his children to watch.  When Nichelle told Dr. King she was planning to leave Star Trek for Broadway, she said he told her that was not acceptable. Dr. King said she couldn’t leave because she was a role model for millions of young girls and women – the only African-American on TV in a role worth having.

The social impact goes beyond just the first interracial kiss on American Television (between Kirk and Uhura).  Star Trek used problems on alien worlds as parallels and parables for issues we were facing when the show aired.   Issues like racism, the risks and dangers of war, eugenics, genetic engineering, and the dangers of unbridled automation were addressed in the original series.  When Star Trek returned to the television screen, they continued to address social issues, such as apartheid, colonialism, terrorism, drug addictions, aging, the right to live, as well as continuing to address themes that mankind struggled with when the show began in 1966.   Above all, Star Trek presented a world of hope, a world that could be, where the social issues of today were no more.

The world has changed and science has advanced since the first broadcast of Star Trek, the night of September 8, 1966.   We landed on the moon.  Mankind has sent space craft to explore every planet in our solar system and even a "planet" that was demoted to a dwarf-planet while the space craft was  in route (Pluto).   We have landed a spacecraft on the moon Titan, orbiting Saturn.  We have sent space craft out into deep space, beyond the reaches of our solar system.  We can communicate around the globe electronically, and there is practically nowhere on Earth where we cannot maintain communication with our friends, family and home.

Technology has advanced, and we have in the 21st Century, many of the things Star Trek set in the world of the 23rd Century- although I am still waiting for the food station I can just talk to and tell what I want for dinner, and have it beam right in.  

Despite all our advances, and maybe because of them, the dream Gene Roddenberry showed us in Star Trek 55 years ago, remains:  The dream of a better world for all, as well as the goal and mission, to boldly go where no one has gone before.