Originally published in the Batesville Daily Guard
“Star Trek” turned 50 earlier this month, an event that was heralded with enthusiasm among fans and nerds (often one and the same) alike.
Of course, I’m speaking specifically of the original series, often referred to as TOS by fans, which premiered on CBS on Sept. 8, 1966 — a Thursday according to my smartphone.
Considering it launched 11 years before I was born, I really don’t know how it was received at the time of its initial airing. Even if I was alive, I doubt I would have been able to watch it. I grew up near Hardy after all, and the only channels that were available were KAIT, an ABC affiliate, and AETN (a PBS affiliate).
It wasn’t the only TV show on the air at the time (“Land of the Giants” and “Lost in Space”) that featured people, usually stuck instead of traveling, in space.
Those other two shows I mentioned also saw several years of syndication after their initial runs too. Even when we first got cable TV at my house when I was a kid, it seemed like “Lost in Space” was on somewhere at any hour of the day.
But unlike “Star Trek,” those other shows didn’t endure in the public’s imagination. While “Star Trek” launched not one, but two, movie franchises and many different TV shows, its contemporaries faded away, living on in the land of digital sub channels.
So why did “Star Trek” endure?
Well, probably first and foremost is because it really connected with its fans. Or maybe a better word would be that it made an impression. An impression that would stick.
How did it do that? How about with its vision of the future. Instead of largely white male cast with one woman cast for eye candy, which was the norm for most science fiction until then, “Star Trek” had a crew of many men and women of several races holding a variety of positions and ranks based on neither physical trait. That was pretty revolutionary to some people.
Something like that can make an impression on people. Just ask actress Whoopi Goldberg, who said “When I was 9 years old, ‘Star Trek’ came on. I looked at it and went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, Mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Goldberg would go on to play a recurring character named Guinan, who was a bartender, and sometimes counselor, on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
It also made an impression in other ways, like how we perceive technology.
Want proof? Check out your cellphone.
Although not exactly a kid at the time “Star Trek” first aired, he was 28 in 1966, Martin Cooper, who led the Motorola team that developed the first handheld mobile phone said that watching Captain Kirk using his communicator on the television show “Star Trek” inspired him to develop a handheld mobile phone. The mobile phone eventually evolved to the smartphone, which is likely years beyond those initial Star Trek communicators, save the teleportation part.
Other technology that showed up in “Star Trek” first: Tablets, smart watches, Bluetooth devices … just to name a few. Some other technologies featured on the show, like the food replicator, is on the verge of becoming reality by combining 3-D printing and knowledge of amnio acids and other building blocks of life. The USS Enterprise’s mission launched in 2245, but by the time the real 2245 gets here, its technology might be considered archaic.
But what is probably “Star Trek”’s most enduring legacy is that it helped make science fiction respectable. Sure, it still took time for the movies to catch up — studios still didn’t have faith that science fiction could be box office gold until Star Wars beat all expectations — but we can say “Star Trek” helped pave the way. It’s partially thanks to Star Trek that science fiction can be taken seriously now.