It seems almost ridiculous to say this, but of all the cultural influences I was exposed to as a kid — the books, the movies, the music, current events — the one that’s stuck with me is “Star Trek.” I still think about the alternative reality I was presented by a second-rate TV show that lasted all of three seasons and 79 episodes.
It’s easy to forget how bad the ratings were for the original show, which ran from 1966 to 1969, since it’s gone on to spawn more movies, sequels, books, games and toys than I can keep track of. But at the heart of it was a vision for the future that seems distressingly absent today.
I’m not trying to cast a wondrous glow over the entire “Star Trek” endeavor. Some of the episodes were strikingly thought-provoking. Most were a combination of entertainment and morality plays. And some just plain stunk up the galaxy.
Yes, the original series projected a lot of the prejudices of its time, particularly when it came to women. The female crew members were basically eye candy, even if they possessed degrees in astrophysics, geology or whatever. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a person alive who would want to show up for work on a daily basis in a push-up bra, micro-mini and dominatrix boots. (Unless she’s a professional dominatrix.)
Then there were the “special effects.” If you think they look tacky from your 2020 perspective, believe me, they looked just as bad when they were first aired in 1966. The show was produced on a shoestring budget and it seemed like most of the money for props went toward rolls of aluminum foil, Styrofoam rocks and remnants of shag carpeting.
But what many people tend to forget was how darned hopeful it all was. The ship and crew were only a microcosm of Earth. Here we caught a glimpse of a multi-ethnic, multi-colored crew whose goal was to seek out new life and new civilizations. This implied we believed we might actually have something to learn from the rest of the universe. (Today, we’re all convinced we already know everything and there’s nothing to be learned from anyone outside of our political party, gender, race, class or nationality, much less from off-worlders.) The Enterprise explored to expand human knowledge, not to look for planets where we might conveniently dump all our garbage, our prison populations or our “undesirables.” (You can fill in the blank on that last one.)
We had eliminated poverty. We had cured disease. We had embraced a society where basic human needs were met. We had no pollution. We had a planet-wide government and we had peace. Nationalism did not exist — unless you want to count Scotty and Chekhov’s occasional sparring over the relative merits of Scotch versus vodka. No one was arguing about religion, although there was a lot of dialogue about faith and ethics.
Racism as we understand it today did not exist. It’s true that one crew member endured a fair amount of verbal abuse, but he was getting picked on for having green blood and pointy ears. Maybe this wasn’t such a positive harbinger of human nature, but at least Spock proved to be a disarmingly different target than the usual suspects.
Most of all, “Star Trek” promoted the idea that humanity had actually kept pace with technology. We had the means to wreak destruction on an unimaginable scale, but we had become more ethical and thoughtful (unless provoked).
Now the future is suddenly becoming a lot closer. The original show was set during the 2260s. That means we have a little more than 200 years to get ourselves out of the spiral of self-destruction we seem to be caught in. Our planet may not survive climate change. Our technological advancements suddenly seem a lot more threatening than promising. We have a bunch of super-duper deadly toys but we still have a Stone Age mentality.
We have an awful lot of catching up to do. Please, make it so.