Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 19 May 2013
“Hey Mom, Look! There’s a negro woman on TV — and she ain’t cooking dinner!”
So exclaimed a young Whoopi Goldberg when she saw an unusual kind of TV show which started airing on US network television in late 1966.
It featured a black woman character named Uhura in a technical position – as communications officer — on board an advanced starship exploring the universe in the twenty third century. This was unique at the time when minority women, if they appeared at all, were shown doing domestic work.
That show, named Star Trek, was well ahead of its time — not just in the technologies it featured, but also in the utopian ideals it projected.
Years later, Goldberg thanked the show for inspiring her to take to acting. Mae Jamison, the first black woman astronaut (September 1992), has also acknowledged how Star Trek influenced her to pursue a career in space.
Measuring the social and cultural impact of a media product is never easy. Yet Star Trek is widely regarded as one of the most culturally influential TV shows of all time, and has enduring global appeal. It’s probably the most consequential science fiction show ever aired.
The latest Star Trek feature film, Into Darkness, released this week is a reminder that the franchise is still going strong, nearly half a century after it started beaming visions of a wildly optimistic view of humanity’s future.
The original series, which ran on the NBC network from 1966 to 1969, wasn’t an instant hit; it was cancelled after three seasons due to poor ratings. But during the 1970s, re-runs became highly popular, and Star Trek gained cult status with fans mobilizing themselves through conventions and campaigns.
Gene Roddenberry, the former airline pilot and police officer who created the show, responded with a feature film in 1979. It grossed enough at the box office to spawn several more films during the 1980s and 1990s.
After 10 movies — some more memorable than others — the franchise was rebooted in 2009. The latest one is the twelfth, and follows on in a new, alternate timeline started by the last (‘origins’) film.
Meanwhile, the TV show returned in 1986 with a new cast and improved production values. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons (1986 – 1994) and has been followed by three more series. Along the way, there have also been an animation series, hundreds of novels, toys and other derivatives using the same characters and settings.
But serious fans feel that the original, low-budget series — comprising 79 episodes – had the finest stories. I share that view, even if I experienced them as re-runs a decade and a half after they were made.
I’m exactly as old as Star Trek, but because we grew up on opposite sides of planet Earth in the pre-Internet era, our worlds didn’t collide until we were well into our teens. I have vivid memories of that first encounter, which changed my outlook and worldview forever.
Sometime in 1981, Sri Lanka’s then one and only TV channel started airing Star Trek original series episodes. It had the faded Technicolor look and feel of content made in the 1960s. The sets were basic and special effects very simple – computer generated imagery (CGI) was not yet invented.
But what Star Trek lacked in looks, it more than made up in storylines. The scripts were entertaining and mind-stretching, frequently carrying concepts distilled from the finest in science fiction literature.
Some of the genre’s accomplished writers were involved in writing stories for the series, e.g. Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame), Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. The characters were strong, diverse and played by actors who soon developed global fan clubs of their own.
They blew my mind away. Every week at the appointed time, the United Star Ship Enterprise and its intrepid crew took eager young me roaming across the vast universe.
I sat awestruck watching the adventures of Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner), First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), chief engineer Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and others.
The series introduced TV viewers to many ideas which later became common in science fiction films: warp drive, teleportation, force fields, wireless hand-held communicators and scanners, directed energy weapons, desktop computer terminals, laser surgery, starship cloaking devices and computer speech synthesis.
These had been written up in pulp science fiction magazines for years, but they were new to the small screen.
The stories appealed to me as much for insights into the infinite possibilities of life, technology and power at a cosmic scale, as they did for the glimpses of the near-Utopian human society in the 23rd century.
In retrospect, Star Trek has bee described as an attempt to soothe the American society’s nerves at a time of great tumult. The original series explored major issues of the 1960s, including sexism, racism, nationalism and global nuclear war.
As space historian Dwayne Day has written: “Although today critics often ridicule the original Star Trek for its plywood and styrofoam sets and campy acting, they often fail to recognize that the show was groundbreaking television at the time…Star Trek was the first television series aimed at adults to tell sophisticated morality tales and to depict a paramilitary crew on a peaceful mission to explore the galaxy.”
Reality Catching Up
At a time of despair, Roddenberry offered hope. Star Trek presented a positive image of the future when the news was filled with stories of racism, social strife, and war. During the height of the Cold War, he had a multi-national and multicultural crew working peacefully together three centuries into the future.
The crew, daring at the time, included a black woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and most notably, an alien: the half-Vulcan and half-human Mr. Spock. In the second season, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member. Blacks and women were also shown as scientists and doctors among the rest of the crew – again, rare if not unprecedented.
In a tribute to Star Trek on its 40th anniversary in 2006, Sir Arthur C Clarke wrote: “Appearing at such a time in human history, Star Trek popularised much more than the vision of a space-faring civilisation. In episode after episode, it promoted the then unpopular ideals of tolerance for differing cultures and respect for life in all forms – without preaching, and always with a saving sense of humour.”
While Roddenberry’s Enterprise was roaming the galaxy and meeting new alien beings every week on prime time, the US space agency NASA was desperately competing with the Soviet Union in the ‘Great Space Race’. In the event, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon (1969-72) – all of them white males.
It took many years for reality to catch up with Star Trek‘s vision, and then, only just.
Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) became the first woman in space in 1963, Americans took another 20 years to send one up (Sally Ride, June 1983). In August that year, Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Multi-cultural crews appeared only in the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational.
We can only hope that the remaining Star Trek ideals would also be realized, one by one. Chief among them: a world without war, poverty and disease, and where the accumulation of knowledge – not money – is considered wealth. And a world at ease with itself — and the cosmos.
But I’d hate to wait for 200 years to get there.