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Cinema: How Star Trek changed the face of science fiction

Cinema: How Star Trek changed the face of science fiction

Over the course of 50 years, Star Trek (ST) has grown from a cult television show — cancelled after just three seasons — to a franchise that has generated six television series comprising more than 700 episodes, 13 films, and an uncountable number of books and comics. Its diverse fan base stretches across the world, with a fictional universe of depth unmatched by anything save that other great science fiction (SF) saga: Star Wars.

Many aspects of the original ST show, which was aired from 1966-1969, seem dated today. Yet it continues to resonate despite its perceived flaws. One of the reasons for this longevity is the important difference between ST and other SF: its optimistic projection of the future.




Before ST there had been, in literature, the dystopian visions of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451. In film, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing From Another World (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Time Machine (1960) depicted paranoiac scenarios involving either hostile aliens or inept human beings.

While all of these works have merit, ST took a different path, and portrayed a future in which humanity had regrouped and united after near-cataclysmic global warfare. Gone was the concept of the nation state. Gone also was the concept of money. Poverty and hunger had been eliminated. Race and sex were no longer barriers to social mobility. Humankind had finally evolved, grown out of its infancy, and, recognising that a galaxy of other species was out there, had come to embrace them in a United Federation of Planets.

The main crew of the Starship Enterprise reflected this new harmony: while Captain Kirk and Dr McCoy were white American males, the helmsman Sulu was Japanese, the navigator Chekov was Russian, the chief engineer Scott was Scottish, the communications officer Uhura was a black woman, and the science/first officer Spock was a half-human, half-Vulcan alien.

Remembering that ST was aired in the United States during a decade of divisive social and political crises, it is in some ways remarkable that this champion of a post-nationalist, post-capitalist, multiracial world acquired such popularity. And while the emphasis of the show was usually on the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, the presence of the other characters should not be dismissed.

Nichelle Nichols, whose character Uhura often had little to do, wanted to leave ST after its first season, but was convinced to stay on when Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a fan of the show, remarked to her how important her role was for black people. In later years, Nichols went on to use her fame to encourage more women to join Nasa.

It was powerful ideas which made the show such a success, as series creator Gene Roddenberry and various writers indirectly commented on issues of race, politics, the environment and, of course, science. Parallel universes, time travel, artificial intelligence/life, faster-than-light travel, and a host of other theories and technologies were explored by writers who included famous SF authors such as Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Norman Spinrad. Even the SF master, Isaac Asimov, who originally criticised the show, came to appreciate it, and sometimes acted as an unofficial adviser to Roddenberry.

Not that Roddenberry did not have to disguise his vision for the show: the futuristic setting allowed the creative forces behind ST to critique history and discuss the human condition in a roundabout way. Without this device Roddenberry knew that they would never have been accepted by a network office: “It would have been greeted like a combination of blasphemy, communism, anarchy and insanity.”

When originally pitching ST, the Enterprise crew was supposed to consist of an equal number of men and women, with a woman as second-in-command. But the networks, according to Roddenberry, felt that audiences wouldn’t find a woman in a position of command believable, or be able to identify with an alien. “I figured I could save one, so I kept Mr Spock, moved him up to second-in-command, and gave him the woman’s logical qualities...,” he said.

Still, the network NBC’s promotional materials airbrushed out Spock’s ears and eyebrows, concerned that the so-called ‘Bible Belt’ viewers would find the character too satanic. A later producer thought the show too cerebral, demanding fewer ideas and more action.

To attempt to quantify the influence of ST is well-nigh impossible. Apart from its immense impact on subsequent SF, the show and its characters have permeated cultural life to such an extent that even people who have never seen an episode can recognise its dialogue and characters. In some respects this is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s works, which began as popular entertainment but whose language has now suffused common speech so that people routinely quote the plays without ever having read or seen them. It is fitting then, that ST often alludes to and quotes from Shakespeare, and that so many of the actors who have appeared in the shows and films had extensive Shakespearian experience. This training would arguably aid them in performances routinely involving dense, invented technical dialogue. “It might as well be Shakespeare, it’s so highly stylised,” once commented Kate Mulgrew, star of the television series Star Trek: Voyager.

In addition to entering the popular consciousness, ST has inspired scientists for decades. Stephen Hawking is a fan of the show. Asteroids have been named after Roddenberry, the cast, characters, and starships. Uncounted astronauts, astrophysicists and engineers have taken up their chosen professions because of ST. Even Nasa’s Space Shuttle Enterprise was named after the fictional starship. Educators have used the show as a teaching tool in classrooms, and innumerable people have written letters to the cast and crew expressing the myriad ways in which the show has had a profound impact on their lives.

A number of such letters can be read in Susan Sackett’s 1977 book, Letters to Star Trek (i). One of the most interesting was written to Roddenberry by a teacher and Benedictine nun with multiple degrees in chemistry. Giving her opinion that the show was neither great art nor great drama, she nevertheless went on to write: “It’s as though the world of the Enterprise were an image which brings back to mind our intuitive knowledge of some Platonic reality. […] Star Trek is one of the very few television programmes that deal with the ethical/moral issues (even though only implicitly) which some of us feel to be the basic and most important issues that man can confront. Therefore, it is an image of the realest of all worlds.”

Of course, there are problems and imperfections in the ST universe, but they are solvable, and the way in which these people of the future resolve conflicts and overcome prejudices is one of the most inspiring aspects of the franchise. As Leonard Nimoy wrote in his autobiography I Am Spock (ii): “...in the midst of those undependable times there were the Star Trek crew: utterly trustworthy, predictable, incorruptible people who could be counted on to tell the truth and behave ethically, with dignity and compassion and intelligence.”

In recent years, a new series of films with new actors has begun to explore the origins and development of the famous crew of the Enterprise. Unfortunately, much of what Roddenberry envisioned is absent from these films. With the convenient and unimaginative excuse of an “alternate timeline”, the new ST films are a radical departure from what has gone before. For instance, instead of the unflappable and logical Vulcan from whom emotion could usually only be elicited via some brain-altering mechanism, the new incarnation of Spock is a screaming, violent Vulcan who is shown kissing his girlfriend in turbo lifts and transporter rooms. But there will undoubtedly be more films and television series to come, and one hopes for a return to the social commentary and political allegories that made earlier films so relevant.

As one might expect, most, if not all of the main cast members of the show and its sequels are, in public memory, tied to the ST franchise. Some of the actors have expressed frustration at being typecast, not least William Shatner, who once told a group of fans to “get a life.” But in later years Shatner came to appreciate the significance of his role as Captain Kirk, and his turnaround was partly inspired by something once said by Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Stewart, a veteran stage actor of Shakespeare, in riposte to the suggestion that he was “slumming” by getting involved in a science fiction TV show, said: “...all of those years in Royal Shakespeare Company — playing all those kings, emperors, princes and tragic heroes — were nothing but preparation for sitting in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise.”

The author is an antiquarian and freelance writer.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 24th, 2016

(i) Ballantine Books, 1977

(ii) Arrow Books, 1996

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