Welcome to our newest bi-weekly column, Prime Time, where different writers pick some of their favorite past shows and talk about what made them standout from the crowd. To read past installments, go here.
Late as I was to the Star Trek train, it’s almost surprising just how embedded the series has grown in my affection. First having seen the 2009 reboot by J.J. Abrams, it was only a short while between then and the release of the less admired Star Trek Into Darkness that I began working my way through Star Trek the Original Series and its cinematic counterparts. Believing them to be adored ironically with bold colors, a set design that could look like it was built in your Aunt’s basement, and campy, heavily affected performances. Much to my surprise, it grew on me exponentially and immediately. Yes, the fight scenes are laughable (Gorn vs. Kirk is a particular highlight) and the performances do tend to err on the side of broad, but beyond everything its core message was one worth celebrating both then and now: the excitement for exploration, intergalactic peace and the promise of hope.
It may not be as noteworthy now, but show creator Gene Roddenberry created an ensemble that included a Russian, a black woman and a leading male character of Japanese descent, which was nothing less than a revelation in the 60’s when Star Trek was produced. A diverse cast in a popular science fiction series was a rarity, especially in a era where foreign relations were strained and the civil rights movement was out in full force. Roddenberry was putting his foot forward as a creator who was looking to the future as a place of hope and human progress and his series and storytelling followed suit.
There is something so wildly, innately optimistic about the original series. It didn’t revel in violence and war but instead found its soul in Kirk and company’s ability to solve a problem without inciting greater conflict and utilizing the crew’s capacity for empathy. They weren’t seeking to take over territories or dictate how another planet or species should be governed. Their greatest power was knowledge and understanding how individuals so far removed from their personal worlds operated, how they loved and hated, how they too similarly sought to learn about those around them. It was, for its day and age, an appropriately progressive message, coupled with the cast Roddenberry enlisted for his Enterprise crew.
What continues its longevity is that even today, in 2016, there are messages to be taken from what could easily be described as a B television show, where its aesthetic and lack of technological advancement makes for a punchline rather than revered series. However, we live in a world where many work tirelessly to separate in an “us versus them” mentality. We live in a country where there is a clown in a man’s suit preaching to his followers that he wants to build a wall on the border of the country, where to be a person of color means to face hostility (yes, still), where we fear threats that we do not know and blame it on a sense of “otherness” rather than face the reality of the evil and corruption at our front door. Media is so very often representative of where we are currently at as a society, be it on the micro or macro scale, and we are embittered in a world of cinematic cynicism. A series reminiscent of the original Star Trek with a Roddenberry type behind the wheel would be exactly what viewers would need both for a sense of real escapism and an ideal to look toward and reach to achieve (and just maybe Bryan Fuller can fill that role).
It’s been 50 years since the show first premiered and with it a legacy born of science fiction tackling exploration in space. There are plenty of singular episodes worth celebrating, from the tense “Amok Time” where the dynamic between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is further solidified, “Balance of Time” which presented one of the few antagonists that felt like a viable threat to “The City on the Edge of Forever”, a superb hour of television that’s as somber as the series would ever get. Greater still though than its individual moments of excellence was the over arching tone of something as simple yet grand as the integrity of hope. Of hope unburdened by fear or calculated skepticism, but genuine, unfiltered hope for the unknown. It’s been 50 years, and there’s still so much we could take from the series, and its messages about unity above all else. There were some gender politics that were an aggravating summation of the time period it was released in (those goddamn skirts) and to look beyond is to see a series which promised a future where humanity was stronger together than apart, where our heroes came in every shape, gender, color and even species (for our iconic Vulcan) who used science, heart and logic to solve a problem rather than guns. Where the mission wasn’t to conquer, but to learn.
There were bumps in the road, and season three is nearly unworthy of saving, but the first two seasons especially and many of the films provide a compromise to films which like to collapse buildings and entire worlds in order to demonstrate the might of their heroes (there’s a reason why out of the new universe Star Trek Beyond ranks as my favorite). Star Trek told its viewers to look to the stars for hope and guidance, to look at the future as a place where maybe there would be, somewhere in the galaxy, another world to accompany us in our journey through life, and if we’re lucky, an Enterprise of our own seeking it out.