|Photo from the Smithsonian, where the TV model ship from the original TV series is displayed.|
And I am not exactly a “Trekkie.” I don’t worship the show. I found it enjoyable, and I did think Mr. Spock was pretty cool and I had an early boy crush on Lt. Uhura.
|Smithsonian again, another view.|
But the show did age in its three seasons, and got pretty bad in the final one. Even if it was entertaining, and did strive for some social commentary in the guise of science fiction, it wasn’t great literature or even great TV.
As Newton Minow said, TV in the 1960s was a vast wasteland. And he didn’t anticipate TVs expansion into cable and YouTube and Netflix, which makes it a 24-hour, 7-days a week, global mind mushing force.
Yes, I do think some TV is worth watching. But the act of watching TV is inherently mentally passive, and it’s a good idea for parents to come up with all kinds of alternatives to, and limits on, screen time if they care about their kids.
But, I digress. What can I say? I am of the TV generation, not always known for its sustained mental concentration.
Anyway, happy birthday to you, Star Trek. Your original cast is aging and passing on, but you did have a big cultural impact. At a contentious time, you represented a vision that there would be a future and that science and rational thinking might be part of it. You paved the way, in your own way, for Star Wars (which paved the way for you to become a movie franchise—media is indeed a strange world).
I do recall that Star Trek looked way cooler on a small black-and-white TV then it does today in reruns in full color. 1960s special effects featured lurid colors and awful sounds. But Star Trek was in an era long before CGI, and nobody loved it for the special effects.
Which is part of the point—at its best, Star Trek did have stories to tell. My favorite episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles” was rumination on population, development, diplomacy and witty writing.
Part of the appeal of the original show is that it touched two popular cultural currents of its time. During the late 1960s, the U.S. was deep in the space race with the USSR, and in 1966 we were closing in on the Moon. We did get there first in 1969. It 1966, the cold reaches of outer space were hot.
I think it’s a bit of a mistake that space is not still hot, by the way. If you elect me president, I promise NASA will be buried in cash. Basic science research overall would get lots of funding, and I believe it’s not a waste to shoot dollars into space—it’s a recognition that Gene Roddenberry was right. Space is the final frontier. And space helps us understand ourselves—the notion that we have to take more care of this planet is partly rooted in the “blue marble in the sky” sense that 1960s space exploration gave us—it’s a very, very big galaxy, there is no nearby other practical home for us, and while we’re waiting to colonize any nearby rocks in the sky, we have to deal with the reality that for all of us, for almost all of the foreseeable future, there’s only one place we can live—planet Earth.
So, cultural touchstone one that Star Trek tied into is space and sense that looking out is important.
Thread two? Let us consider the ship itself, NCC 1701. Note that Captain Kirk in the opening credits pauses. “These are the voyages of the starship (pause) Enterprise.”
“Enterprise”—it's said with some oral emphasis. And that’s a name that meant something in the 1960s. Frankly, in American history, it still does.
|US Navy photo: Enterprise, CV6.|
In the US, some of the early aircraft carriers were built on the keels of battle cruisers that, by treaty, couldn’t be cruisers anymore. By the late 1930s, the Navy launched its sixth carrier—Enterprise. And as fate would have it, in World War II, that great American crusade, this Enterprise would play a pivotal role.
How did the World War II-era Enterprise become the “Lucky E” or “The Big E?” Why was it tied into the American WW II mythology of a mighty people waking up, discovering their power and banishing evil?
Well, consider: the escort to the Hornet that launched the Doolittle raid? Enterprise. One of two carriers that faced a task force of four Japanese carriers, and turned the whole tide of the Pacific war, at the key Battle of Midway? You know the name: Enterprise.
The Big E became the most-decorated warship in the history of the US Navy, so the word “Enterprise” was already almost holy when the ship was decommission in the late 1940s. And the myth lived on when that name was revived by the Navy in the 1950s.
One reason the U.S. Navy became and remains such a dominant global force is that the U.S. is the only country which has a large fleet of huge, fast, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Now, I know that historic legacy is decidedly a mixed bag—money spent on carriers could be spent on useful things like science and space exploration or national healthcare or other worthwhile things that the government ought to do and does not, and projection of U.S. military might into the world post World War II has often been a dicey proposition with negative and unexpected consequences.
But, in the world of the 1960s, American global power, and our ability to counter the influence of our nemesis the USSR was partly dependent on our powerful Navy. Besides nuclear powered submarines, the reach and potential punch of the U.S. Navy came from long-range, super carriers.
|US Navy photo of the latest Enterprise,|
eighth ship and second carrier to bear that name.
So the name chosen for the ship in Star Trek tied that TV show to the glorious American crusade of the 1940s—which was still very much on our minds in the 1960s—and American patriotism in the here and now. It also suggested that legacy would continue in the far future.
The world of Star Trek won’t ever exist in exactly the way it was imagined in the 1960s. Then again, "Lord of the Rings" isn’t real, either. Frankly, there is no Maycomb, Alabama, and “Alice in Wonderland” is a book of lies.
That’s true of all fiction—it reflects not reality, but a particular vision of reality. And I think sometimes that vision can give us clarity and depth that mere reality can’t. The starship Enterprise was different from the aircraft carriers Enterprise. It wasn’t part of a gritty, complex reality.
But the starship did make us think about "someday." In my opinion, we should still want to go boldly where no humans have gone before.