A worthy Enterprise

At age 50, Star Trek plots our course toward a better tomorrow
May 1, 2016

Illustration of Spock

by Chris Lackner

“To boldly go where no one has gone before.” It’s the mission statement of the starship Enterprise, part of a pledge to “explore strange new worlds.” But on Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, the franchise’s optimistic vision for the future could help us plot a course correction on Earth. Here and now.

“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms,” series creator, the late Gene Roddenberry, wrote in The Star Trek Philosophy.

The daily headlines—from Trump to terror, refugees to xenophobia—would suggest our species is a long way from that kind of maturity. Humanity could use a healthy dose of the space saga’s idealism. The original series’ tenets of social justice feel just as relevant as they did in 1966—at the height of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. 

“Star Trek articulated social ideals of tolerance and equality, of understanding and negotiating difference instead of war…where the solutions were usually divided between the head and the heart—you know, Spock and Kirk,” says Tim Blackmore, a professor of information and media studies at Western University. Star Trek subtly used sci-fi to explore the era’s hot-button issues.

The show’s United Federation of Planets is essentially a utopic, “glorified, galactic United Nations,” says Larry Nemecek, a Trek historian and author of both Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion and the popular blog Trekland. Steeped in the gospel of multiculturalism and liberalism, Blackmore calls the show a much-needed “peace thought experiment.” Case and point, the series catchphrase: “set phasers to stun.” Even when force is required, it’s restrained, and only a tool for negotiation and settlement.

When it debuted on September 8, 1966, Star Trek was a landmark for racial and cultural diversity. For starters, despite Cold War tensions, Captain Kirk’s crew included Russian Pavel Chekov (played by Walter Koenig) and an Asian helmsman named Sulu (George Takei). Then there was Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the Enterprise’s black lieutenant, who would make history with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in the medium’s first interracial kiss. (The episode was blocked from the air in parts of the American South.) Roddenberry deftly commented on real-world inequities from the safety of the 23rd century.

The franchise’s gizmos, from communicators to wireless data pads, influenced the design of everything from flip phones to tablets. But it used the soft power of culture to open people’s minds. “The stories were about the human pursuit for a better world, a better way of being, the next step up the ladder of sentience,” former Trek writer David Gerrold wrote on Facebook in 2015, hailing Roddenberry as “one of the great social justice warriors.”

Watching an inclusive, fictional space vessel from the comfort of their own homes helped some people grapple with changing workplaces, Blackmore explains. “It offered a model to understand working through difference.” Aliens and androids become metaphors for humanity’s own diversity.

One of the franchise’s most instructive lessons occurs in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with Kirk serving as a reluctant peace envoy between humans and Klingons, whom he blames for the death of his son. “They’re animals.... Don’t believe them. Don’t trust them,” Kirk says of his sworn enemies. “Let them die!” he rages at one point, before asking his audio journal, “How on earth can history get past people like me?”  

But, of course, Kirk does get past his own history, and helps usher in an era of peace. “It’s easy if nobody has been hurt, it’s easy to say we’ll all just get along,” Blackmore says of Kirk’s sacrificial position. “War is easy, but it costs a lot to make peace.”

And when Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) bowed in 1987, a Klingon was now serving on the Enterprise. Coincidentally, two years later, the Berlin Wall fell. “The stories weren't about who we were going to fight, but who we were going to make friends with,” Gerrold explained. “It wasn't about defining an enemy—it was about creating a new partnership.” 

On TNG, Roddenberry pushed his universe ahead 80 years, showing even more progress. Replicators created food and clothing, ostensibly ending hunger, poverty and consumerism. The envelope of tolerance was also pushed. A cognitive being was a cognitive being, whether human, machine, crystal or hologram.

Nemecek also singles out the important addition of a ship’s counsellor on the bridge, an advocacy for the importance of mental health. And the ship’s new civilian saucer section stressed family; officers no longer had to choose careers over loved ones.

Clearly Trek has a lot to teach us. Fittingly, the franchise is the subject of a new, interactive museum exhibit in Ottawa. The Starfleet Academy Experience debuts May 13 at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. It finds patrons playing cadets as they learn the ropes in departments like science, engineering and command. 

But not everyone is a good student. The new J.J. Abrams Trek films, while popular at the box office, have relied heavily on action—straying from Roddenberry’s emphasis on social justice. That’s why CBS’s new, unnamed Star Trek series, set to launch in 2017, holds such promise for true fans. It can right a wrong. Nemecek is encouraged that Bryan Fuller has taken the captain’s chair as showrunner. Acclaimed for artistic, intelligent series like Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, Fuller earned his stripes as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager.   

“He is a push-the-envelope kind of guy,” Nemecek says. “He is not afraid to take on issues and to tell great stories.” Speaking of new frontiers, the franchise has never had a main character that is openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. So, there’s one barrier Fuller can shatter at warp speed. “I’d love to see the show push back from capitalism and turn away from consumerism,” Blackmore adds. 

In a pop culture laden with zombies and dystopias, a little hope goes a long way. “Post-apocalyptic storytelling is dramatic, but it isn’t giving anything for people to hold on to,” Nemecek explains. “Star Trek offers a different kind of future. People can take hope that we will not only survive, but thrive…and go to the stars and meet others. Underlying everything is the idea that we don’t just tolerate diversity, but we celebrate it.”

Star Trek’s power is best expressed in the profoundglobal reaction to the 2015 death of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock. The media almost treated it like the death of a great humanitarian; the outpouring of loss from fans was palpable. “It was like we lost Spock, too,” Blackmore explains. “Leonard turned out to be a very thoughtful, good human being. It was a case of life mirroring art. The two became one.”

Having appeared in two series, and even Abrams’ movie reboot, Spock was the soul of the franchise. He embodied Roddenberry’s call to our better selves. “He’s sort of the better us, the person who we wish we could be—who is a rationalist, but at the same time has a human part of him that knows the right thing to do,” Blackmore says. People somehow took comfort in “a living Spock.” With luck, the new series can find another similarly transcending character.  

Star Trek was born in a time when “we all worried that the human race wasn’t going to make it,” Nemecek says. “People worried about nuclear holocaust, or poisoning the planet, or overpopulating it, racial strife…that we would just kill each other.”

Sound familiar? On its 50th birthday, the franchise may again offer a safe point of entry into discussing vital issues. To properly re-launch, the series must again push buttons on gender, religion, race, politics and military action.

The key to Roddenberry’s success was never preaching. Values were taught via homily and fairy tale. “Star Trek can get back to what it did first and best—serve as a beacon of hope for a better future in a dark time,” Nemecek says. “And show the possibilities of technology and rationality over myth and fear.”

No one puts it better than Roddenberry himself: “If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.” 

To go a little more boldly

by Jarrah Hodge

Photo of the author, Jarrah Hodge

In 1975, New Jersey resident Margaret M. Bailey wrote to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to outline her concerns about the representation of women on the show, then in syndication. “It is not very pleasant to see one’s sex portrayed as weaker and less reliable, always relying on the other sex, which is strong, dependable and always professional,” she said.

Roddenberry’s response to Bailey’s letter (their correspondence can be found in Susan Sackett’s 1976 book Letters to Star Trek) acknowledged The Original Series could have done better when it came to women. “We didn’t use women as strongly as we might have,” he wrote. “We did have women lieutenants, women attorneys. We often fell into the trap of making the captain’s secretary-valet (the yeoman) a woman. I think if we did begin today we would start off more advanced than we were able to at the time.”

Trek’s creators, producers, directors and writers gave us more than 700 hours of TV and film about a future where humanity embraces the Vulcan philosophy: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. But as Roddenberry acknowledged, he and others were working from the standpoint of 20th and 21st century humans living in a society and working in an industry where diversity and equality were definitely not the norm.

Fortunately, Bailey was not the only viewer to express how she loved the show but wished it would do better at including everyone in its utopian vision of the future. Star Trek fan critique has existed for almost as long as the franchise itself, and producers took many of the concerns to heart. There were three women in the main cast of Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), launched in 1989, including a doctor, counsellor and security chief. Gone were the girl-Friday-esque yeomen—you could even see both men and women in the background wearing dresses as a uniform option!

Later, in Deep Space Nine and Voyager, women took on even more significant roles, both as heroes (from First Officer Kira Nerys to Chief Engineer B’Elanna Torres and Captain Kathryn Janeway) and villains (Kai Winn Adami and the Borg Queen). Racial representation also improved, particularly with Deep Space Nine’s Captain Benjamin Sisko, who not only commanded a space station and ship; just as importantly he was shown to be a loving, single father to his son. Even in the 1990s, it was a rare, positive representation of black masculinity.

Unfortunately, Voyager’s attempt to create an Indigenous main character was less successful. First Officer Chakotay was played by a non-Native actor and mainly embodied well-intentioned but inaccurate Hollywood stereotypes. Further progress stalled in the early 2000s with the whiter, maler prequel series Enterprise. Most recently, the action-packed reboot movies Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness had many fans wondering if the franchise had sold out its social conscience.

Had fans not discussed the show’s progressive vision at conventions, and in letters, fanzines and online, it’s possible the franchise would not have evolved and endured as it has over the past 50 years. A new Star Trek TV series, coming in 2017, is a chance to get back on track.

To start, Star Trek needs LGBTQ characters. Although a few past episodes have addressed the themes of sexual orientation and gender identity, Star Trek has never had an openly gay, lesbian or trans main character. They haven’t even shown two men or two women holding hands in the background! Many fans expect that new series showrunner Bryan Fuller, himself openly gay, will bring Star Trek up to speed in this respect.

Star Trek also needs to do better at discussing mental health.Though Star Trek had counsellors, the patients they treated (e.g., TNG’s Barclay) and their conditions were often played for laughs. When the issue is handled seriously, as with Captain Janeway’s depression, it is neatly wrapped up by the next episode. Star Trek has an opportunity to help fight stigma by more accurately and respectfully depicting what it’s like to experience mental health issues.

If Star Trek can go more boldly than it has in the past, if it can reaffirm its core progressive values by better representing our society’s diversity, there’s no question that new generations of fans will be celebrating Trek’s 100th in 2066.

Chris Lackner is an Ottawa-based political and pop culture junky whose writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen and elsewhere. He is a contributing editor to Ottawa Magazine and the editor of Where Ottawa.

Jarrah Hodge blogs at trekkiefeminist.tumblr.com and is a co-host of the podcast Women at Warp. She lives in Ottawa.

This article was published in the May/June 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.