Why is Star Trek 40 years old today?

On Sept 8, 1966, 3 short days after my own birth, the first episode in a weekly science fiction series began running on NBC TV in the US. A couple of years earlier, the project was pitched with a rather different sort of pilot episode than the show that began the series, but with the main pitch theme of “Wagon Train to the Stars” still intact. “The Man Trap” served as America’s first introduction to Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise, and its hard to see a 40 year run from that very inauspicious start.

Let’s be honest here … its hard to look at the entire run of the original series of Star Trek and call it “excellent television.” As evidenced by that first episode, through the last episode of “Turnabout Intruder” that original series had its fair share of bad acting, poor writing, and questionable social commentary. Those two episodes, the first one they chose to show the world, and the last, represent the 2 most misogynist scripts Star Trek ran, and given the mythos of Star Trek in 2006, its interesting that historically speaking, our first look at Star Trek was through a script that was literally about a woman-monster sucking the life out the hapless male crew, and the final impression of Star Trek was a script where a woman literally takes over the body and life of the lead male character through violent assault. These scripts, and several others in the original series, portray women in highly questionable ways.

So why are we still talking about the show 40 years later? Why have there been 9 movies, and 5 TV series, and countless books and magazines and TV specials since that first series? Why did a show that started and ended with badly written misogyny end up in 2006 as the fictional paragon of a universe of equality and justice? The short answer is that in between The Man Trap and Turnabout Intruder were 79 episodes that also occasionally included scripts like Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever … a fascinating morality play about the dangers of pacifism in the 1930’s that was handled extremely well by cast and crew. The City on the Edge of Forever, and other excellent episodes like The Menagerie (in two parts) show that occasionally, Star Trek WAS excellent television.

More than just episodes, Star Trek had ‘moments’ and ‘ideas.’ One of the moments, one of the most important ones, was the first inter-racial kiss, between Kirk and Uhura (William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols). Its rarely mentioned anymore, however, that it occurred in Plato’s Stepchildren, in a context of force and coercion, hardly the best example. Still, the very crew of the Enterprise, even including a Russian, despite the overt cold war overtones in many episodes (and acknowledging the comic relief that Pavel Chekov was inserted to provide), the Japanese Sulu (remember, 1966 is only 21 years after the end of WWII), the African Uhura, showed a future of racial harmony that was FAR from the reality of America in 1966 (Martin Lither King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, during the run of the original series). Star Trek, for all its flaws, presented an optimistic future where humans were just a little bit smarter than the passions that consumed us in 1966, and to a certain extent, continue to consume us today.

And that’s why its still here today … Star Trek has evolved with us, and through us. The original series was very much a mirror on the times it was made in, as much as it was an optimistic look at the future. It clearly cartooned the cold war with the Federation/Klingon rivalry, but it did so showing a time when earth was completely past petty differences of skin colour. As the show evolved into movies, and the new TV series, it kept the same dichotomy between commentary on modern times in an optimistic future. As much as Star Trek is a show about the future, its really more a mirror on our own culture’s fears and worries today.

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