As a child of the 80’s I remember watching re-runs of the Original series and being constantly fascinated with the different worlds & ideas. For me Star Trek is the embodiment of science fiction, the big what-if scenario with a dose of science based stuff thrown in. It was a glimpse into the future. As Roddenberry put it…Wagon Train to the Stars.
Even now, over 35 years later, if my dad (now 72) sees me watching any kind of science fiction he starts telling me, for the zillionth time how when he was young they read comic books about going to the moon and then they all watched the space race. Comic books were becoming reality. He, and many others, followed with rapt attention the first satellites to orbit the planet, the first dog in space (Laika, 1957 and how the bloody Russians didn’t care about getting him back), he laughs at the antics the American crews used to get up to when contacting Earth and retells the story of Apollo 13, as if anyone on the planet doesn’t know the story at this stage.
But for me, Star Trek could be the same. Is Star Trek a window into our future? In the late 80’s when RTE broadcast the Next Generation, I remember watching it thinking…”It’s Star Trek but not as we know it”. At the tender age of 11 I didn’t understand the idea of a series reboot but I didn’t care. This was something new, crisp, clean and fun. Exploring space and travelling – for the first time – where no ONE had gone before, as opposed to the Original series where no MAN had gone before. Obviously women were superior in the 1960’s and had gone there first, much like the American’s beating the Russian’s to the moon.
The ideals in Star Trek, did and still attract me. Equality, free medical care, free education & a society devoid of money. Futuristic ideals that sound fantastic (albeit naive), some would say sound Communistic (go Russia!) and others who think it’s all just fiction. But since Star Trek aired over 50 years ago we see laptops and handheld computers, Mobile phones (cell phones if you’re American), 3d printers (aka replicators), mass freely available worldwide communications and freedom of information, universal translators – there’s an app for that called Voice Translator by TalirApps which understands 71 languages, androids like Data, the list goes on…
~~Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro (right) and Geminoid HI-1
AP PHOTO/ATR INTELLIGENT ROBOTICS AND COMMUNICATION LABORATORIES, HO
So what’s next? Research is currently being funded into FTL, (Faster Than Light) travel so will we see warp speed any time soon, I hope so. The Mission to Mars is probably the most exciting project of our time. Mars is the stepping stone of the human race on its voyage into the universe. Human settlement on Mars will aid our understanding of the origins of the solar system, the origins of life and our place in the universe. As with the Apollo Moon landings, a human mission to Mars will inspire generations to believe that all things are possible, anything can be achieved. I like this idea. Will we get there, who knows, but what will we accomplish on the way; we will inspire young people to become scientists, engineers, doctors, jet propulsion experts. In the mean time what will they discover and invent. That’s the ball game folks.
The social and political debates that Star Trek explored are the most important things to me. In the Original series, there were constant debates about society and they were the only TV series that got away with it because it was based in the future so wasn’t real. The number of complaints received when Kirk and Uhuru (Nichelle Nicholes) kissed was staggering, but Roddenberry got away with it whilst planting the idea of interracial relationships in the psyche of Americans. It was the first interracial kiss aired on TV in the States. Throughout the three year run, individual episodes made strong comments on sexism and feminism, racism and improving race relations, as well as militarism and peace, all major social issues during the late 1960’s, and to a different degree, social issues of today.
Star Trek was the first show to cast an African American woman in a role that was not a servant/maid or second class citizen. In an interview, Nichelle Nichols, who played the black female communications officer, said that the day after she told Roddenberry she planned to leave the show, she was at a fund-raiser at the NAACP and was told there was a big fan who wanted to meet her. Nichols said,
I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch. [She told King about her plans to leave the series.] I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t. You’re part of history.’
When she told Roddenberry what King had said, he cried.
Nichols also influenced another of my favourite actors – Whoppi Goldberg – a regular in the Next Generation – to become an actor. Nichols has said in multiple interviews that Goldberg told her that as a child seeing Star Trek for the first time, she ran around the house screaming, “Hey Mom! Look! There’s a black woman on the TV and she ain’t no maid!”
In the Next Generation, the idea of ownership, freewill and sentience were constant themes for Data’s character to explore, which, for me made his character so much more interesting. In fact, it was probably the characters redeeming quality (as opposed to Wesley Crusher who was annoying all the time). In today’s context, this equates to slavery and the trafficking of people/children for prostitution. In my college years I remember conversation about philosophy and faith – Star Trek being a constant reference.
In the Outcast (117th Episode, S05, E17) there is an interesting story of a race called the J’naii. They are a race with no gender. When the main character of the story admits to identifying as female after being seen kissing Riker (that bloody kissing again) it leads her down the path of receiving, against her will “Psychotectic Therapy”. Basically being changed to having no gender. During the episode Worf admits to being uncomfortable with the J’naii due to pre-conceived ideas of gender but changes his mind by the end of the episode.
There’s not a lot of difference between this story (aired in 1992) and the constant struggle by LGBT people for equal rights. You need only look at countries like Qatar that put LGBT people to death and most of the African countries where “Conversion Therapy” is regularly used. Whilst sometimes, the treatment of LGBT issues in Star Trek have been clumsy (and some would say haven’t gone far enough) hopefully this is all about to change with the new series, Star Trek; Discovery, due to hit our TV screens in May 2017 touting an openly gay character played by a gay actor who should understand how to play the part.
The older I get (nearly 40 now) I have become to realise that the themes explored in Star Trek endure for decades after their first airing. This makes Star Trek timeless and always relevant. At this stage it should be put on the leaving cert curriculum.
The Captain, John Cunningham-Ryan.
(ps I will write more about Star Trek and LGBT in a future post)